Daily Telegraph 16 August 1991
MUSCLING IN ON SLEASE AND TEASE
Why do 400,000 women rave about the all-male American Chippendales?
Michael Arditti goes to Mansfield to observe a showbiz phenomenon.
When Nancy Astor took her seat as the first woman in a previously all-male House of Commons, she can hardly have felt more conspicuous than I did in Mansfield among an otherwise all-female audience for the Chippendales British tour.
Security was so tight that the gentlemen’s lavatories were locked, and as the lone male I was directed towards the disabled – an association I wasn’t too keen to pursue. Devoted fans made such extravagant offers for my backstage pass that for a moment I was sorely tempted … but warning bells rang, both in the auditorium and my head.
The source of all the furore was a seventeen-strong American dance group, which does indeed take its name from the furniture: the first Chippendales club in Los Angeles having been founded in a disused store. Although they proudly boast that should anyone now speak of finely crafted, highly polished, perfectly proportioned pieces, they’re far more likely to mean the men.
But they’re by no means wooden. The show soon developed from its crude ‘kiss and tip’ beginnings into a slick Las Vegas-style extravaganza through the involvement of Academy Award choreographer Steve Merritt. For two heady hours the larger men pose and pout while the slighter ones bump and grind through spectacular Bob Fosse-influenced routines. The latter carry the show, but the former carry off the prizes. When it comes to audience response, shirt size is all.
The music is eclectic but loud. Some of the ballads seem better suited to soul- than torso-baring; but numbers like ‘Great Balls of Fire’ are raunchily reinterpreted. Props are basic – bananas, truncheons and candles; while pool cues are handled even more suggestively than in the latest Levis ad. By the end it’s hard to say which are the more strained: the men’s pelvic muscles or the women’s vocal chords.
But the Chippendales are no longer just a show; in true American style they’ve become a concept. The bigger the men, it seems, the bigger the business. They merchandise clocks, mugs, tea-towels and tee-shirts. You can exercise to a Chippendales aerobics video, cross off the days on a Chippendales calendar, and even play ”Strip Jack Naked’ with highly appropriate cards.
Their empire has expanded as rapidly as their chests. Having opened his original club in 1979, Steve Banerjee added a second four years later in New York. Shortly after, they began to tour, first coast to coast in the States and then internationally, to Australia, South Africa and Hong Kong. With their Los Angeles building closed for extensive renovation, the time seemed right for their first assault on Europe. A trans-Atlantic love-affair had begun.
Since their London debut last winter, the Chippendales have been seen by nearly 400,000 women across the country. Their somewhat anodyne appearance on Daytime TV provoked official outrage and public delight. To meet the demand, a second troupe was quickly imported; and, while one now plays in the West End, the other continues to tour. The shows are interchangeable, and so it seems are the men, who must be prepared to change costumes and continents at a moment’s notice. As one confided: ‘It’s like being in the army … but not so bad.’
Their British fans have welcomed them with open arms – sometimes literally; in Glasgow, guards had to form a human chain to keep them back from the stage. While in Manchester, firemen were called to rescue a girl who’d tried to hurl herself down from the balcony. The Mansfield audience may have proved less gymnastic, but their enthusiasm was no less intense.
The ‘Chips’ themselves vigorously deny any suggestion of exploitation and insist that they’re merely figures of fantasy; adding somewhat disingenuously that it’s not they who are the women’s fantasies but the women who are theirs. To the charge that they present the unacceptable face of feminism, they claim that the raucous response simply proves that women have more in common with men than either sex might like to pretend.
Certainly the shouts of ‘Gerremoff’ sounded all too familiar, albeit in a somewhat higher key. But then that of course is precisely what they don’t, at least not completely. Rather like the old Windmill Theatre with its tastefully posed tableaux, the Chippendales draw the line, or at least the g-string, at full frontals. The emphasis rests on the second syllable of their strip-tease.
This leads to endless back views or games of ‘peek-a-butt’ and niftily nabbed, strategically placed hats and towels – although it must be said that in the beach-hut shower scene they bend their rules and bodies about as far as they can go … Mitzi Gaynor washing that man right out of her hair will never again seem the same.
I didn’t trade in my backstage pass … and in conversation it soon became clear that the men have a charm and a confidence which constitutes the major part of their appeal. They come from a variety of backgrounds – such as models, musicians and mechanics. One, Mark Lavach, is an economics student at the University of Southern California, who has taken a year’s leave of absence for this somewhat unorthodox ‘grand tour’. Another, John Ford, is a former rock singer. Many were discovered in gyms pumping iron.
And yet if the women were being fed a fantasy on the stage, I was equally conscious of being fed an image in the dressing rooms. Something about the men seemed too good to be true. They clearly enjoy their work and are richly rewarded. Several claimed that their prime motivation was the chance to travel – although they had so far seen little more of Britain than the inside of a coach, a theatre and a gym.
They insisted that within the group there was no rivalry, simply healthy competition. Although it was hard to believe that none of these big men – with biceps the size of most thighs – had an ego to match. And when I asked how many of them there were in all, I was told around 160, but with the rapid rider that there were only 40 real Chippendales . . . Once again the less muscular dancers had failed to receive their due.
I probed for the cracks in the squeaky – or rather, husky- clean image. I sensed a darkness and ambiguity which they were anxious not to reveal. They insist that they’re just good old fashioned showmen and regard their tackier rivals, the numerous clubland copycats, with the traditional scorn of the variety artist for the burlesque. And yet their protestations of innocence appear, to say the least, disingenuous, in the light of their routines.
I spoke to one, Auguste Jacobson, who was most concerned to present himself as the clean-cut, all-American boy; and yet he performed a military strip to the strains of ‘An Officer and A Gentleman’ which would hardly endear him to President Bush.
Later, when I asked about his parents’ reaction, he blushed blondly and claimed that his mother had loved the show; besides, he wasn’t involved in any of the more salacious routines … After which he went into a bedtime solo involving baby oil and a brass bedstead which definitely wasn’t aimed at a maternal kiss.
But then it’s inevitable – if ironic – given the all-male cast and all-female audience, that the show should be both narcissistic and onanistic. This was most blatant in a motorcycle number graphically depicting American man’s love affair with his machine.
And even when a member of the audience was drawn in, she tended to be used as a prop. Though that too seems to feed the fantasy; for when I questioned a surprised participant who’d been thrown to the ground in a simulated rape, handcuffed and manhandled by three rescuing policemen, flung over a shoulder and bundled offstage, she insisted it was all ‘bloody brill’.
In that she evidently spoke for the whole audience. And as she queued at the end to pose for a Polaroid (£5 a time) with a hand on a sun-tanned, sweat-stained, oil-streaked shoulder, my neighbour, a proud great-grandmother, explained that the entire country had been struck by Chippendale fever. And with their initial run at the Strand already extended from July 22nd to September 2lst, it’s clear that the capital itself is far from immune.