The performers are instantly recognisable across the globe for their sleek signature look: handsome, muscled men in tight black pants, naked from the waist up except for wrist cuffs and bow ties, topped off with perfectly coiffed hair and unfailingly glistening smiles.
Chippendales took the entertainment world by storm when it burst onto the scene more than four decades ago, identifying a niche among a largely untapped population with increasing disposable income – women – as they benefited from expanding social and financial freedoms.
The enterprise seemed to add an element of class to the world of stripping, traditionally associated – particularly in movies and television – with underhanded deals, danger, drugs and crime.
Unbeknownst to most, however, the backroom dealings of the forces behind Chippendales were every bit as shady, spiralling so far as to include tax evasion, arson and eventually murder. To top it all off, there was even a bungling hitman named Strawberry in the mix.
The bizarre and deadly dealings are detailed in new discovery+ docuseries Curse of the Chippendales, which premieres 24 September featuring in-depth interviews and never-before-seen footage.
“It’s titillating on so many levels, and you’ve got these huge personalities ... in terms of the victims and the former dancers, let alone the founder,” executive producer Jeanie Vink told The Independent.
“It’s a fabulous story, to be honest. It’s one of my favourite shows I’ve ever worked on.”
She pointed out that “people remember the cuffs and collars” but have either forgotten or never knew about “the most bizarre murder-for-hire crime in the FBI’s history, by their own description”.
“It’s a story of greed – and how it ate away at everyone and everything that the business touched,” she said.
Chippendales began after businessman Steve Banerjee bought a failing West Hollywood club and attempted to turn it around, experimenting with everything from backgammon and mud wrestling as a gimmick. His luck finally changed when he allegedly stole an idea from another California bar and began offering a burlesque show for women.
It was a hit, with the phenomenon following the social revolutions of the 60s and 70s, tapping into not only women’s deeper pockets but also their growing senses of sexual and overall independence.
“Thanks to the TV shows, Chippendales was a household institution,” former dancer Roger Menache, now 66, told The Independent. “We were portrayed as good-looking, tall, dark and handsome guys that could entertain and have a persona, an image, of perfection – the epitome of what a good-looking man could be.”
The show quickly expanded with clubs in other cities and national and international tours – with performers becoming de facto celebrities accustomed to throngs of frenzied women across the world. Key to the Chippendales success, however, was Emmy-award-winning producer Nick de Noia, who joined forces with the quieter and socially awkward immigrant Banerjee to add the secret sauce to the Chippendales recipe.
Good-looking, charismatic and a seasoned showman, de Noia began getting much more of the fame and credit than the club’s original founder. Banerjee was not pleased and the men’s relationship deteriorated, especially after the pair signed a deal on a cocktail napkin that essentially gave de Noia the tour rights.
Banerjee decided the best way to deal with this was to have the showman killed, consulting a Bronx friend, Ray Colon, who hired a hitman named Louie – who unceremoniously walked into de Noia’s office in Manhattan in 1987 and fatally shot him in the face.
“Banerjee was motivated by jealousy – that Nick was getting the credit for Chippendales, jealousy that Nick was getting half of the door,” Candace Mayeron, an associate producer for the revue from 1981-1987, says in the documentary. “He was jealous of Nick’s ability to handle all the attention.”
De Noia’s murder went unsolved for years – and would only be unravelled as Banerjee’s criminal streak worsened. His jealousy extended far beyond his old partner, and he tried to take down other clubs by having them set on fire.
Initially, even those in Banerjee’s inner circle were unaware he was behind the arson attacks.
“I learned from the FBI that Steve was possibly involved in the firebombings of these other clubs that would feature male exotic dancers,” Chippendales’ longtime lawyer, Bruce Nahin, says in the documentary. “Steve wasn’t real happy with competition. So I started to wonder if it was a charade, on Steve’s part, to double our security – because if we were the only club that didn’t get hit, then that would look suspicious.
“And if that was true, Steve was clearly not the person I thought he was.”
That was an understatement; moving on from arson, Banerjee and Colon cooked up more murder-for-hire plots. They hired a hitman named Strawberry to travel to England to kill members of a rival tour group – even providing him with cyanide-filled syringes.
Strawberry thought better of this idea, fearing he knew too much and could be next on their hit list, and he strolled into the FBI’s Las Vegas office to share his incredible tale.
“Any agent, whether you’re straight out of the academy or whether you’re a 25-year agent, this is the kind of case you want to get involved in,” FBI agent Scott Garriola says in the docuseries. “Not only did we have this conspiracy to kill people over in London, but we have a murder which actually occurred in New York in 1987. We have two arsons we have to investigate, and this conspiracy extended from the mid-70s all the way up until ... 1991.”
Colon and Banerjee were arrested in 1993, but the latter killed himself in jail while awaiting sentencing on charges of attempted arson, racketeering and murder for hire.
Throughout the documentary, everyone from dancers to law enforcement remains incredulous, decades later, at just how out-of-control and dangerous the backroom intrigue became.
“I instantly concluded: This can’t possibly be real life. This is the movies,” David Scheper, chief of major crimes at the US Attorney’s Office, says in the documentary of the first time he realised the scope of the allegations. “If true, Steve Banerjee rested an international business empire largely on a willingness to kill and burn.”
Retired performer Menache, who fondly shares tales of his time with Chippendales, said he participated in the documentary because it aimed to show all sides of the enterprise – and he clearly doesn’t want the good elements to get lost, either.
“No one has ever touched the actual facts and ... true life events and the actual storytelling of the actual dancers,” he told The Independent. “I wanted to tell my side of the story – how it started, how the brand name became so famous and successful.”
The new docuseries gave him an opportunity to relive great memories, he said – but, as a good friend of De Noia’s, a man he considered a mentor, Mr Menache believes people should know the full facts behind Chippendales.
“In their minds, they relate to Chippendales as a male dance show, just entertaining, for ladies only, and all fun and games and making lots of money, and maybe cocky guys dancing,” he said of the average fan or person. “But behind closed doors, there was a lot of underhanded dealings – not so much with the cast, but Steve Banerjee and the management had a dark side.”
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