This is part of a special series, Indulgence, which explores extravagant living in a time of restraint. It’s also in the September 2021 VICE magazine issue. Subscribe here.
When Christian Banerjee is nervous, he brags. And what he brags about most is money. “I made $700 jerking off,” he says, turning to me with a cocky grin on his face. “Making as much as a lawyer does jerking off. It’s crazy. That’s why you put the hours in the gym.”
It’s a cool, cloudy Friday in mid-March of 2020, and he is driving us in his black Jaguar from Eastside Barbers to an old-school diner called Du-par’s in Los Angeles. Twenty-nine-year-old Christian is a sculpted 6′3″ and 235 pounds. His tattooed biceps bulge out from his black tank top, which features “Strippendales” emblazoned in gold lettering and two pictures of him posing shirtless on the back. Dog tags dangle from his neck, and his forearm sports a “die young” tattoo. Christian works for one of the nation’s largest male strip franchises, Hunk-O-Mania, as well as other freelance dancing gigs, but he has his sights set on starting his own male revue: Strippendales. The car reeks of musky cologne.
As Christian parallel parks in the drizzling rain, he is clearly on edge. Today there are 247 known cases of COVID-19 in California, and Disneyland just closed its doors. I’m obsessively sanitizing my hands, but that’s not why Christian is nervous. We’re about to meet his godfather, Bruce Nahin, who launched Chippendales with Christian’s late father, Steve Banerjee, in 1979. I suppose you could say that Christian is heir to the male-stripper throne.
We take a seat at a red vinyl booth in the center of the restaurant, order coffee from the waiter, and wait for Nahin to join us. Christian periodically swivels around to glance at the door.
He usually limits his intake of salt, sugar, and carbs, and eats at least a pound of beef a day, frequently in the form of eight In-N-Out burger patties. But Du-par’s is famous for its pancakes, so that’s what we get. “I’ll take a short stack with bacon, put the butter on the side. Do you have sugar-free syrup?” he asks the waiter, and then orders a French dip with Swiss and a side of fruit for his godfather. A few minutes later, in ambles Bruce, who has a full head of white hair and a beard and wears a blue-and-white button-down shirt. He wraps Christian in a hug and slides into the booth next to him.
Nahin asks about Strippendales, and Christian says that he’s dancing tonight for Hunk-O-Mania, but he’ll be promoting his own venture, too. You want to start your own business, Nahin, who is 66 years old, insists, turning to Christian and giving him a paternal look.
“I’m proud of him,” says Nahin. “I’m hoping one day he’ll need loads of legal work so I can send gigantic bills and maybe squeeze 10 percent out of him.” Christian and Nahin laugh.
Godfather and godson are supposedly meeting to talk more about Strippendales, set to debut tomorrow in Pomona, but Christian keeps turning the discussion to the 36-year-old napkin deal made between his father, Steve, and their third partner, the late Nicholas De Noia, in 1984. So Nahin explains it. The napkin, he said, outlined that Steve and De Noia would split the New York Club rights, and De Noia would retain the rights to a touring show “in perpetuity.”
Christian grabs a paper napkin, holds it in the air, and says, “I wouldn’t want to do a business deal on a napkin.”
“It’s a quid pro quo,” Nahin testily explains.
“That’s a contract.”
“I think it’s bogus,” Christian retorts.
“Okay, well, you’re wrong,” counters Nahin. “In Steve’s narcissist view, when the world revolves around only him, and Nick and I had no meaning, then Nick just stole the [touring rights].”
Christian stabs his fork into a three-tiered morsel of pancake and brings it toward his mouth, letting it hover there, too angry to take a bite. “He owned the company. He could fire him and rip that napkin up,” he says of his father, before placing his fork down and tearing the napkin in half. Bruce watches him, clearly annoyed.
As we leave Du-par’s in the drizzling rain, the streets are eerily quiet. Although bars and restaurants in the county are still allowed to remain open without restrictions, gatherings of more than 250 have been banned. Today, the day before Christian plans to debut Strippendales, the Los Angeles Times declares, “Life as We Know It Suspended Indefinitely.”
Steve Banerjee, according to Nahin, used to wave dollar bills, repeating “Money” in front of Christian’s older sister. “He wanted her first word to be money,” Nahin said.
Christian was born to Steve and Irene Banerjee in 1990 as Chippendales was nearing the end of its peak. That year, Saturday Night Live parodied the show with a blubbery Chris Farley auditioning for Chippendales next to a lithe and tanned Patrick Swayze. As a toddler, Christian teetered around as shirtless, buff male strippers lounged by the pool at his parents’ palatial bougainvillea-clad home in Playa del Rey, California.
His father, Somen “Steve” Banerjee, was something of a natural entrepreneur. Born in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, to an upper-class family of printers, he moved to the U.S. in the 1960s, with a keen eye set on making a fortune. Steve Banerjee was, perhaps, the unlikeliest person to transform the sex industry: a bespectacled, stuttering, nerdy man with a full head of brown hair and a round face, often seen in a dress shirt and tie.
After working at Mattel, Steve operated a gas station and used profits from it to buy the Round Robin, a Culver City rock club, in 1975. He and a partner at the time transformed it into a disco, Destiny II, but it was a string of happenstance meetings that turned his venture into the country’s first major male-stripper showcase.
In 1977, Banerjee met Nahin, then a 20-something Loyola law student, who, after happening upon the club while looking for a quiet place to study, came there regularly to sip coffee while poring over law books during the day. “He told me his partner wanted to sell his interest, so my dad and I bought it,” Nahin said. On the typically slow weeknights, the pair booked random events: Valley Jewish Singles Disco Dances, backgammon tournaments, women’s mud wrestling. Male stripping could have been just another filler.
Christian believed that objectifying men was his father’s own novel idea and that Steve had found dancers at the gym. “My dad was a natural recruiter,” he said. But Nahin says the concept came from a chance encounter with Paul Snider, a Canadian acquaintance, known as the “Jewish Pimp.” Natalia Petrzela, a history professor at the New School, who has extensively chronicled the development of Chippendales in her podcast Welcome to Your Fantasy, backs that up. “Paul Snider had seen some gay male review and thought it would be kind of like hammy and fun to do this for women,” she told me. “And he brought the idea to Banerjee and that’s how it began.”
Nahin and Steve decided to call the show “Chippendales” in honor of the club’s knockoff Chippendale wood furniture (an ornate style named after London cabinet maker Thomas Chippendale). Steve advertised Chippendales by peppering Los Angeles with flyers declaring “Chippendales presents MALE EXOTIC DANCERS. Ladies Only will be admitted during this show.”
Steve and Nahin hadn’t properly hashed out the details for a male revue. “We just had some guys and they ran around and they danced,” stripping to jockstraps, Nahin said. “The jockstraps fell off. It was almost full monty.”
Full-frontal male nudity didn’t fly in California. In late March 1979, about three shows into their run, Chippendales was raided by police, who arrested three dancers and three customers for engaging in unspecified “lewd acts.” Steve was hauled in for questioning and charged with “providing entertainment without a license.”
Nahin and Steve needed to clothe their strippers in revealing outfits that wouldn’t expose their penises. Without a template for male stripper costumes, they took inspiration from women: the Playboy Bunny. Chippendales borrowed the cuffs, collars, and bow ties of the Bunnies, pairing them with black spandex pants, leaving Chippendales’ chests bare and glistening. Later, they added an element of fantasy, dressing the dancers as policemen and Zorro.
They also borrowed another aspect from Hefner’s Bunnies: treating the customers as royalty. The Chips didn’t just dance; they’d dote on the women, pouring their drinks and lighting their cigarettes. As feminists marched through the streets in Take Back the Night rallies, another cohort of women (including lawyer Gloria Allred, who hosted a fundraiser with Chippendales dancers in 1980), felt empowered by watching men take off their clothes and getting a kiss—for a tip. Steve told the Los Angeles Times that the Chippendales were “enhancing the cause of women’s lib, by providing a place where women can go and look at men.”
Soon, Steve and Nahin were running the show on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. “We used to joke that there wasn’t enough dirt in the backyard to bury all [the money],” Nahin said. According to Nahin, Steve was hiding wads of cash in his giant safe at home, and had probably squirreled sums away in Swiss bank accounts.
By 1982, 15,000 women were attending Chippendales shows each month, Steve told the Detroit Free Press, and his calendars were selling in over 4,000 stores. LA Weekly drooled, “For ladies who savor beef-cake, Chippendales serves Chateaubriand,” calling Steve a “guru” with “Gandhiesque eyes.”
After meeting Nahin at Du-par’s, Christian and I drive to a pot dispensary outside Palm Springs, where he plunks down $94 for Stiiizy live resin. We’re on the way to his first of two jobs for the night: a 5 p.m. go-go boy gig, followed by a Hunk-O-Mania show, both at the pan-Asian restaurant Wang’s in the Desert. We arrive an hour and 15 minutes later, but Christian’s not worried: He’s not promoting Strippendales at the men’s show. He jumps up on a black box and flaps his pink-fabric-clad dick, while a remix of Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie” plays. Strobe lights flicker around the room, sometimes landing on his torso. He lowers body onto the box and thrusts into it.
Christian wasn’t a good dancer when he started stripping 15 months ago, but dedicated practice paid off. One man stuffs a dollar bill into the back of Christian’s thong, and two other men sipping mixed drinks slap Christian’s butt. After the show, Christian jumps off the box and introduces me to the club owners, who praise him even though he was late. Despite a good performance, he nets a mere $42, putting him in a bad mood.
Before stripping, Christian says he operated a nutrition store, and worked as a mover and personal trainer. Now, in addition to dancing, he hustles sexual services, appears in porn, and acquires the occasional sugar mama, who usually pays him in gifts (weed, meals, Versace underwear). In a good month, he can pull in $10,000 to $12,000. Most months aren’t that good. He’s financially stable for the time being, but it’s mainly because his maternal aunt and uncle recently cut him a check for $81,000. Christian says it was a bribe to get him to stop investigating a stolen inheritance of hundreds of thousands—his lost Chippendales riches. He claims his aunt and uncle spirited this money away to a Panamanian account.
“There was blood shed for that money. And my childhood was given up for that,” says Christian. “I didn’t have a childhood and parents. I want to be normal. But I can never be normal.” (Christian’s uncle, aunt, and sister did not respond to a request for comment on any of his allegations against them.) Christian, according to Nahin, has been making these claims “for years.” Nahin says, “I don’t have any reason to believe [there’s] any truth to it. I’ve often wondered where all Steve’s money went. But it doesn’t mean that they stole it.”
There’s about a half hour before the Hunk-O-Mania show starts. The company was, in fact, started in 1998 by a former Chippendale, Armand Peri, who worked for the European touring show in the early 1990s. (Little does Peri know that Christian plans to promote his potential rival, Strippendales.) Christian ditches the thong and replaces it with his Strippendales shirt, and later a cowboy outfit. He has been practicing this cowboy dance for months. It’s choreographed down to the second.
Twenty-four women from two separate bachelorette parties giddily enter the nearly empty dining room at Wang’s. One group of 18 women from Phoenix commandeer the long table at front, and another six sit on the couch onstage. They’re throwing back hot-pink shots and swaying their arms to Taylor Swift’s “Trouble.” Christian climbs onstage and begins gyrating. Soon some women hop center stage with him; he tells them to scream “Strippendales.” They climb offstage and Christian grabs a stack of Strippendales fliers and distributes them, explaining that he’s starting his own strip show, and that his father founded Chippendales. They appear impressed, and a little con-fused. Is this a Strippendales show? one asks.
They get even more confused, turning to each other, whispering, when the show starts and a 6′3″ drag queen enters and lip syncs to “Bohemian Rhapsody” in a sparkly pink gown and blond curly wig. After about a half-dozen drag performances, the women are getting antsy. But then the first chords of Kid Rock’s “Cowboy” ring out, and Christian bursts in from the back of Wang’s; peacocking in a Stetson-style hat, plaid shirt, jeans, and boots; stomping and snapping a whip to the wooden stage floor. The tipsy bachelorettes scream gleefully. A bride, who is sitting center stage in a floor-length white gown, throws her hands in the air.
But as the first gurgling sounds of Ginuwine’s “Pony” begin to play, Christian whips around, crinkling his brow. Something is wrong, but the bachelorettes are too drunk to notice. He straddles the bride, flips her upside down, and lays her on the stage face first. As he rides her in a doggy style, he stops mid thrust, jumps off her, and furiously marches over to the DJ station, bellowing at him for playing the wrong track. The music stops and an awkward silence fills the room.
Meanwhile the bride has remained prone in the middle of the stage. She climbs offstage, and she and her bridal party look furious. The group grab their purses and stride out in their stilettos.
As the DJ packs up his gear, the restaurant manager, Guy, a sweet white man with a closely cropped gray beard, insists that Christian entertain the remaining bachelorettes. Christian walks over and hugs the bride, who is wearing a gold crown and a sash across her chest.
“Can I please have a dance with him? That’s all,” she says, clapping her hands together and pointing at the stage.
He grabs her thighs and simulates cunnilingus. “Something’s right!” she shouts.
He peels off his Strippendales shirt, flexes his pecs, strips to his underwear, and asks her friends to throw dollar bills on the stage.
“Thank you so much, Bane,” she says, embracing him, using Christian’s nickname, Bane Diesel (his Jag’s vanity plate reads: BANE 01).
Then, she turns to face her friends. “I better get that fucking refund.”
In 1981, Chippendales had become so popular that Steve and Nahin hired Nick De Noia, an Emmy-winning children’s television producer and choreographer, to elevate the show. De Noia was a good-looking, charismatic Italian American, who allegedly had connections to the Mob, according to Nahin. In 1983, he found a home for Chippendales at a club in New York City called Magique, which was significantly larger than the Los Angeles club. After opening the club, Steve and De Noia sat in an LA bar to hash out the details of the collaboration, which they sketched out on a napkin.
In October of that year, soon after the New York club opened, Variety wrote, “Now women have a chance to ogle men and yell ‘take it off.’ Chippendales, a near-venerated institution on the Coast, has moved into New York with a bevy of boy dancers.” The show became more choreographed, polished, and focused on storytelling, thanks to De Noia’s production background. It was officially a hit. Brooke Shields celebrated her 20th birthday there. Chippendales strippers appeared on Donahue and Sally Jessy Raphael; they toured from Australia to Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, De Noia was making enemies. He had become controlling, screaming at the Chippendales dancers for flubbing their moves. “De Noia, and anybody affiliated with the running of that club, was a snake in the grass,” said a former Chippendale, who asked to remain anonymous, calling them “a fucked up group of people who would cut your fucking throat for a nickel.”
De Noia stepped down as choreographer of the New York show, but he stayed on to manage the touring show, which became wildly popular. “Steve was very unhappy because Nick was making so much money on the tour,” Nahin said. “And Steve thought Nick had stolen the tour from him.” Steve started a competing Chippendales touring show in the southern United States.
Years of vitriol came to a stunning end in 1987. Three and a half years after the napkin deal, De Noia was shot in the face in his New York City office in broad daylight. Later it would come to light that Steve coordinated the murder with a former police officer named Ray Colon. Nahin wasn’t surprised to hear that De Noia had been murdered. In fact, he believed he too would have been killed had he been in New York. (It wouldn’t be the first Chippendales-related murder. Snider, the Canadian who first suggested a male revue, was the first emcee of the show before getting canned by Banerjee and Nahin. He later murdered his wife, Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten, in 1980, after she separated from him.)
Five years after De Noia’s death, Steve’s evasion of law enforcement ran its course. With the help of Colon again, Steve put a hit out on a rival troupe run by ex-Chippendales dancers. When Colon was caught and charged with murder for hire and conspiracy, he agreed to wear a wire and get Steve to confess to murder for hire to reduce his sentence. Steve was charged with conspiracy to murder De Noia, as well as conspiring to attempt to murder the dancers from a rival male strip show.
In 1994, Steve hanged himself in prison. “My dad signed over Chippendales to the FBI. Why would you wait eight months after and then kill yourself?” Christian said, questioning the circumstances of his father’s passing. “Obviously it was murder.” He said that he still thought his father was innocent, even though Steve had confessed to hiring the gunman.
In Christian’s eyes, the death of his father was a turning point. In 2001, his mother, Irene, whom he adored, died of breast cancer. “I saw her lose her hair… I saw her get chemo until she died,” he said. He became an orphan at the age of 10 or 11. He was shipped off with his sister to Buffalo, New York, to live with his mother’s sister and her husband, who, according to Christian, had been fighting with his mother since his father went to prison. Sometime thereafter, he began working out, idolizing the bodies of the strippers his father had once employed. When Christian was a teen he said he and his uncle would get in fights, and his uncle would kick him out. “Lots of times I slept on park benches,” he said. His beloved deceased mother, he said, had told him, “They stole the money”—a belief that has haunted him since.
On the 100-mile drive back from Wang’s to Newport Beach, Christian is furious. His performance and promotion of Strippendales “was a disaster,” he says. But it’s not his fault; it’s the DJ’s.
Christian tells me about his Psalm 38 back tattoo, which he got when he was 15 years old. Some of it does seem to fit him: “Those who seek my life set their traps, those who would harm me talk of my ruin; all day long they plot deception.” Christian believes that everyone is out to get him: the DJ who played the wrong song, the sugar mama who wouldn’t pay him in cash, his aunt and uncle.
One person who is not at fault is his father. He never says a bad thing about Steve, even though Steve was rarely home, too busy working on Chippendales, and Christian was three or four years old when his father was arrested. He looms large in Christian’s mind as an idealized figure who achieved visionary success—one the media unfairly portrays as a manipulative monster. Steve wanted to be an American and leave India behind, Christian says proudly. When women ask Christian what his ethnicity is, he says he’s tan.
Christian’s vision for Strippendales isn’t fleshed out; it’s constantly changing, and his ideas for appealing to this generation of women are vague. But he’s convinced it’ll be even bigger and better than his dad’s. He brags that he knows club owners in Hollywood, Pomona, and Orange County. He’s got the Banerjee name, the Banerjee brand. His hope is that Strippendales takes off, minting him a self-made millionaire like his father.
We stop at Norm’s, a West Hollywood diner, for a late-night meal around 1:30 a.m. Sitting at the booth, Christian takes out his wad of cash and begins counting, frantically trying to keep his Strippendales debut alive. Between bites of a gristly diner steak and hash browns, Christian texts girls he knows from social media, convincing a dozen women to come. The club requires 18 people for a show. Unless he can find six women in less than 24 hours to come to a Strippendales show during the start of a pandemic, his dream will flounder. He drops me off at my hotel in Newport Beach. “When will you know if the show is going to go on?” I ask. He tells me by 2 p.m. tomorrow.
The next day, I lounge around Newport Beach, eating cronuts from Seaside Bakery, and waiting to hear from Christian. Strippendales is supposed to debut in eight hours and I’ve heard nothing. At 4:23 p.m., Christian calls me: Strippendales is off. He couldn’t convince enough women to come. But he still has a show to do—it’s just not his own.
The show is again at Wang’s, the site of last night’s disastrous show. While waiting for Christian, I talk to Wang’s manager, Guy. “I’ve never experienced [a performance] this unprofessional,” he says. But it’s in the early days of COVID-19, and they need all the business they can get.
It’s a beautiful day with crisp air and a clear sky, but when Christian shows up, he is miserable and frenetic. He hasn’t eaten all day, and he’s downing an energy drink. He rants about a bad review he got for his stripping yesterday, which he believes was from someone at Wang’s, and threatens to leave the restaurant a review about finding “a roach in my chow mein” as revenge. He also has complaints that he’ll only be paid $100, plus tips, and says he might quit before the show goes on. In the middle of a side invective filled with anti-gay slurs, he answers a phone call from a male customer who wants to hire him as an escort. “I’m a top,” Christian asserts.
His friend, a toned, soft-spoken Black man who is also a stripper and the emcee from last night, comes over to say hello.
“Yesterday, we looked like clowns with my fucking [Strippendales] shirt on,” Christian says angrily.
“You can’t run a company with this attitude,” his friend replies, literally biting his tongue after he finishes speaking.
“Well, I’m not running my company, I’m working here,” Christian says, indignant. His friend walks away.
Despite his earlier protestations, Christian gets dressed for the show, hoisting his cowboy boots over his jeans and taking a pull on his vape. Shrieking women strut into the venue.
As he enters, it’s like a switch has flipped, and he’s a different person—a cheery male stripper throwing his whip down, all swagger. The music is right this time, and he keeps in step with Lil Nas X and Ginuwine, thrilling the crowd of 20-something bachelorettes and members of the bridal party. “She loved it!” one reveler says, as he leaves the stage cocky and triumphant. Guy, seemingly forgiving yesterday’s outrage, wraps his arm around Christian.
Four days later, California’s stay-at-home order came down, and live entertainment fizzled out in the state. Hunk-O-Mania put their California business on hold. But Christian continued to work for the company until late March, when he got fired for failing to show up to a Las Vegas gig. “I’m glad he’s no longer with the company because that kind of behavior is a liability to the brand,” Peri said, adding, “Christian Banerjee, he was great. Something happened along the way.”
As the virus spread through California in late March, I reached out to Christian for an update on Strippendales, but he didn’t reply. I DM’d him on Instagram, where he sporadically posts, in early September. By then, more than 700,000 people in California had tested positive for COVID-19, and almost 14,000 had died. This time he responded. “For all I know you [and the photographer] are two random hos trying to get a free pass to a hunkomania show,” he wrote to me. Tickets were $25.
In May 2021, I contacted him one more time, hopeful he’d cooled down a bit. But he was even angrier. “You are a stupid bitch who said they were going to film,” he wrote. “You wasted fuck you my time [sic].” After clarifying that the photographer took pictures and not video, he responded. “Do I need to block you stupid bitch.” I thought that would be the end, but the texts kept coming, including a 181-word diatribe calling me a “a scam artist.” Then the phone rang. It was Christian. I picked it up. He was screaming, calling me a bitch. He abruptly hung up on me. And that was the last I heard from him.
Earlier this year, as vaccinations and reopenings surged across the U.S., male strip shows seemed to experience a renaissance, both in attendance and pop-culture interest. Building on the success of the 2012 male stripper movie Magic Mike, HBO is working on a reality series spin-off. Dev Patel is set to play Steve Banerjee in one Chippendales feature film, while Kumail Nanjiani is slated to portray him in a new Hulu series. And Sony Pictures TV is adapting a memoir by former Chippendales emcee David Henry Sterry into a show.
As women emerge from isolation, some are horny, sick of or separated from their partners, and ready to ogle muscled hunks. According to a 2021 study by the Kinsey Institute and Lovehoney, a majority of Americans (51 percent) report that their sexual interests shifted during the pandemic; most of the respondents said they have gotten more experimental, and many more Americans plan to be more sexually experimental in the future. While Chippendales continues to operate in Vegas, it is a shell of its former, radical self, and the Banerjee family is no longer involved.
But it’s Peri, the ex-Chippendales employee, who said April was the best month in history for his Hunk-O-Mania enterprise. They have more shows than ever, 30 nationwide, including brand-new spots in red states. It seems as though more of America is now ripe for the elder Banerjee’s in-the-flesh vision of “an exercise in sexual fantasy that places women in the driver’s seat.” Now would have been the perfect time for Strippendales.
Hallie Lieberman is a historian and journalist, and the author of “Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy.” Follow her on Twitter.