Content Warning: The following program contains adult content, violence and strong language. Listener discretion is advised.
Natalia Petrzela: Previously on Welcome to Your Fantasy.
Scott Layne: You're having sex every day with two and three people. Every day, every day, every day, a different girl, maybe sometimes twice, but never more than three. There was no care, no interest, no emotion, no nothing, no intimacy. It was an act. And it damaged me.
Eric Gilbert: The club was singularly controlled, 100 percent by Steve Banerjee, so he was this massive hub of a bicycle wheel where all these spokes, all you had to do was just get close to another spoke and you'd know exactly what's coming out of him.
Dan Peterson: Nick basically proposed to Steve that he would have a road show in perpetuity, and Banerjee didn't know what perpetuity meant. And Nick wrote on a napkin, "I have the right to take Chippendales on the road, and I own this in perpetuity," and Banerjee signed it.
Natalia: So one day last fall, I met up with this guy named Hodari Sababu. We went to this pizza place in LA, it was right at the corner of Hollywood and Vine. And we got to talking about his years as a Chippendales dancer.
Hodari Sababu: Back then it was, like, super huge. So many famous people came, you know, girls from the soap operas, the Rams cheerleaders, the Playboy Bunnies. I'm like, "Whoa, this thing is crazy!"
Natalia: It was the mid-'80s, at the height of Chippendales fame. And Hodari loved partying with the Bunnies and the cheerleaders. But during the day, he spent his time hanging around the office with Steve Banerjee.
Hodari Subabu: You know, most of the guys are dancers, they're kinda dance-y. You find them on the beach hanging out, or in the gym pumping weights. And they didn't know a lot. But I had been to college and all that, and I had other aspirations. You know, I used to go there during the day, just to hang out because I had nothing else to do. You know, we would talk, and he liked me. So he said, "Look, well, just kinda hang out, and I'll show you how to negotiate deals. I'll show you the business side."
Natalia: Hodari would answer phones, file paperwork, but he was also watching Banerjee really closely. The way he'd haggle with vendors, the way he marketed the brand.
Hodari Subabu: I remember one time he, in order to get more publicity, he called a bunch of churches in the area. He said, "Ah, yeah, we heard that there's a show down there, these guys are getting naked." And these church leaders, "Oh my God!" And they came, and then he would call the news channel. "I heard that there's gonna be a bunch of church ladies picketing outside of Chippendales." And all the news cameras are there and all the church ladies are there and they're picketing. "No more naked guys! No more naked guys!" Millions of dollars worth of free publicity. And I did this when I opened my club. I did the exact same thing. I copied him.
Natalia: Hodari's a true entrepreneur. The reason we were in this pizza joint in the first place is because it's where he takes his meetings these days. It's just up the block from the umbrella stand that serves as the headquarters for his own company LA Hood Life Tours. For $75, you can get a three-hour tour of Compton and South Central LA. There's Eazy-E's house. That's where Tupac shot the video for "To Live and Die in LA."
Natalia: Hodari's been running the tours for about 10 years. Before that, he did eight years in prison for drug dealing, which he says he was also very good at. Until he got busted. And before that, he ran the strip club he mentioned a second ago.
Hodari Subabu: I started my own show. It was Lady Killers and Bad Boys.
Natalia: Good title.
Hodari Subabu: Yeah, yeah. So it was an all-Black male review.
Natalia: Hodari seemed to like spending time with Banerjee at Chippendales, but there was one thing that was tough for him to look past.
Hodari Subabu: I just happened to be the only Black guy that worked there.
Natalia: He was the one Black dancer in the cast. Later on, after he'd left Chippendales, Hodari figured he could start his own show, having spent three full years studying Banerjee's business moves. But Lady Killers, he decided, would be by and for Black people.
Hodari Subabu: Steve went to the beach to get his guys. We went to outside of the jail to get ours.
Natalia: Did you really? Is that what you did?
Hodari Subabu: Yeah. We would literally get guys that had just did five, 10 years. They come out, they swole, they don't have a job. They don't know how the hell they're gonna make some money. It's like, "Bro, bro. Let me show you. You could actually do this." And they come and "Oh, man. Shit, man." They come and they'd be like, "Whoa! I'm with it! I'm in, I'm all in." I tried to mold these guys into Black Chippendale dancers.
Hodari Subabu: It didn't work.
Natalia: What did work, though, was the same marketing trick that he'd seen Banerjee use to get people to come to his club.
Hodari Subabu: I called all the news channels and I called all these Baptist churches, and I told them I heard there was going to be some naked guy. And it worked to perfection, and we got so much free publicity.
Natalia: That trick's like Marketing 101 in the Steve Banerjee School of Business. It's the intro class right before Arson 202. Banerjee really did try to burn down at least two of his competitors. First, there was a club called Moody's Disco, in 1979. Then the Red Onion, in '84. Neither attempt was successful, if that's the right word for an attempted arson, but the guy definitely had some issues with competition.
Natalia: You might think Banerjee would have chilled out as the business became more established and mainstream, and as Steve himself became incredibly wealthy. But instead, the opposite happened. The bigger Chippendales got, the more paranoid Steve became. Part of it was the growing feeling that Nick de Noia was becoming the face of Chippendales. Part of it was that as Chippendales got bigger, there was more competition popping up, other clubs and knock-off merchandise. And part of it was just, it's just who Steve was. Almost everyone I talked to mentioned that he was a paranoid person, and that his paranoia grew and grew as he became wealthier and more powerful.
Natalia: So for this episode, we're heading back to LA, where Banerjee is now running the show without Nick. And where we see the two sides of his personality coming out in full force. And there's no one who experienced these two sides of Steve more intensely than Hodari.
Hodari Subabu: When he was really starting to go through this megalomaniac thing, I was kinda in on the beginning of that. He's like, "Ah, I got to get rid of this guy. I want him to come up missing, because he's fucking up my business." I'm like, "Look dude, I'm not gonna do that. I don't want to get involved in that."
Natalia: I'm Natalia Petrzela. This is Welcome to Your Fantasy episode four: Three Men and a Lawsuit.
Natalia: We're gonna pick up Hodari's story later, but there's another guy I want you to meet. A law student named Don Gibson. He's about as far from a Chippendales dancer as you can get, but he plays an important role in the history of the club, and in the story of Steve Banerjee's relationship to the law.
Natalia: Okay, so let's start from kind of who you were. Who were you in the 1980s?
Don Gibson: I was a cool guy. I still am. [laughs]
Don Gibson: This is not officially on tape yet, right?
Natalia: Actually, we are rolling.
Don Gibson: Oh, we are. Okay, well, let me get serious.
Natalia: So you are on the record as a cool guy.
Natalia: Don's a law professor at Arizona State University, where he teaches things like sports law, and the history of Major League Baseball. But back in 1982, he was a second-year law student at UCLA.
Don Gibson: I had images of Perry Mason and people like that who were characters on television who always seemed to have a great deal of success helping people overcome circumstances that they might not have otherwise been able to overcome.
Natalia: Don has the perfect disposition for an attorney. He's thoughtful and measured. And he's the kind of guy who's always stood up for what's right, even if it made him unpopular.
Don Gibson: I mean, I remember, you know, in French class in seventh grade, telling Professor Greenberg that so-and-so is cheating on the test because I didn't think cheating was appropriate. It wasn't a smart thing to do, because he challenged me to a fight in the yard, and we went out and we boxed it out. But I've always been committed to doing the right thing and helping others understand the importance of standing up for what's right.
Natalia: I can relate. I also used to rat out the cheaters.
Natalia: Back in his law school days, Don lived near Chippendales.
Don Gibson: And oftentimes, I would be on the bus traveling past the club and see long lines. And then they were very aggressive with their advertising and their promotion, so everyone in Los Angeles knew about Chippendales, the nightclub.
Natalia: Like most grad students Don didn't go out that much. But one September night, he and one of his buddies from law school—a guy named Barry—decide to check out Chippendales.
Don Gibson: We waited in line, and as we got to the entrance and the bouncer asked us for our IDs. And I pull out my California ID and Barry pulled out his driver's license. And he said, "No, I mean your membership ID." And we said, "Membership? We had no idea that a membership was required." And he said, "Oh, no. You need to have a membership ID in order to gain entrance."
Natalia: So the bouncer points them to a building down the block.
Don Gibson: "That's where you have to go, and you go there Monday through Friday between 10:00 and 4:00," I think is what he said. And he said, "It's several hundred dollars." But we weren't going to spend several hundred dollars on a membership, so we just dropped it and we left.
Natalia: Don's a student. He's not about to spend what little money he has to join a private club he's never even been to. So he leaves and forgets the whole thing. He gets back to studying labor law and criminal procedure. But then, a month or so later, he runs into Barry on campus and asks him what he got up to over the weekend.
Don Gibson: He says, "Oh, I went to Chippendales Saturday night." I said, "Really?" I said, "You bought a membership?" And he said, "No." He said, "They let me in. They didn't ask me anything about a membership." And Barry, by the way, is Caucasian. And that's when the red flag went up for me.
Don Gibson: So I started inquiring and asking other law students if they had any experience with trying to gain entrance to Chippendales. And every single person I asked who was a person of color said they were asked for a membership. And that's when I knew something was awry, something that was going on that was not in compliance with the law.
Natalia: This is the guy who was willing to get beat up after school in order to stop the injustice of a fellow seventh grader cheating on a French test. He's not gonna let this one slide. But Don also knows he needs hard evidence if he wants to build a case. So he asks a couple white classmates—Bennett and Greg—to help him out with a sting operation.
Don Gibson: So we hatched a plan, the three of us. We decided that we would go down to Chippendales together, that I would dress up compared to them, and we would try to gain entrance to the club and see what happened. But we would have to do it by going in separately, so I didn't run into the Barry issue where both of us were rejected because they came in with me.
Natalia: So one night in late October, Don, Bennett and Greg meet at Don's apartment. They head over to Chippendales a little after 10. Bennett and Greg get in line first, dressed in khakis and button-downs. Don stands a few feet behind them, sporting a designer jacket and newly-pressed slacks. No one could accuse him of looking too casual. He watches as they pay the $4 cover charge, and the bouncer stamps their hands and in they go into the club, no problem. But when Don gets to the front of the line ...
Don Gibson: The bouncer gave me the same statements that had been previously given me, that you need to have a membership ID. And I said, "Okay," and I walked away.
Natalia: A few minutes later, Bennett and Greg join him at a designated meeting spot.
Don Gibson: And they were incensed. I mean, incensed. I mean, they couldn't believe that this kind of conduct could be occurring in a city like Los Angeles.
Natalia: Were you surprised?
Don Gibson: Well, nothing surprised me because I had experienced racism throughout my life, so nothing surprised me. I was just surprised that it was so bold.
Natalia: So the three of them get back in line, this time all together. And when they reach the bouncer ...
Don Gibson: Ben and Greg pointed to me and said, "Well, he was denied admission because he was Black." And the doorman looked at me and he said, "No, he didn't. I rejected him because he didn't have a membership ID, a membership card." And they looked at him, and they put their hands out, and they said, "Neither did we." And the significance of that was that they had their hands stamped, proving that they had admission to the club. He was like, "My goodness." You could tell he was caught in a lie.
Natalia: So now Don, the budding lawyer, has his evidence. The next step is to file a discrimination complaint with a couple different agencies: the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, and the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.
Don Gibson: One of the in-house representatives told me that this was incredible because they had received many complaints from African Americans and other minorities about Chippendales, and concerns about their discriminatory admissions practice over the years, but no one had actually done what we had done and compiled this kind of documentary evidence that they could use to advance the process.
Natalia: Wow! How did that make you feel?
Don Gibson: Oh, well, it validated that I did the right thing by going to law school. [laughs]
Natalia: Fair warning. What you're about to hear is not sexy, but it is important to the story. The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board is known as the ABC. The ABC controls liquor licensing in LA. So if a business violates the liquor laws—overcrowding, serving minors, discrimination—the ABC can hear a case against them. And the more complaints a club gets, the more likely they are not just to get fined, but to have their liquor license revoked, a disaster for any night club. Don's case was definitely not Chippendales' first run-in with the ABC.
Bruce Nahin: We got arrested twice.
Natalia: For indecent exposure?
Bruce Nahin: Yes ma'am.
Natalia: You might remember that other lawyer, Bruce Nahin. The guy with the raspy cigar smoker's voice, who studied for the bar at Steve Banerjee's bar.
Natalia: You're the lawyer there, so how'd you deal with that?
Bruce Nahin: We pled guilty, paid fines, hired an ABC law firm. And they started dealing with the ABC, and we learned what we can do and what we can't do.
Natalia: I called Bruce to ask if he remembered Don Gibson. Of course he did, Bruce said. He tried to get the case to go away, not by letting the wheels of justice do their thing, but by offering Don free admission to the club for a year and a bottle of champagne.
Bruce Nahin: My gut feeling was settle quick.
Natalia: Why? Talk to me about that strategy. I'm not a lawyer.
Bruce Nahin: It just felt icky, you know? And it felt like it can become quicksand that we'd never get out of. And it just didn't seem like the place to take a stand, defending our rights to refuse service to anyone, it just didn't feel right.
Natalia: Don Gibson is not impressed. He's not the kind of guy who's gonna roll over for free admission and a bottle of champagne. He knows he has a good case, and he's not in any rush. He graduates law school, goes to work as a clerk for a federal judge, and lets the slow-moving legal process unfold. Eventually, the case turns into a class-action suit that includes seven other Black patrons who claimed to have been also turned away from Chippendales.
Bruce Nahin: It was horrible in the press.
Natalia: How was Chippendales painted?
Bruce Nahin: As a place that discriminates. The ABC thought it was a cause célèbre, so they pushed it as far as they could.
Natalia: In late 1983, Don attends the first big public hearing.
Don Gibson: At that hearing, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times or the local NBC channel maybe, asked me if I had ever seen Steve Banerjee. I said, "No." She goes, "Well, he's here at the hearing." And she pointed him out to me. I said, "Oh, my goodness, I don't believe this."
Natalia: This was Don's first time hearing Steve's name. His lawsuit was with the business, not Steve Banerjee personally. And Don had just assumed that a guy running the nightclub that wouldn't let in Black people had to be white.
Don Gibson: Well, Steve Banerjee was East Indian. And I walked over to Steve Banerjee, and I said, "So you're the owner of Chippendales, and you're the guy who has this policy of not letting Black people into your club." And I said, "I just want to tell you one thing. My grandfather is East Indian, just like you."
Natalia: What did he say?
Don Gibson: Oh, he just looked at me and walked away.
Natalia: Really? How do you understand that?
Don Gibson: Well, you know, he was running a business, and he thought that this was something that he needed to do to keep his business model, you know, in place. I mean, there is racism among people of color as well, so it didn't surprise me. It was just that I wanted to just convey to him a message that he has a policy in place that's affecting people just like him.
Natalia: We'll be right back.
Natalia: The guy you met at the top of this episode, Hodari Sababu, the entrepreneur, talked to me about what it was like to be the only Black dancer during the three years he worked at Chippendales in the early '80s. Hodari had a day job when he first got hired at Chippendales. He was a reporter at a Black-owned newspaper called the LA Sentinel. So he went straight from the paper, where the whole staff was Black, to Chippendales, a decidedly different environment.
Hodari Subabu: It was kind of a point of contention, because Banerjee felt that he didn't want more than one Black guy in the club.
Natalia: Like, in the whole club or on the stage?
Hodari Subabu: Working at Chippendales at one time. Out of, maybe it's like 25, 26 guys that worked there.
Natalia: Hodari said he asked Banerjee point blank what the deal was. Why wouldn't he hire more than one Black dancer?
Hodari Subabu: I'm like, "Why's that man?" "I—I—" and he stuttered. "I got mostly white women. They come in here and they spend a lot of money, and I don't want a lot of Black guys in here. You know, it makes it look like some gang stuff or something." You know, it was like, Chippendales is this classy thing, we got these classy guys, we want classy girls coming in here.
Natalia: What do you think classy meant to him?
Hodari Subabu: Definitely white, definitely white. Successful financially. It was all superficial.
Natalia: The problem wasn't just Steve, Hodari said. It was everywhere. He told me some of the other dancers would refuse to even stand next to him onstage.
Hodari Subabu: I mean, we're backstage, we're doing push ups, we're pumping up, "I'm not standing next to him! No, man, fuck that! I ain't standing next to him!" Because it would make their tan look bad.
Natalia: Are you kidding me?
Hodari Subabu: It made them look more pale if they stood next to me. And it was every night. It was like—it was they just simply didn't want to do it. It was like, "Ah, man, he's making me look bad. Ah, look, he's dark and I'm—" I'm like, "Man, come on."
Natalia: There was this other time, when Hodari got an opportunity he thought was cool, and might even lead to some other work beyond back-up dancing.
Hodari Subabu: I did a TV show called The Facts of Life.
Hodari Subabu: Mrs. Garett and all the ...
Natalia: Tootie! Yeah.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Facts of Life theme song: You take the good, you take the bad, you take 'em both and there you have the facts of life, the facts of life.]
Natalia: For those who don't know, The Facts of Life was a hit NBC sitcom in the '80s. I loved it. It was about a bunch of girls at an East Coast boarding school and their house mother, Mrs. Garrett.
Hodari Subabu: Well, they did an episode where they took Ms. Garrett to Chippendales for her birthday.
Natalia: I just watched it, yeah.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Facts of Life: Do you think we embarrassed him, staring at him like that?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Facts of Life: Mrs. Garrett, that's what he's here for. To be stared at. Trust me, he didn't get this job because he's fluent in four languages!]
Natalia: That episode aired in November, 1983. The show's casting director came to the club looking to hire three dancers, and they wanted one of them to be Black. Good news for Hodari. But when they actually shot the scene, his part is pretty different from the role of the two white guys.
Hodari Subabu: We all had routines where we'd go out on the stage, and at the end of their routine, they went over to Mrs. Garrett and gave her a kiss. Well, I wasn't allowed to touch her because I'm a Black guy.
Natalia: Who told you that?
Hodari Subabu: It was in the script. And it's obvious out of the three dancers, the two dancers that come on, they go to Mrs. Garrett and give her a kiss. In my script, I do my routine, and I'm supposed to turn and go back to backstage. And I'm like, "Shit, I want some more air time too. I want to go over and kiss Mrs. Garrett." But they wasn't having that.
Natalia: How did it make you feel?
Hodari Subabu: It didn't bother me, I guess, that much. It was no big deal.
Natalia: Were you ever like, "Fuck this. Why am I, like, listening to this?"
Hodari Subabu: Because, no, you gotta stop, because of the money and the girls. It was decent money. I mean, you could make a thousand bucks a week. In the '80s.
Hodari Subabu: Yeah. You know, you get your money and you roll on. I knew what it was all about.
Natalia: "You get your money and roll on." That could be Hodari's motto for those years. Whenever I asked him about the racism he experienced, he was like, "Yeah, yeah. Of course the place was racist. The country is racist. What do you want me to say? I needed to make a living."
Natalia: There was this other thing I wanted to ask him, though, which might sound kind of academic. Did the women in the crowd treat him as if he was quote-unquote "exotic?" Because on the one hand, it made perfect, perverse sense that Hodari was treated worse than the other white dancers. That he didn't get picked for the calendars or as a lead dancer. That's straight-up obvious racism. White supremacy. And the legacy of the Jim Crow era.
Natalia: But I imagined there was something else going on, too. I sensed it when the white dancers didn't want to stand next to him. What we academics might call the "exoticization of the Black body." Chippendales was selling their fantasy to mostly white women, and there is no more vivid racist fantasy in US history than that of the oversexed Black man ravishing a white woman.
Natalia: Did you ever feel like being the one Black guy made you, like, more attractive to some of these women, who you were their favorite act or that they came to see you?
Hodari Subabu: Of course.
Natalia: Tell me about that.
Hodari Subabu: Of course. And because I was the only Black guy, I got approached a lot by women, mostly white women because that's mostly in the club. And they would be like, "Oh my God! Oh my God, I never been with a Black guy." And that's when I started asking for a fee.
Natalia: A fee to the women?
Hodari Subabu: Absolutely, yeah. That's when I started asking for a fee. So it was mostly ...
Natalia: A fee for sex?
Hodari Subabu: Yeah. Actually, a woman approached me after the show and she was like, "Ah, look. I really, really want to go home with you, and I know you guys charge. And I spent so much of my money and all I got is—" and I'm like, "Well, what the fuck should I tell her?" I'm getting ready to say, like, 50 bucks. So she said, "Look, all I have is $300 left." I'm like, "All right, okay, cool. I'll take that." And we go and get in her big Mercedes and take off.
Natalia: Hodari said at that moment, a light bulb went off. And he was like, "Whoa, I've got something these women want. I could make some real money here."
Hodari Subabu: It's the law of supply and demand. It's more of them than it is of me. And from that point, I started charging more and more, too. I was like, 1,500 bucks, couple thousand bucks.
Natalia: In, like, '83?
Hodari Subabu: '83.
Natalia: That's a lot of money.
Natalia: The club's a small place, so once word gets around about Hodari's new "business venture," other dancers follow his lead.
Natalia: Was everyone doing it?
Hodari Subabu: You know, once I explained it to them—and I think these guys are so green, nobody knew. I mean, nobody even thought about that. They would ask me, "Man, how much do I charge? How long do I have to stay?" I'd let them know, "Okay, this is how you do it. This is what you want."
Natalia: How'd that go over?
Hodari Subabu: We actually had an orgy room where they kept the costumes, and sometimes you'd go in there and it's maybe 10 or 15 girls naked. It was just total debauchery.
Natalia: Before the show or after the show?
Hodari Subabu: During the show, before the show, after the show. It was just a constant barrage of women. You know, you'd go through and you'd see the ones you like, you pick, "Hey, you know, come backstage." It's just like, I would suspect it's probably like being in a rock band or something.
Natalia: Yeah. So orgy room. So you start charging, right?
Hodari Subabu: I did.
Natalia: Tell me about it!
Hodari Subabu: So one night, this is how it all blew up on me. One night I'm at the club. I'm tired, I want to go home. I just want to get my bag and just get the hell out of there. So I'm leaving the club, this girl's tugging on me. She's like, "Oh my God, please, please, please. I want you to come home with me." I'm like, "Ma'am, I'm flattered, but look, I don't want to go."
Natalia: And Hodari's finally, like, "Okay, fine. Give me $1,500. I'm not gonna spend the night. "And the woman's like, "All right, great. Let's go."
Hodari Subabu: So we go out. I'm on my motorcycle. I follow. And she's with, like, six of her home girls. We go to some big-ass mansion out in Encino. We go in. So we proceed. We're in the living room, me and the girl. All her friends are, they're all like, they're just standing there watching. So I'm like, "Look, if your friends are gonna watch, I'm gonna charge them too."
Natalia: Entrepreneurial as ever. But they say "Fine," and leave. When Hodari finishes, he tells the woman he's ready to get paid.
Hodari Subabu: So the girl tells me, "I'm not giving you $1,500 for that." So of course, I'm pissed off, and I'm kind of breaking stuff in the house and going through all this bullshit. And finally they come up, all the friends come up and they—I think they scrape up maybe $500, $600. I take that and leave. The next day I go to work, the police are there waiting for me. So Banerjee's like, "I got the police over here. They want to talk to you." So I go in, I'm talking to the police officer. He said, "Look, we always suspected that you guys did that, but now we know." And they just thought it was the funniest thing.
Natalia: The police?
Hodari Subabu: The police. They're not, like—they're not looking at me like this guy's some super criminal. They're like, "Shit, we wish we could do it too. We wish we could charge women to have sex with us too. That would be great." So they kinda—you know, they kinda laughed it off.
Natalia: The cops do not care. But Banerjee suspends Hodari from work anyway, for 30 days. And while it's basically a slap on the wrist, Hodari is pissed that Banerjee punishes him at all.
Hodari Subabu: He was like, "Well, I got to do something because it's making us look bad. You know, the police are up here," and all this shit. So I was the first, probably the only guy that ever was formally at least interviewed for prostitution.
Natalia: It does seem a little arbitrary that Steve of all people, a guy who's always playing fast and loose with the law, would come down on Hodari at all for making some money on the side. On the other hand, when you adopt Steve's view of the world, which isn't so much one of right and wrong as it is, "How do I eliminate this thing that's causing me trouble now?" Then it all starts to make perfect sense. That's definitely the way to understand what happens next in the case of Don Gibson, the law student who got turned away at the door of Chippendales. And why Gibson's case went from a struggle with the local liquor board to something much more serious.
Natalia: Don Gibson is a man of principle. He's the guy who was willing to get beat up in seventh grade to make a point about cheating on a French test, remember? Yeah, he is still very much that guy. A few months after that first public hearing, Don—who's still clerking for a federal judge—is at the US District courthouse when his office phone rings. He answers, and the voice on the other end asks, "Is this the guy who's suing Chippendales?"
Don Gibson: And I said, "Yes." He said, "Well, I have something that you need to see." And I was curious. I said, "Well, what are you talking about?" He says, "Well, I have to show you in person."
Natalia: So Don sets a time for the guy to meet him at his apartment. I know, it seemed a little risky to me too, and a little uncharacteristic of Don, who's a very deliberate cautious guy. But that's the plan.
Don Gibson: I arranged to have my roommates there in case anything, you know, went south, as they say.
Natalia: And at the designated time, a guy shows up and hands Don his business card. It says "Expo Rent-a-Car. Ask for Ryan." And then he hands Don a notebook.
Don Gibson: That he said was left in the trunk of a car that was rented by someone who was working for Chippendales. And I looked at the notebook, and it had my name, my address, my telephone number. And it had a log, a daily log of purported activities that I was conducting.
Natalia: Oh, my God!
Don Gibson: "Gibson goes to AM/PM Mini Market. Honda Accord, license plate XXX. White male goes to Gibson's apartment." And I just—at that point, I went off the handle. I was like, "You got to be kidding me."
Natalia: The notebook was a private investigator's log. Someone had been tracking Don's movements for 10 days straight: where he went, when he had food delivered, who he talked to, when he went to bed at night.
Don Gibson: And look at this. Here's a drawing of the street.
Natalia: Don seems mystified all over again as he showed us the notebook and flipped through its pages. He's kept it all these years. Like, how could someone have been following me?
Don Gibson: ... some kind of, you know, military or police experience, because they're keeping it in 24-hour increments.
Natalia: He contacted a lawyer right away—his friend Thomas Hunt—and brought the notebook to Hunt's office. Hunt died back in 2014, but we did get to talk to his son, William, who that summer was a surfer kid who just wanted to go to the beach, but instead was stuck in his dad's office making copies and organizing files.
William Hunt: It was terrible for the tan.
Natalia: So many years later, though, and William remembers Don's case perfectly. His Dad didn't take on many cases that were all that dramatic after all, but this one, William told my producer Christine that he remembers feeling like he was watching an action movie play out before his very eyes.
William Hunt: One of the things that I vividly remember because I was there for the meeting, is Don tells my dad he's being followed, and that he thinks it's Chippendales. And my dad says, "You're being paranoid. Stop it. You're crazy." And he goes, "No, I'm being followed."
Christine Driscoll: What'd you think?
William Hunt: I believed Don. I'm a kid. I'm going, "Oh my God, Don's being followed!"
Natalia: So they call the Sheriff, who says there's nothing they can do. There's nothing in the PI's notebook that suggests any imminent threat to Don's safety.
Don Gibson: I go, "You've got to be kidding me." Okay, all righty. Well, now I'm walking around looking over my shoulder everywhere I go.
William Hunt: It turned out it was absolutely 100 percent true. He was being followed.
Natalia: William Hunt, by the way, became a lawyer too, just like Don just like his dad. A few months go by, and Don finally shakes the feeling that he's being followed all the time. He stops feeling paranoid every time he leaves the house and settles back into his work. And then he gets another call.
Don Gibson: And this is from a gentleman who was a dancer at Chippendales. And he called me to tell me that he had some developments regarding Chippendales that's really concerning him that he wanted to make me aware of, and we needed to talk right away. He wants to meet. And his name was Hodari.
Natalia: Don told this story over the phone the first time we talked with him, and I gotta say, it blew my mind when I first heard it, and it still blows my mind now. First, there's just the fact that what Hodari is about to tell Don, to my knowledge, it's never been reported before. And it was the first example I heard of Banerjee going this far. But also, it's Hodari! Mr. I-Take-My-Money-And-Roll-On. He's the one who called Don.
Don Gibson: And he says, "I need to talk to you because there's some shit about to go down that I don't want to be involved with." And I go, "What are you talking about, man?" He says, "They've been following you, and Banerjee is so pissed off at you because of what you're doing and what trouble you're causing his business, they have a hit out on you."
Don Gibson: I go, "Are you fucking kidding me?" He says, "Yes, they have a hit out on you." Oh my God.
Natalia: So again, Don immediately tells his lawyer, Thomas Hunt, about the call. And they ask Hodari to give a statement under oath with a court reporter present. They meet in Tom's office in downtown LA on a Saturday morning.
Natalia: When you walked into Hunt's office and Hodari rolls in, how did he strike you? Like, what was he wearing? What kind of figure did he cut?
Don Gibson: Well, he was a very well-built, muscular, athletic man. He was a handsome man, if you would describe him as that. And he was casually dressed. And Hodari proceeds to tell the following story: that the owner of Chippendales, Steve Banerjee, had hired a woman who was supposed to meet me, and he had paid her $5,000 to get into a compromising situation with me and plant drugs on me.
Natalia: The problem was, Don didn't really go out to any bars or clubs where a woman could pick him up and plant drugs on him.
Don Gibson: Because I was not going to these places, their whole plan was falling apart, and he was getting really upset because this lawsuit and this complaint was causing him anguish in his business and was threatening his liquor license. And he decided to go to the next step, which was to put out a contract on me.
Natalia: Oh, my God! Hodari's telling you all this in the deposition with Thomas Hunt.
Don Gibson: Yes.
Natalia: Banerjee took a hit out on Don. Holy shit! And Hodari knew about it. And according to Don, Hodari couldn't live with himself if Banerjee went through with it.
Hodari Subabu: I said, "Dude, look, be very careful. Just be careful, because Banerjee is talking about doing—bringing some harm to you. So you just got to watch your back."
Don Gibson: When he overheard this plot, that was one of the things that really triggered, you know, his reaction. So we took that as a statement just so that we had the evidence. So when we met with Nahin, we showed him that stuff and he knew at that point they needed to reach a settlement with us.
Natalia: Bruce Nahin says he was not aware of the murder-for-hire plot. And Hodari says he doesn't remember talking to a court reporter. He also told me that he was on a lot of drugs back then, and reminded me that this all happened over 30 years ago. And we've never seen the deposition—it was never entered as evidence, because after meeting with Don and his lawyer, Bruce settled right away.
Natalia: Banerjee ended up paying out $10,000 to Don—about $25,000 in today's dollars. Another $85,000 would be divided among other Black patrons who'd been discriminated against, too. As part of the settlement, Banerjee promised to stop denying entry to Black customers. He said he would ensure that a quarter of all new employees would be Black, and he agreed to do at least $500,000 in business with Black merchants each year.
Don Gibson: Those were the things that were really important to me. You know, I did not get into this for the money, or any kind of money. I just wanted to have, you know, a fair judicially-responsible result be in place.
Bruce Nahin: I don't think any of that ever happened.
Natalia: Bruce Nahin again.
Natalia: Did you hire more Black people? Did you change the door policy?
Bruce Nahin: I would suspect it didn't change one iota, but I don't remember.
Natalia: It's all kind of a let-down, isn't it? Don goes through the official channels to seek justice, and then he has to deal with having his life threatened, only for Chippendales to never even follow through on its settlement promise to be more equitable. I wish this was the moment I got to tell you about a dramatic court battle that followed. Or that I got to say, "And this is the moment everything changed for the better." But I can't, because it didn't play out that way. So instead, I want to focus on a different kind of win. A win where one man calls up another man, and ends up saving his life.
Natalia: What would you say to Hodari if you ran into him today?
Don Gibson: I would say, "Thank you for being brave."
Natalia: So you'd think that this would be the place to end the story, wouldn't you? Hodari chooses right over wrong, defies Banerjee, and Don Gibson ends up okay. Maybe they even stay friends. It's not quite that simple, though. When I sat down with Hodari in late 2019, in the office-slash-pizza-parlor at Hollywood and Vine, Hodari admitted to me that part of his strategy throughout this whole period was to constantly play both sides. And on that day we talked, he seemed to really want to get it all off his chest.
Hodari Subabu: This is what I feel bad about to this day, the shit that I did.
Natalia: Tell me.
Hodari Subabu: We concocted this story that the Black guys who came to the door had guns. He bought witnesses, and that's the only way they can justify denying them entrance in the club. We came up with people, "Hey, I'll give you $100 to say you were in the parking lot. You saw those guys get out. They had bulges in their pocket, blah, blah blah."
Natalia: In case you missed that, they paid witnesses to say that they saw Black patrons carrying guns, which is why they weren't letting Black people in. Hodari went out and found those people to make those false claims. That was one strategy. The other was kind of the opposite: to pay people to testify how welcoming Banerjee was to Black people when they showed up at the club.
Hodari Subabu: So we had to round up a whole bus full of Black people to say they had been to Chippendales and they had a great time and they weren't discriminated against.
Natalia: Where did you find them all? Like, how did you do it?
Hodari Subabu: I paid them all. It's just random people off the street, Black people that I knew, and we had a budget, and we gave them, like, 100 bucks a piece. And we actually filled up a bus, and took them to court on a designated day. They all sat out there ...
Natalia: When Hodari told me that, I was like, "Wait, what? You were helping Steve do all this stuff? You were the one paying Black people to testify on Steve's behalf, so he could fight off a discrimination suit and uphold his racist policies? What?" But also, I have no doubt that you are the guy who tipped off Don.
Hodari Subabu: You know, it's one thing to help him win the case, it's another thing to stand by and watch him, like, actually bring harm to another Black guy. And I'm a Black guy. So that's when I reached out and told him what I suspected what was gonna happen. I had some cognitive dissonance about really trying to help Banerjee on a bogus case.
Natalia: In 1984, the LA Times reported that Chippendales merchandise brought in $12 million a year. Most of that was in calendar sales.
[NEWS CLIP: Now they've put about a gift item said to be selling like hotcakes. It's a calendar. Beefcake instead of cheesecake for the ladies of the '80s.]
Natalia: The calendars were yet one more place where Hodari got shut out.
Hodari Subabu: I couldn't get in the calendar, the Chippendale calendar, which was the hugest calendar in the world.
Hodari Subabu: Because his thinking was, "Well, I can't sell calendars down South if for 30 days they got some Black guy up on the walls. Some white woman has some Black guy on the wall. I can't put Black guys in my calendar." So I did everything else. You know, I did greeting cards, I did the air fresheners, I did that. But I couldn't do the calendar. But so many girls would come up, it's like, "Oh my God, why aren't you in the calendar? What the hell are they doing?"
Natalia: Hodari had been watching Banerjee run the place for a while. And he figured, first of all, this is bullshit. I'm never gonna get a chance here. And also, I've been paying attention. I know enough to do this on my own.
Hodari Subabu: I decided what I'm gonna do is I'm going to take Chippendales' resources and I'm gonna start my own calendar. It's gonna be all Black guys. Not white guys, it's gonna be all Black guys.
Natalia: What was it called?
Hodari Subabu: Black Gold. So I'm using his phone, I'm using his computers. It's almost like I'm trying to set up competition against him.
Natalia: He didn't feel guilty, Hodari said, because Steve had been stiffing him in plenty of other ways, too. Even when he was included in something, like this one photo shoot they did for an air freshener, Banerjee paid him half of what he paid the white dancers.
Hodari Subabu: The other white guys, they all got paid. They got paid—you know they got paid, like, $1,500, $1,600. I get 800 bucks.
Natalia: So Hodari says screw it, and goes ahead and makes his own calendar, Black Gold. And when Banerjee finds out, he loses his shit. "What are you doing? You're trying to rip me off? Who do you think you are?"
Hodari Subabu: He busted me trying to start my own business. But I was just being—he taught me how to do this and it's like, okay, I'm just taking what you taught me and it's not really— it's not gonna hurt you. I'm doing a Black calendar. But then when he didn't pay me for the photo shoot I just went in the office and we got into an argument and I'm like, "Dude, I need my money. I need my money." And I socked him. And he started crying. And I'm like, I didn't even expect.—he just stood there and he was crying, tears coming out of his eyes. And he's like, "I love you like a fucking son and that's what you do? Get the fuck out to here. Don't ever come around here anymore." And I'm like, "Oh shit!" And I punched him and he wrote me out a check for the money while he's crying. And it was like he was more hurt than physically hurt, he was emotionally hurt that I would take it to that level. I felt really bad after that. And that was kinda like my last day at Chippendales.
Natalia: I kept waiting for the moment when Hodari was going to be like, "Fuck that guy. He's a crook and a racist and he wanted to kill people. I was lucky to get out of there alive." But it never came. Instead, the thing Hodari seemed to want to communicate is that nothing's as simple as you think it is. Yeah, it was painful to work at a place that wouldn't hire more Black people—or even let them in the door. But he needed the money. And he was young, and it was LA in the '80s. And it was cool to be part of something, especially something like that.
Natalia: But also Banerjee, for every opportunity he denied Hodari, there's this way Hodari still to this day sees Banerjee as a kind of mentor. Like, he wouldn't be sitting here with me, taking a break from the successful business he's run for a decade, if Steve hadn't seen something in him.
Hodari Subabu: And I think Banerjee recognized that in me is that, you know, okay, I would rather own the place than be the talent.
Hodari Subabu: Because when you own the place, you make the most money and you can call the shots. That's why I started my own calendar. That's why I started my own club. And I learned all that from him. I cant—the business part I learned from him. And to this day I still use ...
Natalia: Hodari trailed off and looked around the pizza place, searching for something he wanted to say, something he thought I should understand. He was wearing dark sunglasses during our whole interview, but when he started to talk again, I could tell he was crying.
Natalia: I know. It's ...
Hodari Subabu: It's crazy.
Hodari Subabu: Oh, man.
Natalia: I know. It's a lot to talk about.
Hodari Subabu: All right. But to this day, I use stuff that I learned from Banerjee.
Hodari Subabu: You know? Anyway, that's crazy.
Natalia: Yeah. Do you think of him often?
Hodari Subabu: No. You just learn from watching a person. Watch how they make moves and how they talk and, you know, when you negotiate what to say and how to bounce things off other people. And, you know, yeah, you learn that. And I don't even know why I got emotional talking about Banerjee.
Natalia: It's a big deal!
Hodari Subabu: But yeah, it's crazy because—and I'm doing well. And I did well when I was a drug dealer, I did well. I was probably one of the best, and I made a lot of money. I made tons of money, and I probably learned shit that I've applied to that business from that guy. I guess you realize in life, and you know, I'm 63 now, shit. You realize in life that you don't get to a place by yourself. You get there because there's a lot of people that helped you. And I don't know, he was just one of the ones that helped me, you know? And he didn't have to do that, but he did. I don't know. It's crazy.
Natalia: Hodari needed to get back to work. We thanked him for taking the time to talk with us. He started to head out, and then stopped, like there was something he was still turning over in his head, trying to make sense of. He told me he was embarrassed for crying, then he apologized for it.
Hodari Subabu: I feel so bad for crying.
Natalia: "I feel so bad for crying," he said. For the record, I don't think he should be. This is heavy stuff. But one of the guys behind the counter noticed he was crying and started to give him a little grief about it.
Hodari Subabu: I'm a gangster. Gangsters don't cry.
Pizza Guy: No? Men doesn't cry either.
Natalia: And then he finally turned around and walked out. There were a couple more tours that afternoon, and he took his spot underneath the umbrella and started selling. So Banerjee's alleged plot to have Don Gibson murdered was foiled. But it didn't seem to deter him from thinking that hiring hitmen was the solution to his problems.
Hodari Subabu: It got to the point where he was just—he was going crazy. And he had so much money. If it was up to him, he probably would've had maybe 30 murders under his belt. Because at some point in time he felt that murder would solve the problem. It's like, "Let's kill him." You know, the landscape guy fucked up his flowers? "Let's kill him."
Natalia: Next time: the bigger Chippendales gets, the more paranoid Steve becomes, until everything and everyone begins to look like a threat.
Eric Gilbert: If you crossed him, if you ever said something about the name Chippendales not being his or somebody competing against it, then you'd see this tiger come out of this little lamb's skin, and he would just turn into a bear and get really, really angry.
Natalia: Welcome to Your Fantasy is a production of Pineapple Street Studios in association with Gimlet. It's hosted by me, Natalia Petrzela. Our senior producer is Eleanor Kagan, our producer is Christine Driscoll, and our associate producer is Erin Kelly. Nicole Hemmer and Neil J. Young are consulting producers.
Natalia: Our editors are Joel Lovell and Maddy Sprung-Keyser. It was mixed by Hannis Brown, and fact-checked by Ben Phelan. Additional consulting from Ahmed Ali Akbar.
Natalia: This show features original music by Daoud Anthony. And thanks to our music supervisor Jasmine Flott. The executive producers at Pineapple Street are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. From Gimlet, our executive producer is Lydia Polgreen and our editor is Collin Campbell.
Natalia: We've got a Spotify playlist with tons of music from the original show, so you can recreate the club experience for yourself in the comfort of your own home. You can find the link in the show notes.
Natalia: Did you ever go to Chippendales? We want to hear about it. Leave us a short voicemail—30 seconds to a minute, tops—at (323) 475-9424, and we might play it on a future episode. That's 323-475-9424.
Natalia: This is a Spotify original podcast.