Real Work | Arts and Culture | Style Weekly

On Ivy Mazza’s TikTok account, there is a video celebrating Atelier, the cosmetic tattooing company she co-founded alongside Savannah Sheely. The mix of clips shows Mazza, Sheely, and other members of the Atelier team tattooing eyebrows, painting the walls of their newest studio, and stacking up branded merchandise.

The TikTok ends with the phrase, “anything is possible with stripper money.”

Coming up on its five-year anniversary, Atelier was built by the money Mazza and Sheely raised while working as dancers in strip clubs. With that money, the two entrepreneurs grew their business—which offers cosmetic brow tattooing as well as lip blushes (think permanent tattooed lipstick), lash extensions and more—into what it is today: a booked-and-busy shop with a cult following extending throughout Richmond and beyond.

And although the Atelier origin story is interesting, it isn’t the only Richmond business established by a stripper. Nia Burks, owner of Butter & Filth, is another stripper-turned-founder who provides the community with an exceedingly popular pole dance and aerial studio that trades in anti-sex worker versions of “pole fitness” for authentic, mentality-focused pole instruction .

Both businesses have more than just titillating founder backstories in common. They are testaments to what strip club workers know to be true: all sex workers are entrepreneurs, and many strippers develop a ferocious business acumen within club walls.

Mazza, Burks and Sheely agree that they each honed skills in the club that easily transferred to their current work.

“When I started dancing at 18, I was dancing to survive for my mom and I,” says Sheely, who would bounce from day shifts at Firehouse Subs to nights at the club in her early days. Once she pivoted to using dance as a resource, she says, she became good at setting financial goals each month. “I did both because I had the final goal in mind, and also to prove to Ivy that I would be a good business partner. I learned how to use my personality, how to sell.”

Mazza explains that, like stripping, the work is about making people feel good about themselves. “In the studio, we’re making people feel good about themselves in a world that judges a lot on appearance,” she says.

Where Atelier’s business aims to build confidence from the outside in, Butter & Filth works in the opposite direction, aiming for dance and the external erotic to be used by clients to form a deeper connection to themselves and their authentic desires.

“The only guiding factor I had when I started dancing was to ask myself, what do I want? Does this feel good? What do I need? Where am I going? Over and over again,” Burks says. “Those questions that I first developed on stage became guiding principles of my life.”

This experience taught her the power and importance of understanding her own desires and trusting her intuition, she says.

“I knew I wanted to focus on helping people cultivate inner knowing through knowing and understanding their own erotic,” she adds. “Because just learning how to do a hair flip or a booty pop isn’t going to liberate you, especially if you’re just doing it because you’re told to. Which is why we don’t do choreography outside of some prompting.”

Strip clubs are built on fantasy. Dim lighting, weirdly patterned carpets, tufted furniture, shiny chrome poles and the occasional neon sign or LED surface all serve to transport those inside the club to an alternate reality. The nature of that reality, though, is guided largely by customers and club owners—and neither party has a particularly vested interest in understanding strippers as people who exist outside of the club, let alone as people with five-year plans.

Understanding dancers would mean potentially having to advocate more for the rights of their employees, and why break a time-honored (even local) tradition of exploitation? For some customers, knowing that a stripper has a plan for what to do with their money—especially one related to self-actualization—tends to make them feel used, despite the fact that a stripper is at their job the entire time they are in the club.

We don’t do this with any other kind of entertainer. People don’t feel cheated halfway through a concert remembering they had to pay for a ticket. This is all to say that although strip clubs seem like anything-goes party palaces from the outside, those working in strip clubs quickly learn that they have to operate in a specific way if they want to do well. For Mazza and Sheely, the things that appeared to negatively impact their money the most while dancing were telling. “If I told clients that my friend and I were saving money to open a business, It did not make me more money,” Sheely recalls.

“Clientele at strip clubs have this idea in their head that all strippers are aimless little minxes who don’t have thoughts in their brain,” Mazza explains, although she and Sheely both point out that some clients proved to be good people, and good connections once they started getting into the details of launching Atelier. “They don’t want you to have goals. A man will tell you what he wants, directly or indirectly.”

There are many common statements by customers in strip clubs that tell you what that customer wants, not in terms of a type of dance, but in terms of a kind of person: A girl like you doesn’t belong in a place like this. Are you supporting your kids? Are you working your way through college? Reading between the lines, each phrase highlights the need to maintain specific power dynamics by defining strippers as permanently aimless or desperate. And this, of course, makes the narrative of a stripper entrepreneur a non-money-maker.

“[Clients] wanted to make sure that they were helping me in a way that didn’t actually make me successful or independent,” Savannah says. “My sugar daddy stopped talking to me after I opened this business with Ivy.”

“Didn’t Chris Rock make that joke that was like, ‘strippers don’t go to college!’” Burks says. “Which is not true, I did! But, must women be serving something else in order to own power? For women who want money and conventional success, this is such a hang up that I see over and over. This idea of, ‘the associations that I have with power are bad, so therefore, am I bad?’ And I say, no. Can we restructure what power means, and can we restructure what power looks like as women entrepreneurs?”

Despite dancers being the foundation of the business, most strip clubs do essentially nothing to support or protect their talent, whether that means educating them on their rights, defending them from unruly and violent customers, or keeping discrimination and racism out of the club. Mazza, Burks and Sheely have all had experiences that illuminate the club’s lack of accountability.

Mazza, who identifies as multi-racial, noticed that she made more money when she was perceived as “being closer to whiteness.” Sheely was followed by a client more than once, and when she told her club, they did nothing. Burks says the entire final third of her dancing career was defined by a feeling of dissociation, as a consequence of feeling manipulated.

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Strippers learn that real support mostly can only be accessed independently or among each other. In their new careers, Mazza, Burks and Sheely work to address issues that impact entrepreneurs both in and outside of the sex worker community, with a particular focus on money and opportunity.

Although the less-tragic mainstream narratives surrounding strip club culture place a lot of focus on how much money you can make, it’s hard to handle money as a stripper. Already performing stigmatized work, strippers are often considered independent contractors, even if they only work at one club. This means that come tax time, strippers find themselves responsible for withholding their own federal, state, and local taxes; and strippers and other sex workers have no invoices to show to banks or potential landlords. During the pandemic, the sex worker community swiftly banded together to form mutual aid funds with the knowledge that access to government-funded financial relief would be extremely limited.

Having experienced these issues firsthand, Mazza, Burks and Sheely each make an effort to share helpful knowledge and resources. Under the Butter & Filth brand, Burks recently launched the Olivia P&L, a beginner money management system for those in cash or informal economies.

“In my experience, in the club, the shit that kept strippers from getting ahead was the fact that they didn’t have basic financial literacy,” Burks says. “I made the Olivia P&L because I love strippers, but it works for anyone working in any cash-based industry. It’s intended for the most beginner of beginners. I think it’s important to provide people with [financial] knowledge in a way that doesn’t embarrass them.”

At Atelier, strippers get discounts on services and are given receipts so that they can write off their services as expenses on their taxes. Over the summer, the business partnered with another cosmetic tattooer and several local vendors for a swap meet to raise money for sex workers during the pandemic. More recently, Atelier announced the launch of Atelier Collective, a venture that offers private studio spaces to entrepreneurs with businesses that align with the Atelier brand. Located under Atelier’s main studio space, Atelier Collective consists of several small private suites that are ideally meant to be rented out to early-career entrepreneurs who are looking for their first opportunity to establish their brand.

In addition to providing these entrepreneurs with a studio space, Atelier also plans to support members of Atelier Collective by helping them access relevant training, grow their social media presence, and build their business model.

With the public perception of strippers changing—thanks arguably in part to rapper Cardi B—Mazza, Burks and Sheely don’t allow themselves to get swept up in their own success or the perception that strippers are rising to the top of “the whorearchy” thanks to the mainstream success of celebrities like Cardi B or movies like “Hustlers” and “Zola.”

As Atelier and Butter & Filth continue to expand, each new client they acquire will learn that that the dance class they love, or the lash set they waited months for, wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for sex work. By being honest about the complexities of the stripper experience while operating their own rapidly growing businesses, Mazza, Burks and Sheely are challenging the public to change their understanding of who a stripper is and what they do.

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