TAMPA, Fla. — All week, the Republican National Convention turned the city into a stage.
Beyond the security perimeter, Occupiers and anarchists raised signs for news cameras. Hurricane Isaac engulfed the weekend’s coverage.
Inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum, Mitt Romney delegates and sobbing Ron Paul supporters jockeyed for attention with governors, senators and with the man who wants to be the next President of the United States.
Just five miles away, at the notorious Mons Venus Strip Club, another kind of power play was unfolding. Dancers hung from bars or worked their way around a pole, snapping chunky heels on the hardwood as they vied for attention from men seated in the cool room.
In a darkened corner, a dancer, who goes by the stage name Star, approached a potential customer. The black light picked up white patches in the delegate’s credentials that hung from his neck.
Star had just finished a private dance and was pulling her T-shirt back on over a leopard print bra. Her platform stilettos, the only other item of clothing on her body, gave her height and brought her level with the delegate.
She was selling him a lap dance. It could make her $20 to $30 but the delegate wasn’t interested.
“You hear ‘no’ a thousand times, and you’re naked,” said Star, whose real name is Christine. “So it makes you feel awful.”
The women who dance here hoped for an economic boon as the convention brought thousands into Tampa. The city is known as the strip club capital of the country.
By mid-week, they hadn’t seen the business uptick they were counting on.
Wednesday night, the convention speakers talked of the possibilities their candidates would give the American people, and of “opportunity and limitless horizons.”
On stage at the Mons and on the stage at the Forum, this week has been about power, Christine said. At work, it’s power over men, power over femininity and the power exerted by fellow dancers.
“I read a definition of politics once that said that politics is the study of power,” she said. “If that’s all it is, then all of this shit has been bullshit. All of it. It’s just how one man learned how he can get to the top.”
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If she wakes up in time, Christine goes for an afternoon run at Cypress Point Park. From the beach, Old Tampa Bay fills the gap between St. Petersburg, Fla., and Tampa.
“I fucking hate running,” she said as she crosses under trees hung heavy with Spanish moss.
Right now, she’s on the Mons Venus manager’s “fat list.” Every girl at the club has something she struggles with, she said. For her, it’s weight. So she runs in bursts, short distances on the paved path.
Christine followed her high school sweetheart here. She was 17 and enrolled as a Liberal Studies major at St. Leo University. She and her sweetheart broke up.
She started working to pay her way through school. Years later, she’s given up on that program. She’s also given up on relationships and a life that exists in the daytime.
She stays for the money — cold cash that comes in every night. On a good evening, she’ll make $800 to $1,200.
“It’s work,” Christine said. “People think we just get to smile and look pretty and wear high heels and it’s work, it’s hard.”
She’s nocturnal. Her friends are dancers. Her text messages come in after dark.
It’s a completely different world, and she said she doesn’t think the Republicans flooding the streets of Tampa understand.
Christine is registered to vote as an independent, but said she won’t be voting this year. When she thinks about Republicans, she said, she thinks they’re conservative and rich.
In the club, when she’s looking for a rich guy, the first thing she looks for are nice shoes.
The nicest pair she saw last week?
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According to the Republican National Convention’s official website, 2,286 delegates and 2,125 alternate delegates swept into Tampa in the days leading up to the convention.
With the exception of Tuesday, when proceedings began early to make up for time by Tropical Storm Isaac, the convention was a nighttime event. In the evening, delegates and alternates heard about the economy and President Barack Obama’s supposed failed policies and the love between Ann and Mitt Romney.
During the day, the delegates shopped and ate and went on boat cruises and attended receptions. While Christine slept off Tuesday night’s late shift, delegates examined Tervis Tumbler glasses emblazoned with the party logo and contemplated gifts to take home to their families.
At Westshore Plaza Mall’s Hallmark Gold Crown store, a display meant to entice delegates put the GOP in the spotlight.
“Another birthday and you still look like a million bucks,” reads a card featuring a cartoon version of Mitt Romney. Inside, it read, “Trust me, I know what a million bucks looks like.”
Just inside the store’s entrance, Margaret and David Kimball, dressed in red Hawaii delegation T-shirts, picked out gifts to bring home to their children.
Tampa looked beautiful, they said. There was more there than they expected. They needed some “paraphernalia” to remember the trip.
“Taking a wreath home is a little overboard,” David Kimball said, gesturing to a silver circle studded with blue and red foil stars.
In the Chick-Fil-A section of the food court, three women from the National Federation of Republican Women took a break from shopping.
Fresh from a brunch with Ann Romney and her daughters-in-law, they gushed about her poise. Soon, they’d head into the mall’s Saks Fifth Avenue store, where the Florida Federation of Republican Women was hosting a fashion show.
Like Republicans on stage who highlighted small businesses, the women discussed the party’s stance on the economy.
“This isn’t an exclusive club,” Ohio delegate Linda Burke said. “We want prosperity for every person in this country.”
What she wants, she said, is for Americans to work rather than receive government aid.
“If people do something for themselves, they appreciate it more,” Burke said.
At the delegate’s feet, her tote bag bore an ornately embroidered elephant.
Wednesday night, Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan spoke about the need for young Americans to live with financial strength.
“Everyone who feels stuck in the Obama economy is right to focus on the here and now,” Ryan said.
Later, in the dressing room at the Mons Venus, the dancers complained that there weren’t enough dollars on the dance floor to go around. It was 12:33 a.m.
“Are there people out there?” Christine asked.
“No,” said a dancer who goes by Eve. “I tell you what, I make more money bartending on the weekends than I have the past month in five nights working here.”
Three dancers stood in front of the wall of mirrors lining the space where the women applied makeup, put on six-inch heels and took swigs from small bottles of Sutter Home White Zinfandel.
Above their heads, cubby holes held their heels, their bags, and in one, a box of supplements meant to improve joint health.
Dancing hurts your body, Christine said.
“You’ll see a lot of young girls on the pole,” she said. “And then I think, ‘I’m only 26,’ and I can tell I’m just going to need a walker and leg braces and stuff by the time I’m 40.”
These days, to spare her joints, she said she avoids the pole and the raised stage around it.
Instead, she roams the floor and looks for clients interested in a private lap dance.
In the dressing room, the women joked and talked about the men they’d tempted that night. They talked about their kids football games, their legal troubles and the fact that the past week hasn’t been what they were told to expect.
“The RNC has been the biggest bust in the history of being a stripper,” Eve said.
On stage, the women did their best to make money. A dancer did a Sarah Palin parody in a blazer and rectangular glasses. She laid on her back on the octagonal stage, spreading her legs until one of her heels hit another dancer.
The women cupped carefully-folded bills under the arches of their feet or held them in their panties. They leaned over and asked men to put them between their breasts.
Money was always in plain view.
On the jukebox, a Panic! At the Disco song played.
“And isn’t this exactly where you’d like me? / I’m exactly where you’d like me you know, / Praying for love in a lap dance.”
Christine said she thought about changing her look for the convention, buying a new outfit or applying special makeup the way many of the other women did. But she knew it wouldn’t be as good as the hype, she said, so she didn’t bother.
For Christine, Wednesday was an average night.
While Star got ready to dance, the politicians talked of rising up and moving forward. She didn’t watch.
Christine thinks she has become a pretty good judge of character. And she knows that what politicians talk about is relevant to her as a citizen.
But while she’s happy to make a convention guest believe he’s important for the length of a dance, she doesn’t think politicians are any more likely to be upfront with her.
“I don’t think anyone genuinely looks at the nation and is like, ‘I can. Let’s see what we can do.’ I think it’s all, ‘what’s the next move? What’s the next chess move? How am I going to get here?’”
Right now, she just wants to move on.
She got three lap dances in before her break. She walked out the front door, past the men in suits who sipped beers while they asked the bouncers for directions back to the Doubletree Hotel.