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A not-so-stodgy Englishman; Cabaret: A high-profile grandfather is making lap dancing almost respectable in London

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LONDON -- Peter Stringfellow sits stage-side as 60 of his lingerie-wearing, stiletto-stomping, hair-tossing, breast-heaving Angels strut their stuff.

There are blondes, bottle blondes, brunettes and redheads. There are tall ones, short ones and in-between ones, all taut-skinned, perfume-scented, made up to drive a roomful of sharp-dressed businessmen wild. To say that the 300 or so men around Stringfellow are excited would be an understatement. Cigars go unlit and champagne remains untouched as the parade of women passes down the runway to cheers and smiles.

But nobody's smile is as wide as Stringfellow's, Britain's lap dance king. This is his nightclub, creation and money-spinner.

"This is beautiful, sexy and glamorous," Stringfellow says. "At my age, I have a lot of fun with this."

Stringfellow is a Peter Pan of sex, 58 going on 18, a lounge lizard swinging from the 1960s to the millennium. He's Austin Powers without the cryogenic sleep, Hugh Hefner without the mansion.

Flush and busted, famous and infamous, Stringfellow has been in Britain's nightclub and entertainment scene for nearly 40 years, a career summed up in his autobiography, "King of Clubs."

"Sure, I eat caviar, drink champagne and chase girls, but it's hard work when you do it six nights a week," he writes, admitting that the only thing he's really good at is being Peter Stringfellow.

Yet, he's now on a roll, twinning topless dancing and big business in the heart of London.

Acceptable sex

For decades, nude revues and strip clubs typified British "adult" entertainment. But three years ago, Stringfellow transformed the rude to the nearly respectable, bringing American-style lap dancing to Britain -- all teasing, no touching.

"I call it the acceptable face of sex," he says.

Others have sought to imitate the Stringfellow style, as a few swanky clubs sprouted in Britain. Two even floated stock on OFEX, an unregulated financial market.

But Stringfellow still leads the pack with his two-level club, where entry costs $24.75 after 11 p.m.

Four nights a week, his signature Stringfellows club is turned into the Cabaret of Angels. Upstairs is a dark and moody dining room, replete with red velvet curtains, pressed linen and crystal chandeliers. Downstairs, it's raucous, with pounding music and flash lighting.

Amid the champagne and caviar, women dance for customers, at $16.50 a three-minute show, revealing nearly all.

London's Evening Standard recently reviewed the club and found: "with its suited and booted clientele, it's frankly as classy as a lap dancing club can get: the girls are beautiful, there's no touching allowed, it certainly seems more harmless than sleazy."

A touch of vice, with class.

There really isn't an American counterpart to Stringfellow. He is his own best creation, a man who famously, even outrageously, cuts against the stereotype that British males are repressed, especially when it comes to sex.

Twice married and divorced, with two children and two grandchildren, he has, by his own calculations, bedded more than 2,000 women. His current girlfriend is 23-year-old Lucy Carr, who dances at the club.

"Isn't she gorgeous?" Stringfellow bellows, as the screen saver on his computer displays a topless photo of Carr.

It's this blend of unabashed joy in sex and seemingly uncommon candor that marks Stringfellow, who gladly fulfills a national role of the wicked middle-aged Briton on the make.

"I'm not sleazy," he says. "I'm a happy-go-lucky guy. I love women."

He attempts to keep young, wrapped in designer clothes with a mane of hair down to his shoulders. He works out with a personal trainer, although it's tough to stay fit when life is one big party.

Don't be misled by appearances, though. When it comes to politics, Stringfellow is a dyed-in-the-wool Conservative. He is also a serious businessman, claiming his club grosses more than $11 million annually. And for the past year he has mulled over the idea of an initial public offering on the London Stock Exchange.

"There's enough money to be made in the fun side of sex," he says, ticking off merchandise deals, Internet Web casts and adult "toy stores" as future moneymakers.

It's all a long way from Stringfellow's roots as the son of a Sheffield steelworker. He was in the merchant navy two months, worked in a bakery and sold goods door-to-door. But the night life of the early 1960s beckoned as his calling, as Britain shook off the postwar blues. He rented out a Sheffield church hall, called it The Black Cat Club and booked rock and roll bands. In 1963, he even nabbed the Beatles for one night at 65 pounds, a bargain in any age.

Stringfellow branched out, creating clubs in Manchester and Leeds, while looking south to London. In 1980, he made his move and opened Stringfellows, a nightclub that was a hit from the outset, as swells mixed with stars and, in one famous evening, royalty, as Diana, Princess of Wales, made an appearance.

He tried to ride a wave and create a club empire, with a super venue in London's Leicester Square and an American invasion, with spots in New York, Miami and Los Angeles. But an economic recession burst his bubble and caved in his empire.

Yet he still held on to his London base, Stringfellows. And he had a vision. On Fridays and Saturdays, he would still make money the old-fashioned way, with music, drink and food. But to lure the weekday crowds of out-of-town businessmen and macho stockbrokers, he'd put on a show of beautiful women. For three years, he assiduously gathered the proper permits to create a lap dancing establishment, what the British call table dancing.

In 1996, he got the go-ahead for his Cabaret of Angels.

No exploitation

Critics contend the establishment exploits women and flouts morality. Stringfellow says that he's just trying to offer patrons a good time and working women a good wage.

"We're totally in line with true feminism," Stringfellow says. "A woman can do what she wants, and you can't stop her."

From the cash in their garters, it's apparent that Angels can fly financially.

"We're not degrading ourselves. It's very classy in here," says 23-year-old Claire Leng, the reigning Angel of the Year who dresses for work in a white lace negligee with white lace holdups, white lace G-string, six-inch white stilettos and white garter.

She recalls being nervous her first night because she feared tripping over her outfit.

Cheryl Walton, 32, a former police officer who specialized in sexual offenses, now wears a white baby-doll outfit and says she has no problem performing at the club.

She claims the secret to a good lap dance is "eye contact."

Leng and Walton, along with the 125 or so other women who regularly work at the club, apparently get along famously with Stringfellow.

"It's like a family here," Walton says.

And one man rules the roost. Often out of fashion but rarely out of energy, Stringfellow has survived in London's ever-changing entertainment trade.

How long can it last?

Stringfellow sighs and says, "This has been going on since Adam and Eve."

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