By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"I bet you'll make some money tonight."
Hicks has a vested interest in that happening. Every dancer tips him about 10 percent of whatever she makes, which is industry standard. That kind of income makes an 11-hour shift worthwhile, but it also means he takes care of his own retirement fund. That's the tradeoff. You don't get a 401(k) when you're dealing in stacks of wrinkled $20 bills. But Hicks doesn't worry much about retirement. He's a youthful-looking 40 and, in his shirt and tie, doesn't appear that different from the way he did when he was trying to get the clubs to buy ads in a newspaper. He guesses he can hold out for another decade.
"I think DJ is the best job you can get," he says. "I don't want to get into management. I like music too much. I like talking with the girls and having fun. If I keep it clean and stay off the alcohol and keep healthy, I can do another 10 years."
"Round number two, your last song right here with the beautiful Angel, your final chance now. Mallory will be next, followed by Pink."
Across the room, with his crisp white shirt and tie and immaculately coiffed hair, Robert Pennington looks more 9-to-5 than most of the businessmen ogling Mallory.
Of course, it's not terribly difficult to appear more professional than a group of guys spending their lunch hours at a topless bar, specifically Baby Dolls, the jewel of the Burch Management empire. (Among others, the company also owns Cabaret Royale and The Fare Room, Million Dollar Saloon, P.T.'s Gold Club and La Bare in Arlington.) It's early on a Thursday afternoon and an hour or so before today's Christmas VIP party. Plenty of those VIPs are already here, showing off their holiday cheer by flashing cash at the dancers.
A graduate of Louisiana State University, Pennington might have been one of them if the DJ at The Gold Club in Baton Rouge had shown up for work that day 15 years ago, when he was working his way through college as a bartender at the club.
"Nobody else knew how to use the equipment, and they just threw me up there," says Pennington, who's been a DJ since he was 14 and plying his trade in the topless-bar industry since he was 18. "I saw the potential to make more money as a DJ than as a bartender, so I stuck with DJ-ing. Just right time, right place."
He's still not sure if he wants to stick with it forever. He's only 33, young enough to put his journalism degree to use or get a PGA teaching card and work at a golf course (he's about a -7 handicap now, but he's been better). Maybe even get back into concert promoting, another of his post-college jobs. Right now, though, he's happy where he is.
Mallory, the dancer on deck, pokes her head into Pennington's booth.
"Um, I'm in the champagne room," she says. Meaning: "I'm not going onstage next, because I'm about to make more money giving a private dance."
Pennington nods and grabs the mike.
"Pink will be next."
Pennington has been at Baby Dolls for seven years and with the company for 10. He's well-known in the industry, but to the people he meets outside the topless-bar business, he's just a guy who DJs in nightclubs.
"Any time I tell someone I'm a topless-bar DJ, they do the fake topless-bar DJ voice: 'Oh, and here's the beautiful...'" Pennington says. "So, yeah, I just lie to people, because you get the same 15 questions: What are the girls like? Do you have sex with the girls? Do they do a lot of drugs up there? Do they make a lot of money?"
The answers are less interesting than the questions: Pennington gets along well with most of the girls. No, he doesn't have sex with them, unless they're dating, which rarely happens. No, they don't really do a lot of drugs. Yes, some of them make a lot of money.
Pennington's cover is not technically a lie. He spends much of his free time spinning records at clubs where the dancers (usually) keep their clothes on. He doesn't make any money doing that, but he enjoys it. For one thing, it allows him to exercise his DJ muscles.
"Let's get started, I'll tell you about our Christmas VIP party. Free barbecue till midnight tonight and don't forget, guys: 4 to 8 today, dollar domestic and Bud beers, along with dollar well drinks. So stick around, it's all coming up, part of our VIP Christmas party." Pennington cues up U2's "Vertigo."
That didn't take much work--not the actual DJ part of it, anyway. He just pushed a button. At Baby Dolls, it's all MP3s and computer programs; when he's at Candle Room, a regular club, he uses CDs and vinyl, mixing everything by hand.
Working in regular clubs also allows him to meet women. It sounds like a punch line: A guy surrounded by nearly naked women all day can't get a date.
"No normal girl wants to go out with a topless-bar DJ," Pennington says. "You know, they think the DJ is in the DJ booth getting, you know, blowjobs and hand jobs from dancers. It's a double-edged sword: You don't want to date the girls that you work with, but no other girls can date you either because you work in a topless bar with a bunch of strippers. Like, 'Oh, you sleep with all the girls.'"