It was an hour into class, and the performers were feeling themselves.
Thighs jiggled. Bellies bounced. Butt cheeks clapped. Twenty-three-year-old actress Sammy Mendoza tittered nervously, a chorus of giggles trailing her across a North Hollywood studio.
Suddenly, the music stopped.
“There’s nothing funny about how much ass is in this room, and how hot it is,” instructor Cera Byer snapped.
Byer’s sensual movement workshop is the first step toward the pole at Thick Strip, L.A.’s biggest plus-sized strip revue.
For these aspiring exotic dancers, tears are expected. Tiger stripes, a must. But in Byer’s bawdy workshops and the raucous stage show run by comedian Alison Stevenson, giggles are a hard limit.
Apparently, there’s no laughing in Thick Strip.
“I was harsh with them,” Byer said after the class, one of two she runs for initiates to the growing Thick Strip empire. “The idea that we would be sexy is made a joke so often that many of us [learn to] laugh at ourselves. It’s a deflection — ha-ha, as if. But you’re not a joke, you being sexy is not a joke, and we’re not laughing about it.”
For Mendoza, the moment was a revelation.
“Growing up, so many people laughed at me for being fat, and I would just laugh along with their jokes,” she said. Suddenly, “I felt like, why am I laughing at my body and how it moves?”
Such minor epiphanies are stock-in-trade for Thick Strip Enterprises, where, since 2018, scores of performers and hundreds of fans have spent thousands of dollars to howl and cheer and wolf-whistle and weep over dancers in 2XL G-strings and silver-dollar pasties.
Five years in, that passion is starting to pay off. Dancers pay $90 for each six-week workshop; most complete two or three before they audition for a show. At the semi-regular shows at the Ace Hotel downtown, fans shell out $15 for cover, tip twice that amount, and spend at least as much again at the bar. The average Thick Strip audience is extremely femme, incredibly queer, and almost unbearably loud. Many go on to take a workshop. Some end up on stage themselves.
“After the [first] show people were crying because they had never seen someone that looked like them be sexy seriously,” said Jasmine Newkirk, 30, aka Amaya J, an original Thick Strip cast member and regular on the stage.
Indeed, while the company bills itself as “body positive” adult entertainment, seriously sexy is its organizing principle.
“[Spectators] either expect all body positivity and not really a strip show, or they expect it’s all sex and not feelings,” Byer said. “It’s undoubtedly a fat liberation, body positivity, body love environment. [But] it’s a real-ass strip night.”
Many participants said they’d come to Thick Strip seeking to embrace their more generous figures, rather than shed pandemic pounds. As the workshops expand and the stage shows professionalize, the appetite for Thick Strip’s brand of sex appeal has only grown.
“We have our own little universe of Thick Strip performers and Thick Strip fans and Thick Strip workshop participants,” Stevenson said. “We carved a little community for ourselves.”
Some, like Mendoza and her roommate Izzy Grace, 24, hoped to perform at last month’s hotly-anticipated Valentine Lovin’ show at the Ace.
Others, like singer and actress Chantal Tribble, 29, were seeking a more private rapprochement.
“This body that I’m in has changed since the pandemic, and I want to honor it and celebrate it,” Tribble said.
So, what is thick, actually? Is it the same thing as plus-sized? Or fat? Or heavy? Or big? Who precisely is chubby or curvy or husky or plump, apple-bellied or pear-shaped or any of the other euphemisms for not-thin?
Activists have coalesced around “fat,” while models and influencers are embracing “plus-size” or “big.”
But “thick,” which originated in the Black community, is the idiom du jour. Like the Yiddish word zaftig — literally, juicy — it describes a feminine figure whose lavish proportions amplify her larger-than-life personality. This makes “thick” one of the few words fat people are allowed to use to describe themselves in public without being corrected.
“When I met a group of new friends and I described myself as fat, they didn’t even let me finish,” Grace recalled as she and Mendoza sipped tea outside a Starbucks in Silver Lake, about three weeks into class. The pair had been practicing for their audition at a local studio.
“They jumped in — ‘You’re not fat! You’re not fat! You’re not fat!’” Grace went on.
“‘You’re not fat, you’re beautiful!’” Mendoza joined mockingly.
Seemingly everyone in the Thick Strip universe has a version of this story. Like the funny fat friend, “you’re not fat you’re beautiful” is a trope so universal it’s cliche.
A strip show won’t stop workplace discrimination or improve substandard medical care, acolytes agree. But in a city obsessed with thinness, Thick Strip opens a space to celebrate fuller figures beyond the exaggerated hourglass currently en vogue (think Beyoncé or Kim Kardashian).
“The class was a breath of fresh air, because fat bodies are not just an hourglass,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza has this “ideal” fat figure, with curves she said drew early attention from men, even as her elementary school classmates mocked her for it.
Grace has a thick waist, round belly, full arms. “My body is the least desirable type of fat body — which I have no problem saying because in the fetish world, it’s the most desirable,” Grace said as they browsed together at the Stockroom, a sex shop where she often buys garb for her job as a dominatrix.
“People pay me for my fat body — they pay me a lot of money.” But that money is for her discretion as much as her labor, she said.
“People are taught that attraction to fat women is shameful,” Grace said, admiring latex body suits she could never fit into. “The reason men come to me as a fat woman and pay for me is because they can do it in private without their friends knowing.”
Yet showcasing fat bodies on social media remains a Sisyphean task, beset with suspensions, shadow bans, troll attacks and rolls of puke emoji.
It’s a reminder of who is welcome in public — not merely who gets to be sexy, but who should be seen at all.
Last month, the lights of downtown sparkled through the floor-to-ceiling windows, and glitter and adhesive fumes filled the air as Thick Strip’s makeshift dressing room at the Ace trembled with thigh-slapping, stomach-shaking laughter.
The bar was open. The giggle rule, shelved. Twelve ample dancers lounged in various states of undress, finessing their makeup and cutting up about strip lashes and thongs.
“We don’t have anything like this in Vegas,” mused plus-size model and performer Alexandra Villalba, aka Lex Lunacy, who’d driven in from Sin City to make her Thick Strip debut. “I’m super excited to do a plus size revue.”
“The dressing room is always like that — we’re always just hyping each other up,” Newkirk said. “In other shows, people will avoid eating right before going on stage. But at Thick Strip we literally have a charcuterie board, we’re snacking away.”
With minutes left until showtime, the dancers passed around body tape and lash glue, press-on nails and pasties — no one performs in the nude. Byer reviewed the set list, and Stevenson eyed the line out the door as she arranged $1,000 in singles to make change for tips. (A part of each show’s proceeds goes to Sex Workers Outreach Program Los Angeles, a peer-support network for sex workers.)
It was their biggest cast yet, and one of the first featuring all-veteran talent. Mendoza and Grace had scrapped their audition for a last-minute job that same night. Their absence on stage left space for Villalba.
“Other people can rely on just being thin and taking their clothes off,” Villalba said, adding double-sided tape to keep her pasties in place. “I have to be a lot more theatrical.”
Her repertoire in Vegas includes a fake blood-soaked Krampus act riffing on the horned Christmas demon, and a Dora the Explorer striptease set to Flo Milli’s explicit “Back Pack.”
Her Thick Strip set was tame in comparison. She’d wind her way from “Toxic Love” — the vampy villain number sung by Tim Curry’s smog monster Hexxus in the animated cult classic “FernGully: The Last Rainforest” — to “Toxic Pony,” the viral Britney Spears/Genuwine mashup.
“I knew I wanted to do that Tim Curry song because it’s abnormally sexy for no reason,” Villalba explained.
One by one, performers slipped out to check the pole and practice their steps on the stage. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s mega-hit “WAP” played as the audience began to fill in.
As the show got started, any illusion of a gentleman’s club fell away. Curvy fans in bold graphic eyeliner and carrying itty-bitty Telfar bags crowded the stage. Between the pounding bass and Beatlemania screams, the atmosphere was deafening.
“This is such an amazing experience, especially for someone who’s [plus size] themselves,” spectator Jacqueline Moreno shouted over the din. “You can see yourself up there. “
By time Villalba took the stage, the audience was in a lather. Her ’90s B-side drew whoops and cheers from the crowd. But the first bars of “Pony” brought the house down.
Fans rushed the stage to throw singles as she shed her hard hat and cut-off jumpsuit to reveal a blue lamé onesie and glittering stewardess cap. For the finale, she peeled away the onesie to bare pasties emblazoned with blue-sequined biohazard symbols, drawing the upper registers of shrieking adulation.
“There was so much money on the stage I couldn’t dance,” Villalba recalled breathlessly backstage. “People were screaming so loud I couldn’t hear the music.”
The take — about $250 in tips —more than doubled her usual goal.
“Doing something so vanilla and still getting such a big reaction shows me there’s a market for exactly what I have to offer,” she said.
Her exuberance echoed Thick Strip’s own dreams of expansion — more out-of-town talent, a traveling show, even a brick-and-mortar club.
Like body glitter, that kind of ambition rubs off.
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