'Do you think it's really her?" The man behind us in line looks to be in his 50s. He's probably a mailman, given the fact that he's wearing a mailman's uniform, right down to the shorts and pulled-up knee socks. Then again, we are queued up outside the new Pinellas Park adult-entertainment nightclub, Belladonnas. Conceivably, the getup could be fetish-oriented.
He gestures to the portable marquee sign in the parking lot. Between "Grand Opening" and "Chippendales" is the name of Nina Hartley, one of porn's most enduringly famous icons. We assure the postman, who is positively quaking with anticipation, that the sign almost certainly refers to the Nina Hartley. Then we give our tickets to the tuxedoed doorman, and prepare ourselves for the singular experience of watching ripped-and-oiled dudes shake it for the ladies.
Belladonnas isn't really a strip club, per se. It's more of a place where well-dressed people can hang out, smoke cigars and drink beer and wine, while scantily clad women dance seductively without really, you know, humping the floor in pasties. It bills itself as "a titillating experience," which is probably an eloquent euphemism for "go ahead and wear underwear, because nobody's going to grind her bare ass into the front of your dress slacks until you get off."
The place is also taking pains to present a sensual environment for both sexes — hence the presence of seven members of the world-famous Chippendales male-stripper revue.
About 200 folding chairs are set up in a large side room, facing a wide, high stage. Most are already occupied by women, a surprisingly large percentage of whom are under 30, stylishly dressed, and exceptionally attractive. In fact, the crowd's overall makeup is a direct refutation of the assumption that all Chippendales patrons are disenchanted housewives or frumpy, middle-aged loners. Onstage, a depressingly aged Nina Hartley stands, in satiny red shrug, bra, panties, garter stockings and fuck-me heels, idly fingering her navel with one hand while shouting exhortations into the mic in the other.
"How many horny ladies in here tonight?" she bellows.
The nearly full room's response is somewhat tentative; Hartley ignores it.
"'Cause we've got seven of the area's hottest meat puppets about to get up here for you!"
She cedes the stage to said meat puppets shortly. They emerge in the time-honored Chippendales uniform, shirtless, buttered to a radiant sheen, bow-tied and white-cuffed in shimmering tearaway black pants. These are not merely fit, tight, muscular men. These are specimens whose bodies have been sculpted beyond perfection to living physical hyperbole, all shoulders, arms and impossibly defined abs. They are by no means grotesque, like some competitive bodybuilders, but rather so fully developed their appearance borders on the unreal.
A cannibal would be utterly unable to control himself.
The gentlemen immediately leave the stage and wander the crowd in an extended session hawking calendars, raffle tickets and photo ops, before disappearing backstage.
Eventually, the show proper begins. All seven men retake the stage in Matrix-style trench coats, to the strains of what is ostensibly the current Chippendales theme — an abhorrent mix of techno, urban pop and snicker-inducing lyrics ("You left your man at home/ and now you're alone/ as you can see/ we'll be your fantasy"). A few flasher-esque Speedo revelations aside, the choreography, too, is more boy band than burlesque, characterized by pelvic thrusts and unison arm/hand maneuvers.
Following the opening salvo, however, the group falls into tried-and-true fantasy scenarios. A series of numbers spotlighting sexy archetypes ("The Executive," "The Rugged Cowboy," and the apotheosis of hot-guy identities, "The Fireman") is seeded between group activity focused on The Hot Seats. The Hot Seats are chairs lined up onstage where audience members can sit and be subjected to all the stuff that's not going on out in the club's main room, for the low, low price of 10 bucks.
The first visitors to The Hot Seats are a little uncertain, maybe a little embarrassed. But by halfway through the show, the line to sit in them stretches off the stage and along the room's far wall. The audience, timid at the show's beginning, has become completely unhinged, screaming, shrieking, racing one another to the onstage chairs. A bride-to-be and a birthday girl get a little extra attention. A few women make several return trips to the stage, grabbing asses and literally climbing the men whose crotches are slapping against their thighs.
"There ain't nothing wrong with a good dry hump," encourages the dancer who's also the MC, a burly guy who looks a little like Vince Vaughan after somebody put him in a vise and cranked it down a turn and a half. "It's an underrated art!"
My date and I slam drinks, marvel at the reaction, wonder aloud (to scowls from the ladies around us) which strippers are gay. I don't assume out of envy that every Chippendales dancer is; I just don't know many straight men who would spend countless brutal hours sculpting their bodies in order to perform exhibitionist musical theater in smoky nightclubs. At no point do the MC or the strippers acknowledge in any way the seven or eight men in the crowd (almost all of whom are with female companions). It's not like I was expecting equal-opportunity lap dances or anything, but I was expecting some ribbing from the announcer. (The Chippendales publicist later informs me by phone that the entertainers aren't specifically told to ignore male patrons, but they stick pretty closely to a script that assumes there won't be any.)
Following an endless, voluminous swirl of squealing voices, contoured flesh, witless quips ("We are not responsible for any unplanned pregnancies that happen tonight!") and one amusing Grease medley, The Hot Seats are removed. The big finale, involving American flag boxer shorts and the tossing of sweaty strappy tees, brings the cheers to a climax. Then, suddenly, it's over; the ladies stand around for a minute, as if dazed, before rushing to the back of the room to line up for the post-show merchandising bonanza.
I didn't find it demeaning, or even stupid. Actually, it was strange and wonderful to witness women from all walks of life ogling, groping, catcalling and generally acting like drunken frat boys crashing a bachelor party in Cozumel during Spring Break. I did find the role-playing silly, but I've always preferred talented dancers to naughty nurses in the female stripper department.
And, really, who — male or female — wants to see a beautiful but largely graceless hunk in bikini briefs try to negotiate a pole routine?
Contact Scott Harrell at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].