In 1979, a sketchy Canadian pimp named Paul Snider pitched an LA gas station attendant turned nightclub owner named Steve Banerjee on his big idea: a sort of go-go club where men stripped for women. Banerjee gave Snider one night a week at his club, and the concept, which went onto become the Chippendales, took off. Banerjee cut Snider out of it, and Snider went on to kill himself and his ex-wife, Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten, the following year.
Incredibly, that’s just the prologue for the larger story of the Chippendales phenomenon, and not even close to the end of the mayhem, murder, and power struggles. It’s all detailed in Welcome To Your Fantasy, a new podcast whose final episode was just recently released.
Welcome To Your Fantasy is a history of the Chippendales, and through that, a portrait of America during the Chippendales’ heyday. It began as a cheap idea to make money, but quickly declared itself part of “the cause,” an important front in the war for women’s liberation. Of course, for Banerjee, an immigrant from India, it was also the source of his wealth and the root of his growing paranoia, which would come to a head later. It’s the conman’s curse, to live in constant fear of one day being treated the way they treat others. The Chippendales itself would carry on without Banerjee, and like many American phenomena, would start off lurid and scruffy before becoming Disneyfied and homogenized.
It was also the perfect story to tell for Natalia Petrzela, a historian of the late 20th century, Associate Professor of History at The New School, and author of FIT NATION: How America Embraced Exercise As The Government Abandoned It. She’s been hosting another weekly history podcast, Past Present, for the past few years, but takes her first stab at multi-episode narrative in Welcome To Your Fantasy. I spoke to her via Zoom this week.
So Paul Snider, the guy who supposedly actually came up with the idea for Chippendales, is just sort of a footnote here. At what point did you realize that this was such a crazy story that you didn’t even really need to cover Paul that much?
So we never set into it to write the Dorothy Stratten story because that story’s been told before. Let me put it this way: when we realized there was this crazy murder-suicide Playmate story, we’re like, oh, this has to go in there. But then actually, as we started writing out the story of Chippendales, and of the drama between Nick De Noia and Steve Banerjee, and especially doing all this original reporting that came through, looking at all the racial discrimination stuff and talking to so many different people, we were like, okay, this is a really important story, but for the story that we’re telling, the Paul Snider-Dorothy Stratten thing, it’s almost just foreshadowin. Since we didn’t learn that much new stuff about Paul and Dorothy, I think we give our listeners a taste of how it relates to Chippendales and then they can go on and immerse themselves in Star 80, or some of the other work that’s been done on that.
I mean, you could make the case that Steve Banerjee had an effect on that story as well, right?
Yeah. I mean, look, the story of Paul Snider is a guy who, as I understand it, constantly felt like he was getting a bad deal and constantly felt like other people were pulling one over on him. And he had this proximity to fame and celebrity that he could never quite break into, even as he understood himself as responsible for it. And so you see that with his rising resentment towards Dorothy, but I think, yeah, towards Steve Banerjee too. I mean, I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be Paul Snider, and I am not sympathetic to him, but you get this idea, hey, you should have guys take your clothes off. You’re the first emcee. And then basically you leave, get no credit for it, and it blows up huge. I think that that must’ve contributed to the level of his resentment.
I mean, it was like the one thing he was right about in his whole life–
Well look, this is not the Paul Snider rehabilitation tour, the guy’s awful. But he spotted star quality in Dorothy, right? He’s the one that told her to become a Playmate and photographed her in dubious circumstances. But he did have a certain talent. I just think execution was not his strong point, and he seemed like such a noxious figure that even if he had good ideas no one wanted him around.
The Chippendales story feels like a compelling story at any time, really, but was there any particular reason that you wanted to tell the story now?
I got attracted to this story in part because as a woman growing up in the 21st century, I’m constantly being marketed empowerment in what I think are really laughable, almost insulting, ways. Like, buy this bodywash, you’ll be empowered, buy this underwear, buy these Spanx. And so this idea of marketing empowerment in cynical ways to women is interesting to me. So when I first started looking at the early advertising of Chippendales, and it was like, ladies of the 80s, come and stuff dollar bills in these men’s g-strings, and finally get yours, that to me was a really interesting and I think kind of foundational example of the way that women are cynically sold their own empowerment.
In movies you see that, where the idea is that “we need more female stories.” And so they’re like, well, what if a superhero was a girl? This kind of seems like that as applied to a stage show.
Yeah. Look, I think we have come a long way, and we probably even had come a long way in 1979 when Chippendales launched, in thinking that the idea of empowered, sexually liberated women is a good thing, and a cultural force worth amplifying. I’d rather have been alive in 1979 and been marketed Chippendales than in 1850, let’s put it that way. However, I think that there are always going to be a lot of people out there who have a pretty shallow commitment to these causes and see these moments more as things to profit from that as genuine moments for solidarity or any of these kinds of grander causes.
And I think you totally saw that in Chippendales. They were ready to say, “Yeah, we believe in sexual liberation.” They didn’t use the word feminism but, “We believe in the cause.” But basically they believed in women’s liberation because, one, it made them rich, and two, more “sexually liberated” women were more sexually available to the men who would show up at the clubs. So I don’t really think it was such a radical proposition, even as it was a really new idea for a show. And I don’t want to diminish that.
So tell me about Steve Banerjee, who’s sort of the key figure in all this. What was he like? Who was he? What was his deal?
So Steve Banerjee was an Indian immigrant, came to the US via Canada. Really, in some ways, followed a kind of typical immigrant story of that moment. There was this big piece of legislation in 1965 in the US that opened up America to Latin Americans and South Asians, and many came, and many who were more educated, like him, to get their foot in the door, became franchise business owners. So he had a couple of gas stations, which totally fits with this Indian immigrant narrative. And then he was super ambitious. He had these American business icons as his idols, Hugh Hefner and Walt Disney. Keep in mind, the America in which he made his fortune was Reagan’s America, where you have all of this celebration of capitalism and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. What is different about him, and makes him a kind of dubious character is, one, that he made his career in this kind of sex work-adjacent business of men taking off their clothes for women, which made a lot of people in the Indian community, but also in the culture writ large, raise their eyebrows at him. But also he had totally dubious criminal ways of becoming so successful. Welcome to Your Fantasy is really oriented around a murder that happens, but he didn’t start with murder. Steve Banerjee from the beginning is making false calls to the police, to the fire department, to the press, trying to set up arsons, putting out hits on other people — I mean, this is a guy who sees criminality as a legitimate way to make his American dream come true. And I think, honestly, that doesn’t separate him that much from some other business leaders.
What was the cultural climate of the 80s that made this idea work so well?
I think by the 80s, you already have a kind of mainstreaming of women’s liberation in a way that’s not radical. By then you can talk about women’s empowerment, and it doesn’t mean a man-hater who doesn’t shave her armpits. It could be a woman secretary working 9:00 to 5:00 who likes to go out for drinks and party after work. So I think that’s really important. Because this idea would not have worked in, say, 1969 the way it did 10, 15 years later. I also think that the kind of flashiness of the post-disco nightclub scene was a part of the appeal.
I also think the media culture of the moment. These guys began as a nightclub act in LA, then they opened this big New York club. There was a traveling show. But the thing that made them such a big deal really was daytime TV. They were on Sally Jesse Raphael, Donahue, all of these talk shows. And they took this somewhat sleazy act of men taking off their clothes for women, did it at 9:30 in the morning on network television, and also talked about it like it was this thing that was at the cross-section of all these cultural and political things that were happening. So it both mainstreamed it and made it more of a big deal. It’s not some nightclub act. This is about morality and this is about women’s empowerment and all of that. And so I think that media culture was really super important.
Do we have anything that has that kind of media power now, that daytime television had? Why do you think those went away and has anything replaced it?
We don’t have that kind of coherent media culture that we did then. Not everybody watches daytime TV in that way. And that was happening just as cable TV was starting to make its way into American households. So you still had people who were mostly beholden to whatever was what was on the networks. So do we have something like that today that’s as unifying. I mean? If you’re very much online, like I think you and I are, you want to say the Twitter memes are. But no. That’s a snapshot, or a tiny slice of America. So I think we have a much more fragmented media culture. And I don’t think there’s something that rises to that sort of unifying level, the way that we did back then.
This is maybe not the best example, but let me try it out here: The Dirty John podcast, which was prestige media. It was LA Times journalism. Then it was a podcast. Then I think there was a Bravo knockoff, then there was some network thing. So it hit a whole variety of places in a way that I don’t think one thing in any single place still has that kind of unifying power.
You talked about the Chippendales arc. It kind of conquered the world, and then sort of became tame in the process. Is that just the natural order of capitalism?
I think for something to become mainstream, sure, in some ways it needs to keep shocking and being interesting, but it’s also got to reign in a lot of the things that will make it objectionable to most people. And you absolutely see that with Chippendales. I mean, there was certainly a lot of drugs and sex and bad behavior always going on behind the scenes, but one of the remarkable things that happens is you see an evolution, a very deliberate one from all of that kind of debauchery being totally out in the open, because it’s just like a strip show in this West LA club, to when they are in calendars, going on talk shows. Nick De Noia, who’s really managing them, is like, “You do not talk about sex at the club, drugs of the club, violence at the club,” anything like that because there’s this sanitization that has to go on to make it mainstream.
Of course, that ultimately makes it kind of less interesting, I think. Today Chippendales is still around. I don’t have the numbers of how well they’re doing, but they’re out there. But they are not positioning themselves as something edgy at all. I don’t think that they could anymore, in part because they were so successful at it, right? They’re, I don’t want to say a victim of their own success, but that lack of edginess is a result of their own success.
In terms of the central feud, the Nick De Noia-Steve Banerjee feud, what was their main disagreement?
I think that Steve Banerjee and Nick De Noia needed each other for their success, but they also were totally opposed in their sensibilities, and both power-hungry and kind of egocentric in their own ways. The actual thing that brought them to their fatal conflict was that they had signed this napkin deal, which was supposed to resolve their growing enmity. You had Steve in LA, and Nick was in New York, and then Nick and Steve signed on a napkin this deal that said that Nick would get the profits from the touring show in perpetuity. So Nick could take Chippendales dancers out on the road. He would make all the money from that.
Steve thought that that was fine because there was essentially no touring show at the time. Well, Nick took that as a kind of inspiration or a motivation to establish a very robust touring show. And he kind of would taunt Steve a little. He had to go 100 miles away, so he’d go like 101 miles away to set up the show, to not compete with the other clubs. So as Steve saw Nick making a lot of money from that, his rancor only grew. And then also Nick was a very public, flashy, charismatic guy in a way that Steve wasn’t. And so Nick would go on all the talk shows and be referred to as like, here’s Mr. Chippendale. And he would say, “We’ve created this thing for women.” And so my feeling is that Steve Banerjee’s resentment also grew that he was sort of out of the limelight in that way.
When they were doing the photo shoot on the beach and someone started shooting at them, did we ever find out who was actually shooting?
Look, there’s one guy, I think, who would come to firearms when it comes to male model calendars, and that I think is Steve Banerjee. So it was never confirmed, but we know from the timeline that this was the era in which Steve was getting more and more anxious about competition, and competition from within the ranks. Remember, that guy Dan Peterson, he had been picked out of a lineup outside of Chippendales and been like, “Come work for me.” And now he’s out making his own calendar. So we don’t know that it was Steve Banerjee, but I would say much evidence points to that fact.
Steve Banerjee, he wouldn’t be the guy pulling the trigger, right? He was hiring people to do that.
He was hiring people. And Ray Colon is a pretty significant character in the podcast. Ray Colon was hired by Steve Banerjee to do odd jobs. Which were everything from fix the sound system at the club to go do this arson, to go make sure Nick De Noia dies. So we don’t know who pulled the trigger at that Skin Deep shoot that Dan Peterson was at, but I would highly doubt that it was Steve Banerjee himself, but someone he probably put up to it.
I get when rich guys are like, “Ooh, I need to hire someone to take someone out.” A lot of rich people do that. But very few of them actually find people that will actually do it, and not just double-cross them and take the money.
Well, I think that kind of speaks to the fact that Banerjee, he was respectable and had money and all this, but he was at the fringes. It wasn’t like this guy was this investment banker who goes to this buttoned-up office every day, and has no contact with sort of the seedy side of society. He’s running a strip club basically. And so he did have contact with… I mean, Ray Colon was a pretty shady character. So he has connections, I think, to people who might be more willing to do that kind of work.