By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Monday night is a slow night at Club Madonna. As a dancer named Yvonne counts the tips in her garter, it dawns on her it might have been better to catch up on her sleep in her hotel room tonight. Having arrived from Australia by way of Japan less than 72 hours ago, she feels the jet lag weighing her down, and a $50 night is making her feel worse. It seems as if since landing at the airport she just dropped off her bags and went straight to work. The 24-year-old stripper has yet to lie out on the beach or walk around Lincoln Road, taking in the scene. Despite her weariness, when the DJ announces the free lap-dance special, Yvonne, in a tight, shiny minidress, slinks through the club with leggy pizzazz.
Yvonne's accent sounds exotic as she stops at cocktail tables, offering her talents to the paltry group of characters assembled tonight. Crusty codgers sit in the shadows, their eyes bulging at a creamy blonde who twirls topless on a brass pole. At one table overweight cigar smokers send a buddy to tip one of the girls. A couple of skinny Latino homeboys wearing chunky sneakers, mushroom haircuts, and baggy shorts elbow each other and squirm in a back corner booth.
The dancer works the crowd with the broad smile and accommodating manner of a customer-service rep. Her fellow performers -- clad in thong bikinis, nighties, and high-rise platform shoes -- fan out to coax the men to the second floor. The club is forgoing the regular $25 lap-dance fee during the special, but the girls still can make $10 to $15 per dance in tips. Perhaps Yvonne is overdressed, or maybe her approach is too abrupt, but of the fifteen girls on duty, she is the only stripper still in the main room. As she sits in a love seat discussing her Miami expedition, it is clear she'd rather not be upstairs wiggling in the lap of a stranger. "I don't mind dancing naked up there; it's no big deal," she admits while sipping a ten-dollar cranberry juice. "But what I really hate is the begging. Sometimes you have to beg them for a lap dance."
Yvonne suddenly realizes she's a long way from home, and the lousy tips in her garter make her consider going back early. But she's determined to wait a few more days. She knows there's a bundle to be made dancing at a strip joint in Miami during the tourist season. At least that's what her two girlfriends who've made the trip twice before seem to think. Yvonne brushes a wisp of frosted hair away from her eyes and considers what she left behind for her excursion to the American subtropics: her boyfriend, her family, and her steady gigs as a sound engineer for local rock bands. "If it doesn't get better by the end of the week, I'm going back," she sighs. "It doesn't make sense to be here spending more than you make to get by."
But by the time Sunday rolls around, Yvonne is still in town dancing at the club. She won't go into details, but she and her friends decided to stay in South Beach for a few more weeks of the season. The trio came to make money, and the evenings have picked up at the club. Together they have made hundreds of dollars per night. Miami during the winter, they say, is as profitable as it gets.
Sex and tourism go hand in hand here. From mid-December through April, Miami Beach hotels, nightclubs, and eateries buzz with throngs of hipsters, models, and horny visitors. On Lincoln Road the usual jumble of Spanish accents is peppered with sounds of foreigners who don't speak the native language (although their English is pretty good). But snowbirds and pleasure seekers are not the only travelers to make it to South Florida's strip of sand and sun when temperatures drop around the world. Each year hundreds of migrant workers attach themselves to the seasonal exodus to make a buck in the skin trade.
Workers such as Yvonne know they can make quick cash when tourists come to town. Whether they dance at strip clubs, work in underground brothels, or advertise as personal escorts, they know they stand a good chance at making good money, or at least getting an all-expenses paid vacation in Miami. For Yvonne stripping is part of a spontaneous adventure she embarked on after becoming bored with the daily grind in Sydney. For others, though, a jaunt to Miami is business as usual.
According to the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, hotel occupancy throughout the county bumps up by an average ten to twenty percent between January and April. During February and March, nearly 85 percent of all hotel rooms in greater Miami are booked. Bureau analysts estimate roughly 2.8 million visitors come to Miami-Dade County during season, pumping about $4.5 billion into the local economy. Since most of the sex trade is underground, there is no telling the size of the industry. But in cities with a booming tourist industry, the sex trade, including massage parlors, strip clubs, escorts, and streetwalkers, creates an invisible economy easily in the millions. "It's all guesswork," says Priscilla Alexander, director and researcher for the North American Task Force on Prostitution, about precise monetary figures. With major events that bring hordes of visitors, not to mention the warm winter weather, Alexander reports, "Miami is among the most attractive cities for sex workers." And the sex business, police say, slips into high gear during the winter in Miami.