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When pleasure turns a profit

At Australia’s Daily Planet brothel, money and desire are in heavy trade. The multimillion-dollar business, which began trading shares on the stock market in May, hopes to show investors that prostitution can be profitable.
/ Source: Financial Times

The afternoon shift at Melbourne’s Daily Planet brothel is a subdued affair. The bar is uncomfortably warm, the lights low, the billiard tables and video games unoccupied. It might almost be a saloon at closing time, but for the background wail of, “Cos I am your lady, and you are my man,” and the tall, honey-haired woman in evening dress called Charlotte who is serving me a drink and explaining how she became a prostitute.

It started 12 years ago when Charlotte was a university student with a child to her boyfriend and only enough money to photocopy the next chapter of her textbook. One night, she went drinking with her eldest brother’s girlfriend. “She’d always impressed me,” Charlotte recalls. “She always had money and time and did her own thing.” As Charlotte lamented her lot, her friend suggested a solution: why not join her as a working girl?

Thirty-year-old Charlotte is still working. She is now happily married to another man, an engineer who thinks she has another job, isn’t curious about it, and accepts the explanation that her bank balance is periodically fattened by a trust fund. Not only is money no longer a problem, but the contacts she makes in her job add to her comfort. “I bought my car wholesale,” she says. “There are half a dozen shops I could go into and shop wholesale. I can eat in quite a few restaurants and not have to pay the bill.”

That prostitution can be profitable was the message brought to the share markets in May when the Daily Planet’s principals, chairman John Trimble and managing director Andrew Harris, arranged one of most exhaustively publicized floats of the past year on the Australian Stock Exchange. Promoted by Hollywood ubermadam Heidi Fleiss, the 50-cent shares briefly rose to more than $A2 before settling around $A1, capitalizing the company at about $A30 million.

Technically, it was the brothel’s premises, not the actual business, that were listed. Because shareholders in legal brothels must be licensed under the State of Victoria’s 1994 Prostitution Control Act, a float of the brothel itself would have meant each investor having to obtain legislative clearance and a police check. But, as Harris insists, there is nothing inherently risky or even risqué about brothels: the Daily Planet has low fixed costs, high cash flow and, having been acquired by Trimble for a song in 1975, a 28-year track record.

The 53-year-old Harris is an entrepreneur who would be at home in any business — and has already been at home in a few. The son of a prominent property magnate, he left school at 15, joined Australia’s Special Air Services, ran a parachute school, built shopping centers, became a television talk-show host, and not only survived a crash of his private plane but won a gallantry award for rescuing a passenger. Five years ago he was in the middle of one of Australia’s most convulsive waterside strikes: he owned a company that secretly trained SAS veterans in Dubai to be dock workers on behalf of an Australian stevedoring company trying to break the maritime union’s grip on its workforce.

A burly, quick-thinking, fast-talking figure, he radiates energy even while reclining with his bare feet propped on the coffee table of his commodious upstairs office. He digresses, he gesticulates, orders a coffee that gets cold because his lips are so busy, waves cigarettes round for minutes at a time before lighting them, and is disarmingly, even brutally, candid.

‘There's no fantasy'
Could he imagine using the Daily Planet’s services himself? “No. Never. Absolutely not. How do I walk into a room with a girl I know nothing about, who washes and inspects my dick, gives me a massage, then has mechanical sex with me? I don’t see the sexiness in that at all.” For Harris, sex is business, and business is business.

“The client: he walks into a fantasy land. I walk into a business. And, of course, once you know the secrets, there’s no fantasy. In fact, when the wrong person has this job, he creates havoc. He treats it like a male fantasy. If one of the girls said I touched her, it would blow the whole public company out of the water. ... I explain to people that it’s like having 150 secretaries. If I had 150 secretaries, I wouldn’t screw them either. This is a place of work. It’s not a place of play.”

The place itself, nestling between a locksmiths and an intercom retailer in Elsternwick, a busy commercial and residential suburb of Melbourne, is something of a local landmark, even if it would still be hard to find anyone in polite society who admits to knowing what goes on behind its exuberant neon-lit facade.

Actually, there’s both more and less than one expects: fantasy and reality are unabashedly mingled.

Pushing through the two security doors that separate outside and inside worlds like an airlock, one finds a faux marble reception area featuring a large leather couch flanked by a statue of Persephone and a cash machine. The telephone is answered with the merry catchphrase: “Daily Planet, this is Lois Lane.” This is more an in-joke of chairman Trimble, rather than a pandering to male illusions.

The personality of the Daily Planet, too, is decidedly friendly: this is, after all, the brothel that pioneered the idea of open days, encouraging members of the public to tour its layout and learn about its modus operandi. The receptionists are clearly accustomed to putting newcomers at ease. Bar staff are unaffectedly cheerful, even though they are forbidden by law to sell alcohol.

The operations manager, Stephanie Mayer, is a portrait of job satisfaction, voluntarily logging 80-hour weeks. She began as a receptionist 12 years ago to supplement her income as a make-up artist, and now can’t imagine working anywhere else.

“You have to be slightly warped to fit in here, but I do,” she says. “I’ve been out there in the ordinary world — I once worked in a nine-to-five job for six months thinking I needed a break. It was horrible. I was so bored. Now I wake up every day and think: ‘Great. Can’t wait to get to work.’”

Selecting her staff
She wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, though. When she interviews job applicants, her questions are at first procedural: the 120 licensed brothels in Victoria cannot employ any girl not “clean and clean” (that is, drug-free and disease-free). But Mayer evaluates attitude as much as appearance and presentation.

“There are 20-year-old girls who come in and I think, ‘My God, I can’t let you do this. I don’t have the heart.’ They’re so eager to start, but I tell them: ‘Go home, think about what you’re taking on, and come back when you’re ready.’”

The difficulties are inherent in the occupation rather than the location, and Mayer doesn’t deny them: “I take my hat off to the girls who work here. I couldn’t do what they do. It’s a fantastic way to earn a lot of money quickly and flexibly: you work as much or as little as you please.

“But it can do your head in. Society, no matter what people say, doesn’t accept it. Girls here can’t walk out the door and advertise what they do. That’s a big weight on their shoulders. If you have a husband or partner, you probably can’t tell him either. You’ll lead two different lives. And if you choose to be open about what you do, you certainly find out who your friends are.”

The Daily Planet has 150 “service providers,” as Mayer calls them, some as old as 43, but with an average age of 25. Most are seeking to meet a short-term financial goal, or generally to get themselves ahead; a sizeable proportion are university students seeking to ease their fee burden. Charlotte reckons only a tenth are public about their jobs.

The operation of the business is simple. The Daily Planet is essentially the supplier of a safe and comfortable facility for the provision of personal services: girl rents room, client pays tariff, girl and Daily Planet split proceeds. It receives 800-900 client visits in an average week, as many as 1,400 in a busy week such as the Australian Formula One Grand Prix or the Australian Football League’s grand final.

Transactions are brokered in the warm, windowless split-level bar area. When a client arrives, he will normally be joined at one of its round tables by a group of girls working the shift and he will select one with whom to adjourn to a room.

Disorientingly devoid of natural light, the bar is not somewhere you’d linger without further and better reason — and, of course, the Daily Planet would prefer you didn’t. But, as Charlotte explains, quite a few patrons do: “They fuck around. They procrastinate. Put them in a nightclub and they’d chew my ear off. I’m thinking: ‘C’mon, get on with it. You aren’t picking a wife.’” Charlotte, meantime, will be eyeing the client. “I don’t work hard,” she says. “I work smart. I try to focus on what a man wants and become that.”

The preliminary negotiation, Harris believes, is the subtlest and most intriguing aspect of demi-mondaine life: “There’s no such thing as the perfect working girl. All men have different tastes. Come here on Saturday night and you’d meet a lot of girls you might consider overweight, and some that are Miss Worlds. But a really pretty girl probably won’t make as much as one not quite as pretty, because guys still get very intimidated by beautiful women.

“The highest money earner here isn’t stick thin, doesn’t look like a supermodel; she’s moderately pretty, quite voluptuous, in her late 20s, early 30s, and you never see her on the floor, because she walks straight from one booking into another. She’s the girl every guy feels safe with and she’s a great listener: a winning personality here is like gold.

“We’ve a girl who started six months ago — probably one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Stunning. Should be on the cover of Vogue. Russian, but speaks perfect English. But because she’s so beautiful, guys won’t go near her. And she’s always had the same problem. I said: ‘Sweetheart, you’re just too beautiful. You’ve got to look less sexy.’ So we’ve de-sexed her a bit. But if she wears one of her usual outfits, with that model’s face, guys get frightened. Only super-confident guys would go anywhere near her — and not a lot of guys here are super-confident.”

‘It's sales'
The Daily Planet bar is an arena of economics as well as eroticism. Time is money: the girls are sub-contractors, selling in a market with winners and losers. “It’s competitive, for sure,” says Mayer. “The girls are pretty well-balanced. They’re only here for one thing. But it does happen: a girl will sit around all night and get no business.”

When coupling is slow, Mayer will sometimes “sweep” the floor. “There’ll be 15 or 20 guys sitting round at 4 a.m. on Sunday, and the barman will say: ‘Time to sweep, Steph.’ That means I push them through. I’ll have guys eating out of my hand. I’ll choose girls for them, because I need to get the floor happening. I’m not forceful. I’m polite and tactful. But I’ll manipulate them. They actually want to be manipulated. They’ll have been looking for a busty blonde, but I’ll persuade them that what they need is a flat-chested brunette. It’s sales. You work on them. You work until you close the deal. It’s a total power trip.”

Once paired off, girl and client adjourn to one of the 18 variously themed rooms, known by their names: the Grecian, the Roman, the Galaxy, the Apollo, the Mercury and so on. The Grecian, which is part of a “presidential suite” with a small en suite bar, contains a spa, a three-person shower, a television fixed high on the wall showing pornographic DVDs, a CD player for mood music, and side-by-side king-size beds.

Before the client gets anywhere near a bed, however, he must submit to a physical check. His arms will be scanned for track marks, his pubic hair combed for infestation, his eyes examined for possible hepatitis, his penis studied for genital warts.

“Men are the most ignorant creatures in the universe where that’s concerned,” says Charlotte. “They’ll go: ‘Oh that’s always been there.’ You think: ‘No shit?’ Amazing the lines they pull on you. Problems? I can’t do it. This is my body; it’s my living.” The standard booking — $A150 for half an hour, $A230 for an hour — involves sensual massage, protected oral sex and protected intercourse.

Men are at first more often leery than louche, says Charlotte. “It’s amazing how nervous guys can get when it’s a sure thing.” Girls also have taboos. They distinguish sharply between sex and intimacy. Kissing, for instance, is seldom offered except by lesbians, who at the Daily Planet constitute about a fifth of the providers, and at extra costs of between $A50 and $A100; to most working girls, it is an intimate gesture, reserved for lovers. As for the kinks and fetishes usually thought de rigueur in brothels, Harris says that the cardinal rule imparted to every girl is: “Don’t go anywhere that messes with your head.”

Prostitution, Harris points out, also involves a unique set of management challenges. “There are problems within problems within problems. For instance, when women live together, they synchronize their periods. A girl works here for a month, she’ll be on the same cycle as every other girl. We have what we call ‘hell week’ once a month. Everyone’s premenstrual, everyone’s shitty, rosters go through the floor. People think their six-room brothel is going to make them a fortune. It won’t. It’s a very tough business to run.”

A sex franchise?
Then there are the legislative inhibitions, which are Victorian in nature as well as location. It infuriates Harris, for instance, that in a world in which advertisers use sex so freely, sex can barely use advertising. “Kayser Stockings recently put up a billboard near here where a girl is lying there on her back with her legs wide apart wearing a very sexy pair of stockings. Insane.

The best I can do, on a billboard of restricted size, is a head and shoulders shot of a female. I can’t show below the clavicle. I can’t say: ‘Visit the Daily Planet.’ I can only put our name on it.” He smiles confidentially when I suggest he sell Daily Planet stockings: “That’s exactly the way we’re going.”

Harris, in fact, has big plans. In July the Daily Planet acquired Bar 20, a big table-dancing club in Melbourne; it has since undertaken due diligence on two brothels in Nevada. There has been talk of setting up an entire “sex theme park” in Las Vegas, and of selling the Daily Planet franchise in 15 other countries. Risky? Certainly. But prostitution is, in some respects, all about risk management: for the record, Charlotte is neither her real name, nor her working name, and she is fiercely protective of client confidentiality. “The biggest client fear is judgment,” she says. “We’re the outlet. I’m not going to pound on his front door. I’m not going to ring his wife. I’m not an affair.”

The confidentiality is for her sake too. “I was at my son’s concert recently,” she recalls. “And I suddenly got the feeling that there was someone looking at me. I turned around, and there was a client. With his wife and half a dozen children. I could tell he was squirming. So was I. I mean, we had a lot to lose.”

Gideon Haigh is a Melbourne-based journalist.