IN A MATTER OF weeks, the Republican Party will descend on Tampa. With beribboned millinery and talk of the sanctity of marriage, the party whose members blanched at the word “vagina” will arrive in a city that the rest of the country now associates with Magic Mike, this summer’s unexpected blockbuster about the complicated emotional lives of male strippers. Faced with this conundrum, Tampa city officials have lately been keen to point out that the city’s reputation as the strip-club capital of America—a problem profoundly exacerbated by Channing Tatum’s six-pack—is overblown. Las Vegas, New York, Miami, and several other cities outnumber Tampa in venues. In per capita assessments, it places third, behind Cincinnati, Ohio, a city that has never even hosted a Superbowl. (Tampa has had four of them.) So how did Tampa get its exotic-dancer reputation? Here the locals tend to agree: It all comes back to a cantankerous, litigious, strip-club proprietor named Joe Redner, owner of an independent club called the Mons Venus.
In 1975, as legend has it, Redner, then a manager at a local go-go club, was driving the scenic frontage roads of suburban Tampa, when he happened to hear a news report about the outcome of a Supreme Court case. Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville determined the legality of screening a movie featuring nudity at a drive-in theater. The court decided in favor of nudity. “They said, ‘Well, if you don’t like it, you can simply avert your glance,’” explained Luke Lirot, a Tampa-based First Amendment attorney and Joe Redner’s longtime lawyer.
The following year, Redner opened Tampa’s first all-nude club, telling the dancers he employed that pasties and g-strings were optional. Thus began a protracted battle for the right to writhe naked, one that has lasted generations and earned Redner national headlines. Lirot, who has served as Redner’s attorney since the 1980s, estimated his client had been arrested some 140 times, though courts have consistently ruled in his favor.
Redner’s pronounced atheism, his litigiousness, a cable-access talk show about First Amendment rights co-hosted with Lirot, and the sordid reputation of his profession might not have helped him on any of his eight runs for local office, but it has made his 2,500-square-foot venue perhaps the most famous strip club in a city famous for strip clubs. And it was in battle with Redner in 1999 that a local city councilman trying to ban lap dances criticized him for making Tampa the lap-dance capital of the world. Thus, the city’s reputation was sealed.
“I think what I said at the time was that we didn’t want to become the lap-dance capital,” said Bob Buckhorn, who is now Tampa’s Democratic mayor. Today, Buckhorn is less strident in his opposition but still takes no pride in his city’s notorious cultural offerings. “There are plenty of other and better things to do in Tampa that are far less risky, both personally and professionally,” he said. “They do not represent the best of Tampa nor is it something that we encourage people to visit.”
While some delegates will take Buckhorn’s advice to consider alternate diversions—he suggests Busch Gardens, the beaches of Pinellas County, and the Florida Aquarium as wholesome, family-friendly outings—the strip clubs are counting on at least some of the more than 4,000 delegates to risk their sterling reputations.
“They are preparing, they are remodeling,” said Angelina Spencer, the Florida director of the Association of Club Executives, a national industry trade group. “It’s new furniture, new lighting, upgraded sound systems, and new menus.” For those delegates who might not want to be seen in line for the, uh, new osso buco on the menu, several venues have added discreet new back doors.
The futuristic 2001 Odyssey club, which has a VIP room shaped like a flying saucer, installed Web cams in its dressing room earlier this year, and out-of-towners can form early attachments by watching the dancers grimly count their cash with unlit cigarettes dangling from their mouths. Other clubs are adding more shifts and flying dancers in from around the country. In a marquee event at Thee DollHouse, the porn starlet Lisa Ann will reprise her role from the parody Who’s Nailin’ Paylin? and its sequel, Obama’s Nailin’ Palin, in two live topless shows. One network of clubs will even waive the price of admission for the 15,000 credentialed members of the press.
As for the delegates, “I think probably they’re going to be warned, ‘Don’t go into clubs,’” said Redner. After all, the Republican National Committee is still embarrassed by members expensing a $2,000 tab from a bondage-themed nightclub in West Hollywood to party donors two years ago. But even the most prudent delegates can expect to be inundated with marketing campaigns. “I’ve got billboards, LED trucks, radio, magazine ads in local publications,” said Jason Lange, an agent who books talent for many local strip clubs. When asked if there would be any other impersonations of Republicans, he paused. “I don’t think you’d really want anybody?” he ventured.
Lisa Ann is looking forward to her feature performance. “Someone has to make an appearance on behalf of Sarah Palin,” she said. “She wasn’t invited, but I was!” Since the last election, Lisa Ann has traveled the country in her role, but her success has been somewhat bittersweet. “Sadly, touring as Sarah Palin for the past four years has showed me how many men would vote for her again just because they want to have sex with her.” On the plus side, she said, her performances have widened her appeal to a new demographic of gay couples, and now, for the first time, men want to take photos with her in a suit instead of naked. As for her own politics, Lisa Ann will be voting for Barack Obama for the second time around in November. “Being a porn star and a feature entertainer, believe me, Republicans are not in our favor.”
There’s at least one dancer at the Mons Venus who is a registered Republican, however. Liz, a 20-year-old from North Carolina, said that she had bought some striped patriotic shorts to prepare for the convention, which she hopes will attract a more mature crowd. Asked if it was difficult to reconcile her conservative politics with her dancing, she said, “I’m actually just doing this because I need to pay off some student loans. ... It doesn’t really affect my personal life because nobody knows that I dance. My family thinks I bartend.”
At the Mons Venus, Redner said they have nothing special planned: no Republican-themed dancers, no exhortations, like one club’s, to “party like a liberal.” If the lines are long, he’ll raise the price of admission to $50. That strategy bolstered one of his best intakes ever, the 2001 Superbowl, when he estimates he amassed $60,000 in a weekend.
When asked whether conservative convention attendees might be more likely to steer clear of strip clubs, Redner, who identifies as an independent, scoffed. “Are you kidding?” he sputtered. “They’re hypocrites!” Then he launched into a lengthy soliloquy about the GOP’s relationship to Wall Street.
“Republicans have the same hormonal imperatives as all human beings,” said Lirot. He recalled a small memento he once received from Redner, a token left behind that was unlikely to be reclaimed at lost and found: “I have a Promise Keepers cap from what I’ll call the relaxed recesses of the Mons Venus,” he said.
Emily Witt is writing a book about the sex lives of American women. This article appeared in the August 23, 2012 issue of the magazine.