Harpies: Sexual fantasies from IRL to online and back again

A person dancing in a club topless

We spent a day at east London’s iconic queer pub, The Glory, to catch up with Lucia Blayke and Chiyo Gomes of Europe’s first LGBTQ+ strip club, Harpies. We discuss virtual stripping, constructing stage personas, and trans visibility

Video: Jonangelo Molinari   Director of Photography: Kyle Macfadzean   Interview & Words: Gisselle Babaran

‘Fun and pleasure is everything to me as a performer,’ says drag artist Chiyo Gomes, a long-time resident of Harpies strip club – the brainchild of trans activist Lucia Blayke. 

The very first strip club in Europe to forefront queer and trans performers, Harpies first opened its doors in 2019 at Metropolis Gentleman’s Club in London. Since then, Amsterdam has followed suit with the opening of LGBTQ+ strip club, Va Va Voom. 

‘It was my mother’s idea,’ says Blayke. ‘I’ve got strippers in my family. When I transitioned, I was googling “transgender strip clubs” and nothing was coming up. I wished that there were strip clubs where I could go and work, and come home with £2,000 in one night. So my mum said, “Well, you’re a club promoter, why don’t you ask a strip club if you could do one night a week there for trans people?” I gave it a go and it blew up.’

Blayke’s first priority was to create the appropriate working conditions to make professional stripping fun and pleasurable – a commendable feat in an industry with historically exploitative managerial practices. Her team makes this possible through on-the-spot educating, as well as asserting explicit boundaries between the performers and the audience. ‘If I see someone looking at my dancers funny, or [if they] laugh or mock them, I’d grab them by the ear and march them off,’ says Blayke. ‘Harpies is our home – you do not come into our home and disrespect us.’
Two woman posing for the camera in a club
Two people posing in a club
A man posing for the camera in a club
She also ensures that performers are paid fairly – however small or large the audience turnout is on the night. This isn’t something widely practiced in the industry, with a majority of UK strip clubs expecting performers to pay ‘house fees’ – with no guarantee they will make that money back. 

But Harpies’ quick rise to glory was cut short when the pandemic hit – lockdown restrictions forced them to cancel live performances and lose their venue. ‘I suddenly lost Harpies, which is my business at the end of the day. I lost my community, I lost everything,’ says Blayke. ‘It was so tough, because we haven’t had furlough or help from the government.’ 

Despite the setbacks of COVID-19, Blayke managed to keep Harpies visible on digital platforms – with online performances on Instagram. Additional funding for the performers was made possible via GoFundMe. ‘Luckily enough, I started to do fundraisers to support all the dancers, and the community came through,’ explains Blayke.

Today, just over a year after it had to leave Metropolis, Harpies remains alive and soon to be properly kicking. With the UK government planning to lift restrictions by late June, Blayke and the team are hard at work looking for a new venue to host their nights on a more frequent basis. In the meantime, this summer she will be touring the UK with a few different events to make up for lost time.

But what draws visitors and the community to Harpies? ‘The atmosphere – nothing beats it. It feels limitless. It feels like you’re a part of something bigger than you,’ says Blayke. Despite the slew of challenges Harpies has faced, the revolution it’s leading for better trans visibility in the industry and fairer working conditions for all strippers is coming. ‘Everyone and anyone is welcome [at Harpies],’ says Gomes. ‘But [with] trans badass b****es at the front.’

To find out more about Harpies, follow them on their Instagram @harpiesinthesky
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