There’s no real “curse” in Curse of the Chippendales, but there is plenty of titillating stripping and sensationalistic crime in Discovery+’s four-part docuseries, premiering Sept. 24. An amusing look back at the 1980s phenomenon that took America—and, in particular, women’s libidos—by storm, it’s a saga of sex, greed, money, murder and G-strings, all of it told with a welcome measure of good humor. Part underworld thriller, part nostalgic celebration of an iconic fad, writer/director Jesse Vile’s investigation echoes its subject by providing an entertainingly tawdry mix of thrills and laughs, as well as some familiar commentary on the way in which ambition can often curdle into sociopathy.
The Chippendales story begins with Steve Banerjee, who in 1975 was the owner of Los Angeles’ Destiny II nightclub, the only disco spot in the city that stayed open until 4 a.m. A soft-spoken, self-made Indian immigrant, Banerjee was an entrepreneur in search of something that would elevate his establishment above the rest, and he found what he was looking for courtesy of Paul Snider, a promoter described as “sleazy and oily” by Banerjee’s former lawyer Bruce Nahin. Snider was dating model Dorothy Stratten, who was trying to make it as a Playboy Playmate, and he suggested to Banerjee that he stage a male strip show aimed at a female audience. What began as “experimental art” swiftly blossomed into a smash hit that Banerjee named after a furniture brand, and which was developed—with characters that tapped into various fantasies (cowboy, cop, Zorro, etc.) and a signature uniform of bowties, cuffs and spandex pants modeled after Playboy Bunnies—by master of ceremonies Richard Barsh.
Save for a few extraneous dramatic recreations, Curse of the Chippendales relies on copious archival footage—of performances, rehearsals, news broadcasts, and home movies—and candid new interviews to tell its tale. It rarely dawdles, capturing the frenzied excitement created by Chippendales’ skyrocketing success. Banerjee had clearly tapped into something bigger than he’d first realized, and despite complaints from neighbors, evangelicals and local authorities, the show began attracting enormous crowds and media coverage. In the process, it made stars out of dancers like Roger Menache, Dan Peterson, and Michael Rapp, the last of whom was an East L.A.-born fitness enthusiast who found his calling with Chippendales, eventually climbing up the ladder to become the centerpiece of its national campaign as “The Perfect Man.”
In a lengthy new conversation, Rapp speaks openly about the way in which Chippendales gave him the confidence he’d previously lacked, and his professional achievements were matched by his personal fortunes, highlighted by his marriage to self-described Chippendales “groupie” and model Nancy Dineen, with whom he had a son. The couple moved to New York City to help open Chippendales’ Manhattan outpost, which was overseen by Nick De Noia, a children’s television show producer who became the company’s driving creative force. De Noia was, by all accounts, a demanding perfectionist and articulate showman who loved the spotlight. His stewardship was instrumental in turning Chippendales into a ubiquitous cultural presence, but it also put him at odds with Banerjee, who resented De Noia for being everything he was not (gregarious, charismatic, artistically inventive), and for publicly taking credit for a show that Banerjee himself had founded.
A deal made on a napkin that granted De Noia full control of any future Chippendales touring operations (while leaving the LA and NYC clubs to Banerjee) only further heightened tensions once nationwide performances became the company’s most lucrative moneymaker. Homicides soon followed. Jealous of Stratten, who was pulling away from him in favor of Hugh Hefner, Snider shot his Playmate girlfriend dead and then fatally turned the gun on himself in 1980. Then, in 1987, De Noia was assassinated in his Manhattan office by a mysterious assailant. De Noia’s associate producer Candace Mayeron immediately suspected Banerjee as the mastermind behind the plot. Yet with no evidence or leads, the case remained cold for years, during which time Chippendales became a household brand, albeit one that ultimately couldn’t sustain its charm in giant theaters that prevented the very dancer-client interaction that had initially made it a hit.
Once things started to fall apart, they crumbled quickly, including with a murder-for-hire scheme targeting former Chippendales dancer Read Scot, who had left the company to join rival Adonis: The Men of Hollywood. Curse of the Chippendales recounts this salacious turn of events, as well as Rapp’s descent into drugs, adultery and narcissism, with a nicely calibrated blend of gravity and lightheartedness, with the funniest bit being director Vile convincing the long-retired Rapp to perform his old showstopping routine for the camera. There’s no way to grapple with the history of Chippendales without some levity, and Vile makes sure to keep everything breezy whenever possible, be it through numerous clips of female patrons fawning over beefcakes, or a brief snippet of the legendary Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Patrick Swayze and Chris Farley as auditioning Chippendales wannabes.
In its final chapter, Curse of the Chippendales leaves behind the glitz and glamour (and oiled bodies) of the male revues in order to focus on federal agents’ efforts to nab Banerjee for De Noia’s slaying, the attempted execution of Scot (via syringes filled with cyanide and a hitman referred to here as “Strawberry”), and a series of Los Angeles firebombings that took out Chippendales’ competition during the 1980s. Thus, a wild tale of flipped informants, wiretaps, and meetings in Europe unfolds, all of it culminating in the most predictable fashion possible—since, after all, Banerjee was the sole person with a motive to commit these grave offenses. That leaves the docuseries feeling somewhat anticlimactic, although it at least benefits from a collection of secretly recorded conversations between Banerjee and his accomplice Ray Colon that definitely reveal him to be a businessman of the first cutthroat order.
Still, even if it becomes a bit ordinary by its finale, as well as falls short of explaining the status of the brand today, Curse of the Chippendales never overstays its welcome. And, of course, it’s got plenty of G-strings, if that’s what you’re looking for.