Would you lose more than your shirt to gain your PhD?

January 17, 2003

Sean Clarke worked as a strippergram to finance his studies - until he got caught with his pants down.

"How the hell did things end up like this?" I found myself wondering gloomily as I lay face down on a hospital bed in the Bristol Royal Infirmary. That night, I had been commissioned for what turned out to be an especially raucous hen night in a pub in one of the murkier parts of Bristol. I had been shimmying around in my homemade G-string among some severely drunk women when I felt a stab of pain in my left buttock.

Someone, I later discovered, had taken a savage bite. As a result, the nurse was now explaining - between unconcealed chuckles - I would need four stitches. Worse, what I had feared most had come to pass. I was sure that one of my own students had been at the venue. I now began to ponder the question: was strippergramming a sensible way for an aspiring lecturer to finance his studies?

When I started my PhD some years ago I knew I would be hard up. Grants are difficult to come by for postgraduates: you have to have an excellent first degree and a very strong financial case to qualify for aid. The one person in my department who managed to secure a grant was a single mother who had had a nervous breakdown but who had still managed to get a brilliant first degree.

In my case, I had to look forward to three- and-a-half years of low-paid, part-time jobs - pretty similar to my three years as an undergraduate. Not surprisingly, I was depressed. I had asked other postgraduates what they did to make ends meet, and the answers were always the same - cleaning or bar work.

But then various things began to transform this rather dismal scenario. I had developed the idea that I needed to balance my life. Various postgraduates and lecturers had warned me not to underestimate how extreme a way of life PhD research is. High-level academic study still owes much to its historical roots in the silent, solitary world of medieval monks. For me, it seemed that this required that I do something extrovert and hearty to maintain my mental health.

As I was pondering these profound ideas one night, I received a phone call from Daphne, an old friend. She asked me how I was and I began to moan about my poverty. Perhaps sick of my whingeing, she let me in on a secret.

To my astonishment, she revealed that she had financed her MA in media studies by doing strippergrams. Daphne was, I had thought, the archetypel academic - quiet and introverted, just like me. How could she have done it?

"The first things you need to strip away," she advised, "are your inhibitions. The way to do this is to pretend you're someone else. If you can do that, and dance a bit as well, you can do strippergram."

Strippergram deliverers earn £35-£45 for a 20-minute job. Moreover, Daphne revealed, there was a burgeoning demand, especially for males. At weekends I could expect to make at least £200. And no, Daphne made it clear, you did not have to be physically perfect to do it - "which is just as well in your case", she added brightly.

What "losing one's inhibitions" means in practice is that you have, at every turn, to ignore feelings of embarrassment, Daphne counselled. This is especially true for men. They have to strip in an entirely different way to women, and the audience reacts differently. Men will watch female strippers as though they are watching a TV show. But women expect to "get interactive". They want to laugh, scream and howl. The male stripper has to get among them, dance, flirt and expect to get a bit mauled.

"One tip," Daphne offered. "Reinforce the top of your g-string. It must not be easy to yank off. And if nobody tries to pull it, you haven't done your job well enough."

I felt that I just might get past the embarrassment - and even if I could not, where was the harm in trying?

I phoned one of the surprisingly large number of agencies in the newspaper classified section. The interview was remarkably quick: all I had to do was pretend to be delivering a strippergram to one of the three female interviewers. The first thing to remember, they said later, is to keep it humorous. Comedy is the main prerequisite. Second, sound out the clientele and the venue, and tailor your act accordingly. If they are young and drunk, you can do more than if they are older and sober. You can be outrageous in private houses, less so in public venues - and not at all when children are present.

At the end of the interview I made my own stipulation. I would work only in areas that were at least ten miles from where I lived, studied and taught. The one thing that I was sure I could never live down was to be seen "doing my turn" by a co-lecturer or, worse, one of my students.

This soon began what was to become a long-term and very profitable earner. Phone calls from the agency would come most frequently between Thursday and Sunday. I would scoot off on my moped to pick up my costume, then head for the venue. The job was always a hoot because it provided constant surprises. At first I could not get over how old some of the clients were (old enough to be my granny), or how young (younger than my sisters). I was also, at first, astonished by the variety of reactions. Some groups looked genuinely aghast that a policeman had turned up to book the soon-to-be bride for bad parking. Sometimes, and less fun for me, the clients were just blase. Strippergrams were two-a-penny; they had seen it all before. But far more often they were raucous, wild and plain animalistic.

Which brings me back to that night on the hospital bed. I decided then and there to tail off the work. This was not because I would now have a scar on my buttock and was thus likely to be aesthetically repellent to my potential clientele (they did not care anyway). Nor was it because I disliked the job. It had been very good for my pocket and I think it helped tremendously to keep my spirits up while I was studying.

I gave up the job because of that one young face that night that I thought I had recognised. At first I got paranoid. I scanned the student newspaper regularly and scrutinised all the graffiti in the campus toilets. But after a while I thought, what the hell, maybe lecturers need a bit of a spark to their professional image anyway.

Sean Clarke [not his real name] is now a full-time university lecturer.

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