- Chris Joyner The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Alison Valente was an adult entertainer at The Cheetah for more than a decade, and by her own reckoning, she was one of the Midtown strip club’s top earners.
But Valente said she was improperly fired from the world-renowned club in 2015 — a destination for visitors, professional athletes and well-heeled patrons for four decades — after complaining about a practice of pairing high-rolling customers with dancers for illegal sexual contact and bullying those who refused to play along.
Valente and five other former Cheetah employees told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they witnessed everything from inappropriate touching to sexual intercourse in the club’s private VIP rooms.
Moreover, they described the dangers faced by strippers who did not want to cross the line. The women said patrons secretly drugged, assaulted, and in one case, raped one of them in an atmosphere where they said Cheetah customers were led to believe they could expect sexual favors from dancers if they were willing to pay for it.
The dancers all worked at the club within the past five years, some as recently as within the last year. Each described a system that evolved over the past five years where a group of security guards known as “floormen” facilitated the conduct with a select group of dancers willing to violate club rules on sexual contact with patrons for preferred bookings in the VIP rooms. Patrons paid the dancers, who then paid the floormen a percentage for help booking the room and ignoring illegal activity that took place inside.
Those involved made thousands of dollars, the dancers told the AJC. The dancers who spoke to the newspaper said they were cajoled and threatened to engage in the behavior themselves. Those who wouldn’t said they found it harder to get into VIP rooms where they could make more money.
This alleged scheme of sex, protection and kickbacks is spelled out in two separate but nearly identical lawsuits filed by Valente and another former Cheetah entertainer. The complaints, both filed earlier this year by the same attorney, claim club management and bouncers ran a “sophisticated organized crime syndicate” of sex and drugs that “became an integral part of The Cheetah’s operations.”
The Cheetah and club owner Bill Hagood have hired high-profile defense attorneys Steve Sadow and Ed Garland, both of whom say the dancers’ claims are false. In a statement, Sadow described Valente and other women who spoke to the AJC anonymously as “vindictive, discharged strippers, some of whom may well have been fired for engaging in the very same misconduct that they claim was tolerated by management.”
Despite blanket denials by the club’s lawyers, The Cheetah made VIP rooms less private and banned dancers from tipping floormen almost immediately after being contacted by the AJC and Channel 2 Action News, moves it later said were unrelated to the news organizations’ reporting.
In her lawsuit, Valente said she refused to join a group of dancers known as the “F Girls” who engaged in sex acts with customers in exchange for VIP room bookings. Valente said she declined to pay kickbacks to floormen and, as a result, she said she was threatened, abused and “drugged into near unconsciousness” for not playing along.
The Cheetah denies Valente’s allegations in a counterclaim filed in her lawsuit, and is counter-suing the Atlanta woman for slander and defamation for repeating her claims to news organizations, including the AJC.
Valente’s statements “wrongfully depicted the Defendant as something it is not, and were calculated to harm The Cheetah’s reputation as a sophisticated, upscale Gentleman’s club,” the counterclaim alleges.
In her complaint, Valente said floormen refused to assist her and other dancers when customers broke the rules and became sexually aggressive.
“As a top earner at The Cheetah, Ms. Valente was viewed as direct competition to the floormen’s underground regime,” Valente said in her suit, “and it was made clear to her through repeated intimidation that they wanted her earnings and that she would have to participate in the illegal activities if she wanted to stay employed at The Cheetah.”
One night in February 2015 in the club’s private “penthouse,” Valente said she witnessed two dancers engaged in sex acts with two male customers. In her complaint, Valente said she appealed to a floorman to intervene, but he responded, “Shut the —— up.” Valente said she took her complaint to a supervisor who Valente said ignored it — an allegation the club denied in its court filing.
Valente said she was fired the day after she complained about what she witnessed. She was terminated for excessive “chargebacks,” when customers or their credit card companies challenge a VIP room charge or a dancer’s performance and ask for a refund. Valente disputes the allegation and in court filings she claims some of the alleged chargebacks occurred on days she did not work or days the club was closed. Claims of chargebacks never occurred until she started complaining to management about working conditions, she said.
Valente and several other former Cheetah entertainers also have filed a class action lawsuit claiming they were misclassified as “independent contractors” and are seeking back pay from the club and other damages.
Sadow said club management never received any claims of sexual assault or alleged drugging of strippers. “Only now, in an apparent scheme to extort money, have these fabricated claims surfaced,” he said.
“The Cheetah has been open for nearly 40 years. It has served customers in Atlanta and visitors to Atlanta during the entire time and there has never been a claim of any illegal conduct against the club,” he said. “The club will not stand idly by and allow its excellent reputation to be besmirched.”
Sadow and The Cheetah’s legal team said they would produce multiple current Cheetah employees who would dispute the allegations. The AJC and Channel 2 gave The Cheetah more than a month to produce those sources, but they did not.
Jim McDonough, Valente’s attorney, compared Sadow’s statement to “victim shaming.”
“As we have seen again and again lately, it takes multiple victims coming into the light before any allegations of abuse are actually taken seriously,” he said.
The AJC does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault and, with the exception of Valente, who agreed to come forward, the newspaper is not identifying other dancers who agreed to speak to a reporter. Some of the women have left stripping while others have gone to other clubs where they feel safer.
One entertainer who has since moved on to another Atlanta club said sexual assault inside the VIP rooms happened frequently. In one session, she said a customer stuck his finger inside her vagina. When she protested, the customer reported her to one of the floormen who told her to refund the man for the VIP room, she said.
“I could have called the cops and gotten him in big trouble,” the woman said.
She said she didn’t call the authorities because the club pressured employees to keep police away. The Cheetah was her first experience dancing nude and she said she was naïve about what to expect.
“Not until I quit did I realize that doesn’t have to happen,” she said.
Another former dancer told a nearly identical story. “I was literally sexually assaulted,” she said. “There are so many girls with stories like that.”
When contacted by the AJC, club owner Bill Hagood said his attorney had advised him not to comment.
“The only thing I call tell you is that’s a lie,” he said. “I can’t believe this.”
Hagood said the claims amount to “extortion” on the part of Valente and others.
But the former Cheetah strippers who spoke to the AJC said they were the ones who were mistreated. They expressed frustration that because they chose to strip, they felt men believed they were entitled to assault them.
“We didn’t feel like we had any protection because,” one woman said, “who’s going to believe a bunch of strippers?”
Located on Spring Street, The Cheetah has been a landmark adult entertainment club for decades, popular with convention goers and bachelor parties. Inside, dozens of nude or nearly nude woman strut down runways in a cavernous room that includes a restaurant and several semi-private areas where customers pay a nominal seat rental on top of a cover charge.
Women circulate freely among the overwhelmingly male clientele, striking up conversations, sitting in laps and performing $10 table dances.
At The Cheetah, as in many higher-end strip clubs, the greatest earning potential for dancers is in the VIP rooms — private or semi-private enclaves where customers pay extra for personal attention. Dancers can make more than $1,000 a night if they get booked into VIP rooms, and that’s without sexual contact with a customer.
But even in such close quarters there are supposed to be iron-clad rules: absolutely no touching and absolutely no sexual contact. Garland, one of the club’s lawyers, told reporters with the AJC and Channel 2 that employees are regularly reminded of the “no touching” policy. There is to be no physical contact between strippers and the club’s clientele, he said.
“The Cheetah is the safe place to work,” Garland said.
In reporting the story, a journalist with the AJC visited The Cheetah on a weeknight in October. Within 30 minutes of arriving, a Cheetah entertainer, clothed at the time, approached the reporter in the club’s main room, and uninvited, sat in his lap, wrapping an arm around his back. The reporter declined an invitation to leave the main room and go somewhere “more fun.”
The reporter also witnessed physical contact between other customers and entertainers in the main room, although no contact that would be described as lewd. Floormen also were present on the floor where violations of this policy were in full display. Such casual contact between dancers and patrons, while technically against the rules, appear to be widely tolerated at many Atlanta strip clubs.
Garland said allegations of an organized climate where sexual activity in the club’s VIP rooms was nurtured are “fantasy,” but he acknowledged that some of the club’s many strippers may not follow the rules.
“Clearly some dancers don’t follow that (policy) because they are trying to get money out of customers,” Garland said, adding that the club’s entertainers are “smart as hell.”
“When they are caught the customers are kicked out and the girls are sent home,” he said. “How is a club to know which girls will do that?”
Garland said the club denies the allegations “as a policy or practice.” He said employees are required to sign documents saying they are aware of the club’s policies regarding illicit behavior.
“They all sign not to do it, they’re all told the rules and if they’re caught violating something like getting involved in sexual activity with a customer, they are fired and the customer is kicked out,” he said.
Garland did not say the police are alerted in those instances, but he did allow that there could be activity not known to his client, Bill Hagood. Hagood is in his 80s, lives in California and visits the club about every other month and is not there on a day-to-day basis, Garland said.
Garland said the club cannot be held liable for “the misconduct of certain girls behind closed doors.”
Many of those doors are no longer closed. After the AJC and Channel 2 shared the allegations with The Cheetah’s attorneys, the club removed some of the fixed doors from the VIP rooms, making the rooms more visible and less private.
Valente said the unlawful behavior in the VIP rooms started within the last five years when floormen began taking over booking of the rooms, which had not been part of their job. Several dancers who spoke to the AJC said they were in competition with floormen who would attempt to pair wealthy clients with a select group of women willing to cross legal lines that separate adult entertainment and prostitution.
Valente said women who didn’t kick back to the floormen found it more difficult to get VIP room bookings.
“I would be with a gentleman and (a floorman) would yank me out of the room. And say, ‘Hey, we have another girl who is coming in,’” she said.
“If you didn’t want to work with the floormen, you would literally get kicked out of the (VIP) rooms,” another former Cheetah dancer said. “They would take us out of rooms and replace us with girls who were paying them 20 percent.”
Several dancers said floormen encouraged sexual behavior among the dancers. One said a floorman let her know that paying him would give her license to break the rules.
“He told me if I wanted to do something nasty in the room, let him know and that would be more than 20 percent and he just wouldn’t walk into the room,” she said.
A former floorman who spoke to the AJC on condition that he not be identified because he feared retaliation said he personally saw sex acts between strippers and customers in VIP rooms but he said he was warned to stay away by more senior staff. He said sexual activity was allowed to continue in some rooms while it was stopped in others, depending on which dancer was involved and whether they were sharing a portion of their earnings with the floormen.
Those who didn’t exceed the house minimum and pay a portion of the VIP earnings were marked on a list and reported to the other floormen, he said.
After some time on the job, he realized, “I wasn’t security, I was just a liaison to nefarious activity.”
“It made me upset,” he said.
Legal documents provided by club attorneys confirm that The Cheetah was aware of a financial arrangement between dancers and floormen. A brief filed Oct. 12, 2015, by the club’s then-attorneys with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission described the tips paid by entertainers to floormen in exchange for VIP bookings as a “custom.”
“The custom of some entertainers tipping floormen came about when a few entertainers started asking floormen to send good customers their way and thanking them for doing so with a small tip,” the club’s brief claims, adding that the custom was not a requirement.
But some former Cheetah entertainers said the atmosphere at the club had gotten so cutthroat that only those who broke the rules were guaranteed VIP access.
“Toward the end, the floormen weren’t even using me and putting me in the VIP rooms anymore,” one said. “There was no way to make money unless you put out.”
After the AJC and Channel 2 questioned Cheetah attorneys about the practice of “tipping out,” the club posted notices prohibiting dancers from kicking back a portion of their earnings to the floormen.
Almost every entertainer who spoke to the AJC said they found themselves at times sharing a VIP room with a dancer who was part of the floormen’s favored group and witnessed sex acts between the woman and her customer.
In such cases, several women said they tried to talk their way out of a bad situation, but often their reluctance escalated the encounter. More than one said she was physically threatened, while three women said they were served cocktails spiked with drugs.
One former Cheetah dancer recalled an episode three years ago when she was summoned by a regular customer into a VIP room. “Everything was fine,” she said, until he offered her a shot of liquor.
“I took the shot and … he started being really, really, really aggressive with me,” she said. “I started feeling myself lose control and slumped down into my seat.”
When the customer started unbuttoning his pants, the woman said she screamed and staggered out of the room, down a hallway to one of the club’s bars. Much of what happened after is blurry, she said, but no one called the police. Instead, she was put in a cab and sent home.
“I was passed out in the front yard,” she said. “My roommate woke me up.”
Like other claims by the women, The Cheetah’s lawyers deny such events happened.
The most harrowing experiences related to the AJC came from a former entertainer who has left the industry but worked at the club for five years. This woman said she was working in March 2013 during the NCAA basketball tournament when a customer arranged for her to come to a VIP room.
She was dancing with her back to the man while trying to keep an eye on him.
“We all try to look back some and check,” she said. “I wasn’t fast enough.”
The customer pulled his pants down and pulled her onto his erect penis, penetrating her. She fought and got away from the man, running for help. She said she found a “house mom” — a female supervisor who handled scheduling and other administrative tasks for the club’s approximately 200 exotic dancers — and reported the rape.
“I was confiding in her and breaking down,” she said. The support the house mom offered was to order a tray of tequila shots, she said. “I remember I thought she was trying to be comforting. Looking back, I think she was trying to look out for (the club),” she said.
At no time did anyone offer to call the police or medical help, she said.
“The idea of calling the cops is something I suggested and they just started talking about something else,” she said. “She just encouraged me to move on and not make a big deal out of it.”
Later she would discover that calls to the police “don’t get made” at The Cheetah, she said.
The woman said she took the shots and was escorted to the penthouse.
She said she does not remember much from the rest of the night, except stories she heard later about “how crazy things got in that room.” She said she is not sure how she made it home.
“I genuinely don’t know where I went,” she said.
After being questioned by the AJC and Channel 2, Kevin Ward, one of the lawyers representing The Cheetah, said a club investigation confirmed “an apparently unwanted sexual incident occurred during March Madness 2013.” In a statement, Ward said the club’s investigation determined it involved “a dancer and a customer with whom she had a personal and intimate relationship.”
Ward said the dancer did contact a house mom after the incident “and did not want to contact the police.”
The dancer in question told the AJC that she had no relationship with her alleged assailant before or after the incident. To this day, she said, she does not even know his name.