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When the pandemic hit, dancers from Jumbo’s Clown Room, a popular Los Angeles joint—part dive bar, part strip club—were out of a job. To make money with the world shuttered, they created Cyber Clown Girls: an online show that became explosively popular, reaching thousands of viewers, many outside of the city. For the first time, the dancers were able to become their own bosses. Without having to conform to a club owner’s whims and demands—over their schedules, their sets, how they should style their hair, what kind of make-up they should wear—each felt a new freedom. Work had other difficulties. But in a world with so many shitty bosses, it was invigorating to work collaboratively, instead of competitively, with other dancers—and redistribute tips they made to reproductive justice and LGBTQ+ organizations.

Below is a conversation with three former Jumbo’s dancers, Akira/Coco Ono, Velveeta, and Reagan, who share about their bad bosses and the mistreatment they’ve faced in their collective 20-plus years experience in dancing and sex work in Los Angeles, while juggling grad school and careers in the arts.

Setting the Stage

Reagan: I’m based in LA and I have worked in the industry for I think 12 years. I was a dancer at Jumbo’s for 11 years. I was dancing on and off at Star Garden. I started there about 10 years ago.

Akira/Coco Ono: I’ve been dancing since 2005. I’ve danced all over LA and Las Vegas and a little bit in New York. I’ve been working at Jumbo’s and other clubs since 2005.

Velveeta: I’ve been dancing for only like four years now, since 2017. I started at Star Garden and I was there for a year. Then I worked at Jumbo’s for a year before the pandemic.

Akira/Coco Ono: Jumbo’s is known to be a cool place to work and somewhat respectable. Most people that I told that I worked there thought it was pretty cool. And it was cool because it was a women-owned. It was all women bartenders. I think that was the outside perception of what it was.

But we all did not have that experience working there. There was a constant anxiety—kind of like under the surface and favoritism. I don’t know if unethical is the word but just favoritism played a lot in hiring practices and schedule-making by our boss Karen. That was pretty complicated.

Reagan: For 10 years I was a recipient of Karen’s favoritism. I enjoyed all of the benefits of that—which is something that I think I’m atoning for now, to be honest.

That included being able to get away with dancing a certain way on stage. There was this sort of unspoken understanding that certain people could get away with wearing something slightly see-through or kind of pulling their panties down a little provocatively.

Karen seemed very turned off and just kind of squeamish around sexuality a lot of the time. So, when she was there, there was a code word in the dressing room. “Can I wear this?” someone would ask. And I’d be like, “No, mom’s here.” You really had to be on your best behavior. Like, “mom’s here so be on your best behavior”—or you might not get the shifts that you want. That is definitely a part of everyone’s experience: the anxiety around getting shifts, the number of shifts, and how good those shifts are. It was really around how you tailored your interactions and presentation to her.

If you had a good interaction with her you could expect to have a good schedule the next week. If you had a bad or confusing, baffling, any other kind of interaction with her—where she said something weird or didn’t smile—then you could likely expect to have a less than favorable number of shifts. So, you were constantly trying to be on your best behavior and present yourself in a way that was obsequiously pleasing, so that you would get the shifts at your job that you make your money at. There was something very bizarre about that. It was a part of the culture. Like this is what you have to do to survive. You have to make sure that every interaction with her is like pleasing and whatever and just get through it.

Akira/Coco Ono: The shifts were always very erratic which is why all of us worked at other clubs simultaneously. Or at least that’s why I did. I would pick up shifts at other clubs or go to Vegas or do whatever you had to do. That was pretty apparent early on.

We were all really good employees. We’re all really good entertainers. We are all really good at talking to people. We all had customers. So, it’s confusing to be both in the industry where that’s important, then on top of that, you’re pandering to your boss, who in the end makes the final decision.

It doesn’t matter how much money you’re bringing in, how nice you are to customers, how many drinks are being bought. None of that actually matters.

Velveeta: I would say I felt it more so than other clubs I’ve worked at because it was a family run place. Karen was the boss, and then her other family members work there. It was kind of like, if you went against the family or something then you were at risk of losing your job or good shifts.

It created toxic dynamics in the dressing room. I think the girls that were in with Karen felt a certain impunity and used that as a way to be kind of the head of the pecking order. There’s just that kind of the power dynamic there. It was uncomfortable.

The boss at Star Garden was more indifferent. He basically didn’t have relationships with any of the dancers. He was more of a stereotypical strip club boss. His name is Hans, he’s a big burly German guy. The infamous quote from him is that “dancers are like cockroaches. They are drawn to the sugar and if you squash one it doesn’t matter.”

Akira/Coco Ono: But you know what? The cockroaches are going to basically outlive everyone. It’s the oldest profession on earth, right? We’re fine.

Velveeta: He saw dancers as interchangeable. Most club owners are pretty indifferent or see dancers as interchangeable.

Reagan: Does every strip club boss have an infamous line where they say something disparaging about the disposability of dancers? That just totally reminded me of the “dancers are like paper towels” quote.

Akira/Coco Ono: If there were better working conditions, perhaps we wouldn’t be flaky and have to go find 16 jobs. Because like what would a strip club be without dancers? It would just be a bar. And would it be successful? I don’t know, maybe.

Even going out of town was kind of stressful because you have to constantly make sure it’s okay and check in. We would do crazy things. Like I flew back from Korea and immediately went to work. I had a really traumatic time there, but I was so afraid of not having a shift.

I worked injured one time. I would just go on stage with an ankle wrap or a wrist brace. I remember a lot girls going into work like that.

Reagan: You need the money so that was how you were going to eat that week. And the other part of it was you didn’t want to seem inferior and have your schedule cut. You didn’t want to call out because that made you look unreliable, and you could be punished the week after. You just had to suck it up and get through the shift.

A Disaster

In early 2020, as the coronavirus spread in California, venues began to close. In March 2020, Jumbo’s Clown Room shut down due to a statewide lockdown.

Reagan: Then, in May, this year there was an email that went out—but not to all of us—announcing that Jumbo’s was reopening. It said to submit your ID and social security card so that you could be rehired.

It was hilarious because nearly every single dancer responded with questions and then no one got any answers. But the three of us were not included on that email. That was our first hint that we were being fired or not rehired.

Akira/Coco Ono: I got some text from other girls saying, “Hey I’m going back.” And I quickly realized that I wasn’t part of the memo.

Reagan: A lot of us sent emails asking for clarification like, “What does this mean? Is this an indication that we’re not being offered a position anymore?” It was just a complete ghosting situation which really freaked us out because we had seen this happening for years that Karen just ghosts people when she fires them.

Velveeta: I felt like there was another email during the pandemic that told us that we’d be getting some payments because they received a PPP loan so I expected that I would get a couple thousand because it was supposed to represent six months’ pay. I ended up receiving $400 total.

It was like a slap in the face then to not be rehired and not have any communication about that. I would have been able to forgive that if I had gone back to Jumbo’s when it reopened and been able to make that money that I was making before it closed. Now it’s like, man, really?

Reagan: I think it was approximately 10 dancers that did not get the rehiring information. It was very weird and unceremonious.

A lot of the dancers—including the three of us—that were more political and outspoken, that were working with certain organizations about social justice and the industry, were not rehired. It’s things like that that make me wonder. There’s a pattern. It’s not black and white but it does stand out to me as a possible reason. Because otherwise, like, we were all good at our jobs. No other explanation has been offered.

Akira/Coco Ono: We can’t really prove it either way so maybe speculating isn’t a good idea.

Velveeta: I think it was just because she didn’t like my hair. I wore wigs to my audition then I started to not wear it. It was kind of edgy, the shaved sides. I feel like I didn’t fit in with her vision. She likes the pin-up, cute look.

Akira/Coco Ono: I had that issue too. I had my sides shaved and she kept asking me for an entire year if my hair had grown back yet. I was too afraid to cut it while I was there. I just grew it and kept it black. What other jobs do you have to worry so much about pleasing your hair do? You can’t change your hair.

The Show

With clubs closed, the pandemic helped the dancers flip the script. They began to organize shows online without the fear of retaliation from their bosses. 

Reagan: In the heyday it was awesome, so liberating and empowering.

Akira/Coco Ono: We all split the money and we were all able to just do weird stuff. We did some hilarious acts—there was one with a zucchini and a shredder. It was genius. That would never happen on stage at work. I got to see people’s humor. It was great for about six months.

Reagan: It was performance: It could be as weird or as sexy as we wanted, all the time. Before we would have to mitigate the sexiness to please the boss. That was the best part. We did things differently. It was like a great model of equity and being able to kind of compensate everyone equally. You didn’t have to feel like you were competing with any other dancer. It was just a completely different vibe than what a club usually is.

There needs to be a shift where we are working together and it’s hard because the industry is built on the assumption of competition. There’s the greater enemy out there who is totally delighted that we have not figured out how to really join forces and take it down. That’s the next step, like really reaching across to each other and developing stronger supportive networks.

Akira/Coco Ono: We don’t deserve the treatment we get because we’ve chosen to be in this industry. Whether or not people like it, we are functioning members of this economy. There is a lot of money that passes through dancers and all sex workers.

I’m not really interested in going back to any old models. I’m obviously very idealistic because a lot of us are and I think after the pandemic and everything that’s happened, I can’t go back at this point.

Velveeta: I’m feeling sort of like I want to exit sooner rather than later too. The customers are just so gross sometimes. I don’t want to deal with them.

We are basically asked in our jobs to perform all of the things that are expected by femmes, by men and by society. We are supposed to be pleasing and sexually and emotionally available and supportive. As it’s currently structured, we’ve been exploited by the industry, and we haven’t been paid for it.

I would hope that there could be a cultural shift as well to acknowledge that femme labor, or like sex labor really, is a feminist cause and our rights and our welfare and ability to perform this work and flourish is at the crux of feminism.

I love identifying as a stripper and I want to continue in that. But I want to find a way to continue that as part of a revolution. I would love to work collectively to open a club with a real progressive labor model. The Lusty Lady is a great example of what could be and that was like 30 years ago.

We’ve seen the major unionization efforts fail throughout the pandemic and society is stacked against labor organizing right now. That hopefully will change during the Biden administration and that feels like the way forward.

Reagan: Going back to the way things were isn’t a satisfying option spiritually for me. I don’t know if it’s realistic but it is my dream to open something up. I’ve been talking to my friends about how to get a pop-up started and see if eventually we can have a brick-and-mortar venue.

Akira/Coco Ono: We should just plan a pop-up so we can have a retirement.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

This story is part of our Bad Bosses project, a reported collection of accounts from workers about their terrible bosses and the system that creates them. You can read more about the entire project and find every story here. Annotations—highlighted throughout—can be clicked for further context and comment from other parties. Got your own bad boss story? Send us an email.

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FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaire owners wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2021 demands.

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