Spoilers for Welcome to Chippendales ahead
Before there was Magic Mike, there was Chippendales. Hulu’s limited series Welcome to Chippendales, premiering Nov. 22, tells the true story behind the revolutionary all-male revue founded by Somen “Steve” Banerjee in 1980s Los Angeles. But this tale of male strippers, jealousy, and murder is stranger than anything Hollywood could have come up with.
The eight-episode true-crime docudrama, starring Kumail Nanjiani, Juliette Lewis, and White Lotus’ Murray Bartlett, is based on the 2014 book, Deadly Dance: The Chippendales Murders. The series, like the book, delves into the rise of the popular all-male strip club for women and the downfall of its owner. But to Nanjiani, who plays Banerjee, the man is more than a villain; he’s an example of the American Dream gone wrong. “He’s very uncomfortable in his own skin,” Nanjiani told the New York Times. “The only way he can feel he has value is by being successful. But I think he also felt a little bit of shame about the way he was making money.” Keep reading to learn the true story behind Welcome to Chippendales.
Who is Somen “Steve” Banerjee?
Banerjee was an Indian immigrant who moved to the United States in the 1960s. He worked for Mattel and operated a Mobil gas station in Southern California before buying a failing L.A. club in 1975, which he named Destiny II. (In the series, Nanjiani’s Steve explains that the name implied that it was the sequel to an already successful business.) But the dance club, which later hosted female mud wrestling and exotic dancing, struggled to find its audience.
Four years later, Banerjee and his partner, lawyer Bruce Nahin, renamed it Chippendales in honor of the wooden furniture style in the club and launched a ladies only club where they could watch men strip. “It was the first time ever where something was completely geared to the ladies,” Candace Mayeron, former associate producer for Chippendales, told 20/20 in 2021. “We built an environment for women to let it all hang out.”
How did Steve Banerjee get the idea for Chippendales?
It was club promoter and pimp Paul Snider (played by Dan Stevens) who suggested Banerjee turn his club into a strip club for women. “Paul Snider had seen some gay male review and thought it would be kind of like hammy and fun to do this for women,” Natalia Petrzela, the host of the podcast Welcome To Your Fantasy, which covers the Chippendales murder mystery, told Vice in 2021. “And he brought the idea to Banerjee and that’s how it began.”
Snider’s wife, Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten (played by Nicola Peltz-Beckham), reportedly suggested that the shirtless Chippendale dancers wear bow tie collars and cuffs as a nod to the Playboy bunnies. In the A&E docuseries Secrets of the Chippendales Murders, Eric Gilbert, the former creative director of Playboy, made the case that Hefner deserves credit for Chippendales’ success. “Hugh Hefner gave the greatest gift to Steve Banerjee by allowing him to take that cuffs and collar trademark and make it into a Chippendales look,” he said. “That reversal was such an eye grabber that women were just immediately locked into it.”
Banerjee hired Snider as Chippendales’ first emcee in 1979, but quickly replaced him after discovering he lacked the charisma needed for the role. In August 1980, Snider killed Stratten, from whom he was estranged, and himself. Stratten’s tragic death was the subject of two movies: Bob Fosse’s Star 80 and Death of a Centerfold: The Dorothy Stratten Story starring Jamie Lee Curtis.
Who is Nick De Noia?
Nick De Noia, played by Bartlett, was a charismatic choreographer who had won two Emmys for his work on the NBC children’s series Unicorn Tales. In 1981, Banerjee hired him to create routines for his Chippendales dancers, naming him the company’s in-house choreographer, but the two often butted heads. Former Chippendales dancer Read Scot told People that the pair “used to go toe-to-toe and just scream and curse at each other” over the direction of the shows.
In 1984, De Noia moved to New York and set up a new Chippendales show, which included a sexy Frankenstein send-up called “The Perfect Man.” He later launched a successful tour under Chippendales Universal, an independent organization which paid royalties to Banerjee for the right to use the Chippendale name. This tour brought in a lot of money for Banerjee, but caused a rift in the already rocky relationship between the founder and choreographer.
When did things start to go wrong for Chippendales?
Soon after its creation, Chippendales became a cultural phenomenon that spawned sexy calendars, appearances on Phil Donahue, and SNL spoofs. As Chippendales’ success grew, De Noia became the face of the franchise, even earning himself the nickname “Mr. Chippendales,” which didn’t sit well with Banerjee. “I think that [nickname] helped fuel the anger that Steve had toward Nick,” Mayeron told Elle in 2021. “Their verbal fights became vicious.”
Banerjee had other problems beyond his jealousy of De Noia. For years, he had been engaging in corrupt business practices that put his empire at risk. In 1979, he hired someone to burn down a rival nightclub, Moody’s Disco. Five years later, he attempted to do the same with another competitor. By 1987, Chippendales filed for bankruptcy following a racial discrimination lawsuit brought forward by Black UCLA law student, Don Gibson, after he was denied entry to the nightclub.
As Banerjee became more desperate to protect himself, he became angrier about the deal he had struck with De Noia for the Chippendales tour. The contract, which De Noia had written on a cocktail napkin, stated that De Noia would own the rights to the tour and they would split the tour’s profits 50/50 in perpetuity. As the tour became more successful, Banerjee became convinced that De Noia was stealing from him and hired Ray Colon, a former police officer and nightclub performer, to help him take down De Noia. On April 7, 1987, De Noia was shot to death while sitting at his desk in his New York office.
What happened to Steve Banerjee?
For years, De Noia’s murder went unsolved, which seemed to embolden Banerjee, who had bought back the touring rights following the choreographer’s death. In 1990, he again enlisted Colon’s help in an attempted hit on Michael Fullington, a former Chippendales dancer and choreographer, and two other ex-Chippendales dancers who had formed a rival troupe called Adonis: Men of Hollywood.
The hitman Colon had hired didn’t go through with the job, but he did inform the FBI of the murder plot. When the FBI searched Colon’s apartment they found enough cyanide to kill 230 people, according to 20/20. After spending seven months in jail, Colon agreed to help the FBI build a case against Banerjee—no easy task. In June 1992, Colon met with Banerjee in hopes of getting a confession out of him, but Banerjee refused to answer his questions out loud. Instead, he responded using Post-Its, which he then immediately flushed down the toilet. The following year, Colon met with Banerjee in Zurich, Switzerland and the FBI was able to get a recording of Banerjee confessing to giving Colon $500 to buy the guns used in De Noia’s murder.
In September 1993, Banerjee was charged with enlisting Colon to commit the murder of De Noia and the attempted murder of three former Chippendales dancers. After pleading guilty to murder for hire, as well as attempted arson, and racketeering, he entered into a plea agreement in which he would serve 26 years in prison and lose his share of Chippendales. On October 23, 1994, hours before he was scheduled to be sentenced for the murder-for-hire of De Noia, Banerjee died by suicide.
“I was on the courthouse steps with our emcee and two of our dancers, when someone came out and said there would be no hearing, because Steve had killed himself in jail the night before,” Mayeron told Elle. “I felt cheated, big time.” Scot, who was one of Banerjee’s attempted targets, agreed, telling 20/20, “[Banerjee] didn’t get the punishment he deserved. He didn’t serve the time for Nick De Noia, for destroying lives, for trying to kill people. He got off easy. He was a coward.”
Did Chippendales survive the scandal?
After Banerjee’s death, his ex-wife Irene Banerjee, who died in 2001, inherited Chippendales. The Banerjee family is no longer involved in Chippendales, but Banerjee’s son, Christian, founded his own male revue, Strippendales, in 2020. “It wasn’t like I saw Magic Mike and wanted to emulate what I’ve seen,” he told the New York Post. “This came from a much deeper place in my soul.”
Chippendales has continued to hold a special place in culture. The touring show still performs throughout the world and its Las Vegas residency continues to be a popular destination 40 years after Banerjee opened the original club. “People aren’t just watching for sexual titillation,” Petrzela told Los Angeles Magazine when asked how Chippendales managed to survive the scandal. “They’re going out to have a social experience with their girlfriends. It’s a safe space for women.”