A former NFL cheerleader claims she was body-shamed and saw her skin duct-taped after her coach deemed her “skinny fat.” Now she’s demanding the league reform how its female performers are treated and paid.
Angelina Rosa, a former dancer for the Houston Texans, shared her story Friday after joining a federal lawsuit filed by five ex-cheerleaders who are accusing the team of unfair pay, gender discrimination, and a hostile work environment.
Rosa says the team’s cheer coach, Altovise Gary, singled her out last season as her colleagues headed to the football field. “Angelina, you are about to be cut for a lifetime!” Rosa claims Gary, known as Coach Alto, warned her.
Gary then allegedly guided Rosa to a corner of the locker room, whipped out duct tape with the Texans logo, and fastened Rosa’s mid-section. Rosa, who was shocked during the encounter, heard someone say, “This will hurt a bit,” as her skin was yanked and stretched in front of several of Gary’s helpers.
“I believe that was the worst part,” Rosa told a gaggle of TV and print reporters outside the National Football League’s New York office on Park Avenue. She was flanked by famed women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred and fellow plaintiff Hannah Turnbow.
“Watching myself being taped as other alumni watched, I felt humiliated and ashamed of my own body,” Rosa said. “I knew my team would be performing any minute and all I could think about was how I didn’t want to let them down.”
The lawsuit was filed June 1 on behalf of five former cheerleaders: Hannah Turnbow, Ainsley Parish, Morgan Wiederhold, Ashley Rodriguez, and Kelly Neuner. Rosa joined the suit in an amended complaint filed Friday morning.
Their legal action comes as cheerleaders for other NFL teams, such as the New Orleans Saints, have filed similar complaints over gender-based discrimination.
The Texans declined to comment on Rosa’s allegations, and the NFL did not return requests for comment. Days after the lawsuit was initially filed, the team released a statement on Twitter that said, in part, “We look forward to vigorously defending ourselves against these allegations.”
According to the complaint, Gary and her staff “assaulted” Rosa by “taping down her sides under her uniform without her consent.” Gary then brandished the duct tape as a warning to Rosa’s teammates, threatening that “they were next,” court papers allege.
The cheer squad was in constant fear around Gary, the lawsuit claims, as members wondered whether they’d face “physical assaults,” too.
Rosa said she was initially hesitant to come forward but decided she wanted to spare other women her experience. She was the only teammate out of 35 cheerleaders to be taped down, she said.
She was also pressured not to eat—subsisting on popcorn and water at her day job—so she could maintain her figure. She says she worked out in the morning and in the afternoon about four to five times each week. Rosa, who is 5-foot-4 and 125 pounds, says was “consumed with working out” to stay on the team.
“I realized my silence would only encourage the same treatment to be done to the next girl caught up in the whirlwind of achieving her dreams, only to be devastated at the reality of being overworked, undercompensated, bullied, torn down and ultimately used to profit a multibillion-dollar organization that she actually supports,” Rosa read from her prepared statement.
Rosa, who danced for the NBA’s Chicago Bulls and MLB’s Houston Astros, believed she was living the dream. But she says that once she joined the Texans, she was “faced with the harsh reality of working in a hostile work environment.”
“What other profession has thousands of people competing for a handful of spots only to body shame them, bully them, dictate what other jobs they can have, all while paying them $7.25 per hour,” Rosa concluded.
The lawsuit accuses the team of a slew of alleged violations, including: failure to compensate for work performed; failure to pay minimum wage; unpaid overtime compensation; assault by threat of bodily injury; and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Turnbow and Rosa allege discrimination and/or harassment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Texans cheerleaders are paid for part-time work while toiling full-time hours, the women claim. They spend hundreds of hours practicing, training, and performing, while also being required to show up at 50 brand events each season.
The dancers make wages comparable to or less than McDonald’s employees, the lawsuit says. “When each hour of the practices, games, appearances, travel time, preparation, and required social media marketing is accounted, the Houston Texans Cheerleaders earn pennies for each hour worked,” court papers allege.
The women say if they complained—including about discrepancies in their paychecks—they faced threats of being fired. Adding to the grueling work, the cheer bosses micro-managed their private lives with rules and protocols, and one cheerleader even “suffered significant bodily injury at the hands of a fan,” the complaint states.
Spectators and fans physically assaulted the women, court papers allege, while the team failed to provide adequate security. One dancer claims that a fan attacked her at a game. When she reported the incident to Gary, the coach told her to “deal with it and move on,” even though she was crying from her injuries.
The cheerleaders claim they were also required to spend multiple hours at the gym each week, get spray tans before every game and event, sign thousands of Texans calendars, and get their hair and nails done at a specific salon but weren’t compensated for many of those hours. The unpaid hours are in violation of their written contract, the complaint alleges.
According to the suit, Texans cheer staffers regularly measured the women and forced them to double up on pantyhose because of cellulite. The women claim they were inspected after workouts and practices.
“I see a lot of jiggle jiggle,” Gary allegedly said after one practice.
The team controlled how the women wore their hair; what they were allowed to post online and who they could follow on personal social media and hang out with outside of work, the lawsuit claims. And the women say they weren’t allowed to speak to, let alone glance at the players.
The complaint says “any lines crossed outside of this part time job were always noted” and that “team members ‘paid for their mistakes.’”
While the lawsuit doesn’t detail the alleged “cyberbullying,” the women claim Gary and her staff sent tweets, emails, and other communications “intended solely for the purpose of harassing, abusing, tormenting and offending [the cheerleaders] and to beat them down into a submissive state.”
The dancers, per their contract, were required to constantly monitor and reply to Twitter messages and emails in a “timely fashion” but weren’t paid to do so, the complaint says.
Meanwhile, Texans staff allegedly reminded the cheerleaders they were “replaceable” and punished anyone who raised complaints. One dancer was allegedly told she “wouldn’t make it back because [she] questions coach Alto too much.”
Cheerleaders were told to simply “say yes ma’am,” and cave to their superiors, the complaint says.
“The discrimination is obvious,” the lawsuit says. “All the Cheerleaders are women. While male teammates earn millions, these women are exploited, earning about ten cents a minute.”