The case of the £50k lap-dancing bill: ‘It’s not exceptional’, says boss
Sophisticats owner says in a digital world there is social value in lap-dancing entertainment
20 February, 2020 — By Richard Osley
A LAP-DANCING club fighting to stay open after a man complained he had been ripped off with a £50,000 bill, racked up in a single night, is appealing against a decision to strip it of its licence.
In a rare interview from behind the doors at Sophisticats in Eversholt Street, Euston, the club’s owner has told the New Journal that in the world of adult entertainment such figures do not cause surprise.
“It’s not an exceptional client,” said John McKeown, who is planning to appeal to magistrates against Camden Council’s decision last month to revoke its licence.
“There are many clients that spend that sort of money. It’s not small, but not exceptional.”
The club says it has suffered from one-sided media reports due to the public’s shock at the money spent, with nobody listening to its side of the story.
The case, meanwhile, comes amid a shift at the Town Hall, with a change in policy being discussed which could see the council presume table-dancing clubs will not be eligible for renewals of licences at future hearings – a flip from the current presumption that it does. As reported in the New Journal, the Women’s Equality Party, the campaign group Not Buying
It and other demonstrators have appeared at Town Hall meetings on numerous occasions calling for the industry to be completely forced out of Camden on the grounds that women are objectified – and amid claims that some clubs offer more than striptease, a claim all operators have persistently and vigorously denied.
Mr McKeown said: “Basically Camden have a position, rightly or wrongly, that men shouldn’t be able to buy access to women’s bodies. “Now, we take the position that while we can understand that, particularly in the age of Me Too and Harvey Weinstein, we live in a digital age where personal contact is through a computer screen most of the time.”
“You can’t have an office party anymore because of the dangers of reputational risk within a company that puts it on. Rightly frankly, people are very conscious, but then that takes out a certain amount of personal contact from society.”
He added: “We would argue that to a certain extent, that’s what we provide: You get to sit with a woman and talk to her, and you’re not going to get accused of doing anything. She’s comfortable. It costs you money, which is a very small thing. And you get personal contact, which is a very big thing. Our argument is that has value. Camden takes the opposing view.”
The club is the first in more than 15 years to run into major revocation strife; Spearmint Rhino in Tottenham Court Road escaped closure by appealing to magistrates in 2003.
On this occasion police called for the Sophisticats’ licence to be removed after investigating incidents where it said customers had been sold large amounts of alcohol or complained they had been billed too much.
No criminal charges were brought, but officers argued this should not count against their case when they were successful at last month’s licensing hearing.
It was the £50,000 bill, however, which hit all the national headlines, and concerned a customer contacting trading standards in the days after his visit last year.
Police said the customer was allowed to buy more and more alcohol until he did not know what he was doing.
The customer had, by the club’s count, drunk four glasses of champagne and the rest of the eight bottles that were bought had been shared around the club.
The claim it was sold very close to closing time is also disputed, with Sophisticats arguing an hour’s “drinking-up time” had not been considered.
“My manager said something the other day when we were talking about it, because we’re both steaming about it really, because of the way it’s been portrayed: In this world, it’s perfectly natural,” said Mr McKeown.
“There are clubs in the West End of London where a bottle of champagne is £135,000 and people buy it. There’s a group of people within central London, rightly or wrongly, who can spend that kind of money on a whim. And this particular gentleman could because American Express themselves cleared it at the time.”
Mr McKeown said: “My feeling was that they took the side of the customer very, very quickly. Our dancers, they’re not hustlers. This isn’t a film. They are ordinary kids that want to make a living and they want to do it in such a way that they can go home and look in the mirror afterwards.”
“So they give a performance, and they give company, and the guys give money. That’s, to me, a fairly reasonable transaction.”
He added: “Effectively, what appears to have happened is that we lost our licence because we sold a very rich guy eight bottles of champagne to put around the entire club.”
Of other incidents, he said police had trawled through a database and added in old cases or incidents such as a man who forgot he’d left his phone at the club mistakenly reporting it stolen.
Mr McKeown said he installed more CCTV with better quality images to ensure the performers were safe – and to watch out for any customers who went too far.
“We have a CCTV room downstairs, it’s like Jodrell Bank, where we have an operator watching everything” he said.
Twenty of the performers were at the club’s licence hearing last month.
“I didn’t drag them there,” said Mr McKeown. “They came down with their union rep because they were upset. The one thing Camden didn’t want to do was engage with the women or humanise them.”
He said a suggestion that they should take apprenticeships and leave the club was “incredibly patronising”.
One dancer, Heidi, who at was the club during the interview, said she was fed up with campaigners deciding what she should do with her life.
Up to 100 people would be “straight out of work”, said Mr McKeown if Sophisticats is forced to close its Euston branch. With the case sharply splitting opinions, none of this convinces opponents who say an end to lap-dancing is long overdue.
Camden has a total ban on new clubs opening in the borough, but has allowed existing venues to carry on.
Objectors say if the council has decided nowhere is suitable for a lap-dancing club, this view should include those currently in operation.
Emma Ko, from the Women’s Equality Party, told the Town Hall last year: “I went from someone who was a little unsure about some of this because I didn’t want to be a middle-class woman telling other women what to do and how to do their job.”
“But I have now met people who have worked in this industry and it’s not what you think: it’s full of vulnerable women. If they were wonderful, wonderful places where they were truly empowered, then great – but they’re not.”
Sophisticats has another hearing at the Town Hall this month and is then likely to see its appeal heard at Highbury Magistrates’ Court.