Melbourne, the Saturday one week before Christmas, 2016. Stacey Tierney isn’t rostered to work at Dreams Gentlemen’s Club, but the 29-year-old British woman is saving to go to Hawaii for her thirtieth birthday and to pay for the business course that got her an Australian visa. She is also thinking about the nursing degree she has long dreamed of studying.
She arrives at the club around 8pm. For the next seven hours, Stacey works hard. In between podium sets, she approaches the customers with a practised smile, accepting the occasional drink and cracking the odd joke, waiting for the opportune moment to offer a private dance. As an independent contractor, Stacey is paid by customers, not by the club. Around a quarter to four on Sunday morning, Stacey goes into a private room with five other people.
She is still in there on Sunday afternoon, long after the club has emptied out. She is still there on Monday morning. Thirty hours after going in, Stacey is found slumped on a sofa, as if asleep.
That Christmas, as I return to New Zealand to celebrate with my family, I follow Stacey’s story in the media. Initially, it is reported that she stayed back for an after-hours function, that she had died of a suspected drug overdose and that the room had been cleaned up before emergency services were called.
The tabloids revert to tired tropes: Stacey’s ‘heartbroken family’ had been unaware she was supporting herself by stripping; she was a ‘party girl’ whose friends had warned her against working at the club, described by News Corp as ‘a seedy underground den where drug use was rife’. In Daily Mail Australia, Antoinette Aparo, the sister of Salvatore, the club’s owner, insinuated Stacey’s own culpability: ‘I know strip clubs and I know the type of girls who work there.’
I worked as a stripper for twenty years and have written about the industry. What shocks me the most is the club’s reopening the day after Stacey’s death for ‘Sexy Poker Tuesdays’ without first acknowledging her passing. I guess death isn’t part of the fantasy.
Meanwhile, Stacey’s family in the UK begins a crowd-funding campaign to cover the cost of repatriating her body.
‘When it first happened, it drove me a bit mad really,’ Stacey’s friend Natalie* tells me. ‘I kept finding myself walking past Dreams and looking up at all the CCTV cameras in the area and thinking there is no way the police didn’t know who was there that night.’
The unwillingness of the police to comment on the case, coupled with the stigma attached to sex work, left many dancers convinced that Stacey’s death – which coincided with the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers – was being intentionally overlooked.
One year on from her death, frustrated by the inaction of authorities, Melbourne comedian and stripper Chase Paradise began a petition demanding answers from Victoria Police, her wording highlighting just how little information had been released:
How did she die? Who left her body there? What is the duty of care for an individual to call an ambulance? Why have there been no charges? Who let them into the club after hours? Why was Dreams Gentleman’s Club allowed to remain open? Why do WorkSafe Victoria regulations not apply to the strip clubs?
‘I hoped someone would do the same for me if I died under those circumstances,’ Chase tells me. ‘I hoped the community would show they cared, that my life as a stripper mattered.’
The petition revived media interest in Stacey’s death. In response, Victoria Police said only that the investigation was ‘ongoing’ and that the UK coroner had primacy in relation to an inquest.
Most dancers are reluctant to tell me what they know. They are afraid for their personal safety, of losing their jobs, of being misrepresented and stereotyped. Many are afraid of upsetting Stacey’s family, which requested no more media coverage, and convinced that nothing good can come from speaking out. Slowly, through snippets of stories, I begin to build a picture of Stacey’s character.
‘Stacey was like you or me,’ says Natalie. ‘She worked somewhere for a bit and then moved around to travel. She was just a normal backpacker.’
This depiction is echoed by Anna, a fellow UK northerner who first met Stacey in Brisbane in 2016. They were staying at neighbouring hostels and caught up regularly for breakfast, sharing stories of stripping and life on the road.
‘I remember one conversation about how dancing can be really hard work,’ she recalls. ‘Stacey, laughing, said she was a personal trainer back home, but the money was just so little and the hours so long. Dancing afforded her the opportunity to work a bit and then travel a lot more.’
Like many Brits, Stacey loved Australia’s warm climate and beach culture. Since arriving in 2015, she funded trips to Fraser Island, the Gold Coast and the Great Ocean Road by dancing in clubs in Brisbane, Darwin and Melbourne. In photos, she appears fit, healthy, carefree.
Natalie tells me that she and Stacey had been ‘full rostered’ at the Men’s Gallery – a common and brutal dismissal method where dancers are informed via text message that the roster is full – so both tried Goldfingers. Stacey found it too quiet and moved on to Dreams, where she made better money. She had worked there for just five weeks when she died.
I ask about Stacey’s drug use. ‘She was a lightweight,’ Natalie remembers, ‘a couple of glasses of wine made her tipsy. Stacey was careful not to get into situations where she was vulnerable.’
I ask Natalie what she thinks happened that night: ‘I think she OD’d. It was probably one of those situations where you just go along with it.’
More than one person, Natalie included, describes Stacey as trusting, warm, happy-go-lucky. The type of person who sees the best in people; someone you would want to spend time with.
‘She really was a beautiful little beam of sunshine,’ writes a colleague on an online forum in Stacey’s memory. ‘I hope she’s found peace in a little piece of beachy paradise.’
Stacey’s workplace couldn’t have been further from the beach. Located in central Melbourne, at the southern end of Elizabeth Street, the club is sandwiched between 24-hour food outlets, bottle shops and backpacker hostels. With three tramlines out front and Flinders Street Station across the way, it isn’t the type of place a passer-by would linger.
Amid the stark convenience and bustling commuters, Dreams’ signage shimmers suggestively, like cascading gold coins.
In April 2018, I visit Dreams. I want to see the room where Stacey was found, to better understand how she was left to die. I hope some dancers will share what they know, but my expectations aren’t high: the dancers have their own interests to protect. They are on the clock, too.
Security is tight – a bouncer immediately blocks my entry.
‘What are you doing here?’ he asks.
I tell him I have come to see the show. He jokes that they have male strippers performing. I laugh and say it must be my lucky night. After more sparring banter, he radios me in.
As I wind my way down the mirrored stairwell – a kaleidoscope of colours, deliberately disorientating – I wonder if interrogating customers has become standard since Stacey’s death, or whether it is just because I am a lone female, atypical. Before being let into the club proper, I am buzzed through two automated security doors and photographed by a no-nonsense receptionist.
Once inside, I am transported to my past. Dreams reminds me of the first club I ever worked in: a cosy enclave, all soft and shiny, with plush armchairs, black marble and pulsating lights. The vibe is friendly, the bar staff efficient, the dancers courteous, with a feigned nonchalance I know all too well.
The club was recently renovated, I am told by a bubbly brunette. She is studying to be a nurse, just like Stacey had planned. Despite its makeover, the club is quiet, just five or six customers to fifteen or so dancers.
The brunette says she is giving it until the end of the week. ‘I’m not very good at hustling,’ she admits, ‘probably because I spend my days being nice to people.’
We watch as a lithe blonde tries to entice a portly man into a private dance. She brings her cleavage in line with his chin and gazes into his eyes, walking the knife edge between availability and ambivalence, paying just enough attention for him to think she might really be interested.
The man pats the arm of his chair. Not a pushover, then. The blonde hesitates at first, but then eases herself onto it. The man raises a hand to a waitress and orders the dancer a drink. I wonder if she will take a sip or tip it discreetly onto the carpet. On quiet nights, you have to bide your time.
The brunette is more than happy to chat; this, I realise quickly, is her failing – she hasn’t yet realised that her time and conversation are worth money.
She tells me that ‘management really looks after the girls’. She isn’t the only person who says this: it seems that Dreams – ‘now under new management’ – is trying hard to reinvent itself. On the surface, at least, the slate has been wiped clean.
It is only after my visit that I learn about the floor below the main club, off limits to the public. There are change rooms and an office, opening up onto a ‘manager’s room’ that is decked out with a lounge, kitchen and bar. Crucially, the manager’s room has no CCTV. A former dancer tells me, via email, that this is where Stacey would have been found: ‘[The manager’s room] was where all the bad and dangerous things happened.’
She is one of two people who agree to share their experiences, telling me about ‘taking drugs and staying back partying in the office area’ when she worked at Dreams in 2012. ‘I did it after hours because I felt I had to. Eventually, I got my wits about me and moved out of the club.’
A coronial inquest into Stacey’s death was held in November 2018, in Stockport, Greater Manchester. This is what the coroner found.
On Saturday 17 December, Stacey started her shift at Dreams at 8pm. CCTV footage showed her working normally; she did not appear to be intoxicated. She finished her shift around 3am on Sunday. At 3.41am, Stacey entered the downstairs manager’s room with five other people. Three left soon after, including the bar manager. Stacey stayed with the remaining two men, Joseph Berhe and Tomas Mesfun, while the club – licensed till 5am – emptied out. Everyone else packed up and went home.
Sunday morning rolled into Sunday night and then Monday. We know that Stacey had been drinking. So had the men. Into the mix spilled cocaine, ecstasy and heroin. At some point, Stacey lay down on the couch, possibly for a nap.
When Stacey wouldn’t wake up, one of the men texted the bar manager: ‘This chick’s passed out and I can’t leave her. She’s scaring me.’ It was 12.30 Monday morning.
The men waited; Stacey still didn’t stir. Instead of calling an ambulance, the man sent another text at 5.30am. ‘I don’t know what to do anymore.’
Outside, the city rolled into the working week; inside, the men kept waiting.
It was almost midday when bar manager Steve Kyriacou turned up to find them on the couch with Stacey’s lifeless body and called emergency services.
He may have made another call. Minutes before the police arrived, a boy was recorded on CCTV leaving Dreams with a bag. He was never located. Police said there were signs the room had been ‘cleaned up’.
Paramedics tried to revive Stacey, but by then she had been dead for six hours.
In returning her open verdict, senior coroner Alison Mutch emphasised that many unanswered questions remain: ‘What is clear is that there is a large period of time when it is difficult to know what happened.’
The absence of CCTV in the manager’s room, coupled with conflicting evidence from those who were present, means there is no way of knowing what took place during the hours in which Stacey died.
A pathology report found what many had suspected: Stacey died of drug toxicity. Yet as the coroner pointed out, there is no way of knowing the exact circumstances: ‘It is not possible to say with clarity how she came to ingest these drugs, whether she chose to ingest them or whether she was given them in a drink, not knowing how much she had consumed.’
The coroner found that charges couldn’t be brought in the UK.
Following the inquest, Victoria Police confirmed that they had been unable to prove a criminal offence had been committed: ‘There will be no charges stemming from this incident and no further police action,’ a spokesperson said via email on 16 November 2018.
For Stacey’s family, the coroner’s finding didn’t bring the closure they desperately needed. During the inquest, Stacey’s mother, Michelle Frost, spoke of her disbelief that no-one provided assistance to her daughter: ‘[Those men] didn’t bother to help her. Why would you watch someone die?’
She also said: ‘I feel there has been an injustice somewhere, but I don’t think we will ever, ever know the truth.’
The decision not to prosecute came as no surprise to Melbourne’s stripping community. For many, it proved yet again that no-one cares about a stripper, especially a dead one.
In 2002, 42-year-old Dianne Brimble died from an overdose of GHB on a P&O cruise out of Sydney. Fellow passenger Mark Wilhelm had supplied the mother of three with the drug; her naked body was found in his shared cabin. Photos were discovered showing Brimble having sex with Wilhelm. There were other photos of her after she had passed out and defecated herself.
Before alerting P&O staff, Wilhelm and another man, Leo Silvestri, showered and dressed Brimble, rearranging her body to look less suspicious. When police eventually boarded the boat in Nouméa, they found the cabin had been cleaned up. In police interviews, Silvestri called Brimble ‘ugly’ and ‘a dog’ and said she had ruined his holiday by dying.
According to Geesche Jacobsen, crime editor for the Sydney Morning Herald and author of Abandoned: The Sad Death of Dianne Brimble, it was the lack of assistance given to a dying woman that most shocked the community: ‘What is at the heart of the public disquiet perhaps is that they feel somebody should be responsible for leaving this woman there and not doing anything.’
In 2009, the Supreme Court trial against Wilhelm ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict on the charge of manslaughter, either by gross negligence or by an unlawful or dangerous act. Brimble appeared to have taken the GHB consensually and so Wilhelm did not owe her any duty of care. During the second trial in 2010, the manslaughter charge was withdrawn and Wilhelm was found guilty of the much lesser offence of supplying a prohibited drug. Judge Roderick Howie concluded that although Wilhelm was morally culpable for Brimble’s death, he was not criminally responsible.
That judgement set a disturbing precedent for cases like Stacey’s: manslaughter could be the charge, but not guilty would most likely be the verdict. If Stacey had taken the drugs willingly, the legal responsibility rested with her. The men who supplied them owed her no duty of care. Criminal prosecution was only possible if it could be proven that Stacey ingested the drugs against her will.
It is almost impossible to fathom how Berhe and Mesfun could show such little regard for Stacey’s life. It is even harder to imagine that there is no liability in such cases. But as the Brimble trial illustrates, failure to do ‘the right thing’, while morally reprehensible, isn’t necessarily a criminal offence.
In May 2018, I ask the Victorian Coroner’s Office if Stacey’s death has been referred to WorkSafe, the state’s health and safety regulator. A couple of days later I receive an email informing me that this wasn’t the case: ‘If a death is considered a workplace death, then WorkSafe Victoria is the relevant body to investigate. That was not the case in Ms Tierney’s death.’
I find myself wondering how this could be – Stacey’s death happened inside of Dreams and so surely constituted a ‘workplace death’.
I speak to Dimi Ioannou, public liability lawyer at Maurice Blackburn, who explains a business’s legal obligations: ‘Employers and venue operators have a duty of care to prevent harm and to take reasonable steps to ensure their staff and patrons are kept safe. Once a staff member has finished their shift, or a patron has left the venue, that duty no longer legally applies.’
Yet again, there is a gulf between what the law says and a person’s moral responsibility: ‘In our view,’ Dimi adds, ’there is an ethical duty that then comes into play for employers. If there is concern for a staff member’s safety, there is a moral expectation that an employer would seek the appropriate care.’
Legally, Stacey finished work when her shift ended at 3am. There is no way of knowing what role management played in her decision to stay back after hours, just as there is no way of knowing whether she considered herself to be working overtime, even if the law does not. And then there is the question of whether, in entering the manager’s room, Stacey could still be considered to be at her workplace.
In answering this question, we need to consider the reality of Stacey’s job. Strippers are paid to perform sexual attraction – a good stripper is a great actress. To believe the act, the customer must overlook the transactional nature of the exchange. That it is transactional at all sits uncomfortably with social norms, which makes it easier to typecast strippers as party girls or sluts, rather than unpack the power structures at play. All of these factors reinforce the notion that stripping is not a ‘real’ job.
American stripper and writer Reese Piper puts it best in a powerful essay for Eros, the journal of the Australian adult industry association:
Stacey did not die partying; she died working overtime. Strippers may perform partying, but dancing is not a night out for us. This fact does not change, regardless of whether we enjoy it or not, consume alcohol or drugs, or work overtime in an after-hours “party”. It is never a party to us. It is always work.
Stacey was found at her place of work, in her work costume, with associates of her workplace manager. If she were ‘partying’, she would likely be on a beach with friends.
The real story behind Stacey Tierney’s death isn’t the tabloid version of drugs and fallen women. It is actually quite mundane: an unregulated work culture of disposable contractors within increasingly unsafe environments. When Stacey sat down to apply makeup on her final night at work, she was subject to a range of complex pressures, most of which are invisible to the outside world.
Things were different back when I started dancing in the 1990s: clubs were packed every night of the week. With fewer dancers and far more customers, greater value was placed on employees. Club owners needed you; security had your back. Door charges and the bar take covered the club’s costs, so strippers weren’t charged house fees or fines. ‘Full rostering’ didn’t exist. In that world, it was easier for a dancer to uphold her boundaries.
Today, there are too many dancers and not enough patrons. Dancers are increasingly viewed as disposable commodities, as well as individual sources of income. They are subject to a range of non-negotiable costs and conditions just to work. For example, they are charged a house fee, ranging from $50 to $120 per shift. They also face a variety of fines, from $50 to $200, for ‘offences’ such as deviating from the dress code, being more than three minutes late to a podium set, or cancelling a shift within 24 hours without a medical certificate (although medical certificates are no longer accepted in some venues). There is no guarantee of making money on any given night – dancers can and do finish shifts in the red.
According to Xiomara, a member of Salome’s Circle, Melbourne’s peer-advocacy group for strippers, house fees are generally accepted by dancers as part of the cost of working in an established venue. However, while house fees have risen progressively since their implementation more than a decade ago, dance prices have not gone up. Dancers are making less money every year.
The stress of working to pay the house before making any money is compounded by limited job security. ‘Full rostering is potentially the most anxiety-producing issue currently facing strippers,’ Xiomara says.
Every week, dancers face a stressful wait to see if they still have a job. The threat of the dreaded Sorry, the roster is full message means they are afraid to take any time off. It increases pressure to stay onside with management and decreases the likelihood of speaking out (for example, many dancers don’t receive a copy of their contract and are reluctant to ask for one, though it is their legal right). In an industry where youth is prized, long-term loyalty counts for little. And when dancers are full rostered, they can’t easily shift clubs, as most are saturated with applicants.
What is more, since Stacey’s death, strippers have grown increasingly concerned for their safety. Last year, dancers at several Melbourne clubs had their drinks spiked, only to find that management was unwilling to call an ambulance. In one instance, the dancer was sent home in a taxi; in another, she was left vomiting on the toilet floor until her emergency contact arrived. That distressed co-workers feel unable to call an ambulance themselves speaks volumes about the workplace culture. And at some clubs, if a stripper is assaulted, she is no longer able to have the customer removed.
For all of these reasons, strippers face significant pressure to overstep their professional boundaries, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and assault. We don’t know what impact, if any, such practises had on Stacey’s decision to stay back after hours.
So what can be done? The same stigma that has Stacey’s family wanting to distance itself from the industry has strippers believing their occupation will impair their right to justice. Activism like the petition started by Chase Paradise requires a visible presence, yet many strippers are not publicly ‘out’; they know all too well the risk of having friends and relatives turn against them. In other words, strippers are likely to put up with unfair working conditions – something employers rely on.
While the legality of house fees and fines has not been challenged in Australia, there are numerous examples from the US of strippers using the courts to overturn their independent contractor status. In several class-action lawsuits, judges have ruled that strippers are employees and therefore entitled to benefits such as minimum wage, verdicts that required clubs to pay back millions of dollars in house fees. In 2017, 28,000 strippers won a $6.5 million lawsuit against the nationwide Déjà Vu chain. And this year, in Washington, Governor Jay Inslee signed a stripper-led bill designed to increase the safety of adult entertainers, including mandatory panic buttons in venues and bans on predatory customers.
There is no dedicated stripper union in Australia. Last year, in an interview with SBS, Queensland stripper and graphic designer Harley Barnes-Roo called for industry organising, arguing that a union would help workers negotiate better working conditions and navigate industry-specific legislation that varies from state to state. Others like Xiomara say that strippers are divided over whether this is the best way forward. A major factor is the reluctance of dancers to officially register their trade.
‘As a community of strippers, we need to continue to advocate for better working conditions by continuing to speak up, to write, to dance and perform our message until we are heard,’ Xiomara tells me.
‘But the fight is exhausting [if done] alone. We do need the broader sex-worker community and allies to listen and care. Only then do I think we will be able to successfully implement the necessary changes to prevent another tragic loss of one of our peers.’
* Names of interviewees have been changed in this essay.
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