Lap dances don't come for free in Old Soho.
If you found yourself in the Phoenix bar, Soho, and were to decline paying the £300 cover charge, Lesley*, the manager, would spring into action: ‘Sorry, sir, but where do you think you are? What… what do you think this is? This is Soho. You’ve spent time with my girls. Now pay your fucking bill’.
£300 sounds a fair whack now, and it was even more in the 90s, when Soho was much seedier and still awash with characters you might today more regularly see on film screens. ‘It was the Wild West,’ Lesley tells me over pints on Dean Street. ‘We got away with, well, not murder or anything like that, but what we were doing might not have been totally legal, I suppose.’
Lesley ran the Phoenix with a ‘showman’, a second person who coordinated the more intimate goings-on with ‘the girls’, women who wore only bikinis and mountainous high heels. They were ‘all stunning, absolutely beautiful’. Naturally, Lesley married one of them – one who may or may not have arrived here illegally – to help her stay in the UK. ‘She went off to university in the end and now has a family. At the time she needed my help and I thought, “Sod it, why not?” I’m pleased I did it.’
The Phoenix wasn’t a strip club or a brothel: there was no groping and only a little gawping. Lesley and his ‘hostesses’ were there only to take money from desperate, fawning, foolish men.
Whomever stumbled into the Phoenix happened to find themselves in what was a relatively common Soho clip joint. Were tourists, businessmen or anyone caught unawares (usually drunk) to cross the threshold, they were there to be ‘clipped’. They were there, Lesley says, ‘to get taken for a fucking ride’.
‘Anybody would come in’, he says. ‘Lawyers. Priests. Communists. Footballers and film stars, even. We got a lot of Japanese tourists – they were a top target.
‘One afternoon an actor from that film Platoon came in. A fight broke out, some really hard men, and afterwards we found him sobbing in the corner. He’d run into a store cupboard and couldn’t get out.
‘The South African rugby team came in once, although they got away with paying £20 each. We didn’t fancy arguing. Other groups, like soldiers, often left without paying anything. Generally, we avoided getting stabbed as best we could.’
The clipping process at the Phoenix, today a Mexican restaurant called La Bodega Negra, was simple: inebriated types with designs on receiving a blow job would be lured in off the street by one of the entertainers. Men would be welcomed in by the showman and then one of the women would ask whether she could join them. Mostly, the men, horny as they were, would say yes.
Time would pass and no-alcohol beers would be sipped. Sting might blare from rickety speakers. The hostess would be given a cocktail called a ‘multiple orgasm’, containing only fruit juice and garnished with a miniature umbrella of green, red or blue. And then, after an indistinguishable period of time, dependent wholly on the situation at hand and the conversation dispensed, Lesley, a not-unfrightening man, would arrive with a bill for £300.
‘The girls’ cocktails were £200 a go, you see’, he says. ‘Their time cost £30. The zero-alcohol beers – fucking hell they were disgusting – were a tenner each.’
Lesley says most attendees would react unfavourably at first and insist on leaving for nothing. This would simply not do. Even when, after toing and froing, this £300 was taken down to £50 or less – there was profit to be had. ‘Our overheads were next to nothing. We’d make money even if they paid a tenner.’
Sensing my near-indignation at so many revellers coughing up, Lesley invites me to participate in a fairly surreal role play. He is, for a moment, the manager he once was, and I am a sorry man refusing to pay my bill. I am transported to a dark Soho basement. The purple banquettes are growing increasingly uncomfortable and parting with £300 seems the more agreeable option.
‘You picked your battles, basically. You, Josh, would’ve got taken to the fucking cleaners. But there were dangerous people about. I could pretty much always tell when not to bother. When I couldn’t, maybe I’d get a headbutt from a Triad.
‘One man ran out so quickly up the stairs he knocked himself out on the lamppost outside. That was bad because it attracted the police. We had to hide in the secret room.’
The secret room? ‘It was just a little hidden space out the back where the girls got changed.’
We arrive at the back entrance of what was once the Phoenix. A sign outside declares ‘girls girls girls’ in lurid neon lighting and for a time we think it might still be one of Soho’s true dens of iniquity. A relic of the past. A hallowed dungeon for the miscreant.
‘I haven’t told you about the live bed shows’, Lesley says, as we sit down for a final pint. ‘It centred around who had the “biggest and hairiest one”.’
My guide tells me that if at any point a man or group thereof became intent on getting real bang for their buck, he and one of the hostesses would jump on a cheap pine bed at the back of the club and declare to onlookers, ‘let’s find out who has the biggest, hairiest one’.
Anyone who thought they were about to witness a procession of manhoods would soon find out the reveal was actually of their belly buttons. Such was their embarrassment, they would usually briskly depart.
‘They were clipped good and proper. Why they thought sitting with these girls should be free, I’ll never know. The sheer arrogance of them.
‘In the end, it all got a bit much,’ he concludes, recalling the moment when his zeal for fleecing horny revellers began to pall. ‘I started going to church and giving 10 percent of my earnings, which was a lot, to charity – to the WWF.
‘It was all ruthless, but it was life. And that was the life I led back then.’
*Lesley’s name has been changed