Photographer and art director Adrienne Raquel is back in Houston, only half an hour from the famed strip club Onyx, whose dancers are the subject of her upcoming exhibition at Fotografiska on April 22 in New York. “I had to come home and just re-ground,” she tells me over Zoom. The show captures the personal style and spirit of the club’s exotic dancers both on stage and behind the scenes in portraits that range from atmospheric action shots to hyper-detailed close-ups. “I’ve always had an interest in strip culture, but from afar,” she says, “I’m naturally a very shy, introverted person, definitely not part of the lifestyle.” Nevertheless, her photos convey the uniquely hazy melding of fantasy and reality associated with strip clubs.
Global pandemic be damned, Raquel has had the busiest year of her career. As one of the most in-demand young photographers right now, her star-studded portfolio boasts images of Lil Nas X, Lizzo, and Selena Gomez, as well as both Travis Scott and Megan Thee Stallion for GQ. Her images have also been exhibited as part of Mickalene Thomas’s Better Nights at Miami’s Bass Museum and Aperture’s New Black Vanguard.
Raquel says she was after something a little more “raw” than her usual posed and polished shots in the Club Onyx series, but she can’t help making glamorous images. “I really wanted these to be like gritty, but they still came out so beautiful and delicate and vibrant,” she says. In the candy-colored glow of her photos, the dancers’ nails gleam, their lipgloss shines, and even the sweat on their backs reflects a resplendent light. It’s one thing to achieve that effect with a full lighting crew, it’s quite another to enter a dark club for two weeks and emerge with an exhibition’s worth of scintillating images.
Her goal? “Whatever preconceived notions [the audience] may have about exotic dancing, whatever preconceived notions they may have about strippers, whatever preconceived notions they may have about Black women, Black beauty, I want to throw that all out the window.”
GQ: You have already had an impressive career as a photographer and art director, but this is your first solo show, correct?
Adrienne Raquel: Yes. This is my first solo show. I’ve done quite a few personal projects and personal shoots in the past, but this is the first body of work where I’ve fully put my heart and soul into it from concept to finish. It’s my baby. I’m super excited to show it, but I’m also very nervous. I’m hoping that people receive it well and that they appreciate the beauty of these women and the stories that they have.
Why did you choose to photograph this subject?
My family and I moved to Houston in 2008 when I was 17 years old. Houston has become my second hometown. It is also the place where I first picked up a camera seriously and decided that photography was something that I wanted to pursue. So I feel like it’s only right for my first body of work of this nature to come back to the place that influenced me from the beginning.
The idea for the project came about in 2017 or 2018. I had traveled here for one of my aunt’s birthdays and somehow we ended up at Onyx. I had been in there before, but never with my family. Right as you walked in there was a woman onstage. She was dancing: glittery heels, beautiful, voluptuous, doing her thing. What stuck out to me in that moment, aside from the dancers performing, aside from the ass shaking, the hair, the style, the men throwing money, the lights, the smoke in the air, was that I really started observing how the women interacted with one another. There was a sense of camaraderie within the club.
Just by observing, I could tell which dancers had just started. I could tell which dancers were seasoned — they feel like the baddest bitch when they’re on stage, they’re doing their thing, they’re into it. And I could tell the women that are there, but don’t want to be there. The next day I told my family I wanted to go back and document the dancers because I was just so fascinated and enamored by their confidence, beauty, and hella sex appeal.
Did you go in with specific ideas about the shots you wanted to get?
Behind the scenes I definitely did a lot of planning. But when it boiled down to me actually being in the space, I wanted everything to feel as natural and authentic as possible. Before I started shooting, I went to the club and visited for one night. The manager John walked me through every crevice of the club: the stages, the DJ booth, the kitchen, the accounting room where they disperse the money, even into the management office, all the way into the dressing rooms.
I’m very quiet and timid, so the whole experience was really pushing me out of my comfort zone. The following day I came back with my cameras. I wanted to keep everything as low-profile as possible so that we were not dealing with a huge lighting crew and a whole bunch of people and assistants because I didn’t want to attract attention. I wanted the girls to be in their natural element.
I would get there at around 8pm and stay until about 4am every night. I experienced the club from all angles and at all times. I got to converse with the girls on dead nights and I also got to see them in action on the nights where it was super busy and there was literally money falling out of the ceiling.
You mentioned that you were inspired by the “allure of the 1990s / early 2000s hip-hop video vixen era.” Can you elaborate on that?
Growing up, that was the imagery — not just the video vixens, but hip hop, the music industry, everything — that I was idolizing. My parents used to bring home magazines: We would look at The Source, XXL, Vibe, Jet, Ebony, Essence, the list goes on. I remember tearing out pictures, not only because it was a celebrity or whatever, but because I loved the colors, the composition, the lighting, the glow of everything. There was something just so beautiful and regal and rich. I used to watch TRL and 106 & Park and music videos. As a young Black girl, that just sticks in your head. You see these beautiful women and men and you’re just enamored. When it came to shooting ONYX, I wanted to evoke that same feeling, that same visual style, the same vibrancy, the same regalness, the same sex appeal, the same glossiness those images had.
So there’s an element of nostalgia in there for you.
Absolutely, which is funny because whenever people talk about my work, they always say it’s nostalgic in some capacity.
Did your perspective on exotic dancing change at all over the course of the experience?
As far as my perceptions of the dancers, I don’t think that really changed because at the end of the day they may be exotic dancers performing for cash, but they’re still women, they’re still people. So I just went in and treated them like I would treat anyone else that I’d be shooting. I wasn’t really worried about connecting with them because this is what I do for a living. Most times I’ll show up on set with talent that I’ve never met before and I have to be able to get them to trust me and feel safe and feel seen and feel beautiful.
I was more concerned about putting myself out there. The first night I started shooting, I was like, “Oh god, am I really doing this? Can I do this?” One of the dancers, Kai, that I still keep in contact with to this day, she was one of the first girls that approached me. She came up to me and she’s like, “get out there!” And I was like, you’re right, and I just dived into it. I realized after the first night that I had nothing to be afraid of and that these girls were willing and ready for me to photograph them.
In many of your pictures in this series, money — and cash specifically — is a focal point. What is the role of money as a motif in these photos?
In these images I made a commitment to not include any males because I want these women to be heroed and I want their beauty and everything about them to be front and center. So for me, the presence of the money not only relates to the lifestyle of stripping and exotic dancing, but also alludes to the presence of the male because the patrons are mostly males and they are the ones throwing the cash.
The viewers of your images in a way become stand-ins for the patrons at the club. How do you want viewers to see themselves in relation to these women and in relation to your images?
When people come into the museum, this will be like diving into a whole different world that a lot of people don’t know about. I’m sure there will be a lot of viewers that have never, ever stepped foot in a strip club or may be too young to even go to a strip club, let alone a Black strip club, let alone a Black strip club in the South.
Whatever preconceived notions they may have about exotic dancing, whatever preconceived notions they may have about strippers, whatever preconceived notions they may have about Black women, Black beauty, I want to throw that all out the window. And I want them to see things from an alternate perspective, to see the realness in these women, and the beauty, and the uniqueness, and the individuality, and the confidence, and the sexiness, and the vulnerable moments. I want them to develop an appreciation for it.
Do you see the norms around exotic dancing shifting?
Historically, stripping and sex work in general is taboo. With the way culture is moving now, it’s definitely becoming more normalized. I think women, especially in 2021 and even before then, are now being given the arena to really step into who we are, what we want, what we stand for, how we look, our sexuality, sensuality. A lot of women are really coming to terms with that, they’re stepping into that, and they’re doing it unapologetically. There’s a level of confidence and a level of respect that I feel comes with that.
Sexuality is a big part of this series, but it is just as much about the women’s strength, the physical prowess of pole dancing, their personalities, and their stage presence. Is that a balance you were intentionally trying to strike?
Absolutely. The physical prowess, the performance, was definitely important to me. Going back to the planning stages, I had in mind three types of images that I wanted to capture: performance on stage; behind the scenes, more candid, interactive shots of the women in the dressing room; and then the other category was their personal style.
In your editorial and more commercial work, you really highlight the glamour of fashion and beauty and jewelry. With ONYX, there seems to be a similar attentiveness to those elements.
One thing that was really cool about shooting this was seeing all of the ladies’ levels of expression, from their hair to their nails to their outfits to their makeup choices. These up-close macro shots definitely show the personality of each woman.
The devil’s in the details. I love to capture things that a lot of people would probably overlook or that would commonly go unnoticed. I really wanted to capture vignettes of things that I truly love: I love the nails, I love rings, I love the necklaces or the neck line, lips, lip colors — capturing things that are more true to the individual outside of just seeing a woman turned around with her backside showing. I feel like these are a bit more intimate.
Do you have a favorite image from the series?
My favorite image would have to be “Where Dreams Lie.” It is the header image of the exhibit. It’s with Cali, she’s coming down the pole and I captured her mid-slide. She’s a really skilled pole dancer. She was on top of the ceiling and was coming down and I was just like, “I gotta get it, I gotta get it.” I think she saw me because she held that pose for a little while and I was able to capture it. Visually I love the colors, I love the lines. In the back there’s a sign that says “Celebrities Room,” and if you’re a dancer, that’s where you want to be because that’s where the money is at.
I called it “Where Dreams Lie” because the strip club is a very real life situation, but at the same time it’s fantasy, it’s an illusion. I look at it and I’m like, “damn, where’s that? I want to go.” It’s alluring enough to catch attention, you can see the smoke in the air, you can almost put yourself there. But at the end of the day, there’s always another story behind it. And it’s just an illusion, because a lot of the women that I got close to, I realized that they don’t want to be there. Some of them do, but then they also might not feel like it.
“Eye to Eye” is also one of my favorites. A lot of the shots in the series were fragmented shots or action shots. My goal was to capture each dancer in the most tasteful way possible, but also display the realness of what’s going on, whether they’re twerking or coming down the pole. But there’s rarely any forward eye contact, so the image “Eye to Eye” is special because it’s really intimate.
Do you think your photos accurately captured what it is like to be there? Or are they part of the illusion?
I think these images definitely play into both the realism of the strip club and also the illusion. These moments are very authentic, not really contrived, not planned. Developing these relationships with the dancers, being backstage with them and listening to the conversations they’re having, watching them change their clothes, put on their makeup, come out of the shower. These images, like all of my other work, look glamorous and beautiful and like, “Oh shit, I wanna put on a pink wig and go make $2,000 in six hours,” but it’s like advertising, it’s still an illusion.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.