Misty and the fight to keep UK strip clubs open

Misty is a professional pole dancer, studio owner, former stripper and activist based in the north of the United Kingdom – an all-round powerhouse I’ve been wanting to feature on this blog for so long. That time has finally come, and today is the day you get to read about her pole dancing, stripping and Criminal Justice careers, her dancing style and the important fundraiser she’s organising to save Northern strip clubs from closure.

Get to know Misty

Toni, aka Misty, is a 35-year-old professional pole dancer with eight titles from UK-based competitions as well as a mum to a 14-year-old. She specialises in heels dance and tricks, especially low flow, basework and kips. She owns the Flying Ballerinas pole studio on the Wirral and teaches both offline and online. Misty also judges UK heels competitions and co-organises the Northern Heat of the Authentics Pole Dance competition.

Having been a career stripper for 10 years, Misty now fights for UK sex workers’ rights through online and offline activism and the creation of fun and informative content, which often comes from her education and her work within the Criminal Justice System.

Having started with a foundation degree in media make-up artistry, Misty re-trained through a BSc in Social Psychology and through a Professional Qualification in Probation with the Ministry of Justice., including a community justice foundation degree.

Misty recently set up the Northern Sex Workers Collective to unite the North of the United Kingdom in advocating for sexual entertainment venues (SEVs). She has just started producing her own research in relation to the sex industry and hopes to get this work published soon.

Misty’s fight to keep Northern strip clubs open

Before sharing Misty’s impressive career, I want to make sure you focus on the main event happening this week: The Northern Sex Workers collective (NSWC) are running an online show on June 5th to raise money to keep Blackpool’s strip clubs open – and you should sign up for it!

Following a worrying trend that is seeing many UK cities attempt to close strip clubs, putting strippers out of work after an already difficult year with clubs being completely closed since March 2020, the NSWC are fighting to amplify sex workers’ voices and fight for their rights to safe and legal working spaces.

The NSWC argue that if councils like Blackpool do succeed in closing strip clubs, many workers will be forced into underground working conditions which are unregulated, unsafe and illegal. This online show – organised by Misty herself and @gemmarosepole – will be using all its profits towards organising a demonstration in Blackpool to make noise about the issue. Misty says:

“In Blackpool, the council is trying to push through a ‘zero cap’ – which would mean the end of a lot of strippers’ livelihoods. The council haven’t followed good practice in this process, running a poorly advertised public consultation process during both a lockdown and a local election, which created barriers of accessibility for stakeholders to adequately lend their voice to the discussion. They actually didn’t publish in the media that the consultation was even happening until after it had closed!”

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Misty is about to escalate her complaints about this to the Local Government Ombudsman, since the council haven’t been communicating with the Collective about the issue. She says the NSWC may even look into starting legal proceedings against their conduct. “People’s whole lives are on the line here,” she adds, “And Blackpool councillor Adrian Hutton was quoted saying, ‘I’m not a moralist, but this isn’t something a lady should be doing'(!!!!!!!!)”

According to Misty, the law rules that morality-based opinions or feelings regarding strip clubs are not a legitimate reason to deny license or revoke them, or to impose a zero cap, and neither are ‘image-based’ reasons… so Blackpool’s bid to ‘clean up’ their image isn’t justified.

“I’m really keen to know what their actual basis of trying to push this through LEGALLY is,” she argues. “As far as I am aware, they have not included a single stakeholder in their meetings. I’m tired of this happening. I’m tired of seeing councils eradicate my industry because they ‘don’t like that sort of thing’ (that’s the actual wording the Blackpool councillor has used in his press interviews).

@mistypoledancer

So Misty is working hard to challenge these narratives and ensure sex workers’ voices are the ones leading the discussion, instead of being silenced barriers to accessibility. Listen to her Sky News Daily Podcast interview about this here.

The NSWC showcase – where I’m also performing – will help amplify sex workers’ voices and and give the Collective a pot to use for legal expenses too. So please consider supporting Misty’s hard work and buy your tickets here friends!

Misty on stripping in the UK

Misty is exactly the right person to lead the fight to keep Northern strip clubs open, as a former career stripper, pole goddess and a knowledgeable activist with both stripping experience and policy knowledge. “Stripping enabled me to be the woman I am today, it provided me financial empowerment and it taught me important lessons, both in life and business,” she says.

Having stripped in the UK for 10 years, Misty has been educating her audience and the UK pole community through her social media, through mainstream media appearances and through her hilarious but informative video series, Glitter&Garterz. Her Stripper Sundays videos in particular show the reality of stripping with some makeup and funny stories thrown in.

She says:

I think most pole dancers have the image of the United States stages in their head when they picture stripping and what the job is like, but the UK is so very different. An awful lot of clubs don’t even have stages/poles now! The London clubs especially are heavily ‘champagne room’ or ‘sit down’ based. Liverpool and other Northern clubs with high client turnovers (common for cities with a high tourist economy) are still private dance based, so it’s a game of numbers, of how many dances you can sell in a night. I’ve only ever worked one club in the whole UK where you’re making any money from setting foot on a stage.

@mistypoledancer

In short, what we see in Hollywood movies – topless clubs and money raining on strippers – doesn’t often translate into the UK stripping scene. “I think a lot of people have the idea they can just take their clothes off or do fancy pole / floorwork moves and get money, but they’d be really shocked how little dancing is involved.” That’s why, she argues, many people quit: they’re not making enough money. “Stripping is actually 80% talking and sales in most places to be honest,” according to Misty. It’s hard work, and it’s not something everyone can do.

There’s a lot of memes and jokes that go around about ‘giving up uni to just be a stripper’ so there’s a misconception it’s easy and requires no skills, effort or talent. And then people try it for ‘easy’ money and realise it’s actually a highly skilled sales job, relying on you having total confidence in YOURSELF as the product. Not everyone can convincingly sell a fantasy, and that’s okay.

@mistypoledancer

Policy, justice and stripping

Some Glitter&Garterz episodes – the True Crime Tuesdays – are less fun and more about failures within the Criminal Justice System, law-making and policing with regards to stripping. These stories are informed by Misty’s time working for the Ministry of Justice, a time that Misty sums up as: “I loved the job, I hated the Institution.” She struggled working for an institution with such “a strict employee code that you aren’t allowed to actually even post your own opinions on social media.” She adds:

“I found the experience exploitative, in all honesty. I felt that I was ‘selling my body’ to the MoJ far more than I ever was in stripping – and worse! I was selling my autonomy! My right to individual expression. I found it very oppressive, and the financial return for such an invasive job wasn’t enough for the expectations, even if I did LOVE the role.”

@mistypoledancer

What broke her was being told she was spending too much time checking in on vulnerable people, and that she should have done more paperwork instead. On top of that, the level of overworking was concerning:

“If a job requires you to work so many hours your employees can’t go to the gym a few times a week after work, but you only pay them for 9-5, there’s something really, really wrong with your organisation. And these are the staff managing high-risk offenders in the community. They’re giving up their family life to keep the community safe, due to the cuts in public funding over the last 10 years (and the abysmal failure that was trying to privatise the probation and prison services). We hear all about the NHS, but I don’t think people are aware how bad other services have been impacted. I’d really love to go back into working in the Criminal Justice System again, but I would never, ever work for the civil service again under this government.”

@mistypoledancer

Misty has planned some some Glitter&Garterz episodes to discuss unsolved, violent murders of sex workers that “have basically been cast aside due to their status as sex workers,” or about the failures of police forces to adequately react to stalking and harassment cases.

These episodes are designed to show that while society changes fast, the laws and policies that govern it are not informed by the mistakes made by the Criminal Justice System in the past. Why?

“One, because staff are stretched to capacity on the ground. They can’t actually facilitate updating their training all the time because they’re already working unpaid to meet targets,” Misty argues. “Secondly, because the experts informing policy are sitting in a position of privilege, and their focus is on financial crime and protecting the interests that they relate to and resonate with.” She adds:

If you’re a 50-year-old man who’s never been harassed on Facebook, your focus isn’t on the potential need for a law regarding online sexual harassment. It very often takes a landmark case that captures the attention of media, politicians, and the public, to have laws and policies brought in that save thousands of lives. It shouldn’t be the job of a grieving mother or father to make these landmark policy changes happen. Our policy-making process needs to be overhauled to see better expert representation, or a broader demographic of people that experience the world in differing ways.

@mistypoledancer

This lack of representation is, for Misty, is very apparent in the policies that rule over the stripping / sex work industry in the UK. While working for the Ministry of Justice, Misty realised how much “policy underpins how individuals are willing to act, be educated and treat sex workers.” She argues:

“Currently our policy is ‘Exit strategy’, so your goal when working with any in sex worker is to get them to exit. And this results in ‘carrot on a stick’ behaviours in terms of support services: ‘If you exit we’ll get you into this training programme’ or, ‘If you exit we can get you housing.’ There was a fantastic piece of research done by Jane Scoular who is a part of the Sex Work Research Hub that indicated workers are even treated with a vaguely threatening aura of, ‘Exit, or else’. As long as law, policy, or legislation ‘others’ sex workers and continues categorising their labour as something we need to ‘rescue’ them from, this will continue to impact the ability of the most vulnerable workers to access important harm reduction resources and services.

@mistypoledancer

Misty recognises that there are issues with the glamorisation of stripping by the media and by the pole dancing community itself, as this sometimes hides the inherent problems with stripping as an industry. However, she argues that those issues should be raised by dancers themselves, and that dancers should be included in the decisions made about their work, given that they have the knowledge and life experience to address these problems. She says:”When you read this propaganda being put out by ‘women’s rights activists’, well, where is there passion fighting for my right to be heard, my right to speak, my right to raise my voice and call for better for our industry?”

From “pole prohibition” to success in pole heels competitions

Misty’s experience as a career stripper was initially a challenge even in the UK pole industry, which was striving to clean itself up in the early 2010s. She started competing in 2010, and her early years of taking part in pole dance competitions were heavily influenced by what she calls ‘the pole prohibition era’. Her memories of that time aren’t the fondest:

“Although I was still a full-time working stripper at that time, I did all my early comps in either bare feet or pointe shoes – AND I had to compete in the ‘professional’ category straight away against gymnasts and aerialists (some of which had been competing at national and world level for years!) due to being a stripper, even though I couldn’t dance like a stripper, so really I didn’t have any of the advantages of a ‘professional’.”

@mistypoledancer

The costume rules were strict – e.g. a strong focus on the width of your top band and the length of your shorts. Although Misty qualified joint first in the Welsh pro heat of Pole Divas and got a place in the final with some big names only at her second comp, it took her three years to be properly recognised for her craft because she was having to compete way above her level. So how did she start doing well at comps?

I’m a very tenacious little witch and I was determined to succeed in pole. So I trained on my own in my bedroom with one 50mm pole that I had to switch from static to spinning really fast half-way through every run-through to practice my routine. Still, I won the British Championships in 2013 (the crown was handed to me from Dan Rosen who won the title in 2012!) and then had a great streak and won about four others that year, including the European Championships. It wasn’t until heels competitions became mainstream in 2016 with the Authentics that I really felt the fire to compete again, and in 2017 I was a Pole Theatre finalist, Dance Filthy UK runner-up and Authentics Pro UK Winner.

@mistypoledancer

Her secret for competition success is simple: “Work fucking hard.” She argues that when she flopped, it was because she was under-prepared – meaning she felt that she wasn’t the best version of herself when she went on stage. “Every time I’ve worked my arse off and got on that stage knowing that I’m owning my shit, that the routine is so second-nature that I can pull out every musical nuance, completely give my all to performing to the audience, and enjoy the experience of sharing what I’ve created, I have won or placed every single time,” she says.

Category is: Strip Couture

Misty has created her own dancing style – and it’s called Strip Couture, which is as badass and glam as it gets. She says: “When I was asked about my style, I found it hard to put into words exactly who I was and how I danced, and in a world now defined by social media everyone loves to be able to compartmentalise each big poler’s’ ‘brand’, I didn’t feel I had one.” So how did Strip Couture come together? She says:

I was a stripper and that’s something I’m strongly associated with, and for a long time I felt a lot of pressure to dance ‘like a stripper’ to honour that… but I was also a ballet dancer and commercial dancer, and both of those styles are really ingrained into my identity too. So I started really following my heart and allowing all the aspects of my dance personality to morph together.”

@mistypoledancer

Misty describes her style by saying that if strippers and voguers had a baby, and that baby performed pole on a high fashion catwalk, it’d look something like Strip Couture. The styke mixes serpentine body undulations and isolations that move from the top of the head to the tips of the toes, with dynamic bursts, with fast, intricate threads, juxtaposed with long lines and dramatic pauses, and lots and lots of pointe and pirouettes.

Misty on where pole dancing is going next

Thanks to being vocal about stripping, sex workers’ rights and policy, Misty is one of the leading voices in the UK’s pole industry. Her videos making fun of ‘pole artists’ (exhibit A below) have cracked up many of us. But aside from the funnies, here I got her to share some thoughts on where our industry is going next.

Misty finds that the pole dance industry is reflecting both society and the Criminal Justice System’s tendency to evolve, becoming more progressive and inclusive – even if it has a long way to go. She says:

As I’ve witnessed it, pole culture shifts and adapts to reflect the zeitgeist. As strip clubs started to be reported in the media as ‘sleazy, degrading to women,’ when Page 3 was attacked for contributing to objectification and oppression, and when Second Wave feminism crept through social consciousness, ‘pole prohibiton’ happened and the strict requirement to gentrify and sanitise was conformed to. As society has shifted its paradigm now to one of more prevailing ‘sex work positivity’ with the zoomer age, we’re back seeing pole proudly showcasing its sexy side and origins once more.

@mistypoledancer

For Misty, pole’s adoption of trends is also reflected in the online class boom that started during the pandemic, which she thinks will only grow. “It’s transformed the face of our industry, being able to take classes with your favourite polers across the world in your own living room, and I can’t see us discarding that accessibility, even as the world opens back up.” However, she thinks new trends aren’t always 100% positive: “I’m quite concerned about how social media elitism is impacting our industry,” she says.

“There seems to be growing pressure to ‘keep up with the Kardashians’ for want of a better phrasing, with demands for perfect aesthetics, expensive studio settings, videographers, constant professional photoshoots, expensive pole outfits, smoke machines, pyrotechnics… just for an Instagram video! The names that are ruling Instagram algorithms end up being the faces that we see in pole product advertising (of course, because they reach the biggest audience) and pole show line ups (of course, because they have the biggest fan base to sell tickets to) and so this just makes me slightly concerned about a future where pole could slowly become an ‘influencer’ led entity, reliant on wealth to cultivate that ‘Insta aesthetic.'”

@mistypoledancer

Misty also caution against “instant gratification culture” and the need for perfection that is taking over the pole dance industry. She thinks we “need to work hard on setting an example to students as professionals that not every video has to be perfect, progress is not linear, and we all have bad days where we don’t get any moves and eat crisps instead.” If we’re not honest in our posts, she says, we might end up doing more harm than good.

The problem with gentrifying pole dance

Because of the different drives within pole dance, Misty wonders whether there will be a ‘pole schism’. With one faction of our industry still hoping to be part of the Olympics – an institution that, for Misty, is “firmly stuck in traditionalism” – coming up against a growing “rejection of full industry sanitisation” brought by sex work positivity and the popularity of pole in heels, she thinks ‘pole sport’ might have to redefine itself to be included in mainstream Olympic circles.

Either way, Misty sees the creation of “some kind over over-arching governing body” in pole’s future, to ensure there are expected standards of behaviour and to regulate in the name of equality and safety – something I myself have advocated for. However, rightly, Misty thinks this may also become yet another way to exclude strippers. She says:

I’m actually really concerned about how it may impact accessibility to pole for strippers, the people pole is appropriated from. Telling strippers they can’t teach or judge their own craft that they may have honed for decades unless they pay to be qualified by a pole certification, or have membership to a particular association is really problematic, and creates gatekeeping to a community built off their labour. I’m worried how non-strippers would ‘govern’ a dance done by strippers, in strip clubs, under the name of calling it a recreational activity. So I hope if and when that future comes, I don’t find strippers being paywalled or whitewashed out of their own art form.”

@mistypoledancer

Why you should support the fight to keep strip clubs open

Misty has some poignant, strong final words for everyone who thinks they’re protecting sex workers by shutting down their workplaces or criminalising their profession and/or clients.

“I’d like to share this: ESPECIALLY as so many clubs are coming back under fire from Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists rearing their ugly heads for a last ‘hurrah’ – I felt safer stripping than I feel in most nightclubs. I got assaulted working on soap opera sets. Nobody came over to speak to me or see if I was okay, the crew shot me a dirty look and carried on filming. I felt more exploited working in retail or for the civil service than I ever did as a stripper. But nobody is ever going after those jobs, saying they are ‘morally wrong’.

Nobody is screaming to close nightclubs, even though they are proven to contribute to violence statistics in every major British city. Nobody wants to end TV production, even though I can testify personally that in media, ‘celebrities’ rely on their status to act inappropriately to women in the arts with impunity. So the fact that all anyone wants to do is hyperfocus on one of the jobs I’ve worked as ‘harmful’ or ‘damaging’, and attempt to eradicate it as a choice, just makes my blood boil.”

@mistypoledancer

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Where to find Misty and the NSWC show

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