The Chippendales Takes Manhattan, Again
by Ramin Setoodeh
Thirteen years ago, the Chippendales, the male burlesque group, set up a New York shop in a cavernous clubhouse on the West Side Highway. It was summertime, and girlfriends assembled with cocktails to watch well-oiled men gyrate under strobe lights. But, a few months later, the attacks of September 11, 2001, darkened New Yorkers’ mood; people stopped coming to performances, and the show shuttered. So Kevin Denberg, the company’s managing partner, rented a tour bus and sent his dancers on a drive across the country, performing at casinos along the way in Ohio, Iowa, South Dakota, and Nebraska. “We just started heading west,” Denberg told me. “We had to find work for the guys.” Eventually, the pilgrimage found a Mecca in Las Vegas: the home of all-you-can-eat-buffets and Cirque du Soleil warmly welcomed the Chippendales. The company “took off when we went there,” Denberg recalled.
Today, the Chippendales have become a permanent fixture on the Strip. The dancers, who are a male hybrid of the Rockettes and Playboy bunnies, disrobe in an auditorium at the Rio Hotel and Casino that glistens like an attraction at Disney World. Their core audience is eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-old women, often wobbly from cosmopolitans and dressed in glitzy tiaras and bridesmaid gowns. There are other elements of the Chippendales empire—a calendar, a travelling show in Europe, guest appearances on “The Amazing Race” and “The Real Housewives” series—but the Vegas act will generate most of the company’s projected fifteen million dollars in sales this year, up from ten million dollars in 2008. “There’s a lot of excitement around the industry as a whole becoming more mainstream,” Denberg told me.
Things are going so well that the Chippendales are plotting a return to Manhattan in 2014, Denberg revealed. He’s already scouting empty warehouses for the club’s new domain (his job prior to Chippendales was as a real-estate-trust analyst). “The Meatpacking District is probably not the right locale,” he mused. “Not Times Square. We are not positioned necessarily as a Broadway show. We’d like to be an after-work destination.”
It will be an interesting social experiment to see if the Chippendales can thrive as counterprogramming to Scores, the raunchy strip club for men. When the dancers in bowties fled, in 2001, Manhattan’s nightlife had been thriving amid the dot-com boom. Remember all those episodes of “Sex and the City” set at various bars? Now the city is more in line with the characters on “Girls,” who struggle to afford their Brooklyn rent and drink inside their apartments.
Armand Peri, a formidable ex-bodybuilder who has cornered the Manhattan male-stripping market with his Hunk-O-Mania shows, scoffs at the plan for another reason. He thinks that Chippendales, which stopped offering lap dances more than a decade ago, is too tame. “Listen, if women want to see a Broadway show, there’s Broadway,” he told me. “I think women are looking for more interaction.”
Chippendales, which opened in 1979, used to be seedier. For one, the organization was overrun by criminal activity. In 1980, one of its founders, Paul Snider, shot himself after he killed his model girlfriend. In 1987, Nick De Noia, a choreographer who had wrangled a large chunk of the business, was assassinated; the brains of the operation, Somen Banerjee, who previously owned a bar featuring female mud wrestling and came up with the male stripping conceit, pled guilty to organizing the hit in 1993 and later hung himself in jail. (The saga played out in a made-for-TV movie called “The Chippendales Murders.”) In the nineties, Lou Pearlman, the manager of the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync, purchased the aging brand with the intention of turning the Chippendales into a boy band, but he eventually lost interest. (He is now serving a twenty-five-year prison sentence for an unrelated three-hundred-million-dollar fraud scheme.) The current owners, several businessmen in New York, are more mild-mannered. It’s strange to use the term “family friendly” when describing a show starring bottomless men, but the act feels like a One Direction concert for women beyond their teen-age years. The iconic Chippendales thongs are no longer part of the wardrobe. The dancers jiggle onstage in boxer briefs, designer jeans and hats carefully placed over their groins. They aren’t cast for steroid bodies, although they are in great shape—the company orders five thousand tank tops to be shredded onstage annually. The men must be at least six feet tall. And then there’s this: “I think good personality is key,” said the Chippendales general manager Kristen Makhathini, a former professional dancer on cruise ships.
Today, male striptease is a lucrative industry. “Magic Mike,” starring Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey, was a box office hit last summer, with a stage musical and sequel on the way. “Fifty Shades of Grey” has made it acceptable for suburban housewives to explore risqué sexual fantasies. In recent years, the Chippendales have capitalized on the zeitgeist. The Chippendale’s gift shop even stocks a new array of massagers and bondage restraints, reminiscent of the “Fifty Shades” ethos; Michael Caprio, the company’s press agent and veteran celebrity publicist, suggested that the show add a vampire dance number to appeal to fans of the “Twilight” franchise. But the most important boost to the business came when executives huddled and decided to borrow an old Broadway trick. If a celebrity like Usher sold tickets when he joined the musical “Chicago,” why couldn’t the same thing work for Chippendales?
Starting in 2011, a roster of C-list talent started to headline as guest Chippendales. The job description was fairly simple: anchor the ninety-minute Vegas show, interact with the audience and introduce the different musical numbers—policemen, firemen, construction workers, and so on. The first celebrity trial balloon was Jeff Timmons, a singer from the once popular band 98 Degrees. He was followed by a contestant from “The Bachelor” (Jake Pavelka), a cast member on “Jersey Shore” (Ronnie Magro), and an actor from the nineties sitcom “Blossom” (Joey Lawrence). Although none of these men are major stars, they generated a lot of press in women’s magazines like Us Weekly and on talk shows like “Ellen” and “The View.” The brand was suddenly looking fresher; the gossip site TMZ started routinely posting casting “scoops” for Chippendales as if it were “American Idol.” (A former “Idol” contestant, Ace Young, was reportedly approached for the emcee job, but he never signed.)
Ian Ziering, the forty-nine-year-old blond former heartthrob from the nineties soap “Beverly Hills 90210,” recently completed an honorary six-week run with the troupe. He danced and sang shirtless to sold-out crowds; he said the squealing women reminded him of his former days as a pinup at shopping mall meet-and-greets. “It’s flirty, not dirty, so I had nothing to be ashamed of,” he told me.
Caprio breaks down the Chippendale’s clientele into three groups—bachelorette parties, divorce parties and “cougar parties,” which he describes as gatherings of older women who “like to come gawk at the younger men.” But the secret to Chippendales’ success rests on its newfound appeal to millennials. The business has managed to thrive because of younger women, who pay the fifty- to eighty-three-dollar admission fee to see their old T.V. crushes in the flesh.
On a recent desert night, a stream of women in their twenties giggled their way into the casino. Inside the auditorium, the unruly crowd—a woman in pink feathers lunged at me—screamed and cheered, clinking champagne glasses like it was New Year’s Eve. The show relied on a number of produced tricks for heightened applause: fog, blinking lights, a soundtrack of recent pop ditties. During the firemen number, near the end of the show, the Chippendale’s flexed their biceps and swung axes and plastic hoses before peeling off their shirts. In the middle of the sequence, the room erupted in a screeching noise that sounded suspiciously like a real fire alarm. The fake firemen scurried off stage, yet the women in the audience only clapped louder. They lights flickered on, and they still wouldn’t leave. Finally, a lone Chippendale had to announce this wasn’t part of the choreography; someone in the casino had pulled an emergency lever. The show ended prematurely and disappointed audience members slowly trickled out of the room, like they had been kicked off Pinnochio’s Pleasure Island. (Some didn’t mind. “I thought it was really cool,” said Paloma Moreno, a thirty-year-old orthodontist from Arizona, who celebrated her bachelorette party with fifteen friends and a silver tutu and veil.)
Denberg intends to open the Manhattan show by March, 2014, in order to capitalize on bachelorette season. The new venue will also recruit aging celebrities. He dismisses the notion that urban audiences won’t be as interested in Chippendales; he also wants to début a stand-alone show in
Miami. “The brand is hot,” he said.
Ziering, who lost thirty-one pounds from a Cross Fit workout and a diet that included strawberries, blueberries, asparagus, and organic proteins, is mulling an offer to return to the Vegas show in the spring. “I’d absolutely do it,” he said. “I would love to have my fiftieth birthday while I’m dancing with the Chippendales.” But not every celebrity accepts an offer; the Chippendales have yet to land a professional from “Dancing with the Stars,” despite trying to woo the twenty-seven-year-old Mark Ballas. The dream booking is John Stamos, the actor best known for playing the hot uncle on the TV series “Full House.” He has yet to respond. “He’s absolutely at the top of my personal wish list,” Makhathini told me. “I think he would be a real draw and I think he would have a lot of fun with our guys.” As Stamos’s TV alter ego used to say, have mercy. —