'Don't Drop The Thong'
Suzy Bennett has been happily shacked up with her boyfriend for three years - and wants to keep it that way. So, to keep the fires burning in her love life, she went to Paris to learn a new skill...
I'm almost naked, the Eiffel Tower is behind me, a photographer is in front of me and to my side is Mariana showing me how to remove my bra with one hand while simultaneously sweeping the other suggestively over my body. All to the rhythm of a raunchy track on the stereo.
No-one ever said that learning to strip for my boyfriend would be easy, but I had never expected to be wishing I'd consulted my chiropractor beforehand.
Why was I putting myself through this? Aware of a spiralling break-up rate between couples, I was keen to keep the spark in my relationship with my boyfriend, so had enrolled in a stripping class to learn a few rather unconventional skills.
There seemed to be no better place to get in touch with my inner Gypsy Rose Lee (a famous stripper at nightclub Minsky's) than Paris, home of the Moulin Rouge and La Folies Bergère.
Artstrip is one of France's few stripping schools, and is run by a small team of professional striptease artists and pole dancers who will visit your hotel or home to teach you how to strip for your partner, or as their website puts it, 'libérez votre sex appeal". Hen parties are their most common requests.
My instructor is Mariana, a 39-year-old Parisien stripper and dancer who doesn't look a day past 30. With a toned body, glowing skin and sparkling eyes, she's a walking advert for the health benefits of getting your kit off.
I soon learn that the art of déshabiller requires a great deal of dedication.
To pull it off, all the elements have to be carefully chosen and planned. Get it wrong, Mariana warns me, and you risk it turning into a blush-inducing pantomine, 'sans' sex appeal.
All made up
First, there is the make-up to get right. It must be simple and sophisticated, and look "fresh and charming - not like a prostitute or sex professional," she says.
She dabs smoky browns and blacks around my eyes, puts a little blusher on my cheeks, some neutral-coloured gloss on my lips and tousles my hair around my face.
Then it's time to choose the music. Too slow and you risk your man falling asleep before the action even starts; too fast and you risk things going, literally, bottoms up. Mariana stages a fall to illustrate the point. "If you can't dance, pick something slow, " she tells me as I flick through her album collection. "If you can, choose something with a beat". Jazz is always a winner; house music works too.
She has Massive Attack, James Bond Theme Tunes and Nina Simone, but I pick He's A Dream from Flashdance, a classic 80s movie about woman welder and wannabe dancer who bumps and grinds her way into ballet school.
Set the scene
Next, it's time to set the ambience. Candles, textured cushions and incense are vital, as is guaranteed peace and quiet. Mobile phones left on are a definite 'non', she says.
Then it is time to choose clothes. The idea, she says, is to be feminine and sexy - but never vulgar. No extras such as gloves or the ubiquitous feather boa and no lurid red nail polish. Suspenders? Stockings? Quelle horreur! They make legs look short, she tells me, and are virtually impossible to take off seductively.
Attempting to cover all options means I'd stuffed my suitcase with delicate lacy bras and knickers, floaty skirts to be shimmied out of, front-fastening shirts for provocative unbuttoning and, as a back-up, some reliable Marks and Spencers undies.
"It's important that a girl doesn't feel disguised. She needs to feel 'erself," Mariana tells me as she sorts through my clothes. We decide on a smart bra and knickers set under a figure-hugging, chocolate-brown dress with buttons from top to bottom. High heels to finish it off.
Finally, I am ready for action.
Following Mariana's lead I have to learn, with one hand, how to undo my buttons from top to bottom using just my thumb and forefinger, while letting my other hand wander suggestively over my hips. "Slooowly," she says.
"Try not to be stiff," she tells me as I struggle to perform several different manoeuvres in time to the music. "Keep easy, beautiful movements. This must be a beautiful dream for your partner."
So far, so nude
Keen not to make it more of a nightmare, I concentrate hard as Mariana shows me how to shimmy out of my dress, sliding it slowly down my back as if it were a drape. Once it's passed my knees, I lean on a table to balance myself before 'pow!', I flick it off the toe of my right shoe, letting it fall a safe distance away.
"Bravo!" she calls, applauding my clumsy first attempt. So far, so nude.
Then comes my underwear, the most difficult part of any strip. Holding my bra with my arm across my chest, Mariana shows me how to unhook the clasp with my other hand. Naturally, it fails to unclip and I crumple in giggles. I feel a sudden surge of sympathy for the ineffectual fumblings of my first boyfriend.
"Don't be afraid to laugh, it can be very sexy," she tells me as I regain my composure. "If something gets stuck, show your partner 'ow to do it for you - unless, of course, 'e is drunk." In this case, she says, turn your body towards him and unclip the bra yourself using both hands.
Once successfully released, slide the straps over your shoulders one by one and "voila!", let it drop or throw it off.
With knickers and shoes remaining, it is time to start dancing. Mariana demonstrates a few moves which she says are guaranteed to make for a frisson-filled evening. The trick is to keep eye contact, smile and flaunt the parts of your body you are proud of.
Long, lingering caresses
She slides up and down walls, bends over tables, straddles chairs, and performs long, lingering caresses on curtains and door handles. Her long, perfectly-groomed hair is constantly on the move, hypnotically swirling and flicking. Nothing overt; just stylish and sexy.
One minute she is cool and reserved, the next playful and cute. "This is ze essence of a good strip," she says, "accessible, inaccessible."
As she puffs on a cigarette on the wrought-iron balcony of the room (very French), I practise my routine. Stroke chair. Walk slowly to wall. Slide down edge of door. Sit on chair, but keep legs demurely together. It's all very do-able, and I'm relieved not to be asked to do any tassle-twirling.
'Don't let the thong drop'
As the song begins to wind down, it is time for the final act. A word of warning here: thongs and stilettos don't mix. Knickers must be hooked with the thumbs, shimmied down the body and gently stepped out of foot-by-foot. "Never let 'zem drop", she says, demonstrating the potentially dire consequences of elastic tangled around six-inch heels.
Timing is crucial. "You don't want to stand there 'alf way through the song naked."
With knickers safely removed and the song into its last few bars, there is nothing left between me and nature except for a pair of heels and slide in my hair. The last gesture, a drop of the head, is accompanied by a shake out of the hair clip and my best come-to-bed look. Think Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies where she unwittingly strips in front of her husband, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"The rest is up to you," she tells me.
So, did it work? Was it worth it? A dinner at Paris' sumptious Buddha Bar, champagne at the hip Hotel Costes, a candelit hotel room in Saint Germain, Flashdance on the stereo...
Well no, actually. Dizzy with bubbly, a belly full of Thai food, I got hiccups, a fit of giggles, then found out exactly what happens if you drop 'ze thong. I'm still trying to pluck up the courage to try it again.