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Media glare cuts into nude club's business
By KATHRYN WEXLER
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 24, 2001
TAMPA -- For two years, Theresa Gilmore has waited for this week to arrive.
By 8:25 p.m. Monday, she had staked out her favorite spot in the mirrored dressing room of Mons Venus, Tampa's most beloved and bemoaned nude club. She would take hours to dab lime eye shadow around her blue eyes and squeeze into her zebra-striped bikini and matching tights. Everything has to be just so on this first night of Super Bowl week.
Gilmore, 26, was expecting to glean a windfall of bills from the fat wallets of men hiring her for lap dances. Never mind that the nude gyrations have been illegal in Tampa since December 1999.
"I'm not leaving here until I make two grand," Gilmore said with a smile.
What Gilmore hadn't counted on was the procession of national reporters traipsing through the club in search of owner Joe Redner, always happy to hold forth on the First Amendment and, he says, City Hall's efforts to put him out of business.
Nor did she bank on TV cameras broadcasting dispatches: Live, from Mons Venus!, from the club's parking lot on Dale Mabry Highway. The lap dance ban, and the NFL's warnings about it, have become the hot topic of Super Bowl week stories.
Clients already were skittish about showing up, given the flurry of recent police raids, dancers said. Plenty of the 40 or so "girls," as dancers are uniformly called, who went to work with high hopes Monday didn't think all the attention was the way to do business.
"We've been counting on this, like, Super Bowl week and now there's all this drama," said Catherine Vallejo, 23.
Redner, stringent vegetarian, grandfather and twice-defeated politician, has always welcomed publicity. He even announced his club would be open 24 hours a day starting tonight, with lap dances galore.
"If this law is ruled unconstitutional, the liability of the city is astronomical," said Redner, 60.
Yet Redner's remarkable ability to draw attention seemed to backfire Monday. It was hardly the Super Monday they expected.
Mons Venus has taken a hit since the Tampa City Council members unanimously passed an ordinance making it a misdemeanor to get within 6 feet of a nude or partly clad dancer. Redner says business is down 25 percent.
Everyone figured Super Bowl week would once again attract the throngs. One Tampa Bay radio station was taking bets on which celebrity was going to get busted first.
What everyone's missing in all this, said Vallejo, is the impact on dancers. Poverty isn't funny.
"The people are making a joke about it," said Vallejo, who has dreams of launching her own interior decorating business. "It's not a joke."
By 8:48 p.m., the rows of men had thickened. They were sitting at the bar, staring up at the dancers lifting their legs high above the heads of their admirers. They were leaning against the walls, making small talk with bare-breasted women. And they were sitting on couches, holding the hips of a dozen women giving lap dances -- full throttle.
Still, chairs were empty. Heather Ward started to worry.
With the media itching to expose big-name arrests and police threatening to make them, she said, customers are saying they're scared to order up the four-minute lap dances at $20 a pop.
"It's going to weed out the good customers, the ones who have money and were nice," said Ward, 23, in a tight T-shirt, school-girl plaid skirt and pumps.
It was only 9:51 p.m. and dancer Catherine Vallejo was packing up.
"I need to make money," she announced to the dressing room, chock full of casually disrobed women biding time for the crowd to swell.
"What money? There's no money out there," said a woman who gave only her stage name, Jeena, 24.
"Usually by now, you're waiting for a seat," explained Theresa Gilmore.
By 10:15 p.m. word spread that two Baltimore Ravens players were there. The rumor turned out to be the highlight of the night.
At 12:20 a.m., dancers were kicking off their stilettos and zipping up their jeans. The thinning ranks of men were padded with regulars.
Regan Mann, an Alaskan visiting a friend for a few days, said he figured he was in good hands. "If I'm coming to an establishment, I would assume they're going to follow the law," said Mann, 35.
The Mons isn't the only club hawking the illegal lap dances. Plenty of others are flouting the ordinance, too. But Mons has drawn so much attention because of Redner's longtime willingness to push the tolerance of city officials. His club also draws top dancers, employees said, because they don't have scheduled hours, get perks like free messages and someone to get them whatever items they want during their shifts, and there are limits as to what customers can buy.
But by 1:56 p.m., Mons didn't seem like such a golden opportunity to a dancer who gave her name only as Amber: "If this is the beginning of what Super Bowl's going to be, I don't think there'll be much money around."
Theresa Gilmore took the stage and was soon chastising the handful of men still hanging around.
"Don't just stand there with your mouths open, drooling," she shouted. "Give me money!"
Guiltily, they reach into their pockets. They slip a grand total of $5 under her garter belt.
By 2:40 p.m., Gilmore had had it. Earnings for the night: $70.
"It's dead, dead, dead," she said, back in street clothes. The Mons closed earlier than planned, just after 3 a.m.
Super Bowl Monday turned out to be even slower than a regular Monday, dancers said.
Redner has scaled back plans to stay open 24 hours a day. Now he says he'll be open as long as there's a demand.
Gilmore will be back to dance every night this week. She still thinks the lure of Mons Venus will trump the city's earnest lawmakers and urgent police officers. "Wednesday, it will be better," she said.
"Thursday and Friday, it'll be awesome."
- Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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