The Mitchell sister - Page 3

Can a woman's touch at the top help change San Francisco's sex industry?

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Meta Jane Mitchell Johnson and brother Justin Mitchell (left) now run the Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theater
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY CHARLES RUSSO


TOUGH INDUSTRY

As a nude strip club, Mitchell Brothers' O'Farrell Theatre stands in direct competition with Crazy Horse on Market Street and the Déjà Vu-owned clubs including the Market Street Theaters, Gold Clubs and other spots in SoMa, and most of the clubs in North Beach. The exception is Lusty Lady, the only unionized, worker-owned peepshow in the country.

"If you walk into the Gold Club in San Francisco, well, there are 50 other Gold Clubs in the country, so, it's generic," Johnson says. "But they've got their business model. We're not trying to copy Déjà Vu or Crazy Horse. We're the Mitchell Brothers. It's been part of us and our whole history."

Dancers agree that the Lusty Lady isn't in competition with Déjà Vu.

"They're Walmart, and we're the mom and pop store on the corner," Lorelei*, a dancer at Lusty Lady, said. "At the Lusty, we pride ourselves on being alternative and having tattoos and piercings."

Some dancers, who we've indicated with an asterisk after their altered names, voiced fear of being identified as critics of Déjà Vu's business model.

"If Deja Vu found out I was shit-talking them I would probably get fired and be blacklisted from all their clubs," Sugar* said. "If I were to get blacklisted, I'd be totally screwed because there are no other clubs in San Francisco," where she doesn't feel pressure to do more than dance, "which is not my thing."

"Or the Lusty Lady, which doesn't pay enough to cover my bills," she continued. "But Deja Vu is notorious for being a terrible company to work for, mainly because of their outrageously high stage fees."

Other dancers say they had to pay stage fees at the Déjà Vu-owned Hungry I, and sometimes went home empty-handed after eight-hour shifts when uninvited touching was common.

"The number one thing that would improve our work experience is if someone actually forced Deja Vu to stop charging us stage fees," Amber* said. "Almost no one outside the industry knows that dancers pay money to go to work. A lot of customers think the clubs pay us, like, thousands of dollars. In San Francisco we pay between $100–$200 per shift, sometimes more."

By law, dancers have the right to choose employee status, versus being considered independent contractors. "But that's a joke," Amber added. "If we choose employee status, we're required to do a minimum of 10 lap dances per shift. The club keeps all that money, and we would get paid $12–$15 an hour."

But Edi Thomas, counsel for Déjà Vu's Centerfolds club, flatly denies that the dancers who perform at Centerfolds (the only nightclub in San Francisco authorized to operate as a "Deja Vu Showgirls" club) pay stage fees.

"Rather, entertainers who perform at Centerfolds (and/or at Hungry I, the Condor, and Market Street) are paid a substantial percentage of the patron revenues generated from individual dance sales," Thomas stated.

"The entertainers are issued Forms 1099 at year-end, reflecting the amounts they were paid by the nightclub," she said, which means the dancers are independent contractors, not employees. "These nightclubs operate within the law and make every effort to assure that entertainers are well compensated and perform in safe and lawful environments.

"There are, as in any industry, former and disgruntled workers carrying a desire to harm a nightclub or the industry for their own personal reasons," Thomas added. "But those workers do not represent the voice of the majority."