Content Warning: The following program contains adult content, violence and strong language. Listen discretion is advised.
Natalia Petrzela: Previously on Welcome To Your Fantasy ...
[NEWS CLIP: Just hours before he was to be sentenced, Chippendales owner, Somen Banerjee committed suicide in his jail cell.]
Natalia: Were you surprised?
Steve Clymer: Yeah. I never had a defendant do that on the night before sentencing before. It was shocking.
Michael Rapp: I always tell people don't identify with your career, because I had identified. I mean, I was Michael Rapp from Chippendales, you know?
Michael Rapp: And now I wasn't.
Candace Mayeron: I can tell you this. I never once got bored. I never once got tired of going to a show or bored with it. Never. Not after thousands of performances.
Richard Barsh: Everybody would say to me, "Boy, you really lost out on that Chippendales case." And I said, "Excuse me?" I said, "Nick's dead, Steve's dead. I'm still alive."
Natalia: So I knew this day would come, but even as we're at the end of the season, we are so not at the end of the story. There's so many untold stories about Chippendales that we didn't get to fully explore.
Natalia: So in this last episode, we're gonna hear from some of the women who made Chippendales the iconic brand that it is today. We're also gonna talk about masculinity as it was made in the 1980s, and also how it's still with us. Plus, of course, we've got to reflect on the legacy of Steve Banerjee and Nick de Noia. So in order to do all of this, I invited my fellow co-producers on this show and historians, Nicole Hemmer and Neil J Young to join me. Hey, guys!
Niki Hemmer: Hello, Natalia.
Neil Young: Hi there.
Natalia: So just to catch you up on where the Chippendales are today, in case you're still stuck in the heyday of the '80s, there's no more Overland Avenue, you know. There's no more Upper East Side at Magique. What there is, is a permanent show in Vegas, which the pandemic prevented us from visiting. But there's also a traveling show, and Niki and I went to that traveling show together in Riverhead, Long Island, back in 2019. Niki, remember that?
Niki: Ugh, I was told what happened at the Chippendales show, stays at the Chippendales show? You know, I can talk about some of the things that happened.
Natalia: I guess, I guess. So, yeah. We all love working on this podcast so much. It piques so many of our research interests. You know, big questions about feminism and gender, is role reversal possible? And if so, what does that even mean? And how these men, who made their money and their careers and their identity based on being the hot guy, how they feel about aging?
Niki: I really love that we were talking about that, because I don't think we talk enough about mens' very complicated relationship to aging.
Neil: Well, I would make an amendment to that. I think you don't hear that a lot from heterosexual men. I think this is a topic of great conversation for gay men like myself as they age. And I think we'll think more about what sexuality and heterosexuality means to the history of Chippendales as we talk together today.
Natalia: So wait, let's back up and talk a little bit about our specific areas of expertise and how we got into Chippendales studies, if you will. [laughs] So we're historians, and I think we all kind of love the subject because it crosses over into so many of the areas that each of us study independently, and that are at the intersection of our interests too. So I think by now listeners you know me, I study 1970s California, and I'm writing a book about fitness culture. I wrote another one about the culture wars. So that kind of is where I come into it. But Niki, how about you? What appealed to you about reporting on this?
Niki: So I come to this from the world of conservatism and media. And one of the things that has been so fascinating to me is what happens to feminism over the course of the '70s, the '80s and the '90s. How you get from that radical feminism of the early 1970s to, in the 1990s, you have conservative women calling themselves feminist. And I actually think Chippendales is kind of one of the answers to that, right? This is a very de-radicalized feminism. This is very consumer-based feminism, and it's questionably not even feminist at all. And so thinking about how Chippendales chews up feminism and spits it out on the other side is actually really fascinating.
Natalia: Right. How about you, Neil?
Neil: Well, I'm a historian of American religion and politics in this same time period. And, you know, I think often about how changing ideas of sexuality and gender in the 1960s, '70s and '80s in the culture had political consequences, and really mobilized a political transformation that we know as the Reagan revolution and the rise of the modern GOP and modern conservatism. I think a lot of times when I think about those changing ideas about sex and gender, it kind of remains in the abstract for me.
Neil: And so there's something about really spending all this time with a very specific example of Chippendales, and seeing sort of all the throughlines, and how it would be a real thing of concern for the sort of cultural and religious conservatives I'm used to spending a lot of time with.
Natalia: The full-frontal angle, huh? I had to. [laughs]
Natalia: Okay, we're gonna take a quick break, and when we come back we're gonna start with the women. What did they think? How did Chippendales make them feel about themselves, and why did they keep going back—or not?
[Listener Voicemail: The Chippendales men were the top of the line. Absolutely gorgeous, beautiful men, the best costumes, nicely tailored pair of black slacks. A lot of times they didn't have any shoes on. and then a big, muscle-y man that's kind of gleaning with oil and a bowtie and just the most beautiful face and body that you've ever seen. You definitely made sure that you have several $1 bills, and they'd come over. And it was titillating. I don't know how else to say it, but it was really exciting to see this beautiful man dancing right in front of you. I'm surprised I made it out of the '80s without a DUI or a sexually-transmitted disease.]
Natalia: I think it's so important to understand how crucial women were to the success of Chippendales. I mean, I remember when I was interviewing Michael Rapp, you know, The Perfect Man. And he had this comment, he said, "Women were really the show." And, you know, I think that just speaks volumes about how you could have the best choreography and the perfect lighting and all these drinks with sexy names, but really the experience of Chippendales and the longevity of the brand was about more than that. It was about what women and what they brought to that space too.
Neil: Yeah. If there's not an audience, this isn't possible at all, right? The show doesn't go on. And so it's really important to think about why this particular historical moment allows for that audience to be there. There's both a sort of cultural freedom that these women are tapping into. I mean, this is a decade that's launched in a lot of ways by Helen Reddy's famous anthem, "I am woman, hear me roar."
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Reddy: [singing] “I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore.”]
Neil: So we have more and more career women in these decades, or women who are working, who are delaying marriage. And so they have expendable income that they can spend on nights like this.
Natalia: Then there's also, I think, this celebration of women paying their own way and spending their hard-earned money as they like. But in terms of what Chippendales was selling, yes, it's a response to women's purchasing power and new sexual freedom and all that, but they're selling a very old-fashioned version of heteronormative masculinity as brawny and powerful and there to kind of, you know, whisk the damsel off her feet. And women are paying for that.
Niki: I know I'm gonna say this again and again, but it sure does sound like the fantasy that's being fulfilled is the dancer's fantasy.
Natalia: Yes, absolutely!
Niki: And I think that that idea of whose fantasy is being fulfilled is really important here. We've talked about women now having this purchasing power, and all of their money flowing into this club. And the question becomes: is this women's liberation, or is this the commodification of the idea of women being freer, of women having more resources?
Natalia: I think mostly Choice B, but a little bit of both. It reminds me about this interview I did with a woman named Mimi Seton. She was a journalist in the late '70s for LA Weekly, and she went to Chippendales in the early days to check it out. And let me tell you, she was not impressed. Listen to a little bit of our conversation.
Mimi Seton: What did we see? We saw men scantily clad, doing rather awkward dances, meaning they weren't good dancers. They think it's sexy to jiggle their nether region in your face, and I don't think that's sexy. I associate that with a kind of puerile and immature level of male development. It's masturbatory. It's 12 years old.
Mimi Seton: At the moment, because it was fresh and new, I think the women were enjoying it because they had so much pent-up sexual energy to let off. It was like the guys were letting—taking the cap off a pipe full of steam and letting the hot air out.
Natalia: Yeah, reading your article, I was like, wow, she really got it back then. Because so much of what was written about Chippendales at the time—by the men behind it themselves, but also by some women were, you know, "This is finally the sexual revolution, you know, comes to the nightclub scene."
Mimi Seton: I'm sorry, but I really don't think they were concerned about our freedom and our rights and our development. No, they threw a little hook out with some bait on it, and they got a huge chomp and they threw more bait.
Neil: Nothing's getting by Mimi.
Niki: Yeah. And I think that what Mimi was onto is the sort of downbeat about this idea that this is a fantasy that they're selling, because Chippendales is selling women's empowerment. And for many women in their real lives, women's empowerment is still kind of a fantasy during the 1970s and 1980s.
Natalia: Absolutely. I mean, it reminds me of this very academic theory by historian Natalie Zemon Davis, where she talks about, like, containing radicalism with these very concrete role reversal events, right? That, like, you don't have to give them equal pay or, like, actual empowerment or power, because a few nights a week they can go to Chippendales and pretend, and stuff dollars in male G-strings. And that sort of explicit reversal there saps the power or the need to actually have sustained power in their actual lives.
Neil: All right. Well, I feel like we can't bring up this topic of role reversal events without mentioning my favorite, which is the Gloria Allred story here, and the feminist backlash that ensued.
Natalia: Yeah. This Gloria Allred story was one of the first reasons that made me want to pitch this podcast to begin with. I'm like, "Wait a minute, Gloria Allred had a fundraiser at Chippendales?" Yeah, so here's the deal. In 1980, Gloria Allred, the feminist attorney, she holds a fundraiser at Chippendales for what was called WERLDEF, which was a legal defense and education fund for women who were victims of domestic violence. And she holds it there, it's 15 bucks a pop, I think there are about 500 women who show up. And the idea is that these feminists are having a fundraiser at Chippendales with the presumption being that Chippendales is an extension of their feminist purpose. Not everybody agreed.
Neil: Yeah. And first of all, this got a ton of press attention, which you have to think was always part of Gloria Allred's goals and the things she took up. The Los Angeles Times is writing a bunch of stories about this, other Los Angeles papers are, and the sorts of things that other activist women in Los Angeles had to say about this show.
Niki: So you have people who said basically, "Look, you don't lower yourself to men's levels. Objectification is objectification."
Natalia: And another woman who worked at a rape crisis center said exactly that, there was this caricature of feminists of, now it's their turn to kind of have revenge and power over men. And so they thought it was a really bad idea for Allred to hold a feminist event there, because it only perpetuated that caricature. She said, like, "Lighten up." So the show went on.
Niki: Well, we should talk a little bit more about the show because at one point, one of the dancers comes over and lifts up her skirt, and she shrieks because she obviously didn't consent to that happening. And they didn't have as much space to be the ones in power as they thought.
Neil: Yeah. I mean, that dancer fulfilled what many of Allreds' critics were predicting would happen, right? And I think it's really, again, telling that the activists around domestic violence and around sexual assault, like, they knew that that sort of moment was very possible.
Niki: I mean, that dancer showed that at the end of the day, the men were still running the show.
Natalia: So Mimi and Gloria were just two women who went to Chippendales in a sort of professional capacity. But I also talked to women who went for fun, and they all had really different experiences that I think we should talk about. I'll start with Rosanna.
Natalia: Rosanna Leisure was a forklift operator in southern California. And she went to Chippendales just one time in the '80s for a coworker's bachelorette party. At that time, she hadn't come out yet, and she finds herself at this aggressively heterosexual performance, and has a response that even surprises her.
Rosanna Leisure: I was basically mainly watching my friends, how they were acting. Like, wow, they're really into this. And I can appreciate a beautiful body, I mean, a beautiful face. And so when they did come out, I was like, "Oh, wow. They are beautiful." And so for me, knowing that I'm gay inside my heart, and feeling really kind of awkward for me. But I enjoyed it as much as I could, you know? I thought, "Well, let's just do this, and let's just go with it and nothing bad's gonna happen." It was fun.
Rosanna Leisure: It was fun, actually. It made you feel beautiful inside, because it's kind of like—this is a weird way to describe it, I don't know. You know when you go to church and the preacher's talking, and the preacher's giving his sermon and you think he's talking directly at you? That's what it felt like. When you looked at them, you felt like they were only looking at you and nobody else.
Natalia: I heard this and I was like, Nick succeeded. I mean, do you remember that tape where Nick says, "It's one thing to turn on one woman. You've got to turn on 500 women in the room, and you've got to make every one of them feel special." And that's what all the men told me when I talked to them, that literally their training was not like this really rigid training, but the basic idea was every woman in there has to feel special.
Neil: And it's so interesting that that's happening at a strip show, right? You think that you're going to this show to look at men, to objectify them, to experience them. And yet what is being made visible here is the women themselves. Like, direct your attention to the women, make them visible so that they're not some faceless person in a crowd, but the actual object of attention, the focus.
Natalia: Okay, but not all the women I talked to enjoyed that attention. Here's a woman named Abbey Rosen, who went to a show in New York in the '90s, and who had a very different experience from Rosanna. Abbey went to Chippendales with her friend to celebrate the fact that Abbey was about to get married.
Abbey Rosen: My friend left me, and she went to a guy that looked like Fabio, and she gave him money. And then he came over to be appealing to me, to grind on me, I don't know. They didn't do lap dances, but they were like, they got really close. And I just remember feeling like, "Look, take a step back." I just remember feeling very invaded. It's not genuine. It's not like, oh, he was hitting on me because I'm so beautiful, and, wow, look at that, this guy with this great body in a bow tie without a shirt on thinks I'm so beautiful and oh, I'm so flattered." No! My friend went and gave him money to come over and do it. I mean ... [laughs]
Neil: I also think it brings up real questions of consent, because what are the assumptions these men have of what the women have consented to just by showing up and buying a ticket for entry? Like, is everything on the table and available once they've entered into the show? I'm just going here to watch these men do something, I didn't expect me to be involved in it.
Niki: I have to say I'm so glad that you brought up the word "consent," because there was something visceral that I experienced when I heard her tell this story, where it just made my skin crawl. Because she clearly is narrating an experience in which she doesn't want this contact happening. And once you put the framework of consent over that, you can understand why she's completely shutting down.
Neil: You know, there's another type of woman's perspective I'm really interested in. We met this woman because she was the Uber driver for one of our producers when we were out on one of our research trips to Los Angeles.
Niki: Is this gonna turn into a Tom Friedman story?
Neil: [laughs] It turned out that she'd been a mud wrestler on the circuit in Los Angeles in the '70s and early '80s.
Gena Duke: My name is Gena Duke. I am also known as Diamond Duke.
Neil: So Diamond Duke, or Gena, as I know her, didn't do mud wrestling at Chippendales, but she did it at some of the other rival clubs in Los Angeles. So first of all, mud wrestling was huge for a couple of years in the late '70s. As the disco scene was kind of fading, a lot of these nightclubs were looking for different ways to bring men into them. Men would come and watch women in very skimpy clothing wrestle with each other and get really down and dirty. Gena talked a lot about how she found it to be really empowering because she felt really the joke was kind of on these men.
Gena Duke: They bid, and the highest bidder gets to go in the mud with the girl. And then they're usually so drunk that it's so easy and it's so much fun. Everybody had such a good time watching you kick their butt. They'd be all drunk and "Huh, huh," you know, with their mouth open and trying to kiss us and hug us. And we'd just go—wham! And then get behind them and go wham!
Natalia: It makes it actually make sense also why this was something that was put on at Chippendales. Like, to have a mud wrestling show and a male strip show at the same club on different nights. I think we originally thought of that as like, oh, all the random stuff they're doing, but there's actually a real continuum. And I guess maybe there was not a tension in that, according to Gena Duke.
Neil: And as a young woman who was a single mother of two young girls, you know, she said that it was a really easy way for her to go out for a night or two and make a couple hundred dollars, and not even have to clean up the mess afterwards.
Natalia: Especially a mom, right? I don't have to clean up this shit hole.
Natalia: All right. I could talk about this forever, but we got to take a break. And when we come back, we are gonna dig more into masculinity and Chippendales.
Neil: Let's dig into masculinity, y'all.
[Alan: Hi my name is Alan. So my mom had this VHS tape that said "Chippendales," and I'm like, I love cartoons! So I'm thinking it's Disney's Chippenadales, Chip and Dale. I put it in, and lo and behold it is this video of these Chippendales on Maury Povich. And I watch, again just enthralled, and little Alan is trying to figure out why they're so pretty. And for, like, a couple years or so I'd sometimes pull it out and kind of watch it because, you know, I'm a burgeoning gay person living in a tiny farm in South Dakota. So my grandmother was taking care of us one night, and my grandma asked us what we'd like to watch and I was like, "My mom loves Chippendales." And she's like, "Oh, that's a great cartoon.' I'm like, "No, it's not that. It's male dancers." And my grandma was like, "Oh, okay." And then I never got to see that tape ever again.]
Natalia: All right, we're back. Roundtable with Niki and Neil, my fellow historians. Let's do this.
Niki: I actually need to break in with a pretty important point about the 1988 elections. Obviously, this is mostly known for George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, but I think we've really missed the major third party candidate. And that is Michael Rapp.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, announcer: He's the lead dancer at Chippendales. However, because our economy is in such dire straits, Mr. Rapp is looking for a day job. He would like to run for President of the United States. His intentions are for a better America. He wants what you want. Mr. Rapp, do you have anything to add?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Michael Rapp: No.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, announcer: Well, there you have it. Michael Rapp for President. He wants what you want.]
Neil: He has my vote.
Niki: He doesn't actually win, which is disappointing, but he does make it back onto the talk show circuit.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Richard Bey: Are you gonna continue dancing in a g-string while you campaign for president?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Michael Rapp: If I do get elected, we're gonna have a big party at the White House. Yeah, everyone's invited.]
Natalia: Yeah. So I think, you know, if Michael Rapp running for president kind of embodies the high point of what a Chippendales dancer's life could be, at the same time there were men who were quickly being disabused of the idea that this was the best idea ever. I mean, one guy I talked to, he said, like, "I pictured these guys would be pulling up to the club in limousines, and instead they're on skateboards," you know? And I thought that was just such a sort of puncturing of a particular fantasy that had nothing to do with the women, really, but it had to do with the money that they made and also the lives that they led.
Natalia: It's so clear to me that that dominant kind of archetype of the money-making man was so core to these guys' fantasies about themselves, particularly because they're involved in something so not conventionally masculine, right? Like, shaking their asses for dollars, and not even that many dollars when you think about the scheme of things.
Niki: You know, what strikes me, Natalia, to talk about these changing ideas of masculinity, and how much gay culture influenced the changing ideas of masculinity. And it's so fascinating that it takes place at Chippendales, which is this almost suffocatingly heteronormative space, that it is part of helping to filter in the norms of gay culture into straight male culture, and to forge this new kind of masculinity.
Natalia: Oh, totally. I mean, a big place for that happens not on the Chippendale stage, but is at the gym, and that's where all these guys are hanging out all the time.
Niki: If only we had a fitness scholar here to walk us through that.
Natalia: [laughs] Well, I am glad to step up in that role as your friendly neighborhood fitness scholar. And yeah, I think that you make a really good point, Niki, about the way that aspects of gay culture—and particularly gay body culture—are being filtered into a kind of mainstream heteronormative masculinity. I mean, when we look at celebrities in this period, on the one hand you have the rise of people like Richard Gere or Don Johnson, or Tom Cruise, who are sort of like put together and proto ...
Neil: Pretty boys.
Natalia: ... pretty boys, yeah. Thanks for saying it, Neil. And I think that's really right. But, you know, what you have happening at the same time also are these really ripped action hero types like Arnold Schwartzenegger in Terminator and a whole slew of other movies, where that big, ripped body ceases to be something that is seen as the province of, like, gay male physique magazines and more something that's associated with kind of like, aggressive, hetero male power. And I think the Chippendales are really both kind of products of that and engines of that.
Niki: I have to throw in one more star, and that's Patrick Swayze. Not only because he was in the Chippendales' Saturday Night Live skit, but he was in the movie Dirty Dancing.
Natalia: My favorite movie ever, yes!
Niki: Because it's so great, right? And that's, like, in 1987. He's a part of that same, like, smoother but very fit male star, right? Because when he's dancing in Dirty Dancing, he's slicked up, he's pretty hairless chest-wise. He doesn't have any facial hair. He is one of those pretty boys of the 1980s, and very much of the connective tissue of this transition in American masculinity.
Neil: Well, and think about what he's wearing in that movie: really tight T-shirts, tight jeans.
Niki: I think about it all the time, Neil.
Neil: [laughs] Okay. Call that up from the back of your mind. But I think it's worth thinking about what that means in the '80s, when you have, like, oversized jeans, you have oversized sweater, and yet the aesthetic we see—and again, I think a lot of this is coming out of gay culture—is a much more fitted form that we see showing up in these movies, and that is obviously shaping the aesthetic of Chippendales. But I think in terms of, again, the gay influence on that in the '80s, the sculpted body form was held up as the most desirable one to have, because in the age of AIDS and the emaciated body of those who were struggling with the disease, having big muscles was an important way that gay men thought they should show that they were quote unquote "healthy." And so that aesthetic has a real particular politics in the 1980s, coming both from those action films that are about anti-communism, it's worth remembering, but also from gay culture.
Natalia: Oh, absolutely. I mean, this leads me to think about a question that I always ask the guys.
Natalia: What do you think the biggest misconception about the Chippendales is out there?"
Michael Rapp: That we're gay or that we're dumb. And that was so funny. That was always—"I heard all you guys are gay." Oh, really? Who told you that? Another guy?
Natalia: Yeah. So you would hear that a lot? Like, from the beginning?
Michael Rapp: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Girls would come because there were all the misconceptions. I don't know where they got that idea. I don't know why any gay guy would want to dance in front of thousands of women.
Natalia: But there must have been gay Chippendales, right?
Michael Rapp: Only backup dancers. No—no leads.
Michael Rapp: Never.
Natalia: So that was Michael Rapp, "Perfect Man," right? And when he says that, it's totally wrapped up in the history of fitness, and a specific history of a kind of dominant assumption that a man who spends that much time on his body is insufficiently masculine.
Neil: Especially the dancers. They seemed obsessed with talking about the number one question they got when they went on the talk shows was whether or not they were gay. And that was really intriguing to me. And I have to say, as a person who sat in the TV and film archives at UCLA for several days, I did not find one talk show appearance where any person in the audience asked any dancer whether or not they were gay. I mean, that just stuck out to me so much that that is this sharp memory they have of their own experience that actually we don't see from the historical record itself, or at least not from the talk shows.
Natalia: Yeah. Well, where you do see in it the historical record is in the archive of our interviews.
Neil: And yet it was an ongoing question for Chippendales of whether or not to allow men to come to the show, because of the expectation that if they did those men would be gay. And I get it, why they were asking that, but looking at it as a historian and also as a gay man myself, like, it always struck me as so funny, because the idea that a gay man in Los Angeles would want to go to Chippendales in the late '70s or the early '80s, when there were full nude strip bars for gay men that had been around for two decades at that point, like, this idea that Chippendales with some great new opportunity? But, like, gay men are living very vibrant cultural lives in Los Angeles in the '70s and the '80s. They do not need the Chippendales for a good night out.
Natalia: Yeah. So really early in my reporting, actually, before I had even had the pleasure of attending a Chippendales show myself, I actually interviewed one of those early, former out gay backup dancers. His name is Gregory Ramos. He's now a theater professor at the University of Vermont. And just like you said, Neil, he agreed with what you said about how much a gay man would really like to spend time hanging out at Chippendales.
Gregory Ramos: Well, I don't know if this answer is true of all gay men of my generation, but that is like the last fucking place that I would want to go.
Natalia: Oh, tell me why. [laughs]
Gregory Ramos: You know, it's a space for women, but it's a very heteronormative energy and space. There was no queerness. It felt like a really straight club.
Natalia: I don't know if you've kept up with what the Chippendales look like today. Do you know at all what the show looks like today?
Gregory Ramos: The show?
Gregory Ramos: I didn't even know there was a show. I'm just kind of responding with my knowledge of what Chippendales was back in the day. And if it's that same kind of show, it's like, “Ew, really?” Are we still propagating these kinds of, like, heteronormative or binary notions of what it means to be men and women, and what in my estimation are really kind of old ways of being and behaving about gender?
Natalia: I would say yes, we are still doing that. [laughs]
Neil: I have to say one other thing about this, which is about our own relationship to this question. Because there was a point in time when we were deep, deep into the research, and you said to me, "Every single time I tell someone I'm working on this, the first question I get is, 'Were the Chippendales gay?'" And I said to you, "I've told a lot of my friends as well I'm working on this, and not one person has asked me that question." And I think that's just an interesting thing to think about too.
Neil: I also just wonder how much of this is a sort of current mindset that is projected onto the past. Because it was hard for me to really believe that women and men in the 1980s were thinking about this all the time. I mean, gay men and women did not have the sort of cultural visibility that they have today, that I think that they were at the forefront of straight Americans' consciousness, and in such a way that they would be framing their experience of Chippendales through this lens of homosexuality. So this is always one of the struggles that we have as historians—and particularly in oral history—how much of what we are asking and hearing from the people we interview is the real recollection of events as they experienced them in the time? And how much of it are events that they now understand from the perspective of hindsight and the cultural knowledge that they've gained through the last couple of decades?
Natalia: So whenever I tell people that I'm working on a project about the Chippendales, they're like, "Wait. You're spending all this time with all these male strippers?" And I quickly say, "They're mostly, like, 65 years old at this point." And it's a kind of funny moment, because that's not exactly what they pictured. But one of the things that was so interesting in reporting this story was I actually loved talking to the older dancers—I talked to some young ones too—because they have such an interesting perspective on getting older. And when you've made your career and your mark in the world for being hot, what is it like to age, right?
Natalia: This was something I was really excited to ask the Chippendales men about. And one of them, Michael Piehl, told me about this epiphany moment when he was modeling, as many of these men did, and he got booked on a TV commercial for Hair Club for Men. That is like, quintessential '80s. And he was cast as the balding guy.
Michael Piehl: And I was like, "What the hell?" You know, and I said to my agent, "Why me? My hair isn't doing anything." He said, "I know, but that's our target market." I remembered looking in a three-way mirror and going, "Wow, is that what people are seeing?" And just like a cold splash of water in the face, yeah.
Neil: Just so interesting to hear men talk about that relationship to their body, to beauty, to expectations of physical standards. And I think those are particularly vexed in a place like Los Angeles, but we often don't hear it talked about from men.
Niki: Talk about your role reversals.
Natalia: Yeah, seriously. Not the one Banerjee promised.
Neil: I was impressed with the level of introspection and thoughtfulness that they had about themselves and their career. And, you know, maybe that was a function of them being willing to be interviewed, where they happened to be people who just were really articulate about their lives, and had thought about it a lot. And so it's not surprising that they have spent a lot of time thinking about what it meant to them. You know, one of the ones that I think really stands out for me is Scott Layne. We visited him at his home in Burbank. And, you know, it's just in meeting these people, you realize they're so much more than just the calendar or just the performance. There's these rich lives behind them that in a lot of ways I think illuminate so many of the historical trends we're interested in ourselves.
Natalia: He actually, I think, greeted us by telling us he's an ass man.
Neil: He did say that.
Niki: A traditional greeting.
Natalia: And he's one of the only guys still in the business. He runs a male strip show called The Hollywood Men, in Hollywood. And he told me about how much sun damage he sustained over all the years of tanning, how now he's gotten into microneedling and Botox.
Scott Layne: In fact, I just had some done yesterday. I keep going back to them for that, because my wife doesn't like these monster wrinkles here between my eyebrows, or these here.
Natalia: You don't look a day over 25.
Scott Layne: I'm 58. And yeah, I look good. I look better than half the dancers, as far as I'm concerned. I'm in great shape. And I think I look better now than I ever have. I feel better now than I ever have.
Natalia: That's a good feeling to have, isn't it?
Scott Layne: Yeah.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, audience member: I want to know what kind of future there is in this. I mean, what can you do when you're too old to take off your clothes?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Phil Donahue: He's working for a living! They're drug free!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, audience member: He's making lots of money.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, audience member: How much money do they make?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Phil Donahue: How much do you make, they want to know? He's not a public servant. He doesn't have to show you his W-2 form.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, audience member: What does the job pay?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bob Colantonio: You make a high average living.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick de Noia: It varies, it depends. When a guy starts, he starts at the lowest rung of the ladder. As he develops, as he's more valuable, he gets paid more.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Sally Jessy Raphael: What about tips, don't they get an awful lot of tips?]
Niki: Well, let's talk about the magical healing powers of capitalism, because that's the part of the story that I am absolutely enthralled by, Natalia. The idea that we don't always talk about Chippendales as sex work, but we do talk about it as an immensely popular—and by popular, I mean immensely money-making kind of organization. And it's fascinating, right? The way that sex work gets reframed as capitalism, gets reframed as just another money-making opportunity. Because when it's women in sex work, no one's talking about capitalism. Nobody is talking about, "Oh, what's smart businesswomen these are." And when these guys talk about it, they talk about it as, "I'm an entrepreneur." But also like, "It feels great. I get to have sex all the time." Which is also not something that you necessarily hear from women sex workers. I think that's changed some with the rise of sex positivity, but it's just not the way that we're conditioned to think about it. So I was so fascinated by the way that these men talked about sex work as work.
Neil: Absolutely. You know, one of the things I asked of every single dancer that I interviewed was what their parents thought about it. And maybe that says more about me than it says about them, that I kept asking them that question. But almost every single one of them said, "Oh, my parents didn't have a problem with this. They knew I was working hard, making good, clean money. Yeah, they didn't really think it was, like, the thing they'd always wanted me to go into, but they understood it was a stepping stone on a career toward entertainment, or towards business or towards whatever. But, like, they knew I was working hard. They knew I was making decent money."
Neil: Again, capitalism can kind of cover all sins. But I do think there's a particular context for what that would have meant in the 1980s, right? This period of yes, resurgent conservatism, especially the growth of the religious right. But also, what else is happening in this decade? It's the high point of American capitalism. Greed is good. And I think there's a way in which all of these things are not divergent or even in conflict with each other, but actually in some ways, reinforcing.
Niki: This is the really important part of the feminism story that I'm so interested in, because we're still telling a story of women's liberation, but it's women's liberation that you buy. One of the things that is being offered to women to buy with all of those dollars is the experience of liberation. That there's a liberatory aspect of having dollars in your pockets. And I don't want to say that access to resources is not important for liberation, but what they're being sold is this idea that no, no, no, that's enough. You hand over the dollars, you get your experience of liberation and we've done our part. Capitalism has worked as well as it's going to to advance feminism.
Natalia: All right, so we're gonna take a break, but when we come back, we're gonna get into the Chippendales legacies we didn't get to explore in this series, and specifically the legacies of the two men at the center of it all.
Natalia: So we're back. Chippendales has been around for 40 years, and what's kept it alive and an enduring piece of our culture for that long, is that the show can and has changed with the times. So I want to take a minute to talk about that evolution explicitly. Nick had this musical theater background, and he really brought that aesthetic to his show. Let's take a listen to his finale number. Let me tell you, it's not exactly Ginuwine's "Pony."
[ARCHIVE CLIP: [singing] And it's Chippendales' role reversal! Everybody goes to town at Chippendales. Women jump up and down at Chippendales.]
Natalia: [laughs] It never gets old.
Neil: I mean, this is supposed to be a strip show, y'all.
Niki: Remember earlier when I said that it had gotten more Broadway? This is as Broadway as Chippendales has ever been.
Neil: It's wild.
Natalia: So that was Nick's show. But when he leaves and Steve Merritt comes in, let's just say that the aesthetic changes a lot. I want to talk about the show that's the inspiration for the name of this podcast. That show was called “Welcome to My Fantasy”.
Niki: Yeah. That show was choreographed by a guy named Steve Merritt who Banerjee hired in 1985 after Nick left. And who, by the way, was himself openly gay. And the aesthetic that he brought to Chippendales, because it was a real change from the Nick de Noia era. Nick de Noia was very much Broadway, jazz hands all that stuff.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: [singing] Welcome to My Fantasy!]
Natalia: So, you know, I think we all kind of agree that Steve Merritt's show is just fricking awesome. And I'll tell you that, you know, I don't have a very high-minded reason for loving it, except that I am a child of the '80s and, like, all that—it's like an 80s, a sexed-up '80s teen movie. Like, it feels like Fast Times At Ridgemont High with music and abs. Like, it's just—I love it. I just want to listen to those songs.
Neil: Well, I'd just really like to underline the point here that for all the sort of hand-wringing about gay men's involvement in the Chippendales and the question of that, ultimately it's a gay man making a really great show here. Arguably, I would say the best one.
Natalia: So wait, can we talk about my favorite song from Steve Merritt's show? I saw it in this promotional tape that they made called "Tall, Dark and Handsome—"also you can watch that on YouTube. You definitely should go watch it. It's called, "Room Service."
[ARCHIVE CLIP: [singing] Room service! Young, hot and very spicy.]
Niki: Well, can you describe for us, Natalia, what "Room Service" was like?
Natalia: So "Room Service," the plot is this woman, I think she's like a business woman. She's traveling alone, and she checks into a hotel by herself, and she orders room service. And she gets delivered this, like, super hot guy under the pretense that he's coming with food, but he's bringing a lot more. And yeah, the song is just really, really catchy. Musically, it sounds like it could be any kind of '80s song. It feels very different from jazz hands. And you get into more, like, kind of like the pop of the era and, like, synthesizers. And you don't have these grandiose costumes. The men are in, like, real clothes.
Niki: Well, what I think is interesting about that is we're seeing the adaptability of Chippendales. And that is part of the key to its longevity is its ability to adapt to the new cultural media and cultural forms. And so if there was a particular genius to the original idea that Steve Banerjee and Nick de Noia came up with, it was that they created something that could change and that it could adapt and still have the core iconography, like the bow tie and the cuffs, but adapt to the tastes of the time.
Niki: The other big trend that Banerjee was on top of was backgammon. And I realize we talk about backgammon a little bit in the show, but we need to talk a lot more about it because it was this huge fad at the time. And it becomes a fad in the United States thanks to a Russian prince. This is a guy by the name of Prince Alexis Obolensky, and he came to the United States after the Russian Revolution. His whole family fled from Russia in 1917. And they eventually arrive in the US. So he grows up here, he'd been born in 1915. And in the 1960s, he's trying to find something to do. And he begins to promote backgammon as the next big thing, in the early 1960s. And it totally catches on. It becomes, like, this high-class, high-roller game that everyone is playing. They're playing it in the discos. They're playing it at Playboy Mansion. It's the most amazing thing.
Natalia: I will say I noticed this summer that in the Hamptons, on the beach, these chic people are, like, playing backgammon. And I wonder if it's having a comeback.
Niki: It's coming back, baby.
Natalia: Yeah, exactly.
Natalia: So, you know, the men of Chippendales we usually think of, as we've been talking of, as the dancers. But I also really want to know what you two think about the men behind the act, right? The men who founded and created, really, this brand. And one of the areas of research I found so interesting was looking at Steve Banerjee, not just as this entrepreneur behind Chippendales, but also as this Bengali immigrant who came after the 1965 Immigration Act allowed a lot of Indian immigrants to come to the United States.
Anirvan Chaterjee: I remember telling Steve Banerjee's story to friends particularly other Indians or other South Asians more broadly, and there was a lot of, "Why haven't I heard this before? Wait, is this real?" Just the idea that, "Wait, Chippendales is one of ours?"
Natalia: I got to talk to this writer and researcher Anirvan Chaterjee. And he's long known about Banerjee and been kind of obsessed with him.
Anirvan Chaterjee: The thing that I found fascinating was the fact that I had never heard of him before in a community context. And within my immigrant community, I had heard about Bengali entrepreneurs like Dr. Amar Bose, the found person who founded Bose, the speakers. That was just a really well-known brand that was created by somebody from a Bengali immigrant family. I mean, just founding the Chippendales, just that in and of itself, Steve Banerjee feels a little bit that immigrant trickster figure, but trickster in kind of a good way, like, smart and creative and willing to look at something with fresh eyes.
Natalia: But Chatterjee talks about Banerjee as, in some ways, being this quintessential success story by the very terms that animated and inspired so many other South Asian immigrants. But he says that, in some ways, there was this narrowness in that vision of what was acceptable.
Anirvan Chaterjee: There's this sense of achievement, or what kinds of achievements matter. For a lot of immigrants—particularly those who were coming to the US around the time that Steve Banerjee showed up—they grew up in India, and they grew up in kind of an immigrant community that would really respect or valorize doctors or lawyers or engineers or a certain kind of business people. And Steve Banerjee's story, I mean, Steve Banerjee was somebody who did not look like that at all. It's just a little bit strange because he's so much like other immigrants in some ways. He starts a business, he finds place in his community, he finds ways to have cultural impact. He just takes a step further than other people around him would. And I mean, it's one thing to work incredibly hard, it's one thing to do jobs that other people would not be willing to do. It's another thing to murder and all the kind of super shady things that Steve Banerjee ended up doing.
Niki: It's so interesting, because he seems to have cracked the code of American culture. He understood American racism. We saw that in the way that he treated Black dancers and Black customers. He understood American puritanism, right? The ways that he could play the religious right off of the news media. He really got it on a deep level. His worshiping of Disney world or Disneyland, of Walt Disney.
Niki: And the other code that Banerjee cracked was the code of American capitalism. And that is that there actually aren't any rules. Whatever you can get away with to make money, as long as you don't get caught, you're actually gonna be just fine. And I think that that drove many of his business choices because he saw that's the way that American capitalism worked.
Neil: And there's sort of a way in which I think Banerjee, even as he was becoming more and more successful, success felt elusive to him. And I think, you know, in some ways that is just a striver mentality. I think anyone who is ambitious, who wants more and more and more, there's never enough. And in that way, Banerjee feels, like, deeply, deeply American to me. But I also think it helps us understand the certain choices he made, particularly in those last years.
Natalia: How do you think of Nick in that light, in terms of his legacy or as a foil to Banerjee and what he represents?
Neil: Well, I think he's certainly fundamental to that legacy, the fact that Chippendales is still around. I mean, he was such an important person in developing the Chippendales brand and what they stood for and what they did. As much as these two men were often opposed to each other, and I think in a lot of ways, both of them were such ambitious men.
Neil: And I think that was really what connected them, even as it was at the heart of their conflict. I mean, Nick is a kid who is breaking out of his home to run into the city and see Broadway shows. Like, he wants to be a performer. He wants to be a Broadway star, and he wants to be a director who's known. And I think in those ways, that sort of striving mentality is not unique to Nick, but is something that connects them deeply together.
Niki: But I think the way that they're different is that Nick wants to be known as a creative genius. It's less for him about making sure that he has more money than God, and more about his reputation in a way. And you see that being a real friction point between him and Banerjee, because all of a sudden, Nick is claiming credit for things that Banerjee thinks are rightfully his.
Natalia: I have to say, I got kind of emotionally attached to Nick in making this podcast and meeting all these members of his family. Sitting in his family's kitchen there in South Jersey, that there was not only the tragedy of losing this important part of the man and their family, but also the tragedy that this is what he died for.
Neil: I do think the thing he really wanted to get back to is Broadway.
Neil: I mean, that's where he started—in theater and musicals. And so, in some ways, I think that he would appreciate the Vegas show because of all the ways in which Vegas has been so dramatically changed. I mean, you could almost say that Vegas is one Broadway show after another these days. And so I think that he would appreciate what it represents that Chippendales is a Vegas act, the way that that would have such different meaning in the '70s or the '80s.
Natalia: So I have to ask you both, you know, we've worked on this podcast, like, for almost two years. What's the main thing that you're gonna take away from this? What will you carry with you from all you know about Chippendales and its legacies?
Neil: I think in thinking about it as a phenomenon, you know, I'm a historian who thinks a lot about political movements, about religious movements. And I think one of the things I've been thinking so much about is how Chippendales, and understanding Chippendales as an iconic pop culture brand, and the development of it. You know, there's this tension as historians for many of us between the bold-face, big-letter names that everyone knows, and the people on the ground, you know, the grassroots activist who makes change. And where does history happen? And I think a lot of us feel like it's somewhere in between. This may feel like a stretch, but Chippendales was a really interesting way to think about that phenomenon.
Neil: How does something happen where yes, there are important figures here. Chippendales wouldn't be the same if it hadn't been led and created by Steve Banerjee, if Nick de Noia hadn't made his imprint on it. But it also wouldn't have been the same if those thousands of women hadn't come into the club, into the show, shown up for the tour, and helped make and remake Chippendales themselves. Not to say anything of the larger American culture that received Chippendales and made for it what they wanted it to be, and sent it back into the world to continue to reverberate.
Niki: Yeah. I mean, there are so many little moments that I'll remember. I mean, remember when we were down in lower Manhattan pawing through all of the case files? There was something very true crime about that. That felt pretty cool. But the thing that I'll always remember are the women, and the way that they turn the space that was just meant to sell them an experience, and invested real meaning in it. And not just invested real meaning in it in the 1970s and 1980s, but also, like, the women in Long Island who were just heading out for a night that they would remember.
Niki: I remember going home for Christmas, and my mom shared with me a photo of her with Chippendale dancers. And it was for her what it was for these women as well, right? Like, this one memorable night. But in having that one memorable night, they were participating in this phenomenon that stretches back decades.
Natalia: So, you know, I riffed a little bit on this in the last episode about what this means to me as one, just a woman and a person who grew up during this era and remember Chippendales as a little girl or on SNL. And so one of the main things that I think I'll take away from this is this even firmer commitment to the idea that pop culture topics that so many people just think of as a punchline or a throw away or a joke, that actually they can be lenses into the most important, most serious issues and dynamics that shape a historical moment. And I mean, usually when I say I'm working on this show, like, the first answer is kind of like, "Oh, how fun!" You know, depending who I'm talking to. And trust me, it is really, really fun, and I have loved doing this, but it's also to me a lens on the things that we care about most. And I think it's a really good reminder that things that you encounter at the mall or at the store or in your everyday life that don't seem important with a capital I, can actually be the keys to understanding really profound things about human experience. And if we have convinced anyone of that through this podcast beyond just like a cool, sexy murder story, then I think we have done something really important.
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.
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. This is a Spotify original podcast.