First published on Nerve.com on August 19, 2008. Read the original with comments here.
When David Henry Sterry writes about sexuality, it’s like a chef writing about food. Other people may have their trove of memorable moments — a tryst here, a wild fling there — but when it comes to sex, Sterry is a careerist. His first memoir, Chicken — a “studiously wild souvenier,” according to the New York Times — chronicled his youth spent as a teenage hustler in ’70s Hollywood. His second effort, Master of Ceremonies, continues along this vein as Sterry recounts moving to the East Coast in the 1980s to become the roller-skating MC at Chippendales, that infamous New York City temple of over-broiled beefcake.
A twentysomething struggling actor, Sterry finds himself surrounded by cokehead party girls, steroidal strippers and a constant throb of ’80s nightclub noise pollution. At the center of the scene is Nick DeNoia, the megalomaniacal visionary who made Chippendales legendary, and who was ultimately murdered by his business partner in 1987. With anecdotes slathered in Me Decade slang, Sterry reincarnates this mix of glamour and horror from a scene that relied on beauty but, underneath, was often grotesque.
As a show, Chippendales has lost most of its sheen. It’s now a sprawling corporate venture focused on brand licensing, and its main revue — since moved to Las Vegas — is a camp-value tourist stop. This rise and spectacular fall only makes Sterry’s story that much more compelling. Over twenty years after he left the show, he spoke with Nerve about what it was like. — James Brady Ryan
Do you think Chippendales was doomed to end with the ’80s?
It sure seems like that. By the time Nick was killed it was like the lunatics were running the asylum. And the lunatics were in g-strings, you know? So there was this feeling that Rome was burning around you and you’re just grabbing as much loot as you possibly could before the whole thing imploded.
So Nick was the only glue holding it together?
Yeah. People sometimes correct me when I say Nick invented Chippendales. I mean, you might quibble with “invented,” but he absolutely made that place what it was in the ’80s. He wanted to be a revolutionary. He wanted to be the first person to have a place for women to ogle, fondle and sexualize hot male flesh. A safe place. This was really unprecedented. And he was an Emmy-award-winning choreographer, a show-business veteran of decades at that point. When I auditioned for this, he said to me, “I want this to be like the Folies Bergere, a classy, upscale show. I don’t want it to be nasty and rude and crude. I want it to be fun and playful.” And that was an important distinction — people still don’t quite get that women are different from men. When they go to see people take off their clothes, they don’t want a crotch just indiscriminately jammed in their faces.
There’s this one moment that to me was so revealing. One of the biggest roars of the early part of the show was for the Unknown Stripper — he had a paper bag over his head. First he takes off his top, then the g-string. But the biggest roar came when he took the paper bag off his head, and it’s revealed that he’s this really handsome boy-next-door, just as sweet as sweet can be. Not for the ass, not for the chest, but for his sweet face.
And Nick understood that. He got that. He would have the men bring grandma into the middle. The Pit, we called it. He wouldn’t have them bring some hot chick in there, he’d have them bring some homely, big, beautiful woman into the middle of the pit. He wanted them celebrated, because those are the women in our society that generally don’t get celebrated for their sexuality. And he wanted these men to be gentlemen. He insisted that [the patrons] were never called women, they were always called ladies. Ladies this, ladies that. All these things seem kind of quaint today in 2008.
It seems like when Nick wasn’t there, the place didn’t have that same gentlemanly feel.
Absolutely not. All these guys were basically trying to make their money, and when the cat was away, the mice just played and played. For instance, there was the Kiss-and-Tip at the end of each act when the women would wave their money and the men would go around and grab it and give the kisses. Well, when the show started to lag, you were supposed to get off stage. And if Nick was there and the show was lagging and you were still grabbing money, man, he would tear you several new assholes. But when he was gone, the show would be like tapioca pudding. You’d be like, Ugh, this guy’s still grabbing money? Women were yawning, checking their watches — there was no quality control whatsoever.
Was Nick ambiguous about his sexual orientation?
Oh, he presented as aggressively heterosexual. Oftentimes he had some fantastically large-breasted, large-haired, large-eyed woman on his arm. He was married to Jennifer O’Neill, who was first a supermodel and then a movie star, the star of Summer of ’42 . He was very cognizant of making sure everyone knew he was with a hot chick. But then, in an unguarded moment, you’d see him looking at some beautiful guy’s ass, like those cartoons where the tongue rolls out and the eyes go big. I mean, he designed an entire life around hunting out beautiful men who loved to take their clothes off for money and needed Nick DeNoia to love them.
Several gay men worked at Chippendales, but at the same time, there was a lot of anti-gay attitude. Do you think that was just a product of the time, or because there was a general sense of homoeroticism about these men?
It’s so complicated. Yes, there was a homoerotic charge in that place. These guys were so close they would finish each other’s sentences. They would literally dress alike, like a couple. And yet they were constantly making fun of gay people, doing these kind of, “Oh honey, you wish I would ” kind of things, pretending to be gay in a mocking way, while really actually being about three-quarters gay. There’s one scene in the book where I walk into the bathroom, and there’s these two guys who were always so vicious with mocking people they thought were gay, and one of them’s got his pants down at his ankles, and the other one’s got a needle shooting steroids into his ass!
In the book, you wonder if your mother, who was a feminist, would have approved of this show. Do you think it was really feminist in spirit?
This, to me, is one of the central questions to the phenomenon that was Chippendales: was it ripe fruit on the tree of the women’s liberation movement, or was it just another way for hot guys to make a fast buck? I think the answer to both those questions is yes — it was a way for hot guys to make money, and yes, this show would not have been possible without the women’s liberation movement, without women burning their bras in the ’70s, without the Suffragettes getting the vote in the ’20s.
And Chippendales wasn’t just a strip club — it was a show. Do you think shows like that helped generate the in-your-face sexuality of today’s pop culture?
When women go to see people take off their clothes, they don’t want a crotch just indiscriminately jammed in their faces.
Yes, I do. I think you can also make a correlation between what happened in the pornographic industry, too. I’m friends with the woman who was in The Devil in Miss Jones, and in 1974 when that movie came out, couples went out on dates to see it — a pornographic movie! And there was a plot. The Devil in Miss Jones is Sartre’s No Exit in the pornographic world. There’s a story that has existential overtones and undertones to it. Chippendales was a show, too. It had a theme. It had massive costume and production values, chorus dancers spinning, jeté-ing and doing their Bob Fosse hands. If you look at the show now, with the big hair and the silly costumes, it looks like a museum piece. But at the time it was breaking ground.
When you worked there, you had a lot of anxiety about being “the ugliest guy at Chippendales.” How did you make it through those years? What do you think stopped from going crazy with steroids or something?
Well, I made a shitload of money, I made all these show-business contacts. So there were great things that had nothing to do with how ugly I was in comparison to all the beautiful men. And I’m an eternal optimist. Many, many nights, I would show up at Chippendales thinking, Tonight’s the night! I’m going to find that MC groupie! I know she’s here somewhere and I’m going to find her and she’ll be just drunk enough. It’s a blessing and a curse to be that optimistic, because almost always my hopes were dashed. And then about a year in I started dating the beautiful costume mistress, this gorgeous, twenty-one-year-old hottie who could have her choice of many of these guys, and somehow she chose me. That was the ultimate affirmation of my self-worth. It was like, “Yeah motherfuckers, that’s right. I’m laying the pipe here.”
Is there any place today that’s similar to what Chippendales was back then? Well-produced and well-known, a place for women that’s sexualized but still safe?
I’m trying to think. I know Heidi Fleiss was trying to open a brothel for women in Vegas, but I don’t think she’s gotten very far. I think our society’s changing in that way of, like, here’s a commodity, here’s a service, here’s some money, why not? Except what are you going to do when you’re a woman? You’re not going to go on Craigslist and have some dude come over. That’s so scary.
Do you think there’s an essential difference between a male strip club and a female strip club? Could there be a Chippendales for men?
Well, it’s interesting to me that burlesque is coming back. I have a friend who’s a very literary writer, and now she does a burlesque act and it’s very quaint and old-fashioned. It’s interesting how the more in-your-face, shocking and raw sexuality gets, the more we see the pendulum swing back to this antiquated art form where women very gingerly and daintily took of their clothes and they perform as a character and there’s a little scenario there. It’s fascinating to me how that has come back into vogue. I think that’s probably the closest you’ll see to that kind of Folies Bergere show.