MIAMI — Strip clubs have been striving to clean up their image. The uproar over a 13-year-old dancer won’t help with that.
It’s early evening, and the dancers are trickling in to an Art Deco theater in the heart of South Beach, a place with a neon-lit facade that serves a mixed-gender clientele, from local businessmen and high-rollers to tourists, celebrities and swingers.
For more than two decades, Club Madonna, billed as Miami Beach’s only all-nude strip joint, has been known not for what it has, but mostly for what it doesn’t have — a shred of clothing on its dancers or an ounce of booze behind its bar.
A dry club on South Beach is a little like a having a Miami Beach vacation without the beach, a detail that the club’s owner and the city’s political overseers have been at war over since the turn of the century.
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But now, the club — long vilified by some as a sleazy blight on the city’s otherwise glittery, iconic image — is getting attention for something entirely new, not to mention illegal.
On Jan. 10, the city pulled the club’s license after allegations that it allowed a 13-year-old girl, allegedly caught up in a sex-trafficking scheme, to dance naked on stage.
The girl, a runaway, told police she had agreed to dance at the club but was later forced to turn over her earnings to her pimps, two Miami men who Monday were arrested, along with a female dancer, on charges that they forced her to strip and prostitute herself.
When she told investigators how she was allegedly able to easily slip into the club and dance her way onto the stage naked — without anyone seeming to take notice of her age — it brought renewed attention to Club Madonna, as well as to an adult-entertainment industry, that has spent decades trying to overcome its negative image.
The uproar is not likely to boost that image makeover.
Joe Rodriguez, owner of Cheetah Gentlemen’s Clubs, who has been in the business for 45 years, said the art of concocting a phony ID has made tremendous advances in recent years.
“Some of these girls come and in, and they really look older than they are,” he said. “They bring in IDs, you have to almost be in the FBI sometimes to tell if they are fake.’’
A girl called ‘Peaches’
LeRoy Griffith, who has owned Madonna from the time, 40 years ago, when it was a movie house that showed spaghetti westerns, said he still doesn’t know for sure whether the teen, who used the stage name “Peaches,” actually danced at the club. He was on a New Year’s cruise at the time and his head manager, on the job only two months, was also on vacation.
What he does know is that all his dancers sign contracts and provide identification, showing they are at least 18 — and he has neither for the 13-year-old, identified in police reports as “D.J.”
“If she danced, then the club made a mistake,’’ Griffith said. “And if we did, it’s the first time in 20 years. It won’t happen again, I can tell you that.’’
The girl, Griffith said, told one of his dancers, Marlene San Vicente, 22, that she had her baby taken away from her and was trying to figure out a way to get the infant back. The Miami Herald could not confirm whether that was true.
“She was baby-sitting my dancer’s children and she was turning tricks,’’ Griffith said. “My dancer felt sorry for her and told her that she could earn some money by dancing instead, so she called one of my managers one night and told him that she was bringing in a friend.’’
Griffith said the 13-year-old showed the manager a false license showing she was 18.
According to police, however, the girl claimed the club managers never asked her for anything to verify her age. San Vicente bought her sexy clothes, tutored her on how to dance and paid to have her nails and hair done, according to the police reports.
The girl told police she worked the club on Dec. 27 and 28 and Jan. 2, 3 and 4. Each night she was forced to turn over her earnings, from $120 to $500 a night, to her pimps.
At the time she was living in Miami, having run away from home with two 15-year-old girls in early December, police said.
The adult-entertainment business has changed a lot in the past four decades, or so the industry likes to say.
Rodriguez remembers a time when the dancers would be foulmouthed, high on drugs and alcohol, and fight and throw bottles. Today, he insists, they are college students, housewives and other professionals who work eight-hour shifts.
“They are hardworking girls,’’ he said. “Just people trying to make a living. I got to tell you, the business has evolved in such a good way.’’
Miami defense attorney David Weinstein, a former state and federal prosecutor, said it is a second-degree felony to allow a person under the age of 18 to engage in a nude dance or a lap dance.
Human trafficking, or commercial sexual exploitation, is a felony punishable by a life sentence.
“He owns and operates a nightclub. Therefore he is responsible for what happens there,’’ Weinstein said of Griffith. “If he has an employee who hasn’t conducted proper background checks, he is as guilty as they are of what takes place.”