The Association of Club Executives, or ACE, is the trade association of the adult nightclub industry in the United States. In addition to providing legal resources, political education, legislative tracking and supporting the freedom of expression and women’s rights, ACE also runs the Club Operators Against Sex Trafficking, or COAST, training program for its member clubs. Angelina Spencer is Executive Director of the national ACE organization.
C.J. Asher – First of all, thank you for taking the opportunity to speak with me and to let us know about ACE and what you do. Tell me a little about yourself and your background.
Angelina Spencer – I live full-time in Florida but my office is in Washington, D.C. I earned a Master’s degree from The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management and was their 2013 co-valedictorian out of 400 students. Prior to opening our government relations and advocacy firm, I used to work in the adult club industry as a dancer in the Cleveland area, then co-owned a club where we forged the first licensing agreement under the Penthouse brand. Six months later we sold the club to Larry Flynt’s people and today it stands as one of the highest grossing Larry Flynt Hustler clubs in the U.S. I took a position as the executive director for ACE National, a nonprofit federally registered trade association for the adult club industry. Oh, and yes—I have six kids. I like to have fun!
C.J. Asher – What is ACE and what does your organization do?
Angelina Spencer – Established in 1999, ACE National is a federally registered trade association for the adult nightclub industry. It’s mission is to use education and outreach to dispel the myths of the industry and to promote discount programs to our members from premier industry providers.
C.J. Asher – What are the duties of ACE?
Angelina Spencer – Most of the duties associated with ACE National center around our mission statement to dispel the myths of the industry through outreach and awareness. This can include but is not limited to building rapport with vendors, negotiating ACE Member discounts, legislative tracking and alerts, all social media and newsletters for the club industry, writing legislation, building survey instruments for studies, handling media and PR, prepping people for testimony, writing opinion pieces, working at the annual tradeshow, setting up board meetings and running our COAST program against sex trafficking with federal agents.
C.J. Asher – What first got you interested in the adult nightclub industry?
Angelina Spencer – The fact that I was broke. I grew up as a foster child and ward of the court. When you “age out” they say, “goodbye”–or at least they did decades ago. I was working for minimum wage at a mall pet store. Every couple of weeks I had to decide what I would pay and what bill I would let slide because you cannot live on minimum wage. A high school friend introduced me to the club life. She said I could earn more dancing in one night than I could working two weeks for minimum wage and she was right. I was socially ostracized in my hometown for this decision—and quickly learned that it was not the dancing that made me feel so bad as it was the lack of support from family and friends who were convinced I was headed straight to hell. Here they were telling me how to live—but they did not have any way or intention to help me make ends meet. Once I let go of “do they like me?” and focused on “what do I like?” things got so much better. I was able to pay bills and REALLY go to college without any student loans. I was able to purchase a car, a house and something as simple as a car seat for my kid, which before would have been out of reach. Decades later, some of those old friends have remarked that they envy my ability to thwart convention because I’ve had the guts to really live while they took a dead end or boring job because they were scared.
C.J. Asher – Tell me about Empowerment Enterprises… its history and how it works with the adult nightclub association.
Angelina Spencer – Empowerment Enterprises is an entrepreneurial experiment thus far going right. When I worked solely for ACE National, the board of directors was very supportive and encouraging of my breaking the proverbial glass ceiling. In 2008, I wanted to lobby, advocate and educate people about issues in which I felt strongly—like freedom and common sense laws. ACE National became my first client and they were followed by the online gaming associations and other “vice” type entities. Some even referred to me as the “vice lobbyist” in an effort to pigeonhole my role or get a laugh–but people in DC also saw I was making money and all of a they sudden got real nice (or mean) and wanted to be a part of it. I’ve always believed in the power of numbers, particularly with the adult businesses. At the end of the day, most people will huff and puff against all things “adult” but the reality is that they like having it around. It’s a multi-billion dollar annual business—and it is not supported by six guys wearing trench coats. It provides jobs, tax revenue and keeps people off the dole. Most people don’t realize the economic impact these businesses have on local communities. It’s huge and in some places it pays for fire or police services. I try my best to enlighten with facts. Look to your right, look to the left or look in the mirror. People like this kind of entertainment. They just don’t want flags or fannies raised publicly in their face—or caught on camera. Most of the time I use common sense in my job. For example, if you want to institute a six-foot rule to prevent human trafficking in a club how the hell does that work? It’s a joke. If there is a trafficking issue you’ve just wiped out law enforcement’s ability to do their job—but more importantly, you’ve likely just victimized women with your overreaching legislation that punishes them under the ruse of trying to protect them. PLEASE! If you really want to help ladies, you offer legislation that gives them real educational and job growth opportunities in the first place. Now when people hear we’ve met with success, they hire us for other issues. I had one client tell his lawyer that if I can successfully manage PR and crisis for something as difficult as adult entertainment, I can handle any business that comes our way—and its true. I’m a fighter and I’m passionate for underdogs who come to my office armed with worthwhile causes.
C.J. Asher – What efforts are the adult nightclub industry undertaking to remove the “sleazy strip joint” image and promote itself as a legal, legitimate business enterprise?
Angelina Spencer – We put a face to the industry. Most people don’t really take the time to consider the people who work in the clubs. Once they meet “these people” it is glaringly apparent that they are no different from other residents because they aren’t! For example, most people who work in the industry are not what people expect. When they see a well-dressed woman in a business suit and pearls enter the room to defend the adult club industry, and she can actually speak in full sentences and make sense, people listen. It’s the same with dancers. I love prepping dancers for testimony because a lot of them boast college degrees or are incredible writers. The other thing is that dancers are not victims—they are women in business and local celebrities. As for the club owners—they are more generous in most instances than some Christians I know, and they don’t expect any credit for the quiet good deeds they do. A story speaks better than stats or lumping all club workers into the “less than” category. It’s easy to denigrate what or who you don’t know—we work toward getting to the table to be part of the conversation. If you’re going to legislate the industry—then workers and owners most certainly should take part in that discussion.
C.J. Asher – Sex trafficking is becoming a major issue throughout the United States and abroad. The adult entertainment industry has recently become a target of anti-sex trafficking crusaders, despite little to no evidence of sex trafficking being linked to the regulated adult nightclub industry. To combat potential sex trafficking, ACE has created the Club Operators Against Sex Trafficking (COAST). Tell me a little bit about the program and what results you’ve had so far.
Angelina Spencer – COAST (Club Operators Against Sex Trafficking) was established in 2010 with the help of law enforcement. Legislative tracking showed a trend: The cottage industry groups like the CCV, who used to introduce “Community Defense Acts” across the country, changed the CDA’s to “Anti-human trafficking” measures. It was basically the exact same legislation as before—no tipping, women get arrested and fined if they walk within six feet of a guy in club, midnight closure etc.–but with a different title. We stopped and asked ourselves: Is sex trafficking a problem in our industry? Most law enforcement agencies, NGO’s and elected officials swore that it was. We weren’t so sure about that—but perhaps they knew better—so we invited them all in to take a look—to turn our places upside down and locate those victims. What we did discover was a need for dialogue and improvement. We worked with special federal agents at Homeland Security Investigations to build a program that has taught more than 7,000 industry professionals in more than 30 cities across the U.S. about the indicators of human trafficking and the steps they can take to report any suspicions. It’s been a beautiful relationship where the dancers and other members of a club step up to look out for one another and the agents step up to help them. We’ve also worked together to support state legislation that requires clubs to conduct age verification, keeping those records on file. We feel that adult entertainment is not for kids and we don’t want minors in clubs. What we are discovering now is that if the news does report an incident at a club—it’s not been a COAST or ACE Member club.
C.J. Asher – How does ACE support the rights and well-being of its member-club dancers and entertainers?
Angelina Spencer – The people who comprise the ACE National Board of Directors are some of the best operators in the business and offer a variety of options for entertainers, including the choice to work as independent contractors or employees, health benefits, COAST Classes, college scholarships, investment opportunities etc. As for ACE itself, our focus is dispelling the myths of the industry as a whole so we focus more on the outreach and awareness in the political and vendor arenas. For example, if we successfully fight against a six-foot rule, midnight closure or no tipping legislation, we’ve helped the dancer and her well-being.
C.J. Asher – What major legal and political issues are currently facing the adult nightclub industry, and how is ACE helping its clubs to face them?
Angelina Spencer – One of the biggest issues we face right now is the excessive taxing of clubs to fund the pet projects of politico’s. We see outrageous legislation that wants to tax 40% of a club’s gross receipts to pay for “this or that”. We fight it vehemently—but as for offering up a play by play strategy—I prefer to keep our playbook under wraps.
C.J. Asher – What benefits does being a member of ACE afford to its members?
Angelina Spencer – A full list of member benefits can be found at www.acenational.org.
C.J. Asher – What is your position on the move by many dancers to become employees of their clubs, as opposed to the independent contractor status that almost all dancers in the United States have?
Angelina Spencer – I am truly torn on this thorny and gray issue. As a former dancer I liked the control of being an independent contractor and the fact that when my foot tapped a club floor I was in business for myself. However, I did not like being forced to clean a club after hours or having the door locked until the place was wiped down to the owner’s satisfaction. I did not like having a manager “play favorites” for the VIP section based on how much of my tips I was willing to share with him—and I loathed having to sell a ‘drink quota’ of six drinks per shift where I got $2 and the club took $5 for every drink sold. If I didn’t sell the drinks, I had to pay for the drinks on top of other mandatory tip outs. Consequently, I always had the option to quit and often would under this type of treatment, working in those establishments where I felt valued. Alternatively, one part of me looks at the plaintiff’s attorneys who chase after dancers for these cases. Most of these dancers filing these cases are the same ladies over and over again and many don’t even work in the industry anymore and they don’t bother to ask the current dancers in a club what they might want. Additionally, plaintiff’s attorneys do not tell the dancer the full story—that she will have to give multiple depositions, produce tax returns and at the end of the case, she might only see a few thousand dollars after years of litigation, while the firm takes the bulk of the settlement. If these cases had limits and the lawyers could not reap attorney fees from the owners, they’d never file such cases to begin with. Additionally, you have the issue of conversion to the employee model. What many dancers fail to understand under the employee model is that the club can now consider your private dance “work product” and it no longer belongs to you. You get a check with your taxes taken out. A lot of ladies do not like the model—and many ladies do. As time progresses, I see the independent contractor model becoming an ever growing uphill battle on many levels. There are good and bad in both—but it will change. It’s not a matter of “if” as much as it is a matter of “when”.
C.J. Asher – How can interested individuals and clubs support ACE and COAST?
Angelina Spencer – Visit http://www.acenational.org to learn more about what we offer and encourage your local club to join as there is power and credibility in numbers. We also keep the cost of membership very low: $150.00 per club, per year. The ASCAP/BMI discounts more than pay for the membership. You can also make a donation.
C.J. Asher – What is your greatest success story while working with ACE, either one you have been directly responsible for or one that you have heard on or been involved with?
Angelina Spencer – There are a few. When I started with ACE as a board member we constantly ran “in the red” and couldn’t finish out a fiscal year without begging club operators for more money to survive. We’d have eight-hour meetings back then and the only topic was funding. I started with ACE as their executive director in 2003—and for about a dozen years we’ve run “in the black” thanks to a board who know how to manage and direct and to our vendors who continue to step up to the plate with their support of our mission. I’m also very proud of our ASCAP and BMI music licensing program. ACE National negotiated the largest discount for its members in ASCAP’s history. I’m pretty proud about that. Our lawyers and board did a great job and the board trusted my judgment in selecting the litigator for this task. But COAST has to be at the top. I love the idea that this industry is about entertainment, not enslavement—and the wonderful industry workers who make time to attend a class to learn about trafficking inspires me. I never thought I’d see the day where industry professionals would work alongside federal agents and politicians. It’s been a wonderfully symbiotic relationship where all parties benefit because saving a life is a valuable thing to do.
C.J. Asher – What advice would you have for a new club manager or operator entering the industry?
Angelina Spencer – Being the “boss” should speak for itself…if you have to “prove” it, you’ll fail. True power comes in building others up, not tearing them down. And—make sure the restrooms are clean. Also, keep your eyes and ears open more than your mouth.