New York City boasts a wide swath of male strip clubs for all your bachelorette party needs, with names ranging from classy (" Avalon") to terrifying ("Get Punished"). Hunkomania is the top result on yelp, with four stars and many happy customers. Club descriptions focus on celebration and fun just as much as they focus on eroticism. Hunkomania's site declares that "Ladies, this is YOUR night," and they'll be providing "male strippers and hunky waiters that will cater to your every whim." Male strip clubs aren't just clubs—they're destinations, events, no doubt enjoying a resurgence at the veiny triceps of the recent Channing Tatum-helmed Magic Mike franchise.
I like Magic Mike because I like Channing Tatum. He's white masculinity modernized for millennials, for young women and men who have more access to celebrities than ever before. His Twitter is mostly Magic Mike XXL promotion, but it's peppered with "wifey" mentions and Instagrammable quotes. He sells a vulnerable, self-effacing masculinity, marked by shoulders hunched in seats to make himself a little smaller. All muscle, no machismo. In the film, Mike doesn't seem too different from the actor who plays him. The film's popularity encourages strip club audiences to expect the Magic Mike model where the stripper represents both physical beauty and kickass personality. It's objectification in a culture that never fully objectifies men.
The sky was still pale with sunlight when I approached Hunkomania on 38th near Times Square. It's unassuming: just a scrolling ticker with HUNKOMANIA in LEDs and a battered velvet rope. It was just before nine, when the Hunks were scheduled to take the stage. Inside, there was no line, just a doorwoman at a computer guarding a steep, narrow staircase. She stamped my hand, gave me two drink tickets ($10 each, required), and nodded toward the stairwell leading down. "It's so dead tonight," she said grimly. I had unintentionally bought my ticket for the Sunday night show on Father's Day. "Try to have fun, at least."
Fuck this. Hunks to the stage!
The club was large, but sparsely populated. Nothing was well-lit except the stage and the ATM. It was humid. I fanned myself with my drink tickets, each one decorated with a picture of a shirtless hunk. Spotlights guided my eyes to the platform stage raised just eight inches from the floor. The red curtains were closed, and a few attendees milled about near the VIP-only white couches in front of the stage. The bar was directly across the club from the stage, staffed by a single hunk. Service was prompt, since there were no other guests. I traded a drink ticket for a vodka soda and lingered near a glowing hot pink column. One of the club's titular Hunks approached me, raised his tank top, and invited me to stroke his abs, and after my shy refusal seated my friend and I on a white couch in the second row. My appointed waiter sat down and introduced himself. Wearing an unbuttoned shirt and a clergy collar, he told my friend and I his name was Father 69. He asked me all about my plans for the evening and my career. It felt almost like a first date. "Don't get up," he insisted. "If you need anything I'll get it." A bride and her friends sat in the front row couch, giggling. Hunks drifted around the club like somnambulant Michelangelos, pausing to straddle bridal party members. A hunk gripped a woman's wrist and pulled her hands to his chiseled pecs and abs.
Just after nine, our MC AJ opened the show. He wore his leather vest open over his bare chest and a leather cowboy hat. He strummed a guitar. In Magic Mike, Matthew McConaughey wears the same outfit. He plays a song on the guitar, blows a cloud of flames over the roaring crowd of women, smashes the guitar, and strips in artful chiaroscuro.
AJ's McCaughnamimicry was only all right (all right all right). "Can you hear the guitar?" AJ said, strumming. The 30-women-strong audience went wild. We couldn't hear the guitar. "Can you hear that?" he repeated, looking to the wings of the stage. The microphone screeched feedback. "Can you hear it?"
After about 20 seconds, he gave up. "Fuck this," he said, and took off the guitar. "Hunks to the stage, hunks to the stage!" And to the stage they came.
The male stripper lives in a weird world between objectification and idealization, and his most prominent representation is the Magic Mike franchise. If Channing Tatum's portrayal of Mike is anything to go by, the male stripper is sexy, ripped, and talented, but also charming, kind-hearted, and funny. "You're not just stripping. You are fulfilling every woman's wildest fantasies," McConaughey says in the film to a new male stripper. "You are the husband they never had. You are that dreamboat guy that never came along."
The film sells a performance of masculinity to a female audience—not just the physical spectacle of their waxed/tanned/oiled bodies, but the stories that go with it. When you see Magic Mike, you get the raw thrill of the dance scenes, but also the enriching narratives of romance and failure and persistence. At Hunkomania, there's little backstory, but it's clear that they're counting on you keeping the Magic Mike mythos in mind.
The summoned hunks opened the revue with a sailor-themed dance. Three hunks removed their hats and shirts and tore off their pants with a little dancing. After the dance, the hunks returned to prowl the crowd. Between dances, the DJ played "sexy" music, ranging from Bon Jovi to Enrique Iglesias to The Weeknd.
A muscular hunk approached my couch. "I'm Andrew," he said with a gentle smile. "Having a good time?" I'm not really sure how that turned into a lap dance, but it did. I think I was in a trance. The DJ was playing T.I. Andrew seemed used to women like me, women who aren't used to touching so openly and sexually. I touched his pecs, but only with my fingertips, and only at his behest. He did the wrist-gripping hand-pulling thing. Or he loomed, hands on the back of the sofa on either side of my head, and I sunk back into the couch. The lapdance continued even when the music stopped and AJ took the stage to speak. It was uncomfortable. I guess he wanted me to get my money's worth.
He led me, tipsy and dazed, to the ATM, where I withdrew two $20 bills (with a $3.95 charge) and tried to hand one to him, only to have him raise his eyebrows and tilt his hips forward so I could slide it into the waistband of his underwear. The other twenty I took to the bar to break into small bills for tipping. The bartender informed me they didn't do that here at Hunkomania, and broke my twenty into sixteen Hunk Bucks. When I questioned the dubious-seeming dollar-to-Hunk-Buck exchange rate, the bartender just shrugged. "Four dollars goes to the owner."
But if I could handle a lapdance I could handle anything. When a hunk drifted up with a platter of shots, Grey Goose and something pink, I took it without thinking, and was then informed it was five dollars. This is the magic of Hunkomania—I felt like everything was a gift, until the moment I had to pay for it. Despite how many times this happened, I kept falling for the ruse. I tried to hand the money to the Shot Hunk, and he tilted his hips out so that I could deposit it in his waistband.
I was emboldened now, by vodka and the feeling of being waited on and surviving a lapdance. The choreographed dances now became audience-participatory events. In the middle of the stage, a dancer and powerlifter with a body like Terry Crews prowled around a flimsy, red-cushioned chair. Confidence roaring through my veins, when he called for a volunteer, I leapt to my feet. Bring it on. When I tried to bring my drink onstage, AJ quickly and firmly chided me.
Hunkomania sells a bizarre sort of audience agency where you make the choice, but they do everything. Hunks gyrate through the crowd, perform lap dances, and pull women onstage. Not only do you watch—you touch, and your money controls where they go. The "hotseat," in both the film and real club, is when a woman sits in a chair onstage and receives a dancer's affections. Typically in gyrating butt form.
I sat in the hotseat. He lifted me up like I weighed nothing. He wrapped my legs around his hips, carefully guiding my motions with quiet words, like "hands here, stay still, OK here we go," as Enrique Iglesias' "Hero" blared around us. I hung there in midair, grimacing, supported by a stripper's core strength and dinnerplate hands, hoping my shirt wasn't riding up. I was a prop in the show, a tool for the dancer to show the howling audience the benefits of squatting 500 pounds. The lapdance was so intimate it was uncomfortable, and the dance was so detached it was boring.
Then, three hunks participated in a Wall Street-themed dance to Usher's "There Goes My Baby." The dance included Andrew, whose hunkiness I appreciated with clearer eyes from my white couch. It was very similar to the sailor dance, just with briefcases. Afterwards, AJ took to the stage again, still wearing his leather cowboy hat. "A few years ago, producers of the movie came here to Hunkomania, watched the show that you're seeing now, interviewed the hunks, and based the show in the film on the show you're witnessing now," AJ said, scanning the crowd. The film in question is, of course, Magic Mike. This claim is probably untrue, but we whooped and clapped anyway. "Ladies," he said. "It is my great pleasure to introduce to you the inspiration for the film. We call him Super Stan. Let's hear a big round of applause for the original... Magic... Mike!"
The first note of Ginuwine's "Pony" played—Channing/Mike's signature song in the film—and we went bananas. Hunkomania sells Magic Mike's version of masculinity almost to the point of plagiarism. And it works.
The dance itself was good, pulling floor-grinding cues straight from the film (or was it the other way around?).
I dictated the following voice memo into my phone:
" Diane... I'm at Hunkomania... Apparently Super Stan has been a dancer for Lady Gaga. He's slow grindin' to Pony right now. He is re-enacting Magic Mike—ooh. WOO! He is fuckin' GOOD though, is the thing! I'm, like, mad about how good he is! Oh my god! I'm tryna sleep with—I'm tryna sleep with Super Stan. His name is Super Stan and I am—WHOA! Oh my god. Yo. [starts singing along] Ride it... my pony..."
As I watched Super Stan dance, I abandoned any sense of journalistic integrity. His dance moves were cool. Effortless. He had stripped stripping of any weirdness I had previously associated with it. I was hypnotized.
When Super Stan's performance ended, AJ announced that Stan, so far silent onstage, was available for lapdances. I sat back down on the couch and summoned him over by waving my remaining Hunk Bucks over my head.
"Hi," I said as Stan floated toward me, moving through the drunken bridal party and their lightly groping hands; the audience was blurred and meaningless like other tourists at one's first viewing of David.
I leaned forward, my hands on my knees, tilting my head up to speak. It was not proper lapdance posture. Super Stan peered down at me, and I remember he was tan, but it was dark and I don't really know what his face looked like. I asked him how long he'd worked at Hunkomania.
"Seven or eight years," Stan said, his hands dangling by his sides. I was still clenching my Hunk Bucks.
"Why?" I asked.
"Why do you think?" Stan shrugged. "Want a lapdance?"
"I only have ten dollars," I said.
Stan turned his back and seemed to fade into the ether, though I know it was only back into the arms of a bridal party with a lot more cash than me. In that moment I was suddenly, immensely sad—I'd missed my chance. I'd never meet my Super Stan again.
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