The skinny on strip rivals

MICHAEL FORBES
Last updated 05:00 15/07/2012
Calendar Girls
CHRIS SKELTON/Fairfax NZ

TASTEFUL ENTERTAINMENT: Calendar Girls owner Jacqui Le Prou and Harley, back.

Chow brothers
ROSS GIBLIN/FAIRFAX NZ
EMPIRE BUILDERS: Michael and John Chow.

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Jacqui Le Prou is remarkably calm for a woman who claims to be a few hundred thousand dollars out of pocket.

She had hoped her lavish multimillion-dollar strip club would be full to its third-storey roof with funny money by now.

Her stable of exotic entertainers was supposed to start spinning on poles and gyrating in the laps of Wellingtonians back in April.

But the only grinding that's happened inside Calendar Girls on Dixon St over the last two months has been Le Prou's teeth as she battled to cut through the screeds of red tape surrounding the city's newest adult playground.

That said, Le Prou works in an industry where six-figure sums can be made back in a hurry.

The 2000 or so people who visited her 450-capacity Wellington club on its first three nights of business last week would have done wonders for her nerves, which had already been toughened by the expansion of her Christchurch-based strip empire into Auckland last year.

"In Auckland I was getting death threats and drive-by threats [from other club owners]. Nothing ever came to fruition but I expect that sort of thing," she says.

"But Wellington was a struggle. It really tried my patience at times. It was just dirty tactics and I'm not willing to play that sort of game."

Those so-called "dirty tactics" were the actions of businessmen John and Michael Chow, till now the capital's undisputed strip kings, who own the hard-to-miss Mermaid bar in the heart of Courtenay Place.

The Chows opposed Calendar Girls' liquor licence, pointing to Le Prou's husband James Samson, who was sentenced to five years' jail on methamphetamine charges in 2004 as good reason for the District Licensing Authority to be concerned.

The brothers refused to be interviewed last week, but their view was shared by Wellington police, who felt Samson was not the kind of person who should be running Calendar Girls.

Despite Le Prou's argument that her husband would have little to do in that area, a condition of the club's licence prevents him from being on site during opening hours.

But the Chows were not the only hurdle. A Wellington City Council inspector popped by for a visit in April and declared the hot water in the club was six degrees Celsius too cold.

The problem was easily fixed but it delayed sign-off on the property and added to Le Prou's frustration.

She can afford a half-smile about it now that the club's doors are finally open.

"It's a nice feeling walking in and knowing that your girls are happy and they're smiling at you and they're telling you this place is amazing and they've never been in a club like this. It puts me on a high. It's very rewarding."

Le Prou is also happy to put the bickering with the Chow brothers behind her, for now.

She is a credible threat to their dominance of the capital strip club scene and they know it, she says.

She has been accused of poaching the Chows' girls, and it is true that 32 of her 50 staff jumped ship from the Mermaid bar, but that was their choice, not hers, she says.

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"The Chows want a monopoly on the market and they won't play fair. But I've got big shoulders. I can handle anything they throw at me."

The petty games that strip club owners play when one moves into the supposed territory of another is nothing new, says long-time adult entertainment mogul Brian Le Gros, who had a virtual monopoly on the Wellington game for decades before the Mermaid bar came along in 2001.

Le Gros, who left the capital shortly after to run the White House in Auckland, says the tactics can range from interfering with consent applications down to posting nasty comments on each other's Facebook pages.

"It's all bulls---, it never stops anything. It's just what they do – self-preservation and all that."

It was not always that way, he says. Back in the 1990s when Le Gros was running Liks and Tiffany's Cabaret in Wellington's Vivian St, there was a happy truce between he and the other sex industry "dictators" in the major centres – Terry Brown in Christchurch and Bill Smith in Auckland.

The catalyst for change was when Smith helped the Chows establish the Mermaid bar, Le Gros says. After the unwritten rule of not expanding beyond your patch had been broken, everyone started doing it.

"It worked like that for many, many years, but now it's a drama."

Le Gros packed up and left Wellington after former Wellington mayor Mark Blumsky and the city council hastily arranged a bylaw to prevent strip clubs setting up shop in Courtenay Place.

The bylaw was prompted by the establishment of Mermaid, and was too late to stop the club opening, but it did stop anyone else from competing with the Chows in the "fishing ground of striptease", as Le Gros puts it.

Calendar Girls has set up shop at the Courtenay-end of Dixon St, placing it on the cusp of the forbidden zone. But Le Gros doubts strip clubs will remain barred from Wellington's party zone forever.

The bylaw would probably struggle against a decent High Court challenge if anyone bothered to take it on, he says.

But Le Prou has no desire to start putting up red lights in Courtenay Place.

"It's not that I think we should hide it. But there comes an age when people should learn about this stuff. I'm very much a homely, wholesome person with old-school values, so I think a strip club should be slightly out of the way or in a party district."

When it is suggested to her that Dixon St sees its fair share of youths during the day, Le Prou points out that it is very much a party district at night and her club frontage is hardly explicit.

"When you walk past our building the last thing you would probably think is that this is a strip club. I've had people ask me if it's a restaurant."

The dirty, smutty image of strip tease is one Le Prou has been trying to move away from since taking over Calendar Girls six years ago anyway.

For too long, the industry has been tarred with affiliations to gangs, drugs and all the rest, she says.

"I want to bring strip tease back to something you can enjoy with your wife, come along to a club and sit on nice, leather couches and ... just feel like it's classy."

That desire is a big reason why Calendar Girls operates out of what was an old theatre.

Its high ceilings allow Le Prou to incorporate a "circus art" element into her strip shows, which involves routines performed from a large metal hoop suspended high above the stage, known as a lyra, or from a silk curtain attached to the roof.

The club has been designed with corporate clientele in mind and if you show up looking for the brand of smutty, "nude in 30 seconds" strip tease that the Auckland audiences crave, then you will be out of luck, Le Prou says.

"Wellingtonians want to watch a show, they want burlesque, they want circus arts, they want to be alternative, and that's exactly how I think strip tease should be, because it's back to where it used to be, back in the 1920s and 30s.

"It's about teasing to take your clothes off, and then you get the bonus of seeing nudity at the end."

CAPITAL KINGPINS OF SKIN

Jacqui Le Prou

- Age 28

- From Auckland but now lives in Christchurch. Director of Calendar Girls NZ since 2006; it has more than 200 employees.

-Owns clubs in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch as well as a whiskey lounge in Auckland. Lost one of her two Christchurch clubs in last February's earthquake.

John and Michael Chow

-Raised in Hong Kong before migrating to Lower Hutt in 1984.

-Established the Chow Group (formally OEC), which in 2010 was worth an estimated $100 million on the back of investments in property and the adult entertainment industry.

- Own a string of Wellington brothels, including Il-Bordello and Splash Club as well as the Mermaid strip club on Courtenay Place. Reputed to have as many as 100 sex workers on their books.

- Want to build a 15-storey "super brothel" called the Penthouse Club on Victoria St, Auckland, opposite SkyCity on the 552sqm site of the former Palace Hotel heritage building which fell down during refurbishments in 2010.

- Sunday Star Times

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