Content Warning: The following program contains adult content, violence and strong language. Listener discretion is advised.
Natalia Petrzela: Previously on Welcome to Your Fantasy ...
Natalia: Why was this a kind of hot case?
Bruce Nahin: It's Chippendales, babe. We're still talking about it 40 years later.
Anirvan Chaterjee: Steve Banerjee's story is just weird.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, reporter: Do you see any similarities between yourself and Hugh Hefner?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Steve Banerjee: Maybe.]
Anirvan Chaterjee: It looks a lot like, in some ways, this immigrant business hustle success story, but it's got this weird twist.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Steve Banerjee: We just do a thing that the Playboy Club has. We reversed the thing for the women.]
Bruce Nahin: This wasn't a high-end nightclub. This was a dive bar in an industrial section of West Los Angeles.
[NEWS CLIP: Are you excited about the idea of men taking their clothes off?]
[NEWS CLIP: Excited? Oh! And how! I think it's great. I might just kick my husband out.]
Natalia: You describe yourself as being really part of women's lib. Was Steve Banerjee part of that too?
Richard Barsh: Absolutely not. [laughs] Steve was really concerned about the money.
Bruce Nahin: We stole it. Or we ran with it, or whatever you want to call it.
Richard Barsh: They said "You're exposing." And I said, "What are we exposing?" And they said, "The buttocks." And I said, "Well, where does the butt begin or end?"
Natalia: The big philosophical questions.
Richard Barsh: Yeah. Now we are famous.
Natalia: Okay, so let's back up a little bit. So will you tell us the story of the first night you went to Chippendales?
Candace Mayeron: Well, I had been invited to a party in the neighborhood of Palms, and I was really dressed. It was a dressy party. I even had on a fur coat plus a little short skirt. I looked really good. I go to my friend's house. He goes, "Candace, it's tomorrow night."
Natalia: That's Candace Mayeron. She's the former producer who toured with Chippendales for years. Today, she lives in Playa del Ray in a house filled with magenta furniture that matches her magenta hair. When I walked in, the first thing I noticed is that her walls are covered with beefcake calendars and photos of semi-nude men. Back in the early '80s, before Candace ever got involved with Chippendales, she was an investment banker with a law degree. But on the night she's telling me about, she's just out trying to have a good time.
Candace Mayeron: So now I'm all dressed up with nowhere to go and nothing to do. But I was aware of this new club, which was just a block and a half away that everybody was talking about: Chippendales. So I thought, "Well, let's go see what this is all about, since I'm dressed for it."
Natalia: So Candace walks over to the club, and when she arrives she sees a line that stretches around the block.
Candace Mayeron: And I'm looking at that and I'm going, "Not a chance in hell am I standing in a line like this," when the doorman comes up to me and he goes, "You don't have to wait in line. Come right in." So I'm thinking to myself, "Wow, these people kinda know what's going on."
Natalia: She steps inside, and the place is completely packed. Candace makes her way through the crowd. She sees groups of laughing women, drinking Long Island iced teas and throwing back shots covered in whipped cream. She makes her way down to the front row by the edge of the stage, where she watches as one dancer after another comes out in character.
Candace Mayeron: There was a barbarian, astronaut, the Indian, and then there was the Unknown Flasher. But I'm looking at how it’s constructed and how it's woven and the different themes, and I'm just absolutely bowled over by the show, I can't believe how good it is. Then I thought, "Well, I want to see what it's like to hold up a dollar."
Natalia: At Chippendales, this was a signature move known as the tip 'n' kiss. A woman waves some money in the air, and in exchange for the tip, a dancer makes his way over and kisses her smack on the mouth.
Candace Mayeron: First, I'm hit with a whiff of very pleasant cologne. Then when I get the kiss, I'm hit with a big peppermint. And I think, "These people really know what they're doing. This is really—they're paying attention to detail. This is so good." After the show, I go up to one of the waiters. I say, "Who's the genius behind all of this?" He says, "That silver-haired guy over there."
Natalia: That silver-haired guy is Nick de Noia: director, choreographer, former children's TV producer. Not necessarily the resume of a guy you'd expect to see running the show at Chippendales. Not long before Candace walked into Chippendales for the first time and got knocked out by everything she saw, Nick walked in and convinced the owner, Steve Banerjee, to let him take over the show.
Candace Mayeron: He went to Steve and said, "I'll put you on the map. I will make this place internationally famous if you will let me choreograph and direct a new show. Your show is terrible, and I want to put in a great show."
Natalia: In many ways, Nick and Steve were polar opposites. Everyone I talked to described Steve as this self-conscious guy who liked to hang back in the shadows, who only had a few confidants and who preferred to do business one-on-one. Then along comes this intense, fast-talking theater guy from New York City, who loved attention and knew how to command a room. So maybe it's no surprise that the two of them clashed from the very beginning. But it also makes sense that Steve hired Nick. Steve wanted mainstream success, and Nick talked a big game about how he could turn Chippendales into a true theatrical experience.
Michael Rapp: Steve didn't have any great ideas, but he was smart enough to surround himself with people who did have good ideas.
Candace Mayeron: Nick can be very, very, very compelling, and I can see Banerjee falling under his spell because Banerjee knew he couldn't do it.
Bruce Nahin: Well, Nicholas made us. I mean, Banerjee would spend the rest of history devaluing Nicholas' contribution. But if there was no Nicholas, there would've never been the success we had.
Natalia: That's the knot at the heart of the whole Chippendales story. For Steve to get what he wants, he needs Nick. But then he can't stand that Nick is the one who gets the credit for what Chippendales becomes. And he really couldn't stand that Nick was out there self-mythologizing every chance he got.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick de Noia: What I've created is the most important entertainment in the world for women. Women have never had this before. We men never permitted them to have it before, and dammit, it's going to be the best.]
Natalia: I'm Natalia Petrzela, and this is Welcome to Your Fantasy, Episode Two: The Perfect Man.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick de Noia: Hello? That stunk. Good morning! What the hell are you doing? You do that turn and it's like ...]
Natalia: That's Nick de Noia directing a group of dancers in the mid-'80s. They're in muscle shirts and tight shorts, tube socks pulled up to their knees, running the same number over and over.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick de Noia: Boom! Get your leg up! It's hot. Thank you. Good morning!]
Natalia: Nick's all kinetic energy. Cigarette in one hand, can of Coke in the other. Pacing and gesticulating and whipping off his oversized aviator glasses when he wants to make a point.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick de Noia: You do that turn, and it's like I have a bowl of tropical fish. That's the amount of sensuality that I just felt from you guys. It's like this.]
Natalia: The video was shot for a local TV news segment on the man behind the success of Chippendales.
[NEWS CLIP: So you thought being a Chippendale was a piece of cake, a few well-placed muscles and the ability to bump and grind? Well, it might be that way if it weren't for Nick de Noia. Before working with the Chippendales, Nick was the producer of children's network television. He says he finds this more rewarding. And he has a reputation for being the ultimate perfectionist, obsessed with making the show as entertaining as it is suggestive.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick de Noia: You are God's gift to womankind, except if they had their way they'd destroy you and get rid of you on the face of the earth. Remember that. Let's go from the top. Here we go!]
Natalia: So I want to go back and tell the Nick de Noia origin story, because it'll give you a good sense of how this kid from New Jersey who had Broadway dreams goes from making a kids' TV show to directing a bunch of male strippers. But also, I think it'll help explain something that blew my mind when I figured it out: how that show, this funky, very '70s musical production called Unicorn Tales actually shaped the future of Chippendales.
Natalia: Nick grew up in a big Italian family, about 15 miles from Manhattan. His dad ran a garment business. Nick's three older brothers all worked there, but Nick had zero interest. Nick was just different. As a kid, he'd sneak out of the house to take tap lessons. And by the time he was 19, he was directing and performing off-Broadway. He co-founded a summer theater company on the Jersey Shore. Then he created and performed in a revue called Broadway Tonight, which he toured all over the world. And then he got a gig directing a nightclub act for the actress and model Jennifer O'Neill.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, commercial: The clean, Cover Girl look of Jennifer O'Neill.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jennifer O'Neill: When something works, I stay with it.]
Natalia: Jennifer O'Neill was a big movie star. Famous enough that when she and Nick get married in the summer of '75, it's on the cover of People magazine. The four-page People spread features pictures of her and Nick wandering the grounds of her 30-acre country estate in Bedford, New York, all feathered hair and turtlenecks and bell-bottoms.
Natalia: Nick goes on about Jennifer's acting talent and how easy she is to direct. Jennifer calls herself "silly putty" in his hands. As a director, she calls him "Little Hitler." Maybe not surprising they get divorced less than a year after that issue of People hits the stands. Nick blamed the divorce on Jennifer's career. He said it was holding him back. His niece gave us a copy of a nine-page letter he sent to prospective Hollywood agents right after they split up. He writes, "It was about the third time I was called 'Mr. O'Neill' that our marital difficulties began. Jennifer enjoyed the luxury of having her own in-house director, but I wanted to work."
Judy Simon: Nick was so talented and so creative that you just got swept up in his energy. I know he wasn't doing any drugs at the time, but if you could imagine somebody just loaded on cocaine, that would be how I would describe Nick. He was a mile a minute. He worked fast, he talked fast. He was just like this frenzied energy just bubbling over.
Natalia: Judy Simon and Nick met back in the '70s. She was just about to graduate from NYU.
Judy Simon: I was in the Film and TV Department, and he came looking for help on the Unicorn Tale series.
Natalia: Unicorn Tales was the kid's show Nick created shortly after he and Jennifer got divorced. It ran on NBC in New York for one season back in 1977. This was a golden age for weirdo kids TV: think Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, Free to Be You and Me. Unicorn Tales is set in "Unicorn City," a magical stand-in for the real New York City—which at the time was anything but magical.
Natalia: Conservative politicians painted this sensationalized picture of New York City's "mean streets," all garbage strikes and spiking crime rates and homelessness. Angry police union members at war with the mayor actually tried to keep tourists out of the city by handing out pamphlets that read "Welcome to Fear City." Unicorn Tales, though, imagined a different kind of New York.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick de Noia: Do you think fairy tales still happen today? Well, they do here on Unicorn Tales. Once upon a time, in the here and the now ...]
Natalia: That's Nick. He's sitting by a pond in Central Park, wearing a jean jacket covered in colorful patches and holding a giant storybook. Each episode is based on a classic fairy tale: Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland, The Boy Who Cried Wolf and so on. And every episode features kids singing original songs and dancing their way through Unicorn City. My kids and I watched all eight episodes together, and they're still really, really good.
Judy Simon: He was able to get known lyricists and composers and choreographers to work with him to create this sort of magical TV series for no money at all. We were kind of like a guerrilla film crew at the time. A location would be selected and the dancers would be rehearsed. We would show up en masse with cameras and equipment.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Alex Paez (singing): One Step At A Time]
Natalia: That kid singing is Alex Paez.
Judy Simon: Alex was the star, he was the kid star of most of the Unicorn Tales. So talented.
Natalia: Alex is still an actor today. He's been on shows you know: Monk, NYPD Blue, CSI, The West Wing. But he got his start on Unicorn Tales when he was just 13.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Alex Paez (singing): One Step At A Time]
Alex Paez: Nick was just so focused, that was the thing. He'd say things like, "We don't have time for a cold. Just shake this off. There's no time for this."
Natalia: Nick's tough in ways that seem sort of impossible to be today. Like one time in a scene in an Italian bakery, he made Alex eat shaving cream over and over because Alex is allergic to eggs and couldn't eat the pastries.
Natalia: I'm such a mom, but isn't that toxic? Like maybe more toxic than eggs? [laughs]
Alex Paez: It was 1977. I think that I actually earned his respect as a result of that. And he said to me, he says, "Alex, you should do very well in this business." Nick de Noia was probably the closest thing I had to a dad that I had that wasn't blood.
Natalia: The kind of dad that might push you to eat shaving cream a half dozen times to nail a scene, but still.
Judy Simon: And he pushed people. And what's the word? He could sometimes get pretty volatile.
Curt Cressler: He was mean to kids if he had to be, to get results, you know?
Natalia: That's Curt Cressler. He was the cinematographer and production manager on Unicorn Tales, and he later worked with Nick at Chippendales. The thing about Nick, Curt said, is that if he had an idea, he just wouldn't accept that it couldn't be done.
Curt Cressler: He had trouble controlling these ideas that he kept having. He would have ideas—we would have, like, 50 dancers illegally on a sidewalk in front of Rockefeller Center, and he would suddenly get an idea. And immediately, we had to change everything, all the plans, all the schedules. You know, everybody that we needed, everything changed, like, at that moment in his head. We always found some way to make it happen.
Natalia: Curt's career is a testament to Nick's refusal to take no for an answer, and to this intense creative energy that both Judy and Alex described. Like, once you were in the presence of the Nick de Noia force field, you'd be willing to do almost anything for him.
Curt Cressler: After going through Unicorn Tales, every time it was impossible. No way this was gonna happen. No way we were gonna get this done. And every time we did it, we pulled it off. In a lot of ways, it's like living a dream. He was the best artist I've known in my lifetime.
Judy Simon: Nick knew what he wanted. He made it very clear what he wanted, and you were either on his boat or off it. And I was on it. I mean, I think in other circumstances, in another time or place, he could have been like a Bob Fosse. He knew how to bring people along to help support his creative vision.
Curt Cressler: He would've done these big, bizarre crossover musical dramas, like Moulin Rouge. I think he would've ruined Baz Luhrmann's career.
Natalia: We'll be right back.
Natalia: In 1978, Unicorn Tales takes home three Emmy awards. Nick moves out to LA, and takes a gig directing live-action shows for the cartoon producer Hanna-Barbera. And then he eventually meets Steve Banerjee at Chippendales. And tells him basically, "Your show sucks, but I can make it great."
Bruce Nahin: Well, you know, at that point it was exciting.
Natalia: Bruce Nahin. He's the lawyer who studied for the bar at Banerjee's bar. He said there wasn't any big mystery as to why Steve would hire a guy like Nick.
Bruce Nahin: Flamboyant, energetic, demanding, wonderful. I mean, Nick was always demanding. He had a vision.
Natalia: Nick wasn't wrong about the show. Before he came onto the scene, Chippendales was doing decent business, but the act itself was pretty rough around the edges.
Clarke Wilson: I mean, it was a slapdash thing. It wasn't all well thought-out.
Natalia: Guys would come on stage in ridiculous costumes: clown shoes, trenchcoat, a g-string with Groucho Marx glasses and a mustache.
Richard Barsh: It wasn't really so much of a strip club as it was a comedy show for women.
Natalia: After a minute of stripping, they'd just run into the crowd, grab whatever tips they could, and sprint off stage to count their cash.
Dan Peterson: A guy could, if he saw a $20 bill right in the middle of the opening, he'd go get that $20 bill.
Natalia: The dancers—and I couldn't be using that term more loosely here—were basically anyone Steve Banerjee could scrounge up. He combed the beaches and gyms looking for dudes to hire. Like this guy ...
Michael Rapp: Back in the '80s when I first started, the dancers were not that good looking. Sorry guys if you're listening! [laughs]
Natalia: [laughs] Then you arrived! So they were just, like, jacked?
Michael Rapp: No, not really jacked or anything. But they were willing to take their clothes off.
Natalia: This is Michael Rapp. Of all the guys who ever took their clothes off on a Chippendales' stage, no one is more iconic than him. He did it for 20 years. We'll get into that later—the legend that is Michael Rapp. For now, what's important is that Rapp was there when Nick de Noia showed up.
Michael Rapp: He came in and took control like a ringmaster.
Michael Rapp: Like he was going to mold everybody. He was gonna be in control of the show. He was gonna give it direction. And that's why Steve hired him. He was gonna take him to the next level.
Natalia: Steve had a knack for hiring talented people. And as Nick embraced his role as "ringmaster" of Chippendales, he called his friend Curt again. You gotta come out to LA to work on this thing with me. I'm obsessed with it." But he wouldn't tell Curt what "it" even was.
Curt Cressler: He knew he had to sort of create a mystery for me to come out. And so he sent me a round-trip ticket, and promised me that I wouldn't believe what I was going to see. When I landed at the airport, there was a limo there, and they took me to the back door of this place.
Natalia: Nick was there waiting on the back steps of Chippendales.
Curt Cressler: And when I went into this place, it was totally dark. And then all of a sudden, the lights came up and this guy came out dressed as a cowboy. And he kind of galumphed a couple times on the stage and then started stripping. I mean, that was about it. And the women in this place—which now was lit—went crazy. I mean, they just went crazy. So for some reason, Nick thought this would appeal to me. I still don't know why he thought that would appeal to me.
Natalia: Was he there standing next to you while you were taking it all in?
Curt Cressler: Yeah. Yeah, and he was staring at me. And he could see I wasn't getting it, so he took me by the sleeve and dragged me out back and he said, "This is not what we're going to do. We're gonna make this work. We need concepts, storylines, characters, an environment where you're not sure what's going to happen next."
Natalia: The next day, Curt went with Nick to Steve Banerjee's office to lay out their vision for Chippendales.
Curt Cressler: We had a formal meeting with Banerjee the day after I saw the show. Didn't like him. At all.
Natalia: Curt told me that during that meeting, Steve wouldn't stop pushing ideas of his own.
Curt Cressler: He went on and on about, he wanted me to write something that wound up with the guy smearing whipped cream all over himself.
Natalia: That was his creative vision?
Curt Cressler: Yeah. That was his take on what we were doing. [laughs]
Natalia: So how did you guys react?
Curt Cressler: Nick said, "Well, that's interesting, but we're not gonna do that." [laughs] It had nothing. It had nothing. I mean, we were talking about mythology. You know, we're trying to build mythology, and this guy's talking about whipped cream.
Natalia: Things changed right away once Nick was in charge. They wouldn't be doing any whipped cream numbers, that's for sure. There'd be more rehearsals to attend, more lines to memorize, more choreography to master. The dancers were used to just showing up at night and doing the show, raking in their tips from the women in the crowd, doing some drugs, having some sex and calling it a night.
Michael Rapp: There were sex, you know, all over the place.
Natalia: There in the club? Like in the back room?
Michael Rapp: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. In the bathrooms, in the corners, in the DJ booth, you know?
Natalia: Wow! And they're, like, offering you guys money?
Michael Rapp: Oh, yeah.
Michael Rapp: The money wasn't all that—it was mostly, you know, just, you know, free fun-loving sex. You know, just, you know, quick easy, you know, sex. Yeah.
Natalia: Okay, so that part doesn't change very much. But with Nick in charge, they now had a drill sergeant, strutting around, making sure that above all else, they nailed their choreography.
Scott Marlowe: He dressed people down the way a bad father would reprimand their child for shitting in their pants, I suppose. He accepted nothing less than perfection. He ruled with an iron fist.
Natalia: This is Scott Marlowe, a former Chippendales dancer.
Scott Marlowe: He was brilliant about knowing what looked good on stage, but his social abilities were fucking zero.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick de Noia: You know, for about two weeks now I've been telling you, dammit Bob, this is slow.]
Natalia: So why'd you stay?
Scott Marlowe: Think about it. All the pussy you could have. All the drugs—if you did drugs—you could have. All the alcohol you could have, all the attention you could have. And money. Why would you want to lose that job?
Natalia: Curt also talked about the ways Nick would wield his power.
Curt Cressler: He was willing to fire anybody. We had this guy who was a professional bodybuilder, Sam Cupae, who played The Barbarian. And he didn't do the routine. He broke the routine, ran into the audience to get tips and stuff and came back up on stage to continue his routine. And Nick was there waiting for him. This is in front of an audience. And he said, "You're fired!" Loud enough for all the women to hear, and they all went [gasps]. You know, you could hear this [gasp] in the audience. And so, any of the guys backstage seeing that, this guy was supposed to be our big gun, you know?
Curt Cressler: He was a tyrant. He was a tyrant. On the stage floor, he was a tyrant. He was God as far as he was concerned, and he wouldn't hear otherwise.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick de Noia: I'm easy. As I say to them, "Gentlemen, if you give me what I want, I'm a sweetheart. The only time you have trouble with me is when you make me break your backs.]
Curt Cressler: I felt bad for the guys, but as long as Nick was getting the results he was getting, I mean, what we had after just four weeks of Nick being in charge, you couldn't compare it to what I saw.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick de Noia: I mean, it's one thing to be alone in a room with a woman. It's another thing when I'm screaming at them, "Hello, I want you to turn 500 women on now. Their way, not your way." That's tough. That's tough. That takes technique, it takes hard thought.]
Natalia: There's this other theory that kept coming up when we talked to people about Nick: that the real secret to Chippendales' success was that he possessed some special psychic radar for what turned women on.
Bruce Nahin: Well, Nicholas was—he understood what women wanted to see far better than I could.
Natalia: That's Bruce Nahin again.
Natalia: How did he have that knowledge?
Bruce Nahin: I don't know. But he knew. For the show to survive, we had to appeal to your gender, not to ours in our minds.
Natalia: You ever have any women consulting for you?
Bruce Nahin: I don't believe so.
Natalia: It seems like it would have been the natural thing, right?
Bruce Nahin: It would have been. But I had Nick, who seemed to know better than you did what you wanted.
Natalia: All right.
Bruce Nahin: I hate to put it in the negative that way.
Natalia: That's okay.
Bruce Nahin: But he had a sixth sense.
Natalia: Yeah. All the guys I talked to seemed to believe this. Here's Curt Cressler again.
Curt Cressler: He seemed to understand the sexuality of women and the sensuality of women, and what made something romantic from a woman's point of view well enough to create what we call Chippendales today. But it was really Nick de Noia-ville.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick de Noia: Women aren't as turned on by the visual as we are. When we go to see a strip show, as soon as a woman takes off her bra, we're dirty-minded little boys. With women, it's not that. They'll get turned on by a man, but they have to know that personality. That's why our guys are not sex objects. We can't have sex objects. We have to have total human beings, or the night doesn't work.]
Natalia: But talk to the couple of women who actually worked with Nick, and they don't say anything about his "sixth sense."
Judy Simon: I don't know that I would say that Nick understood what women wanted better than what they do. I don't agree with that. There was maybe a little of role reversal-y kind of thing like that, but I don't think it was necessarily that Nick knew what women wanted, as much as Nick knew how to put on a great show.
Natalia: People say Nick understood women. Do you think that's true? Did he have a special understanding of women?
Candace Mayeron: That's funny. I don't know that I ever heard that before.
Natalia: That's Candace Mayeron again. That first night she went to Chippendales, after she asked who the genius was and got pointed towards Nick, she went right up to him and said, "I need to take you to dinner." They went to the diner down the street. Candace sat in a booth across from Nick and listed all the things that impressed her about the show.
Candace Mayeron: He said, "I feel so visible with you. With everybody else, they're just screaming 'Take it off,' but you see what I'm trying to accomplish. We have a rehearsal tomorrow. Why don't you come to the rehearsal?" So I go, "Okay, I'll come to the rehearsal." So I go to the rehearsal, I'm the only girl there. So Nick's putting the guys through their paces, and he says, "Use Candace, use Candace, use Candace."
Natalia: Nick tells Candace that he needs her to start coming to the shows and to give him tips on which guys are doing great and which ones need more work.
Candace Mayeron: Now he starts issuing orders at me. He says, "I want you to be in the audience, and tell me whether he does this, and did he do that right and what was the girls' reaction? And I need you to be my eyes and ears on the floor."
Natalia: So were you like, "I'm an investment banker, Nick de Noia. I got other things to do?"
Candace Mayeron: Hell no. I was like, "I'll be there, no problem."
Natalia: So Candace starts showing up at Chippendales several nights a week. And while she loves what Nick has done there, she's got some bones to pick, too.
Candace Mayeron: There was a lot of—I don't want to say raunchiness, because it wasn't that extreme, but there were things that disturbed me as a female. For example, in the '80s girls wore tube tops, which is like if you tie a scarf around your boobs, that's all there is. And the guys would pull them down, and think that was very funny. Trust me when I tell you I am not a prude, but this I thought was not funny. And I said, "Nick, this place is supposed to be a safe-haven for girls from this sort of schoolyard behavior."
Natalia: I loved sitting there with Candace in her magenta apartment as she told me about all her years at Chippendales. Plus, I loved the decor: there were these dolls and fridge magnets and little tsotchkes all over the place. She also had inspirational aphorisms everywhere. My personal favorite: "You can never be overdressed or overeducated."
Candace Mayeron: And there's the bodybuilder, see? My backgammon, a tennis ball, and jewelry. I'm a gemologist, also.
Natalia: Oh, really?
Candace Mayeron: Mm-hmm.
Natalia: Plus, there's a whole collection of Ayn Rand paraphernalia mixed in with the beefcake calendars and the autographed photos of former Chippendales dancers.
Candace Mayeron: See, this is all that '80s hair. I wish it would come back. It's still the best hair men ever had. And I loved big hair, I still do to this day. We hired this gorgeous blonde guy with this massive leonine head of hair, and he came for the first day of work with a brand new haircut, completely everything cut off. I had a heart attack, an absolutely heart attack. That's when I sent out a memo, "Nobody will get a haircut without my approval hereafter."
Natalia: I feel like the men there had more chest hair in general than men today, right?
Candace Mayeron: I said get rid of it all. I wanted hairless. And Nick said, "Some girls like guys with hair on their chest." I said, "Fine. You can keep one person with hair, and the rest of them get rid of the facial hair." "Wait a minute, Dan Peterson with this big mustache." I said, "Okay. Fine. But everybody else I want no hair except on their heads."
Natalia: Nick didn't have a sixth sense, Candace told me. It was that he was willing to listen to women. He wanted to know what the women who paid to see the show thought, which acts they liked, which guys they were into. And Candace being Candace, she handled all Nick's questions in her own particular way.
Candace Mayeron: Nick and I would stand at the back of the room, and I would say to him, "I think that guy's really hot," Nick turns to me and he says, "I want to know what the girls think. Go into the ladies room and listen to what they're saying." So I'd go into the bathrooms and I'd fuss with my hair a little bit in the mirror, and I'd come back out and I said, "They said that guy was really hot, Nick." You know, I don't know if he ever figured it all out. But this is not rocket science. Whatever my opinion was, that's what I reported to him was going on in the ladies room.
Natalia: Every great show has a star. And for most of Chippendales' history, that star was Michael Rapp. He's this guy you heard from earlier.
Michael Rapp: Back in the '80s when I first started, the dancers were not that good looking—sorry guys if you're listening!
Candace Mayeron: Your heart would stop when you would look at Michael Rapp. He was just very charismatic and very good-looking. And I will also say this: Michael got it. He got what we were about, and what we were trying to do.
Natalia: Rapp had only just started as a dancer when Nick arrived, but by then, everyone was already raving about him.
Scott Layne: This guy Michael Rapp was like a god.
Clarke Wilson: He had pecs as big as Kansas.
Scott Layne: He was like 6'4".
Clarke Wilson: He had a big chest and a small waist.
Scott Layne: Beautiful face, long hair, rock and roll star look.
Scott Marlowe: He was the reason that that fucking club did as well as it did.
Clarke Wilson: One of the most handsome guys I've ever seen.
Bruce Nahin: Darned if he doesn't still look good.
Natalia: Yup, can confirm. I met him, and even in his 60s he still looks good. Anyway, Rapp had the look, the body, the hair. But he had something else too. Something Nick de Noia prized most: Rapp could really dance. Rapp worked longer than any dancer in the history of Chippendales.
Michael Rapp: Yeah, 20 years. And I started in '81.
Natalia: Before that, his life consisted mostly of working out and going out.
Michael Rapp: I would go to clubs, and we'd be getting involved in the dance competition, but then they would have the hot body contest afterwards, right? So I started making a little extra cash on the side there.
Natalia: Sometime in the summer of 1981, Rapp headed over to Chippendales to ask for a job. The manager took one look at him and was like, "You? Come with me."
Michael Rapp: We have to pass through the club to get to the office of the owner, Steve Banerjee. It was wall to wall women. And all of a sudden, I go through this door and there's the dancers' dressing room. And they're pumping up with weights, you know, oiling themselves up, talking about what's going on. So then all of a sudden, we go up to these little wooden stairs, and there's Steve Banerjee sitting at his desk, stacks of money stacked on his desk.
Natalia: Oh my God, really? Like, literally stacks of cash?
Michael Rapp: Literally stacks. So Steve looks up really quick and very unimpressed goes, "Okay, start tomorrow." And then looks back down, counting his money and that was it. And I remember my first night out. By the time showtime starts, you know, you have these women chanting "We want meat! We want meat!" I mean they're ...
Natalia: We want meat?
Michael Rapp: Meat, yeah.
Natalia: Once he was out there in front of all those women wanting meat, Rapp's routine was not super complex.
Michael Rapp: I come out in a suit, and I take my suit off.
Natalia: When Nick came along, that act and a bunch of others went out the window. He made all sorts of changes, but the biggest one was adding a new act: a big, 18-minute number that would come near the end of the show. It was way campier and weirder than what you might expect at a strip club.
Michael Rapp: Nick came up to me, and he hands me the brand new script for the brand new show. Big script like that. And I go home and read it, and I read this number called "The Perfect Man."
Natalia: It's a classic Frankenstein's monster story told through music and dance. And stripping. Here's Curt Cressler.
Curt Cressler: I wanted to make fun of the concept of a perfect man. And I thought the best way to do it is, you know, pick the perfect part here, pick another perfect part here, chop them all up, throw them together.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Clarke Wilson: Yes! Tonight, my helpers and I are going to do the impossible. We are going to fulfill your wildest fantasy, ha ha ha! Think! Think back, ladies! When was the last time you wished you could create your very own perfect man!]
Natalia: It starts with the emcee—by then it was a guy named Clarke Wilson, dressed up like a mad scientist.
Clarke Wilson: I am like Dr. Frankenstein, and I'm going to create the perfect man by getting the best arms from this guy, and the best legs from this guy, and the best chest from this guy. And I'm gonna put them all together, and we're gonna hit him, zap him with electricity, and he's gonna be The Perfect Man! Dah-na-na-na-na-na!
Natalia: I know, stick with me here. But onstage, there's also a demon rock band.
Curt Cressler: But the instruments that they have are all weapons: guitars with big scimitars in them, and the drum sticks you could click on them and they were like switchblades.
Natalia: Switchblades that they then use to hack off the individual body parts of various Chippendales dancers and hosts.
Michael Rapp: They put this black light on and you can see the body parts. They look like they're floating around in air, right? And they go onto this platform, which is a reversible table while I'm laying on the bottom of the table.
Natalia: A blinding electrical flash illuminates the stage.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Clarke Wilson: You see? He moves! He lives! My creation lives! Now you will know the Perfect Man!]
Clarke Wilson: And then boom! The lights come on, and there he is.
Natalia: There he is: Michael Rapp, The Perfect Man, alive before your very eyes. In tight silver pants and a shimmering silver lamé crop top, lip-syncing to Loverboy as a band of galactic rockers jams behind him.
Michael Rapp: Whoever actually did The Perfect Man was gonna be, you know, the very first star of Chippendales, that's for sure.
Natalia: And that was you.
Michael Rapp: That was me.
Curt Cressler: The first night that we did that, all the women in the first row fainted. There was this big noise, and there were women on the floor. And so ...
Natalia: Really? Like, I have to raise my eyebrows at that.
Curt Cressler: Yeah, literally fainted.
Natalia: Really fainted?
Curt Cressler: They literally fainted. We had to call for ambulances, and the show had to stop. And it was amazing. It was amazing.
Natalia: Yeah, that is not a true story. We fact-checked it. But it does capture a deeper truth about Chippendales. Not that everybody lies, though there's a ton of revisionist history happening, for sure. It's that, from the very beginning, the place was built on hyperbole and myth-making. It's a Disneyland for adults. Nick de Noia has ESP for what women want. This is a new art form, the greatest entertainment ever created for women, dozens of whom faint at the sight of Michael Rapp, The Perfect Man. Who, I should add, has to be destroyed in the end because the only thing The Perfect Man doesn't possess? Is a heart.
Curt Cressler: We wanted the danger of narcissism to be part of The Perfect Man. That what you see is not always what you get. And so, having him have no heart, even though he's perfect on the outside, is an analogy for all men. You know, for women looking at all men.
Natalia: The first time I watched The Perfect Man, I gotta say, I loved it. I loved the crazy spectacle of it all. But the other thing I couldn't stop thinking the entire time was Unicorn Tales. This was Unicorn Tales. Everything about it: the updated fairy tale, the over-the-top theatricality, The moral at the end of the story. It was Unicorn Tales! Except rather than child actors, there were these totally jacked, totally hairless, totally oiled men in very tiny spandex costumes.
Natalia: But also, it was innocent and unthreatening. It wasn't sexy. Not really. Not in the way, say, a Bob Fosse number is sexy. Or the way an actual sex club is sexy. Nick wasn't interested in making something transgressive. It was about being accessible to anyone in the audience, whether they were analyzing the deeper meaning of the act, or much more likely, just reveling in the sight of Rapp's body. And Nick was right when he said that nothing like this had existed before in mainstream America.
Candace Mayeron: I'd say Chippendales was special to Nick. He drank his own Kool-Aid—as did I—and we all really were trying to do something new and different. This entertainment form, there's still nothing like it. There's nothing you can go to where from the first moment, everybody is out of their chairs just screaming and excited. It's like a touchdown run at a Super Bowl, but it goes on for two hours. It never stops. There's nothing else like it. There still isn't.
Natalia: The night they performed The Perfect Man for the first time, there were two men among the couple hundred or so women in the crowd. Club owners from New York, who Nick had been in talks with about opening Chippendales there. They'd come to LA to see the show for themselves. And when it was over, when Michael Rapp emerged as The Perfect Man and started rocking out to Loverboy in outer space, they were all in. With one condition: Rapp had to be part of the deal.
Michael Rapp: I remember seeing the owners of the New York club coming in, and we had heard talk about New York. And I had just gotten married and just, you know, got a house with a pool in the backyard. And I didn't want to go. And then Steve Banerjee comes up to me and says, "You have to go because you're the deal, you're the package." So I said okay.
Natalia: A former dancer named Al Juliano told me Steve was not thrilled about losing Rapp to New York. Plus, this was Nick's thing. Steve wasn't even really into the idea of opening a club there in the first place.
Al Juliano: Banerjee said there's too many shows there now, it'll never make it. There's Broadway. You'll never make it in New York. And he didn't even want to pay for Nick's room and board. Nick told me he stayed at a Y.
Natalia: But Nick convinced Steve it would work. He brought these club owners out to LA, and Banerjee was like, "If I make money, fine. You go do it. If it flops though, it's on you." So in mid-October, 1983, Chippendales held its New York premiere in a club called Magique, on the upper east side of Manhattan, just a stone's throw away from the Broadway stages that young Nick had dreamed about.
Natalia: It was a different New York City than the one Nick left six years earlier. It's Reagan-era Wall Street. Quadrupling prices for apartments in Park and Fifth Avenue's good buildings, and a stock market-fueled art world that turned street artists into superstars. The city was flush, but not for everybody. Income disparity in 1980's Manhattan was more pronounced than in any other county in America. So if you were in the market for a New York night out that existed somewhere in the middle of all this, between the porn of Times Square and, like, Cats, which had just opened on Broadway, Chippendales was your ticket.
Natalia: Nick moved back East and ran the show, which became wildly successful. Everything about it was bigger and more ambitious and more glamorous than the show in LA. The size of the venue, the production values, the clientele. One dancer told me that Calvin Klein and Andy Warhol went. A young actress named Brooke Shields held her 20th birthday party there.
Candace Mayeron: Opening night was like opening night of a Broadway show. There was press. We were filled to capacity. The energy level was even higher than normal.
Natalia: They're right there on the verge of national celebrity—and it's all thanks to Nick. He spends all his time and energy on the New York City show. He goes on TV to talk about how significant it is that Chippendales has set up shop in the cultural capital of the world.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, TV host: So Nick?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick de Noia: Oh really.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, TV host: And I'm sure you're packing them in, huh?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick de Noia: Oh we really are. In New York City, it's not unusual to have over a thousand women in on the weekend.]
Candace Mayeron: Nick kept his word. He did put Chippendales on the map. And lines were around the block, and Steve is making a lot of money off of it. But Nick's getting all the credit and Steve is getting none of the credit, so the animosity starts and the resentments begin. All the newspaper interviews, all the television interviews, people coming to the club, "I want to see Nick. I don't know who you are, but I want to see Nick."
Natalia: Back in LA, Steve Banerjee stews. He doesn't come to New York to see the show. He and Nick start bickering over rights and ownership. And Nick's goal becomes to outdo LA—Steve's turf—any way he can.
Natalia: Do you remember when you first saw kind of tension between them?
Candace Mayeron: I don't know that there ever was not tension between them, quite frankly.
Natalia: Next time...
Eric Gilbert: Banerjee would make a change to the show. I mean, it was just a strip show. It wasn't—we're not talking about Cats on Broadway here. Banerjee would make a change to the show, like maybe put a different guy in or maybe take a certain act out or whatever. And de Noia would fly back. It would flip him out. And de Noia, he would say to Banerjee, "Don't fuck with my show." And Banerjee would say, "Your show? It's my show, motherfucker. I own this fucking club."
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. Special thanks to Jonathan Menjivar, Eric Mennel, and Henry Molofsky.
Natalia: This show features original music by Daoud Anthony. And thanks to our music supervisor Jasmine Flott. The executive producers of 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: You definitely want to head to our Instagram account, @ChippendalesRevealed, and check out actual footage of The Perfect Man being performed. Plus photos of the iconic Michael Rapp himself. Our handle is @ChippendalesRevealed.
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.