Even if you weren't alive during its heyday in the 1980s or have never stepped inside one of the hundreds of clubs and theaters around the world that house its touring show, you likely think you know what the name "Chippendales" means: Muscle-bound, heavily-oiled dancing men in bow ties and cuffs who bare it all — or at least most of it — to rooms of screaming women. And sure, that is what the name has become synonymous with. But there is so much more to the story of founding such a male stripper empire.
Chippendales, which gets a dramatized treatment through the eight-episode limited series Welcome to Chippendales on Hulu, started from an inspiring, if not somewhat R-rated, fairytale. Somen "Steve" Banerjee (played in the series by Kumail Nanjiani), an Indian immigrant from a middle-class family, arrived in America and saved as much money as he could working at gas stations. With his dream of emulating Hugh Hefner placed prominently in the middle of his fictitious vision board, he used his savings to open a backgammon club in Los Angeles. The venture was a failure until Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten and her husband, club promoter Paul Snider, walked into Steve's club and helped him transform it into the first strip club to feature male dancers.
If Snider and Stratten's names ring a bell, it's likely because you've heard about the pair's tragic demise. Shortly after meeting Snider, Stratten landed a role in Peter Bogdanovich's film They All Laughed and begins an affair with the director, prompting her to leave her troubled marriage. Weeks later, their bodies were found in their shared home, the result of a murder-suicide with Snider as the one who pulled the trigger. These events unfold in the first episode of Welcome to Chippendales, with Nicola Peltz playing Dorothy and Dan Stevens playing Paul. But it is only the first brush with violence that the club experiences.
Soon after their deaths, the real Banerjee struck up a business partnership with choreography Nick De Noia (played by Murray Bartlett). With Steve's cash flow and Nick's vision of how to turn a sloppy strip show into a highly choreographed theatrical production with new numbers weekly, Chippendales became a phenomenon. (The company even inspired the famous Saturday Night Live skit with Chris Farley and Patrick Swayze.)
But as the real-life Banerjee struggled with the club's success versus his own level of fame, he hired someone to take out De Noia, as well as two former dancers. The businessman ended up pleading guilty to attempted arson, racketeering, and murder for hire, but he died by suicide in his jail cell while awaiting sentencing.
The salacious and tragic past of Chippendales has been examined before: There's the in-depth podcast Welcome To Your Fantasy and 2021's Prime Video docuseries Curse of the Chippendales. But the Hulu series marks one of the most publicized forays into mainstream media.
"I had no idea about any of this until this show came my way," Nanjiani, who plays Steve Banerjee in and serves as an executive producer on Welcome to Chippendales, tells Metacritic. "I didn't know any of the details until Rob [Siegel, show creator and executive producer] talked me through what happens in every episode of the show. I kept stopping him and saying, 'Did that really happen?'"
"It's an unknown history except for people who watch a lot of Dateline and murder porn shows. Someone like my mom who loves all those true crime things, she knew about it," adds Annaleigh Ashford, who plays Steve's wife Irene Banerjee, with a laugh. But more seriously, she notes that "any time you do a recreation of a real-life story, it should be wild enough that if we wrote it, you would say, 'That's not real.' There is stuff that happens on this show that is unbelievable all the way through."
To dig into all of those larger-than-life elements, here, Metacritic talks with the cast and executive producers about where fact meets fiction, whether Banerjee was a visionary, and how those around him set him up for success.
As the creator of Chippendales, Steve Banerjee finds the financial success he aspired to in America, but ultimately destroys his family and business because of his constant need for power.
Nanjiani has to walk a tightrope of portraying a power-hungry figure who wants to be adored, while also possessing very few personality traits that enable him to empathize and connect with others.
"I think he had a lot of ego that came from insecurity and I think his ego made him want to dominate other people. He didn't have any belief in himself really," explains Nanjiani. "Because of that, because he wasn't able to generate any self-worth on his own, he had to generate it by putting other people down. I think that was his downfall."
But, he adds, that even though Banerjee took things to the extreme, there are still qualities he exhibited that are relatable on a wider level. The show used to be titled Immigrant and even though the title widened to expand others, the themes of Banerjee's experience of struggling to chase the American dream are still very present within the show.
"I think you can connect with the times that you've felt lonely, when you've felt you haven't had community, when you've felt insecure about yourself or don't like how you feel about yourself," Nanjiani says.
Some of Banerjee's struggles are also simply that he was failing as a businessman before Snider and Stratten walked into his life. According to the show, they were the ones who took Banerjee to a gay club, where he saw dollar signs in opening a place where men could dance for women because that was a hole in the market. Later, it was De Noia's choreography that elevated what the club could offer, ensured repeat customers because the routines were always changing, and eventually allowed for expansion beyond L.A, and Banerjee's eventual wife offered advice on efficiency in running the business.
"I don't think he had any imagination. I think he was lucky in that he happened upon a good idea," says Nanjiani. "I think his big talent was recognizing good ideas, so that's why he's able to hitch with Nick — because he recognizes that guy has talent that [he doesn't] have. I think he's in fact the opposite of a visionary because I think one of his flaws is that he's never able to see past the current moment. It's just about solving the problem that is happening right now. There's no forethought."
To a degree, that even applies to the crimes the real Banerjee was eventually convicted of. At least as far as how Nanjiani chose to play it, when he learns of Paul and Dorothy's deaths, "symbolically, it does plant that seed in his head a little bit," he explains. "Like, 'Oh, this is a possibility. This is something that somebody can do.'"
At the onset of their professional relationship, Nick and Steve appear to be a perfect match, with Nick using his talents as a choreographer to handle the creative side of Chippendales, allowing Steve to focus his efforts on the business side. But the pair's shared desire for power and absolute control quickly puts them at odds.
Like Steve, Nick's ego helped push him to elevate the brand while also playing a role in his demise.
"It got him to have a big enough ego to change the entire style of the club and bring it to another level," executive producer Jenni Konner says. "You definitely need a healthy ego for that. Ultimately, his clash with Steve was very ego-driven, power-driven."
"If he didn't have the big ego he may have said, 'Oh, this is just stripping,'" adds Siegel. "But he saw himself as an artist, and the way he elevated the show and elevated the forum, it takes somebody who has an ego."
Nick's impact on the Chippendale's brand is seen immediately after his introduction in the second episode of the series, thanks to his choreography, costume ideas, and decision to focus on men who could perform and weren't just attractive — but of course, they also had to be attractive.
"He was certainly ambitious, and I think he saw the potential" of what Steve's club could be, Siegel says. "As you see in the show, the [Chippendales] show, as it was constructed when he got there, wasn't really built to last. He saw something that was already succeeding — and it's not there. [His attitude was,] 'It can be better and it can last longer if I make some improvements to it.'"
For an actor, portraying a real person and bringing their speech, movement and idiosyncrasies to the screen can pose a massive challenge. For Ashford, her struggle was the complete lack of information available about Irene Banerjee, who died in 2001.
"There's, like, one photo of her," the actor says.
The absence of source material for Irene's life meant that it was up to Ashford and the creative team to piece together a portrait of a person who was with Steve during Chippendales' creation and the brand's most tumultuous years.
"It was really important for me to make sure we were creating a character and a woman who not only fit into the real events, but also, more importantly, was a representation of the women of that era who were still struggling under the norms of the patriarchy and also had to use men to kind of find and follow their dreams," Ashford says. "The other thing that was really important with this character was that I wanted to make sure she wasn't just a piece of Steve's arc."
An accountant by trade, Irene first meets Steve at the bar in Chippendales when she is there with friends. They connect over the fact that it's not really their scene, but they both have a desire to be around entertainment and, ultimately, want to see the club make money — whether that's filling glasses with more ice so less alcohol is used, or opening Chippendales up to male patrons after each night's show and turning it into a dance club.
"She was a woman who came to L.A. to have a more exciting and more glamorous life, but she loved numbers," says Ashford. "Irene authentically kept the business afloat. She was managing Steve's business creativity and Nick's performance creativity and kind of marrying the two."
As Steve's beloved wife, Irene is the only person who is witness to the Chippendales' owner with his guard down, although it is debatable whether it was every fully down, even with her.
"I think she saw the good in him, she saw the magic in him, and she also helped him connect to the world around them," says Ashford. "By her loving him, it helps us love him. And Kumail Nanjiani is just inherently likable and loveble and he does such a beautiful job navigating this monster, but the character of Irene helps make the monster of Steve more of a man."
Denise appears to be modelled after Candace Mayeron, the self-described den mother of the Chippendales dancers, though because she has a different name, it may be fair to assume more liberties have been taken with her story than with other characters' stories.
Denise becomes one of the voices of reason in the Chippendales' empire. Starting out as just a patron of the club, she sees the potential in the brand immediately and keeps trying to get noticed by the Powers That Be. Eventually she strikes up a conversation with Nick, pitches him a revolutionary costume design (breakaway clothing), and gets hired to become the costume designer and eventual tour manager and Nick's right-hand woman.
"One of the things Rob brought to the story that I liked so much was that that character had to sort-of fight her way in there and she's so tenacious and will not leave him alone until he gave her some respect and friendship," says Konner. "I think that's a really fresh take on two collaborators. I loved it. She won him over with the rip-away pants."
Denise and Nick's work together helps elevate the Chippendales show and make it a success in one of the toughest entertainment landscapes: New York City.
"I think Nick sees her as a kindred spirit and fellow artist. I think Nick sees Steve as the suit — literally. He's the business guy, so I don't think he respects him," says Konner.
The real Colon was a former police officer and entertainer who Banerjee enlisted for help with his criminal plots, but for the limited series, some changes were made to who the character is, even if not what he does.
This version is a handyman hired by Irene to work at the club. Once inside Chippendales, Ray begins to idolize Steve. His loyalty to Steve is promised early in their relationship and it's a devotion that Steve will come to exploit in catastrophic ways that mirror reality.
"He saw what loyalty got him," Spiegel says. "He wasn't talented. All he really had to offer was his loyalty and his support if he wanted to have a position of power and influence. The way to get that is just to tell Steve what he wants to hear."
Unlike other characters who begin to question Steve's obsession with power and his unscrupulous and violent business practices, Ray quickly sets himself apart as someone who won't second-guess his boss.
"Ray found in Steve a Brown hero, someone who was winning and making money, and flashy and exciting, and I think that was something in my mind that Ray had never seen before," says Konner. "I also think Steve was modeling something that could have felt like it was possible to Ray."
Welcome to Chippendales streams new episodes Tuesdays