The girls are ready and there are plenty of them. Girls who will laugh at your jokes and say yes and take you by the hand into a private room. Skinny ones with big eyes that seem miles away, like they are already back home, scanning Cosmo or painting a toenail, where lonesome, silly men are not invited.
They are dancers, not strippers, they tell you. Girls who are done adjusting bra straps inside the Super 8 motel and are now trotting in their high, heavy heels to a ridiculous contraption on wheels. It rests two blocks from the ocean in South Beach on Super Bowl weekend.
The thing is humming and spewing yellow light like a 7-Eleven. It looks like a see-through U-Haul truck and moves no faster than a wounded dog. A silver pole juts through the center, for stripping on the road, and an image of a topless woman clutching her breasts is emblazoned on the front. The bus has already rolled through the Bible Belt — past the fat families that say grace in roadside diners — from another galaxy called Las Vegas, where the strange people are the ones wearing clothes.
Behold the Stripper Mobile, America's most absurd advertising gimmick. It has been booted from Sin City, shut down in New Orleans, and stalked by media from New York to Japan. It has confused cops, prompted political crusades, and inspired grown men to French-kiss its Plexiglas walls. Inside is a hotbox of sex, gossip, and tricks of the trade, courtesy of Déjà Vu Showgirls, the Wal-Mart of strip club chains.
In Miami Beach — where few people think twice about bare breasts on the beach or girls gyrating in bikinis — the dancers wonder, Will anybody even notice?
And there are the logistical questions. "Wait. How are we supposed to strip when it's moving?" one of the girls asks. Her name is Mystique, and she could pass for a nanny, except she's wearing only lacy pink panties and a bustier. She tucks her hair behind her ears when she's nervous and talks compulsively about her devotion to Jesus Christ.
An enormous man named Ice answers, "Just hang on to the pole, ladies. And no flashin'."
Ice walks with a slight limp, smiles often, and has impeccably clean shoes. He's the general manager of Déjà Vu's Tampa club and is good at his job ("it's kind of like being a psychiatrist"), but he looks a little nervous tonight. "I ain't going to jail again," he announces and then puts his huge hands in his pockets. "Cops got it out for me."
Ice's boss gave him a crappy assignment: Get the Stripper Mobile from Tampa to Miami and back without any arrests, breakdowns, or injuries. Oh, and get as much publicity as possible. The good kind.
Thing is, Ice has done this before, and it ended badly. There was a football game and some lap dances on a bus four years ago. And then there were bottles of booze and the flash of pink nipples, followed by a frown on the face of a mother passing by. Ice remembers the undercover cops and the holding cell afterward. And he has better places to sleep on a Friday night than that dump.
Idea man Larry Beard isn't worried, though. He is the marketing director who created the Stripper Mobile. "This is Marketing 101," he says. "If I were selling fruit, I would set up a truck with apples and peaches and park it on the strip. Our product is pretty girls."
Naturally, the thought nauseates Anthony Verdugo of Miami's Christian Family Coalition. "I find it objectionable and repulsive," he declares. "It's cheapening women, and it pushes us back to the dark ages — to cavemen days."
Rev. Nadege Dutes, a Pentecostal pastor at the Church of God of Holiness in Christ, also doesn't like the idea of the bus pulsing through her Miami neighborhood on a Sunday. "We try to keep children away from prostitution and drugs. This is going to distract them — especially the teenagers."
Moral qualms aside, cops expect the biggest dilemma to be simpler. Says Miami-Dade Police Det. Alvaro Zabaleta: "If they are dancing without seat belts, you're talking about a traffic safety violation."
The ladies are unfazed. As the engine starts, they blast hip-hop and begin to rub against the silver pole like it's a brand-new lover.
Outside Déjà Vu Showgirls in Tampa, a pink sign flickers around the corner from county jail, near a sprawling truck yard. It's the kind of place that plays the same Evanescence song three times on a Friday and, like a mean joke, does not serve alcohol to reporters, or to anyone for that matter. Tonight the club is full of men who have arrived alone.
Backstage looks like a sorority house: It's dotted with abandoned clothing, bottles of lotion, and bags of makeup. Six girls are gabbing as they pluck eyebrows and apply lipstick. It's the weekend before the Super Bowl, and the ladies have volunteered to go for a ride around the city. Clutching their handbags and wearing nearly nothing, they climb into the truck.
There's Kali, the pouty prom queen type who's pregnant ("I'm cold. This is embarrassing."); Laura, who seems to view stripping as a feminist rite of passage ("Our bodies are beautiful; we should show them off!); and Twee, the tipsy punk-rock acrobat who sounds more like a publicist ("So, are you going to write good things about us?").
Inside the Stripper Mobile, it's the opposite of sexy.
"What's that smell?" Kali asks as the engine starts. "It's, like, toxic fumes."
The others shrug and simultaneously light cigarettes, which fill the bus with enough smoke to asphyxiate a small pony. When a detector on the ceiling beeps — as it does often — the girls take turns spraying it with perfume. It does the trick but makes the place smell like a Chanel factory on fire.
Plus it's freezing. To prevent the windows from fogging up while the girls perform, the driver blasts arctic air. When he hits the brakes, the girls squeal and fly forward. It makes it hard to dance, so they all adopt the same move: Grip pole, bend over, jiggle butt cheeks.
Still, they have fans. As the girls pull into a Shell gas station, they score a thumbs-up from an older woman with exactly one tooth. She snaps a photo with her cell phone and scampers back to a truck to show her husband.
When the road widens into a strip of chain restaurants and liquor stores, people begin to freak out. College kids in Toyotas slam on their brakes. Some wave dollar bills; others pull out video cameras. Mystique, the nervous nanny, waves back and then takes a seat on a black leather bench. To her, stripping is an out-of-body experience, she confesses.
"Mystique is very playful and flirty," she says of herself. "But that's not me. My real personality is completely different. I am not sexually active; I don't even like sexual attention. And" — she warns — "this is really deep, but I think of myself as a doctor of erotic physical therapy. I perform stimulating exercises."
Mystique was an honor student in high school but ran away from home because her parents were too strict. A drug dealer boyfriend invited her to stay, but the cops ruined that setup when they sent him to jail. Afterward, the strip joint seemed like the best option. Now she wants to be a fashion designer so she can put clothes on other people instead of peeling them off of herself.
The thought causes a crease between her eyebrows, until the truck enters a neighborhood full of bars, where white lights blur into a fuzz. A couple of guys in backward caps chase the truck, and an impromptu audience forms. One of the strippers suggests they "should do girl-on-girl while there's a crowd," and they begin to air-hump each other to Top 40 radio. When a commercial comes on, they are stuck grinding to a Wendy's ad, which makes things a little awkward.
One particularly drunken man doesn't mind; he runs up and licks the side of the bus. The rest of the reactions are mixed: A heavyset woman offers a middle finger; a smitten bouncer uses a telephone pole to do his own mock striptease; and a wild-eyed grandpa holds a sign that reads, "You deserve Hell."
Soon, a cop with a bewildered expression sees the bus and follows it. He seems to be poring through his memory bank for a possible charge (indecent exposure? disturbing the peace?), but after a few blocks, he gives up and turns a corner.
It's November 2005 outside Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. An attractive couple pays $20 to climb into a bus with tinted windows. Inside, nude women are giving football fans $40 lap dances. There are free chicken wings, and a small cloud of pot smoke rises from the back of the bus.
The couple takes a seat and cracks open two Bud Lights. They try to make small talk, but there's something strange about the lovebirds: They seem a little too tense.
One of them is Theresa Dennis, an undercover cop. She propositions a 27-year-old Asian beauty for a lap dance. Midway through, the girl says, "Stop being shy and touch me wherever you want," according to police reports. Then she kisses the officer and hands her a business card.
Minutes later, the cops bust up the tailgate party. The strippers — along with bartenders and managers — are arrested and hauled away in a paddy wagon. Tampa Police collar at least ten people and dole out charges ranging from selling alcohol without a license to soliciting prostitution. (All charges would be dropped.)
Says Ice, the general manager: "At first, we thought it was funny. Then it was on Jay Leno, and our boss was like, 'This is not good.'"
But in some ways it was. The story popped up in dinner-table conversations across the country. Even librarians in South Dakota now knew the name Déjà Vu.
Afterward, commissioners in Hillsborough County — where Tampa is located — passed an ordinance to strengthen public nudity laws. The outcome: Mobile adult entertainment vehicles would be forbidden from operating in suburban parts of the county. Which meant no tailgating parties.
The size of a Greyhound bus, the gentleman's club on wheels was an illicit first draft — a sort of proto-Stripper Mobile — that taught Déjà Vu a valuable lesson: Don't piss off law enforcement. And if you do, at least get some decent publicity out of it.
So for the next four years, the club behaved itself. The bus was scrapped, and the chain hummed along with such a disappointing lack of scandal that one reviewer even called it "clean" and "nice." It was time to create a controversy without doing anything illegal. That's when a creative horndog came up with a brilliant idea.
Larry Beard, a 51-year-old with a cowboy drawl, was having cocktails and discussing business with a co-worker last June. Despite being clean-shaven and tan, he had bags under his eyes. There were constant meetings and promotional events and flyers to be designed. A workaholic, Beard boasted 60 national awards for graphic design and was once commissioned by the king of Ghana to create his personal flag (a rooster and a lion on a green backdrop).
Now he was working 20-hour days cropping photos of cleavage, which didn't leave him with much time for a love life. Even hitting the town with 20 beautiful women felt like a chore — while promoting, he had to make sure they didn't get drunk or spend too much time flirting with the same fellow. All of that baby-sitting could make a guy feel like a grumpy granddad.
"Everybody thinks it's glamorous," he says. "But it's really a hard job."
Despite all the work, Déjà Vu's profits had plunged 15 percent. Other clubs had been paying off — or "spiffing" — taxi drivers to steer bachelor parties in their direction. The club had even sued competitors.
"My advertising dollars got them in the cab, and then a driver says, 'Oh, it burned down' or 'The girls are ugly,'" Beard had told the Los Angeles Times in January 2009. "If they go somewhere else, I've just been robbed."
Salesmen in trucks had been showing up at the Vegas club trying to sell ads for mobile billboards, but the stunt seemed played-out. That's when — like a million stiletto heels falling from the heavens — the idea struck. Why not push it a step further?
"I'm convinced you can put a stripper pole anywhere and cause a stir," Beard says. "It's back-to-basics advertising."
Inspired by the Popemobile — a glass-encased wagon from which the pontiff can wave in public without being shot — Beard bought a used billboard truck, the kind the pushy sales guys had tried to rent him. He removed the signs from its Plexiglas sides and directed the club carpenter to install hot-pink carpet and a pole. He then designed six-foot adhesive cutouts of women that were printed onto the sides. By fall, the company had poured $50,000 into the "Stripper Mobile." It was free to cruise the strip as long as there were no lap dances, booze, or exposed lady parts.
Still, it infuriated everyone from county commissioners to feminists. The bus nabbed the attention of the Associated Press, CNN, and Japanese newspapers. "Eskimos and Pygmies heard about it," Beard likes to say.
To shock jocks and pornographers, Beard is a genius. To politicians and Bible thumpers, he's a pariah. But if you go by the mantra that no press is bad, he is, at the very least, a creative breed of deviant. He can seem a little out-of-touch with the opposite sex, even chauvinistic. But if he comes off blunt, it's because he tends to say more with four words than most people do with 50.
"Larry is eccentric," says Diego Padilla, an old friend. "He thinks differently than the rest of us."
Born in March 1959, Beard grew up well-off on the shores of Perdido Bay in Pensacola. As a teenager, he fished while sitting in the family hot tub and ran track at Pensacola Christian High School. In class, he daydreamed about art. There was something powerful, he noticed, about what a visual image could do to a human. And he wanted to know why.
After he graduated from high school in 1977, Beard scored a gig with a printing company that paid his way through Pensacola Junior College. He then bounced from one corporate project to another — including Sara Lee and Winn-Dixie — and eventually created his own design studio. From 1987 to 1999, he married three women, had two daughters, but never gave up the bachelor life. He collected vintage cars, hung out at strip clubs, and road-tripped with buddies. "He's got a party side," Padilla says. "He tends to date younger women and is generous to a fault."
In 2004, after a third divorce, he lost his home in Hurricane Ivan. "I had to start from scratch — I didn't even have underwear," Beard says. "I guess you learn it's just stuff."
Broke and alone, he moved in with his father in Texas before heading to Las Vegas to work for a real estate company at the height of the building boom. He sometimes yearned for the green waters of the gulf, but the change felt good. Once a nice Christian boy, Beard was swallowed up by the all-night neon discotheque that is Vegas.
When the housing market went bust, he took a job with Déjà Vu Showgirls in mid-2008. "I got to thinking," he remembers, "if you can't market a naked woman during a recession, you can't market anything."
The emails arrived just after breakfast this past November 12. By dinnertime, dozens of messages had flooded the inbox of a well-tanned county commissioner named Steve Sisolak, who hated the stripper contraption. The strait-laced 56-year-old took the emails seriously, although some read more like a parody:
"I support your efforts in banning stripper mobiles," wrote Maxwell Steinberg, a father. "If I am on the Las Vegas Strip with my children, I simply can't keep them from watching that filthy spectacle."
Another writer saw it as a symbol of everything wrong with Sin City. "You need to clean up the strip and remove all the in-your-face trash," Claudette Dorian proclaimed. "Don't get this one wrong; it's too important."
The outrage had been prompted by the Las Vegas Sun, which ran a story quoting Sisolak. And at a county meeting the following Tuesday, the politician argued the sex-on-wheels was a distraction to drivers. He called it dangerous and pushed to have it banned.
"You hit the brakes and they bounce around. I mean, there are pictures of the girls upside down on the pole," Sisolak says now. "Drivers were looking over and not paying attention to the road, and they could have slammed into the sidewalk."
Beard has another theory about why the bus caused trouble: "There are a lot of Mormons in Vegas."
Frustrated, the marketing man fought the commissioners. He explained dancers' moves would be "PG-rated," they would wear bikinis, and the rolling stage would cruise the strip only between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. so as not to upset families. If it came down to it, he proclaimed, he wasn't afraid to take the matter to court.
A local blogger named VegasRex stuck up for the club. In Sin City, everything is a driver distraction, he wrote. "What in the hell do you call a giant volcano spewing lava 50 feet from the street?"
Reporters across the nation soon caught wind of the conflict and seemed to collectively high-five. Here was a story with vice, politics, and — most important — potential boob footage. That week, CNN interviewed Beard standing alongside the blinking contraption. "This is our new baby," he beamed.
In a two-week span, business at the club doubled. Even so, Beard, who was seeking a liquor license, decided to play it safe. He didn't want to further piss off commissioners, so he parked the bus. ("Stripper Mobile Ends Its Reign of Sexy Terror," teased the Manhattan-based blog Gawker.com.)
But it wouldn't be empty long. After media attention died down, this past January, Larry announced a new plan: The bus would take a cross-country road trip to Seattle, Portland, and New Orleans. Then it would descend upon Miami in time for Super Bowl XLIV during the biggest street party outside of Mardi Gras.
It sounded like a reality TV show in the making — eight naked girls speeding through the Bible Belt — but it was actually much less fun. For one, dancers weren't thrilled about the idea of roughing it on a chilly bus for weeks at a time. Plus there was nowhere to sleep, and the truck wouldn't go much past 50 mph.
So Beard drove it for 48 straight hours from Vegas to New Orleans. He picked up some local strippers near Bourbon Street, cruised around after the Pro Bowl aired, and politely obliged when cops asked him to stop. Next stops would be Tampa and then Miami — where nobody knew what to expect.
Daniella has the figure of a Miami Heat dancer and hair straight and thick enough to pass for a wig. She eyes the clock on her cell phone as the Stripper Mobile chugs past a sleepy stretch of townhouses in Tampa. It's already been two hours on the road, and there are wealthy gentlemen waiting for her back at the club.
Like the others, she agreed to the mobile dancing in exchange for "free house passes," essentially cash. Normally, the girls have to pay a nightly rent to work at Déjà Vu, where Friday night garners $400 to $1,000. But it's after midnight now, and her regulars are getting restless.
There's a science to finding the men with cash, Daniella says. Sometimes, she explains, she'll recover a customer's abandoned ATM receipt or peek inside his wallet as he pays for a drink.
"We call the good ones 'juicy,'" she says, raising her eyebrows. "I usually go for the fat, ugly, gross ones because those are the guys who are established in their career and will throw money at you."
"Or the military men," the pregnant Kali chimes in. "They got money stacking up in the bank while they're overseas."
"Yeah, OK, and these are the rules: No sharking that," Daniella instructs.
"Yep," she says, as if explaining the ABCs. "You'll see a girl hanging around the front entrance, like, snatching up all the juicy ones before the other girls can get to him."
Oh, like a shark!
"Like a sneaky shark," she says, completely serious. "You can't do that."
As the bus pulls into a convenience store parking lot, a TV reporter materializes out of thin air. The tag around his neck reads "Bay News 9," and he sucks in his gut as he asks for an interview.
"Sure!" Twee, the acrobat, agrees.
He switches on the camera.
Twee hails from Lexington, Kentucky, where dancers are considered only a notch above streetwalkers. She is more like a gymnast, though. Or a monkey. A muscular 110 pounds, she can climb the pole, flip upside down, and hang with no hands by squeezing together her thighs.
The cameraman isn't interested in any of that. He has some pressing questions. "Just to play devil's advocate," he says, "what if a mom with kids is driving by and sees?"
Twee tells a little white lie. "Well, if we see people we're going to offend, we sit down." The answer seems good enough to him, so he shuts off the camera and asks to climb aboard for more footage. The girls gyrate against each other as they ask, "Are you for or against this?"
"Uh, well, uh, I have to remain objective," he responds, zooming in.
When the news segment airs the next day, it's not flattering. The bulk of it is devoted to sound bites from a wide-eyed brunette named Paige Madison, who blames the Stripper Mobile for a near-death experience. "I was scared," she says smugly. "I had to merge over to the left lane because a semi wasn't paying attention."
Kali wiggles her green-bikini-clad booty for a powwow of drunken football fans cradling plastic cups outside Club Deuce on South Beach. She turns to see if they like her moves and then frowns. "I hate looking at them," she says, her voice growing louder. "They're just fucking laughing at us!"
Kali has great dimples, but she rarely smiles. Every ten minutes or so, she gets a call from a different man on her cell phone, at which point there is generally an argument. Her hoop earrings dangle like Christmas tree ornaments, and she wears dark-blue eye shadow. She looks like the kind of girl who might hit on your boyfriend while you're in the bathroom.
Behind her, the sidewalks are jammed with tourists wearing gold New Orleans Saints jerseys. Hummers and stretch limos clog every other block, and a cluster of Miami Beach bicycle cops seems less than worried. One officer elbows his partner and points; they both grin.
Sure, the Stripper Mobile has been controversial in other parts of the nation. But in Miami-Dade — the capital of sexually perverse scoundrels — the bus is a runt in the kennel with the big dogs.
Witness, for example, some reactions from the offices of our underwhelmed public servants:
Commissioner Natacha Seijas: "She is very busy."
Commissioner Dorrin Rolle: "You won't be able to reach him."
Commissioner Barbara Jordan: "She has decided not to comment."
Out on the street, too, nobody seems to care. It's a big letdown to the girls.
You might think a local professional, such as stockbroker Andrew Buckner, would get riled up about the porn on wheels invading his hometown. But no. "Come on," he laughs. "They fit in here. This city was built on stuff like this."
As he speaks, a gray-haired woman passes by and looks like she's going to make a stink. The girls give her a free Déjà Vu T-shirt, and her thin lips curve into a smile.
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When Waldo Blanco, an airport worker from Hialeah, throws money into the street, you can tell he's not protesting either. His only complaint: "I just wish I could get in too!"
A few blocks away, at Club Madonna, South Beach strippers sit up a little straighter when they hear about the flashy out-of-towners. But is there rivalry? "Oh, God no," says Gia, a striking brunette wearing lipstick the color of a Twizzler. "Men come in here because they want a fantasy world where life isn't complicated. That bus isn't going to facilitate that."
After an hour on South Beach, the Stripper Mobile tour proves fruitless: There are no camera crews, no trailing stretch limos, no pockets full of money. In fact, the girls barely get a reaction. Tired and bored, they head back to the Super 8, hanging their heads like a sports team that just lost.
Later, Ice gazes in the direction of the beach, where topless women tend to lounge free of charge. He doesn't plan on sticking around. "We're gonna get the hell out of here," he says. "The girls are getting cranky." With that, they pile into the Stripper Mobile and drive north, where they are bound to make someone angry.