By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
By Jake Rossen
By Lindsay Toler
To the strains of Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher," Michelle struts onto the Hustler Club's main stage. Her toned, pale figure is adorned with a Japanese-silk, floral-print bikini and a matching micro-skirt, which she quickly tears off.
A giant Japanese fan complements the Oriental-themed backdrop, but the crowd's attention is focused on the stage's three gleaming brass poles, which rise to meet the twelve-foot ceiling the finest poles in the metro east. Michelle jumps onto the front pole and hoists herself halfway up. Her back muscles ripple as she flips herself upside-down, pulls her top off and then dismounts, spread-eagle.
The music segues into the Cherry Poppin' Daddies' "Zoot Suit Riot," and she hops back on. Her arms behind her back, she spins, flips upside-down again and proceeds to blindfold herself with a sash, once attached to her bikini bottom. She does the splits on the ceiling and, still upside down, removes her bottom and brings the heel of her black stiletto down into her mouth.
Michelle Lindsey, that rare stripper who uses her real name, is among four Hustler Club beauties competing for the title of Pole Princess Champion. The winner will walk away with a $500 prize and an all-expenses-paid trip to Cincinnati to compete for the national Pole Princess title.
Michelle has won the local championships twice and in 2004 took third place at nationals. Previous accolades, though, will not guarantee victory tonight. Her fate lies instead with a handful of so-called celebrity judges, all regular-Joes without any particular expertise. They include a member of the United States Navy, a truck driver, an unemployed gentleman and a fellow who describes himself as a "filmmaker."
Next up after Michelle is Heather, who makes an impressive entrance from a black coffin but loses points when she's unable to unhook her own top. Marilyn, a jailbait-looking blonde, is better; she dances to Janet Jackson's "Black Cat," with painted-on whiskers and a tail attached to her G-string.
Naudia is a lithe brunette who looks all of 80 pounds as she slithers onto the stage, now set in an "Arabian Nights" theme. The highlight of her audacious act is performed off the pole. She twists, completely naked, into an erotic pretzel, her legs splayed behind her ears. She follows this up with a series of push-ups, her business on full display.
Perhaps the judges were enchanted by Naudia's, um, enchantments, or maybe they just didn't know what to make of Michelle. Whatever the case, Naudia is the winner.
"She's a good pole dancer," offers a diplomatic Michelle afterwards. "These things, you never know how they're going to go. The judges aren't professional, so there's a large amount of subjectivity that goes into who wins."
Sporting a Bettie Page-meets-Suicide Girl-meets-Muscle & Fitness look and an all-natural body, 30-year-old Michelle doesn't fit the mold of a conventional stripper. Then again, neither does her dance partner, Katherine Sullivan, who joins her on the stage for an impromptu exhibition. As the two naked, sweaty women stack themselves horizontally on the same pole, the largely male crowd drools. Their lust turns to fear, however, as the women's sharp stilettos come within millimeters of each other's heads.
Sullivan, who is 24 and dances under the name Katrina, worked these same poles for four years before quitting the club in April. Since then, she and Michelle have formed an artsy duo called Gravity Plays Favorites. And they ride the pole with their clothes on.
Their act, which they call an "aerial burlesque dance," has been featured at local lesbian bars, the City Museum downtown and clubs around the nation. Along with erotic-trapeze specialist Mariel Reynolds, Lindsey and Sullivan have joined the ranks of neo-burlesquers like the Los Angeles-based Pussycat Dolls in reviving a centuries-old art form.
Where burlesque was once the realm of seedy men's clubs, Gravity Plays Favorites' fans are just as likely to be women as men.
"People want to see a real show," Michelle says of the group's following. "They want to see a real dance and a real striptease, and they love it. More women come up to us after the shows than men. They love seeing the sexiness without the raunchiness."
"Everybody's attracted to the physical acrobatic feat of it," she says. "You never get to see someone suspended from a pole eight feet off the ground. And they're both beautiful women. It's an interesting mix because it's burlesque, and it's very erotic and sexual, yet they are nobody's play toys. They just both have incredible personal energy that comes through."
As a young girl growing up in East St. Louis, Michelle Lindsey learned all she needed to know about stripping from Flashdance lead Jennifer Beals.
"She's stripping until she can be a professional dancer," Michelle recalls of the film's main character. "She works during the day as a welder which is hot and at night she works in a nice strip club where they actually get to choreograph. There's a naughty one across the street, but she would never work there."