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The surreal true crimes behind Hulu’s Welcome to Chippendales

A pair of real-life murders bookend this series starring Kumail Nanjiani and Murray Bartlett.

A spotlighted and mostly naked male dancer surrounded by seated women.
Chippendales dancers perform at a Paris cafe in 1990.
Francois Lochon/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Most people, when they think about striptease, probably view it as a campy, tongue-in-cheek parody of erotic desire. If that’s your main impression, then your expectation of a show about the rise of the Chippendale dancers would probably be pretty similar.

It’s hard to overstate, then, what a wild contrast Hulu’s Welcome to Chippendales will be to the unsuspecting viewer: an eight-part series that fixates on the mechanics of power and racial dynamics, the lure of the hustle in ’80s LA, toxic masculinity, and the slow, corrupting influence of greed — all beginning and ending with a pair of shocking murders. Against the twin backdrops of seedy criminal activity and, yes, flashy erotic strip dancing, the show slowly slides from Boogie Nights: The Series into a kind of true crime fantasy. It’s honestly better than any show of its ilk has a right to be — and the wildest thing? Much of it really happened.

The show centers on real-life Chippendales creator Steve Banerjee, an Indian American businessman who transforms his failing backgammon club into the hottest nightclub in LA after realizing that female sexual desire was just waiting to be monetized. Banerjee receives an astonishing performance from a completely transformed Kumail Nanjiani, who plays him as an intense, seething social climber, constantly trying to figure out how to game a system that’s set up to keep him from winning. His struggle to climb the ladder of success leads him into a combative, exploitative, and ultimately deadly relationship with his business partner, Nick De Noia, played in the series by Murray Bartlett, fresh from an Emmy win for The White Lotus and acting his heart out.

Chippendales makes its subjects feel realistic, but the story is a wild one. You won’t be faulted for wondering what really went on in between all the sexy dances. While the show takes some liberties with reality, the Chippendales’ backstory really is as murderous as the series lays out.

Chippendales dancer Brett Matheson performing for women at The Club at Richards in Mississuaga, Canada, in 1987.
Diana Nethercott/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Born Somen Banerjee in 1946 to Bengali parents, Banerjee migrated from Bombay to Canada in his mid-20s and worked there before finding his way to California. As the show’s first episode depicts, in California Banerjee worked his way up from gas station assistant to failed backgammon club owner (no, we don’t know what he was thinking, either). In 1975, he bought a nightclub on the west side of Los Angeles and named it Chippendales, then synonymous with the 16th-century furniture maker. But Banerjee struggled to elevate the joint to the level of arcane elegance suggested by its name; stunts like mud wrestling failed to draw crowds. The bar, according to film producer Bruce Nahin, who worked on the Chippendales creative team in its developmental stages, “wasn’t a high-end nightclub. This was a dive bar in an industrial section of West Los Angeles.”

That all changed when Banerjee made the acquaintance of an LA promoter named Paul Snider (played in a remarkable early-series cameo by Dan Stevens). In 1979, Snider, then married to 19-year-old Playboy Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten (Nicola Peltz Beckham), helped Banerjee promote Chippendales’s hottest event: a “Male Exotic Dance Night for Ladies Only.” The show, touting a $20 entrance fee, would soon expand into America’s first all-male strip club targeted at women.

The show depicts Banerjee as having the idea for the all-male dance lineup after watching Stratten enjoy a similar dance at a gay nightclub. But according to historian Natalia Petrzela and her indispensable Chippendales podcast, Welcome to Your Fantasy, the idea was actually Snider’s, and the famous Chippendales tuxedo neckties and cuffs combo actually came from Stratten. What Banerjee brought to the enterprise was, again, his insistence on a veneer of respectability — even if what he was actually selling was, as one former Chippendales dancer describes to Petrzela, a “comedy act for women.”

Banerjee’s version of respectability may have been crude, but it was also effective — in part because it was steeped in whiteness: “I wanted to package an all-American, Ivy-league look,” he said in a 1988 interview with the LA Times, “and sell it to the American women.” He envisioned Chippendales as being a “Disneyland for adults,” and fantasized that perhaps Walt Disney could make him “a silent partner.”

“It’s important to realize how deliberately this was constructed as a white space in a city that is extraordinarily diverse,” Petrzela told LA Mag. “What Chippendales was creating was a new masculine ideal, which was white, really buff, and clean-cut.” But even while reifying that racist social hierarchy, Banerjee would spend his whole life butting up against it — obstacles to which he would respond with increasing violence and a turn toward corruption.

That 1988 interview in which he spoke of his erotic nightclubs as a Disneyland, was, after all, given a year after he had his own partner murdered.

Welcome to Chippendales encapsulates the first of many ironies surrounding this glossy presentation of manhood during its first two episodes when it portrays Snider’s spiraling jealous obsession with Stratten. As she began to make a name for herself in Hollywood, she dallied briefly with famed director Peter Bogdanovich — which, as the show depicts, had a nuclear effect on Snider.

In reality, despite Snider’s possessiveness, the two were estranged by 1980, when Snider murdered Stratten before killing himself. The cultural shock wave of Stratten’s murder made it one of the country’s early reckonings with the realities of domestic violence. (Bogdanovich would later write a book about Stratten called The Killing of the Unicorn.) On the Hulu show, Snider and Stratten seem to wink in and out of Banerjee’s life, but the gruesome crime scene becomes foreshadowing of Banerjee’s escalating possessiveness and territorial jealousy — in his case, not over a woman, but over his life’s work: Chippendales itself.

For Banerjee, Snider and Stratten were mere stepping stones toward something greater. The next phase of Chippendales involved upscaling it from rudimentary strip dances into a full-on choreographed show with trained performers.

Enter Nick De Noia.

Previously the husband and manager to actress Jennifer O’Neill, De Noia was a children’s TV producer and former high school teacher from New Jersey who won two Emmys for a forgotten children’s show called Unicorn Tales. His Emmy win, as depicted on the show, seems to have been a creative pinnacle that De Noia struggled to recapture until he partnered with Banerjee. In convincing Banerjee to let him take Chippendales to the next level, De Noia found a new creative purpose and finally came close to achieving the level of professional respect for which he hungered. It also allowed him, a closeted gay man, to attain a level of self-expression — a rare thing for any queer person in the 1980s.

In 1983, De Noia convinced Banerjee, with whom he’d had perpetual creative disagreements, to open up a New York franchise of the club. It was here his creative ambitions really took off. The big spectacle number De Noia creates in the Hulu series, an erotic Rocky Horror riff in which a mad scientist creates the perfect male specimen from assembled body parts, was a real show conceived and staged by De Noia in 1984: The Perfect Man.

“Banerjee would spend the rest of history devaluing Nicholas’s contribution,” Nahin told Petrzela. “But if there was no Nicholas, there would’ve never been the success we had.” But Banerjee and De Noia’s clashing desire for control became an East Coast-West Coast cold war, and De Noia’s insistence on claiming credit for Banerjee’s life’s work continued to escalate.

The show’s depiction of the people in De Noia’s orbit seems to be fictional composites of real-life people. The pushy but ingenious seamstress turned manager, “Denise,” played by Juliette Lewis, could be Chippendales associate producer Candace Mayeron. Just as Denise does on the show, in real life, Mayeron basically fangirled her way onto the creative team. As the self-described “den mother” of the dancers, Mayeron was a close friend and loyal ally to De Noia, and one of many people who credit De Noia with essentially creating the version of Chippendales that became a sensation: polished, professionally choreographed, and knowingly camp. It’s unclear if De Noia’s “spoiled rich kid” investor boyfriend Bradford Barton (Andrew Rannells) has a real-life counterpart, but one possibility is that he was a talent agent named Will Mott, who, as described in a single pseudonymous internet blog, shared coworking space with De Noia and had a relationship with him that’s very similar to the one depicted on the show.

The show’s early focus on Black dancer Otis (Quentin Plair) also seems to be a fictional composite of several people, including real dancer Hodari Sababu, who like Otis experienced the stigma of being the only Black dancer in the otherwise all-white lineup, “because Banerjee felt that he didn’t want more than one Black guy in the club.” Like Otis, Banerjee deliberately excluded Sababu from the bestselling Chippendales calendar because of his skin color. In a memorable exchange with Petrzela on the Welcome to Your Fantasy podcast, Sababu describes confronting Banerjee about his racism, just as Otis does in the show, and getting a very similar response:

Sababu: I’m like, “Why’s that, man?” And he stuttered, “I got mostly white women, they’d come in here and they’d spend a lot of money, and I don’t want a lot of Black guys in here. It makes it look like some gang stuff or something.” You know, it was like, Chippendale’s this classy thing, we got these classy guys, we want classy girls coming in here.

Petrzela: What do you think classy meant to him?

Sababu: Definitely white, definitely white. Successful financially. It was all superficial.

Banerjee’s explicit discrimination led to expensive real-life lawsuits, which the show accurately depicts as stemming from his refusal to let people of color into the nightclub. The lawsuits, combined with a disastrously expensive printing error on the annual Chippendales calendar at the end of 1986, would have wiped out Banerjee’s finances but for De Noia’s backup revenue stream. Earlier that year, De Noia had maneuvered Banerjee out of creative control over the new Chippendales touring production — which, predictably, became a massive international success. The Hulu show depicts them signing a contract drafted by Di Noia on a diner napkin, which really did happen.

The tour saved Banerjee from financial ruin, but the fact that De Noia had scammed him out of the right to call himself the creator and owner of the wildly popular tour infuriated Banerjee, who by every account was a controlling and ruthless businessman. This ultimately led him to murder: In 1987, Banerjee tasked his underling Ray Colon (depicted in the Hulu series by Tick Tick Boom’s Robin de Jesús) with hiring a hitman to kill De Noia. On April 7, 1987, De Noia was found shot to death in his office in Manhattan.

With the whole franchise finally under Banerjee’s control, things should have been smooth sailing. But with De Noia no longer around to ameliorate Banerjee’s more aggressive and reckless traits, they only worsened — as did his paranoia. Banerjee had previously gotten Colon to burn down two nightclubs, purely because they were hosting their own male stripper nights. By now he was under investigation by federal authorities for De Noia’s murder, which made him hyper-vigilant, constantly looking over his shoulder. Still, the federal authorities had no way of proving Banerjee’s connection to the crime, so his bad habits and murderous tendencies only increased.

In 1990, Banerjee utilized Colon once more in a failed plot to murder three former Chippendales dancers for “defect[ing] to a rival male dance revue.” The Hulu series makes much of how wild this was — though it omits perhaps the wildest part of all, which is that originally the plan was allegedly to stab all three dancers with a syringe full of cyanide. The series also emphasizes that had it not been for Banerjee’s spiraling territorialism and greed, he probably would have gotten away with murder and continued to helm a lucrative small business empire.

Instead, in 1994, while Banerjee was essentially hiding out nursing millions of dollars in cash in a remote Swiss village, authorities finally caught up to him and arrested him, charging him with “violating the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) through a pattern of racketeering activity that included murder, murder for hire, solicitation to commit murder and arson.” Quite a resume. As a bonus, there are the crimes for which he wasn’t prosecuted: He allegedly hired someone to attempt to kill yet another one of his dancers for producing a competing calendar, leading to a horror scene in which men stripping on a beach for a photo shoot wound up fleeing an unknown gunman. Another former dancer/choreographer temporarily fled into the mountains after a rumor surfaced that Banerjee had put out a hit on him as well.

Little is known about Banerjee’s wife, Irene (played by Annaleigh Ashford on the Hulu series) or his two children, but he seems to have been thinking of securing their welfare when he made his final business decision. After pleading guilty to the RICO charges, Banerjee was facing the prospect of having all his assets, including his ownership of the Chippendales business, seized, meaning the entire empire would be auctioned off to the highest bidder, leaving Banerjee’s family with nothing.

Before that could happen, however, Banerjee died by suicide in his jail cell just hours before his sentencing. As Welcome to Chippendales informs audiences, this meant that his family maintained control of the company. Banerjee’s family sold it to investors who revitalized the brand — including infamous boy band promoter Lou Pearlman, who had, to put it mildly, money problems of his own. After 9/11, the New York club shut down and Chippendales became primarily a touring company, with a permanent Las Vegas residency beginning in 2005; the show eventually got its own customized theater.

One thing that remains unclear is how much Banerjee, outside of all the greed and murder, cared about what a cultural touchstone he was creating. Dancers who worked with De Noia tend to acknowledge that he could be arrogant and self-aggrandizing but that he was always building the mythos of Chippendales as a liberating, feminist artistic experience. In reality, at least in its early years, its rowdy nightclub scene subjected its dancers to sexual exploitation and racial discrimination — not exactly a breakthrough for equality.

Still, it’s undeniable that Chippendales’ lasting cultural legacy is one of empowerment, both for women who have a safe space to express their sexual desires and for men who find sexual and creative freedom in erotic dance. The famous dance lineup gave us, among other things, a legendary 1990 SNL skit featuring Patrick Swayze and Chris Farley, and its tradition of titillating women arguably lives on in the Magic Mike franchise. People around the world still flock to see Chippendales dancers every night, while the official Chippendales Instagram gifts strategically lit erotica to its 200,000 followers. The current lineup of dancers boasts a shark wrangler, a BMX biker, and a jazz pianist with an MFA.

In other words, Banerjee did achieve his dream: He gave the world high-class male erotica. And he did it, for better and worse, all in his own way.

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