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Adrienne Raquel, “All Eyes On Cali”, ONYX
Adrienne Raquel, “All Eyes On Cali”, ONYXPhotography Adrienne Raquel

Glossy, dreamlike photos of a famed Texas strip club

Photographer Adrienne Raquel’s new book, Onyx, documents the ‘powerful, legendary’ dancers of Houston’s Club Onyx

In Adrienne Raquel’s new book, ONYX [published by Damiani], readers are immersed in the sweat-soaked, neon-lit world of a Texas strip club. After being commissioned by Fotografiska New York, the photographer began documenting performers at Houston’s famed Club Onyx – a space where dancers are encouraged to hone their own creative style, and empowered to negotiate whatever “stripping” personally means to them. 

Texas-born Raquel is primarily known for her editorial work, having created glossy, dream-like portraits of artists like Megan Thee Stallion, Lil Nas X and Travis Scott. This latest project – although a thematic switch-up – retains many aspects of her signature style. Like her portraits, the emphasis is placed on the tensions between intimacy and illusion. The dancers are captured onstage, mid-movement, looking otherworldly under the dim, polychromatic lighting of the club. But we’re also invited behind the scenes, with Raquel photographing the artists in the safety and privacy of the locker room. The goal of the project, according to the press release, is to display the “empowerment and inclusivity in strip clubs that society tends to ignore”.

Here, Raquel shares the full story behind the project, detailing how she discovered the club, her inspirations, and how she gradually learned to build the dancers’ trust.

“I visited Onyx back in 2017 with my family, just very randomly. My aunt had a 50th birthday here in Houston and one of the places that we went together, with her friends and my mum, was club Onyx. I remember sitting there and just watching the women… how sensual and confident they were; how they took charge of the audience. From that moment, I always told myself, ‘Once I make it in my career, I want to come back and document the club.’

“One thing with my work is that I try to highlight women and femininity; to really capture beauty without it being objectified; without it being overly sexy. And I think with Onyx, that’s exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to go there and visually tell the stories of the girls and portray a sense of fantasy, but also portray their power – the artistry of exotic dancing. I also wanted to highlight the experience in a way that we don’t commonly see. People have such negative perceptions of strip clubs, overall, and this project’s premise was to skew those perceptions. 

“There’s one main stage in the club. Throughout the night, the DJ calls the girls up to it and, depending on how many are working that night, they may only hit the main stage one time. That’s their time to shine; that’s when they’re probably going to make the most tips; it’s their all-eyes-on-me moment. Some dancers are exotic pole dancers, some girls do the twerking, body rolling, ass-shaking type of vibe. I would think that they were dancing for the men, or the customers of the club. But when I really spent time there, I realised they were dancing for themselves, looking in the mirror the whole time.

“This project makes a sincere effort to highlight the women, specifically. You don’t see any men in the photos, you don’t see who's in the crowd, you don’t see who’s throwing money. You get a sense they're there, but by highlighting the women, the customers become irrelevant. 

“I would think that they were dancing for the men, or the customers of the club. But when I really spent time there, I realised they were dancing for themselves, looking in the mirror the whole time” – Adrienne Raquel

“I’m super introverted and very shy, [but] this strip club is not a quiet place. Before I actually started shooting this project, I went to Onyx and the manager gave me a tour of the club and showed me the different areas. He was like, ‘But in order to shoot the dancers, you’re going to have to get permission from the house mum’. So I remember walking up to her and she literally looked me up and down. I told her what I was there to do and I had this little printed-out treatment, this little deck that I had put together. She just looked at me and said, ‘Are you always this nice?’ So that was how I got my foot in the door. And then for the rest of the night, I spent time in the booth with the DJ who would call the girls over and introduce me. 

“I really spent a lot of time getting to know the dancers. One thing about photography I’ve learned is that taking a good photo is about trust. If you’re given a specific moment in time to photograph someone – whether that’s for five minutes or 10 hours – not everyone is comfortable in front of the camera, so at that moment in time that you have to make them feel seen, you have to make them feel welcome. With this series, it was imperative for me to really dive deeper into the conversations with the women at the club because I wanted to build that rapport.

“People tell me that my work is sexy. I describe it as glossy. I use vivid colours, which lend themselves to this sort of fantasy world. But it’s exhausting being in a club every night. I wasn’t even dancing or anything, but energetically, it was tiring. The dancers control the vibe of the club and all of a sudden my energy would pick up on the energy of the space. Maybe some of the dancers would be upset because they weren’t making enough money or they’re [tired]. I have very empathic tendencies and that was a challenge sometimes. Some days, you could tell [the dancers] wanted to be there. And then other days, you can see they’re just not feeling it, or their bodies hurt, you can see it in their eyes. The photos look glamorous, but it’s not always as glamorous as it’s portrayed.

“It was just so intriguing to watch how they work the space and how they get what they want, though. I mean, these women are like queens, they know what they're doing. They’re legends in their own right, and now they’re kind of immortalised in this book.”

ONYX by Adrienne Raquel is published by Damiani and is available now.

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