I met up with Erika Flynn at the pole dancing studio, BeSpun, and we gave each other a big hug. “I haven’t seen you in forever!” I said -- and it was true. I had grown up next door to Erika in a small town in Arizona, and we had known each other since we were basically eight years old.
My memories of Erika included choreographing talent show dance routines to bad Christian pop music, spending way too many hours playing Kingdom Hearts, and running amok with our brothers and friends in the 100-degree summers and stealing otter pops to keep cool.
Now, we reunited in Los Angeles not as amateur talent show stars, but as writers -- and pole dancers. Although I’m just a pole hobbyist, Erika dances for a living, and is open about it. It’s brave and badass, and something I’ve always admired about her. Erika showed up at the studio wearing a shirt with the slogan “support your friends” -- and said that she hadn’t brought her Pleasers heels (the gold standard of stripper heels) because they didn’t fit into her suitcase.
We join everyone else in the small studio, putting out our mats under the neon glow of the “BeSpun” sign. The pole studio feels a bit like a femme dance club -- and it is. Here, friendly female-identifying and non-binary people (along with a few men brave enough to try out the pole world) run around in six and seven-inch glittery heels along with high-waisted bikini polewear -- or whatever they want. Sweatpants are welcome, too. Everyone feels at home with any level of clothes, or lack thereof. In the absence of the traditional male gaze, what is left was comfort.
As we finish up the warmup in pole class (“sexy push-ups” that involve way more upper body strength than normal push-ups) we chatted a bit about her trip as we put away our warm-up mats.
Erika’s in town meeting with a potential director for a pilot of her show, SUGAR, which she created with the help of her friend and fellow stripper, NYC-based actress Palmar Kelly. Erika pitches SUGAR as ‘Sex Workers in the City’ -- highlighting how the show focuses on female friendship and empowerment in the highly-stigmatized field of stripping and sex work.
As we start running through the routine, and I can feel the bruises forming on my knees as I struggle with the rotation on my fireman spin as I try to create enough space between myself and the pole. These moves are way harder than they look.
Erika gives me some pointers, and shows me a bruise on her knee. “I can’t actually dance right now because I’m injured,” she says. “I do this one move where I climb to the top and fly to the bottom and hit the stage -- which makes it rain every time! -- but I landed right on my knee.”
Injuries are pretty common in the worlds of stripping. Fighting for things like workers' comp or health insurance are new battles, and haven’t always yielded helpful changes in the industry. Erika flies to Arizona to work since it’s a slow season in NYC, her current home. In Arizona, she’s able to choose between being an independent contractor or an employee, which is key.
“I work with a lot of strippers who are also moms,” she says. “So I could see how having an hourly wage and health insurance is important to them -- but I hate requesting time off or having a schedule! And you don’t get to keep your tips if you’re an employee.”
In Los Angeles, strippers are required to be classified to be employees and aren’t able to choose, which affects their earnings negatively.
For most strippers, flexible hours are important, and having to stick to a schedule and not being able to keep their tips can mean they miss out on what they used to make -- for not much in return. Because of the stigma around sex workers, rectifying these issues and fighting for legislation is an even more challenging battle.
As class comes to an end, she tells me, “I took my mom to a pole class!” and I gasp. “You did not!” I certainly couldn’t imagine bringing my Mom to a pole class.
“Before I came out as a stripper to her,” she amends, laughing.
Reinventing Sex Worker Representation On-Screen with SUGAR
After pole class, Erika and I grab drinks and lunch at the Electric Owl on Sunset, a charming little gaslamp bar and restaurant.
“I saved all of my singles for six months to create this pile of cash to do this photoshoot on,” Erika says, showing me the incredibly impressive SUGAR lookbook she’s put together to submit to publications and production companies. Indeed, one of the photos of her character and alias, ‘Kika,’ shows her lounging topless on a pile of $1,600 in singles -- and it looks awesome.
Even with an incredible lookbook with picture-perfect photography, a dedicated team, and a story that needs to be told, the road to getting the SUGAR series made is long, but important.
“Back when I had started dancing and seeing sugar daddies in New York to pay rent, someone told me to watch the Girlfriend Experience,” Erika told me. “When I did, and found that I didn’t relate to the main character at all. Why does she have no friends or family or sense of humor? I had this conversation with a producer in LA — we were talking about how there’s no comedic perspective on the world I work in. And the producer was like -- why don’t you write one?” So, Erika did.
I hopped on the phone with both Erika and Palmar Kelly, her co-conspirator in the making of SUGAR, to get the full scope of the show and how they’ve gotten to where they are now.
“The day I met Erika was the day we decided to work on SUGAR,” Palmar tells me. “We met in this sex castle in the Hamptons, girls from the club we worked in had all gone there. There was a lot of down time, and we were in the pool talking, and Erika mentioned about how she wanted to write the show. I was in acting school at the time and so sick on just going on auditions and wanting to do my own thing. Right when I graduated from acting school, we met at the Public Hotel Coffeeshop, she brought the characters she was working with and I brought what I had learned in class.”
From there, the show began to take off. Erika and Palmar worked tirelessly on the pilot script (which I was lucky enough to read, and have been a champion of their project ever since) and then they started enlisting their friends and fellow dancers, Sydney Benjamin and Amanda Geiling, to help them make the show a reality.
Describing how Sydney and Amanda came on board, Erika says, “we started writing it and came to them and told them at the club one night, and told them that ‘we’re writing characters based on you.’ They were so ride or die, and it was like ’this is what we’re doing now.’”
If they don't know how to do something, they go out and learn how to do it. “I literally downloaded Shonda Rhimes’ masterclass and googled everything,” Palmar says.
“We didn’t go to school for anything we’re doing right now,” Erika chimes in. “Everything is from the ground up. It’s kind of like how we got into stripping — you literally get on a pole and pretend to figure out as you go.”
This kind of scrappy determination has gotten them far, though it’s not been an easy road. “No one took us seriously when we started,” Erika says. “It was real for us the moment we started. To other people it was, ’these four little dumb strippers are writing this show.’ We knew we were going in the right direction when our boss at the club finally realized this project was a big deal and fired all four of us over it. It’s awesome, people are scared of us, but we all had to find new jobs. We’re constantly having to prove ourselves.”
The goal of the series, of course, is to erase the stigma and show that strippers have normal lives outside of the club. They go to Trader Joe’s and have their own lives and careers outside of dancing.
Erika also touched on a rare theme when it comes to the stigma of sex work. “I’ve become friends with guys I’ve met in the club. If you’ve been to a club once you’re a scumbag? A lot of them are there for different reasons. One of my regulars’ wife died. He came to the club to get his confidence back, to help get over that loss. It can be a fun time, but it can also be a therapeutic experience. That’s why we consider ourselves healers and therapists, we’re trying to eliminate the stigma of going to a strip club, too.”
“Stripper” as Job Instead of a Singular Identity
Erika is also a photographer, and later on in her LA trip, she shoots Flannery and I for our ‘About’ page here at Kingdom of Pavement. As a writer, I’m incredibly camera-wary, but Erika’s a pro and has an eye for pairing us against different backdrops and with different poses.
Erika studied at FIDM out in LA, and has styled and worked for hip fashion outfits like Opening Ceremony. As a writer, she's also written for publications like the Los Angeles Times. When I asked her about her experiences in fashion, she said she preferred being able to shoot on her own terms, since the world of fashion and styling can be cutthroat.
One of the common stereotypes of strippers and sex workers is that they’re burnouts who don’t have aspirations and are forced to degrade themselves in clubs -- and that can be the furthest thing from the truth. Erika and her friends turned to stripping to pay rent in NYC, and found a fulfilling career. Not only that, but they decided to take huge steps to combat the stigma and create a show based around their lives.
As we finish our lunch at the Electric Owl, Erika’s tells me she’s going to a family function, and that’s not going to be easy as most of her extended family doesn’t know what she does for a living. The conversation shifts to “coming out” to family. This can be a hard and heartbreaking process, made worse by the incredible societal shame that comes with taking your clothes off for money.
“I’m not going to lie about what I do,” she says. “I’ll tell family that I’m working on a show about strippers… but I’m not going to lie if they ask me if I’m a stripper. I write from experience, and this is my experience.”
How to Support SUGAR and Sex Worker Representation
Erika and Palmar and the rest of the women behind the show SUGAR have used their own money from dancing and from a successful IndieGoGo campaign to kickstart production of their pilot. As part of their IndieGoGo, they gave away artfully-designed merch as part of their perks.