As a bartender and trainer at a national restaurant chain, Rebecca Brown earned a couple thousand dollars in a really good week. Now, as a dancer at Chicago's Pink Monkey gentleman's club, she makes almost that much in one good night.
The tough job market is prompting a growing number of women across the country to dance in strip clubs, appear in adult movies or pose for magazines like Hustler.
Employers across the adult entertainment industry say they're seeing an influx of applications from women who, like Brown, are attracted by the promise of flexible schedules and fast cash. Many have college degrees and held white-collar jobs until the economy soured.
"You're seeing a lot more beautiful women who are eligible to do so many other things," said Gus Poulos, general manager of New York City's Sin City gentleman's club. He said he got 85 responses in just one day to a recent job posting on Craigslist.
The transition to the nightclub scene isn't always a smooth one--from learning to dance in five-inch heels to dealing with the jeers of some customers.
Some performers said they were initially so nervous that only alcohol could calm their nerves.
"It is like giving a speech, but instead of imagining everyone naked, you're the one who's naked," Brown, 29, said.
Eva Stone, a 25-year-old dancer at the Pink Monkey, said dealing with occasional verbal abuse from patrons requires "a thick skin."
Makers of adult films cautioned that women shouldn't rush into the decision to make adult movies without considering the effect on their lives.
"Once you decide to be an adult actress, it impacts your relationship with everyone," said Steven Hirsch, co-chairman of adult film giant Vivid Entertainment Group. "Once you make an adult film, it never goes away."
The women at the Pink Monkey say dancing at a strip club might not have been their first career choice, but they entered the business with their eyes wide open. The job gives them more control and flexibility than sitting in a cubicle, and "it's easy, it's fun and all of us girls ... look out for each other," Brown said.
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In this economy, "desperate measures are becoming far more acceptable," said Jonathan Alpert, a New York City-based psychotherapist who's had clients who worked in adult entertainment.
For some, dancing is temporary, a way to pay for college loans or other bills. Others say they've found their niche.
Dancers at the upscale Rick's Caberet clubs in New York City and Miami can make $100,000 to $300,000 a year--in cash--even with the economic downturn, club spokesman Allan Priaulx said.
Priaulx said 20 to 30 women a week are applying for jobs at the New York club, double the number of a year ago.
Rhode Island's Foxy Lady held a job fair Saturday, seeking to fill about 35 positions for dancers, masseuses, bartenders and bouncers. The Providence Journal reported that more than 150 job seekers showed up to apply for work at the strip club. Foxy Lady co-owner Tom Tsoumas said a recent promotion to cut prices helped the club regain business lost due to the bad economy, forcing it to hire more employees.
Still, analysts say, the industry isn't immune to the economic recession. Business is down an estimated 30 percent across all segments, including adult films, gentleman's clubs, magazines and novelty shops, said Paul Fishbein, president of AVN Media Network, an adult entertainment company that has a widely distributed trade publication and an award show.
"In the past, people have said this industry is recession-proof," said Eric Wold, director of research for financial services firm Merriman Curhan Ford. "I definitely don't see that; maybe recession-resistant."
Strip club dancers and managers said they're drawing in the same number of customers, but fewer high rollers.
"They're not getting the big spenders," said Angelina Spencer, executive director of the Association of Club Executives, a trade group for adult nightclubs. "They're not getting the guys who come in and drop $3,000 to $4,000 a night anymore."
Still, the clubs' operating structure leaves them with low overhead and profit margins of up to 50 percent, Wold said.
Dancers are independent contractors, paying clubs a nightly flat fee depending on how long they work. At the Pink Monkey, for example, dancers who arrive at 7 p.m. Sunday through Thursday pay a $40 "house fee," while women who don't arrive until midnight pay $90. And they keep their tips.
Wold and others say it's almost impossible to estimate the size of the adult entertainment industry because few companies are publicly traded. He does pay close attention to three that are: Lakewood, Colo.-based VCG Holding and Houston-based Rick's Caberet, which own clubs, and New Frontier Media, a Boulder, Colo.-based adult film producer and distributor.
All three are profitable.
Rick's Caberet had $60 million in revenue in its 2008 fiscal year, up from $32 million the year before, Wold said, and he estimates VCG will have $57 million for last year, compared with $40.5 million in FY2007. New Frontier Media generates more than $400 million in consumer buying a year.
Larry Flynt, whose half-billion dollar Hustler empire publishes magazines, produces and distributes films and operates a casino, said he's continued to do well. But he doesn't expect those who are solely in the film business to survive.
"A lot of the small studios are out of business now, there's no doubt about that," Flynt said.
Adult magazines also are struggling along with the larger publishing industry, and have to cut pages like everyone else.
But the economic realities aren't keeping jobseekers away.
Vivid Entertainment's Hirsch said the number of women in his business has doubled in the last couple years, with roughly 800 working as adult actresses. "It is more competitive than I've seen it in 25 years," he said.
That doesn't mean all the newcomers are planning on lengthy careers in the industry.
Stone, who has a bachelor's degree in graphic design, took up dancing four years ago to help pay her student loans. She plans to go to graduate school this year to pursue a master's in education.
Brown, meanwhile, has a ready answer for those critical of her career choice.
"I have job security," she said.