Strip-club kingpin Andrew Phillips isn’t shy when he’s bitten. Two years after he was acquitted on charges of keeping a brothel, current and former employees of his new hangout, The Grand, say it is common knowledge that sex can be bought at the northern Johannesburg strip club.
The death of Teazers boss Lolly Jackson last Monday put the spotlight on the strip-club industry – how its legality is blurred behind cubicle doors and how it enjoys long periods of seeming immunity from law-enforcement agencies.
It has been 10 years since the national prosecuting authority shut down Phillips’s Rivonia strip clubs, The Ranch and The Titty Twister, and two years since he was acquitted.
The Grand is registered under the name of Madeleine Wessels, Phillips’s partner.
But Phillips denies that the dancers sell sex at The Grand as vehemently as he denied that sex was sold at The Ranch and The Titty Twister.
“If they do, I don’t know about it, and they would be breaking the rules of the club,” he told amaBhungane.
He claims all his dancers sign a contract stating that “The Grand deals only in above-board undressing”.
But dancers say differently. “You can get anything you want here as long as you can pay for it,” said Russian dancer Anita*, who has been dancing at The Grand for several months. “You can get sex here. The boss knows; of course he does. There are cameras everywhere.”
Phillips acknowledges there are cameras in the club – 240 of them – but says there are none in the booths.
The Grand’s white marble, brightly lit circular stairs lead to about 30 booths on the first floor. Advertised for private dances at R800 and lasting three songs each, the booths have locks.
Yolanda* says that these locks mean only one thing – illegal sex. She says she started work as a dancer at The Titty Twister more than 20 years ago, when she was 16, and that for the year she worked at The Grand before her recent retirement it operated as a brothel.
“If you look closely you can see the stains where people had sex [in the booths],” she says. “And because this is illegal, the girls don’t use condoms or get [medical] check-ups. The guys think that it’s safe to sleep with these girls, but it’s not.”
But Phillips has another explanation for the locks. “If a girl is looking for a cubicle and pushes a door open while another girl is into her sensual routine, it ruins the whole vibe. It’s disruptive.”
Chalis Pitout (21) left The Grand after four days. “I was paying levies of R1800 a night,” she says. “But I wasn’t an ‘extras’ [sexual services] girl. Girls were making R15000 a night, and you wonder how.
“One night this guy put R12000 cash in my hand and said he wanted to have sex. I told Andrew [Phillips] I wasn’t going to, and he said I must — So I walked out in my G-string and heels.”
Phillips retorts: “This is absolutely untrue — it is an absolute fabrication. I would wonder whether this girl even worked at The Grand. It wouldn’t make a difference to me – I wouldn’t even get anything out of the R12000.”
Former showgirl Annie Baxter, who managed the dancers at The Titty Twister for two years, is still a friend and mentor to many of The Grand’s dancers, some of whom she says double as sex workers. “Everybody knows that The Grand is a brothel,” she says, adding that there is a continual feud between dancers who provide extras and those who don’t.
“The problem with dancers and hookers working at the same place at the same time is that the dancers are forced into doing extras,” she says. “A dancer will ask a client if he wants a lap dance for R800 and the client will say, ‘But that other girl just gave me a blowjob for R800’.”
She says she “has seen girls go outside with a client and book themselves in at the hotel over the road”.
The Grand does charge a book-out fee, Phillips says, to provide a type of “escort” service. “The guy will take her out to dinner — Do I think sex sometimes occurs? Straight up.”
The Grand is building a hotel next door that is nearing completion. Phillips calls himself a “project manger” on the construction and says it will be a “bona fide hotel”.
Dancers say the hotel has an extra function. “The hotel is for customers to go after they are here for a long night,” says dancer Anna*, also from Russia. “But we know the top floor is going to be for the working girls.”
Opposition club owners have raised questions about Phillips’s relationship with the police. They point out that, despite all the talk of prostitution, The Grand has been raided only twice since it opened in 2007 – once in 2008, the day after Phillips’s acquittal, and again two weeks ago, shortly after amaBhungane sent questions to the Sandton police station.
But in the same period The Grand’s main opposition, Teazers – less than 1km away – has been raided 10 times, says manager Sean Newman.
Yet police are now back at The Grand, almost daily, for a different reason. On one visit to the club, amaBhungane saw six policemen, all in uniform and some in bulletproof vests, walk into the club’s dining area and dish up food from the buffet table into polystyrene containers.
For clients, food is included in the R350 entrance fee.
“The police come every night,” said Clara*, a dancer from Eastern Europe. “They get the food for free.”
A police source says: “On so many occasions I’ve driven past The Grand and there are marked police cars outside. For some restaurants, this is a deterrent for crime, but when you see seven or eight cars, there’s something wrong.”
Colonel Guy Kilian, commander of the detective service at Sandton police station, said: “I am not aware of the meals provided — It would certainly be a conflict of interest, and cannot be condoned.”
Phillips maintains the free meals began during the xenophobic attacks in 2008, when police helped The Grand distribute food in Alexandra township. The feeding scheme still continues, he says.
“In Alex, police will come, stand in the queue and you can’t throw them out. So we said, why don’t we feed the people looking after us at night? There is no benefit to us. It stops them from having to pay R15 for a meal,” Phillips said.
An evening with Luxury on your lap
On the night the Mail & Guardian visited The Grand, impossibly beautiful women – from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe – yawned and hung out together between lap dances or stripping on stage.
The stripping appeared to be as tediously painful as the weekly sphincter-bleaching session most must undergo.
Near my table, a topless Asian stripper – the club’s cheesy pink and blue neon lights flickering off her petite form – bounced mechanically on the lap of a punter while scrolling around on her Blackberry.
I tried to get friendly with a lonely looking stripper.
She got straight to the point: “Mah name is private lap dance,” she said with glacial dismissiveness.
Little Ms Private Lap Dance didn’t look older than 18. Yet, having worked in South Africa as a stripper for four years (she said), she was more calculating than the accountant at the next table figuring out the limit on his expense account. A few minutes later she switched on the charm – appearing staggeringly beguiling and interested in a balding, fat man nursing a gin and tonic.
A blonde Amazon whose breasts defied the laws of gravity divulged the rules of engagement.
“If a customer wants to go out with us, it costs R5000,” she said.
“The club charges R1500 on top of that – and that just to take the girls to a club or something like that.
“Then the girls charge extra for whatever else on top if she wants to,” she said.
But she herself doesn’t do private dates – she has “too many boyfriends already”.
Another nubile girl with blinding breasts took me into a private booth for a “hot” private strip – because it’s the M&G‘s 25th birthday, you see.
What followed included some nibbling of the M&G‘s (clothed) crotch and a biology lesson that involved moving my hands down her body for a clinical examination. It was rather hot.
Does she do this to all the guys? “Only because you’re well behaved,” she said.
Do you get a lot of guys misbehaving? “Of course, all the time,” she said.
Begging for sex, no doubt? “Of course.”
And do you oblige? She smiled, saying nothing. – Niren Tolsi
An eight-year innings
Andrew Phillips is an expert at finding loopholes — he’s been acquitted on six charges on a technicality, lives a life of luxury while his assets are under restraint, and runs a highly successful strip club registered under his girlfriend’s name.
In 2000, the National Prosecuting Authority shut down Phillips’s strip clubs, The Ranch and The Titty Twister, and seized assets of his worth at least R50-million, including 11 houses.
Phillips pleaded not guilty to charges of running a brothel, living off the proceeds of prostitution, procuring women to have sex with clients, employing illegal immigrants and perjury.
After an eight-year court battle punctuated by delays and withdrawal and discharge applications, Phillips was acquitted on all charges. Several state prosecutors had worked on the trial, most of whom them were career prosecutors appointed by Gauteng’s Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).
However, one advocate, Edmund Wessels, was delegated by then DPP Charin de Beer SC as an outside counsel to work on the case. But because he was an outside counsel, he never took the prosecutors’ oath, a fact that Phillips’s defence team used to apply for a discharge, which led to his acquittal.
Granting the acquittal, magistrate Stef Bezuidenhout also expressed his concern that the Asset Forfeiture Unit (AFU) had “interfer[ed] in the prosecution.”
“The reason behind the AFU’s interference is very obvious,” said Bezuidenhout in his judgment. “A conviction at all costs appears to be their primary concern —”
State prosecutor Geo Wasserman then applied for leave to appeal against the judgment, which he argued was flawed in that career prosecutors had worked alongside Wessels at every point of the trial and the DPP had been in charge of the whole process.
Papers for the appeal were filed in February 2009, but no court date has yet been set. A source in the South Gauteng High Court says that the record supplied by the magistrate was in such a flawed state that it needed to be completely recompiled.
A letter from Phillips’s attorney, Nigel Little, to the Gauteng DPP says “the state has knowingly set about hindering preparation of the record”.
The letter, which amaBhungane has seen, continues: “According to you [the DPP], after the perusal of the complete record it became apparent that the chronological order and pagination of the record was ‘incorrect’.”
But even though Phillips is a free man, the assets seized by the AFU in 2000 remain under a state preservation order, pending Phillips’s appeal.
In terms of the order, a curator, Theo van den Heever, was appointed to handle Phillips’s financial affairs. This means that Phillips has to declare all his assets and income to his curator, who is in charge of this income.
The Grand is registered as Mad’s Pub and Sizzle, under the name of Phillips’s partner, Madeleine Wessels. But when amaBhungane asked three dancers at the club who the owner was, they all said, “Andrew”. Phillips dismissed this, saying that the dancers would not know who the owner is.
Phillips says that now he has been acquitted, he can apply to have the restraint order lifted. “But why would I do that?” he asks. “I’m in the best position. The state is responsible for all my expenses. If I lift the restraint order, I would have summonses from the municipality for rates, electricity and water on my properties that the curator is supposed to be paying.”
He certainly appears to be in a good spot, driving a Rolls Royce to and from work, and housing it in his garage, all on the expense books of the Grand.
Phillips has the option of requesting money from his curator for expenditures such as travel, groceries and legal fees, but amaBhungane understands that there are no records of Phillips ever making such a request.
“Yes, I have added on assets, and yes the curator knows it, but he won’t say a word, because he knows he’ll have a fight from hell,” Phillips told amaBhungane. The AFU declined to comment.
* Not their real names