Note: Some of the story contains adult references. Do not read if you easily blush at work.
As a newbie to male strip revues I expected certain things from an open audition. The smell of desperation, semen and sweat. Inflated biceps. A plethora of dime-store thongs. Primping. There may have been sweat rolling in perfect beads down torsos straight off the Ken Doll production line, but as the potential Chippendales filed in to the Miami casting call, angst was noticeably lacking from their hulked shoulders.
Instead, skin-blistering air conditioning froze their quiffs into place, and a dizzying array of neon lights flashed, turning their features shades of pink, violet and blue. A Chihuahua called Justin scurried by, his spiked leather collar catching the light and scattered neon beams across the floor.
It was 2 p.m. and the inside of Miami’s Mansion nightclub was practically deserted. A sign saying, “Naughty girls enter here” flashed pink neon at the entrance of the club. Through the doorway lay a large auditorium-like room, broken up with leopard-print booths and a couple of elongated silver poles without structural merit.
Two men cross-referenced things on clipboards, while their bronzed biceps bulged from their wife-beaters. Their hair was artfully tousled, jaws were chiseled and their skin glowed — courtesy of their Vegas sponsor, Sunkissed Tanning. The men, Jaymes Vaughan and John Cook, were at Mansion nightclub in Miami Beach to facilitate the auditions for the first ever Miami Chippendales show.
The auditions were advertised “everywhere” said Shazeen Shah, the Miami PR lady, a friendly 20-something with dark hair and long lashes, and wearing a wide-brimmed wicker hat.
“We advertised in gyms, model agencies, the newspaper. Craigslist.”
Twenty minutes into the “audition time” and the club was still empty. Then they started to trickle in. An eclectic bunch of Chippendales hopefuls. Surfer-like dudes in board shorts next to a guy in beaten up camouflage pants. A lot of wife-beater T-shirts. One man clutched a motorbike helmet. Another brought his wife. Fifteen hopefuls in total.
There is no specified age range for a Chippendales, the main requirements being “Fit males with the charisma and ability to shine on stage,” and this showed in the lineup. One man who looked barely out of his teens bounced from foot to foot. Another hopeful sported a receding hairline and a face weathered by the Florida sun. A couple of obvious no-hopers clustered together, their scrawny arms tense, muscles bunched so tight on their chest that each rib looked xylo-phonically highlighted.
“There are three types you get here,” Jaymes Vaughan told me. “You get the strippers, those who don’t look in a mirror, those who are too old and the bloopers. I like the bloopers best.” Yes, we know that was four types. “Some of the bloopers are great though, diamonds in the rough.”
Vaughan is a Chippendales pro. He has worked for them since 2007, and his toned torso and Ken Doll looks are a testament to his fitness routine. The megawatt smile is all his though.
Chippendales pride themselves on hiring dancers with the "it" factor, and Vaughan is charm personified. Vaughan’s career started in New Orleans as a singer, and he moved to Vegas post-Katrina where he worked as a singer. Then the Chippendales came knocking. Now a host, singer and dancer for the revue, Vaughan has found it led to more opportunities, such as a role on the Amazing Race (he was runner up), calendar shoots, and more.
Vaughan was friendly as the hopefuls entered, shaking hands, answering questions.
“We’re like a frat,” he said. “We want to get on, we need people we can be friends with.”
There was a clear structure to the open auditions. Each hopeful filled in a three-page form where they inputted details about their work history, their inseam, and if they had ever appeared in porn.
Then each man stood against the wall, removed their shirt and was measured…for height.
“Many of them lie,” said the photographer.
The recruitment posting on the Chippendales website required entrants to be 5’10” and above.
A camera flashed, and each man clenched their chest, abs ricocheting around each other in a fight for utmost pertness.
Chippendales are a strange institution. In some ways, they are are a remnant from the ‘80s, and have a legacy of gyration, leopard print and approved sleaze. That’s the association at least, but what might have been true then is radically different today. The Chippendales launched in Los Angeles 1979, aiming to be the first male stripping troupe designed to entertain women with more than just the wobbly bits. They appeared to be the male equivalent of the Playboy Bunny, buffed in tuxedo bow ties and tails; their show every bit as much about the choreography and timing as it was the bulging jockstraps and taut flesh.
“It’s a fantasy for women,” said John Cook, artistic director of Chippendale Las Vegas. “We are the things they don't get to see at home, we hit all the fantasies, the cop number, the fireman number, the vampire number.”
Romeo Andre at home.
Romeo Andre stared hard at the stage, as he watched five hopefuls learn Cook’s routine. It was basic choreography that anyone familiar with aerobics class would recognize, side step, twist, clap, groin grab and thrust. Well, the groin grab was new, but the rest wouldn't have raised eyebrows in any fitness center.
“”It’s a different kind of dancing than I’m used to,” said Andre, who works full time as an erotic dancer in Kentucky. “They slow it down here, it’s more about the reveal.”
It’s Andre’s first time trying out for the Chippendales and he drove 18 hours to get to the Miami auditions.
”I feel I’m ready to do something bigger,” he said. ”I’ve always wanted to do this, the Chippendales are the top.” If Andre joined, he would have to give up his own business — a full-time erotic dancing career where he founded and runs Romeo Entertainment Live, an erotic dancing company — but he sees it worth it. “On a good night I make $250 plus tips,” he said. “I can bring back a $1,000. An average year might be $80,000.”
With numbers like that, it suggests that Chippendales salary might draw in a much larger sum. Chippendales policy doesn’t allow salaries to be shared, but all new recruits sign contracts when they join. Tipping isn’t allowed.
“Ladies leave your dollar bills at home,” said Vaughan, but a Chippendales performer who does well might get offered merchandising deals and appearance fees, which can be lucrative.
Once the men filled in their forms, Cook beckoned them onto the stage. “I’m going to teach you a routine,” he said, and proceeded to demonstrate a basic aerobics set, with added hip gyrations. The men clustered together, some bare-chested, others slightly awkward in button up shirts and jeans. “C’mon we can take the tops off now,” said Cook and the men started to disrobe, some with more relish than others. They started to dance, the music restarted as the beats were counted and the bodies moved in awkward rhythm across the stage.
They are then sectioned into smaller groups and Cook ushered some to the side while he called the new groups next to him. The men had all signed up with names, but here this was forgotten.
“Hey camo pants, come here,” Cook ordered. “Now who’s next? You in the sunglasses! Take them off, we’re not in Jersey Shore.”
The men shuffled next to Cook. Frowns creased their foreheads as they tried to learn the moves. Pop, pop, flex, rotate. Now they’re shirtless it’s easy to demarcate the maybe’s and the definitely not’s.
“They have to have the Chippendales physique and they have to have the it factor,” Cook said. “It's more than the choreography; they need to be able to get it but they have to keep trying. It’s the ones that give up that we weed out.”
In front of the stage sat a number of women, journalists from ABC and NBC affiliates and personal fitness trainers. They sat with notepads and manicured nails, marking the boys as they gyrate. They’re here in a “judge” capacity, and their feedback will influence who gets through to the shortlist.
Back when the Chippendales were starting out the group expanded quickly, opening up branches in other cities. However, the troupe wasn't immune to controversy, with numerous lawsuits and allegations of misbehavior following the bronzed bodies around the states.
Nowadays, the Chippendales have a regular home in Las Vegas with branches around the world, part of a multi-million dollar industry.
But even with their success and popularity, they exist on a strange precipice, straddling the weight of their history in a time when objectification and the concept of male stripping has a tawdry, cheesy association.
There is something very strange about watching the Chippendales, as their very existence is a throwback to a time where men were “men” and women were things, and the enjoyment from the show is part role reversal as well as titillation.. to a generation that is moving away from relating to such a premise. Movies like Magic Mike and books like Fifty Shades of Grey (of which the Chippendales sell products in their store) have made the revue more relevant, but it’s still an unusual life choice, as the lifespan for their career is clearly finite.
It’s a career that depends on looks, muscles, vitality and youth.
Some men are sent off stage while Cook put the chosen through their paces again. Those sitting down haven’t been obviously told “no” but the message is clear when you compare age and physique against the specimens on stage. A muscled man with “Never Fold” written across his back muscles stretched as he looked toward the stage.
Then it became time for the talent contest. Yes, really. It’s like high school all over again, if your high school consisted of Greek Gods trying to outdo each other.
“Who has a talent?” called Cook. “Can you sing, MC, dance, freestyle?”
The Chippendales slush pile; those who had been sidelined by the beefier, better dancers, make one last ditch attempt for glory.
They took to the stage, one attempting to emcee badly, “We got any lay-deeez in the house?”, another tried freestyling dance moves, scrawny arms awkwardly flapping as he side stepped.
Some, however, did have talent, like a body popper who hugged the floor, circling like a snake as he made love to the concrete. Then Vdal Cummings bounced onto the stage, and showed off his gymnastic abilities with flips and dips that awed the crowd and silenced those who still contained hope for a role.
“Ladies call me Adonis, guys call me Crash,” he beamed, his eight-pack glistening under the lights.
But what is it about Chippendales that have young men lining up take part?
“They are the most known strippers in the world,” Cummings said. “It’s the most exciting thing for females. I want to work my way up, and eventually become a strong face, this is the right time.” Cummings, who works as a model/actor/dancer said he trains five times a day, and his abs seem to suggest that’s true. “I love to dance and perform and love the smiles and the attention,” he said. “I think this is for me.”
“Being a Chippendales dancer gives you so much opportunity,” said Vaughan. “If you go on tour, you’ll travel all over the world, you’ll meet amazing people, you see a lot. People underestimate us all the time. Most Chippendales have jobs, we have professors and construction workers on the troupe.”
Smart people who see Chippendales as a way to make good money, meet great people and see a lot of things. From that perspective it makes sense. As long as you’re okay with flashing your junk (the lights dim for this section).
It’s almost 4 p.m. and the audition is over. The lights are low and Cook takes to the stage.
“Thanks for coming guys make sure we have all your contact info, if you didn't fill it out properly.”
The men began to dissipate, checking their phones, shaking hands and looking around.
Those left on the stage — around eight men — cheer. “Let’s have a group photo motherf***as,” shouted Champ, a beefy black man with muscles so thick it looks like it would hurt to stretch. They clustered together, shaking hands and backslapping.
“C’mon dude, get in the photo,” shouted Champ, who pulled Vaughan on stage. “Without you, none of this would be possible."
Not strictly true, but Champ is playing the game well, it never hurts to make friends with the “boss."
There will be another round of auditions, this time behind closed doors and hopefuls are told to expect to hear in the next week.
Outside, it’s 80 degrees and the sun blazed down on people exiting the club.
I suddenly realized that no pants came off. The whole experience was far classier than expected, the cabaret element overtaking the notion of strippers and redefining their place as entertainment. The Chippendales website called the show “Disneyland for adults” and that concept kinda makes sense, if adult Disney involved ogling erotic Peter Pans while enjoying an atmosphere of respect, excitement and adrenalin.
In this context you can see why being a Chippendales dancer is such a coveted role.