It’s 1985 and a thousand women are gathered together in a steamy venue in New York. They are secretaries, suburban mothers, here for a girls’ night out. Around the hall are topless waiters wearing Spandex pants, collars and cuffs, their oiled muscles glinting in the show lights. Some of them have dollar bills sticking out of their pants and lipstick marks smeared across their torsos. As the curtain begins to rise for the main show, women’s voices ring out through the auditorium: “We want meat! We want meat! We want meat!” Welcome to the Chippendales.

“The women were out of line every night,” says Scott Marlowe, 60, a dancer at the time. “Women had never been able to behave like that before. There were no men in the audience and they were able to say, now it’s our chance. Unsurprisingly, they behaved more aggressively than men did.”

The Chippendales, the all-male strip act with huge hair and tiny thongs, are one of the most enduring images of the 1980s. The brand has spawned films such as Magic Mike and The Full Monty, but its own story, its rise and catastrophic fall, is turning out to be the most entertaining of all. It has already been the subject of a hit podcast, Welcome to Your Fantasy, presented by the cultural historian Natalia Petrzela, and is now the subject of the Discovery+ series Curse of the Chippendales.

Getting cheeky: Playmate Sondra Theodore celebrates her bridal shower at the Playboy Mansion with a Chippendales dancer.

The story has all the ingredients of a hit: sex, lust, money and murder and even the attempted assassination of two male strippers on Blackpool promenade. It also revisits a unique moment in sexual politics when the working women of the 1980s were granted the freedom to behave like men and grabbed it with both perfectly manicured hands.

The Chippendales first muscled in on the Los Angeles entertainment scene as an idea to bring in punters at a struggling club run by Somen “Steve” Banerjee, who had come to the US in the mid-1960s in pursuit of the American Dream. The club in west Los Angeles was named Destiny II (there was no Destiny I) and by the end of the 1970s Banerjee and his business partner, a gravel-voiced lawyer called Bruce Nahin, had tried everything to fill the place, hosting backgammon tournaments and female mud wrestling. Eventually Paul Snider, a shady club promoter, suggested a male strip show. He had seen one in a gay club in Canada and thought the idea could work for women.

The brand has spawned films such as Magic Mike and The Full Monty, but its own story, its rise and catastrophic fall, is turning out to be the most entertaining of all.

It was the dying days of the 1970s, a decade of sexual promiscuity sandwiched between the advent of the contraceptive pill and the first cases of HIV. Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine was still the height of cool and objectification was everywhere. Until now, though, the ogling had all been one-way. Banerjee was skeptical but agreed to give it a go. He recruited buff-looking men from beaches and gyms and dressed them in costumes that could have been raided from a boy’s fancy dress box: a cowboy, an astronaut, Superman. The result was hilarious. It is not straightforward for a large man to move seductively in a thong, as archive footage in the Amazon documentary attests. Nevertheless, the nights sold out.

Soon Banerjee’s struggling venue was rammed full of 600 hysterical females demanding that the dancers “Take. It. Off!” Banerjee saw the potential to build a brand. He renamed the club the Chippendales, after the 18th-century British cabinet maker (he thought it sounded aspirational) and hired a master of ceremonies who could teach the dancers basic routines. Male guests were banned from the club until 10pm and hunky hosts waited on the female audience, topless except for collars and cuffs. The Playboy bunnies would come along on their nights off. Once Hefner — Banerjee’s hero — made an appearance, one of very few men to be allowed in.

Somen “Steve” Banerjee, right, the immigrant kid who started it all.

As his ambitions grew, Banerjee, an introverted former janitor with a stutter, recognized that he needed someone with creative vision to take the show to the next level. He hired a flamboyant choreographer and television producer, Nick DeNoia. A New Yorker whose career high had been winning an Emmy for a children’s program about unicorns, DeNoia soon whipped the dancers into shape. The idea was to focus on women’s fantasies. There was a barbarian, apparently to appeal to the caveman fantasy, and a construction worker. If the thought leaves you flat, that is because, Petrzela says, in reality “it was a representation of men’s ideas of women’s fantasies”. At one point there was even an act called the Anonymous Flasher — a man who walked onstage in a trench coat with a paper bag over his head and revealed himself — well, his thong. Full nudity was not allowed onstage. The, ahem, climax was the Perfect Man, a Prince Charming character, played by Michael Rapp, a burly dreamboat who had taken to bodybuilding to cure low self-esteem caused by childhood dyslexia.

The man who gave them the moves: Choreographer Nick DeNoia with Jennifer O’Neill during rehearsals for the 47th Academy Awards.

Candace Mayeron, a Californian investment banker and lawyer, saw one of the early shows by accident after she turned up to play backgammon. She thought it was amazing. “The men were absolutely gorgeous. And they were dancing beautifully. And I was utterly fascinated,” Mayeron, 68, recalls. “On the simplest level, it was the first time women could scream. It was cathartic.”

The show was interactive and audience participation was encouraged in a way that had me reaching for the antibacterial hand gel as I watched the footage. Mayeron held up her cash for what was known as a “tip and kiss” — hand over money, get a snog — and was engulfed in a muscled embrace with a man who smelled of cologne and tasted of peppermint. Mayeron went on to be one of the few women to play an active role in the Chippendale story, chaperoning the dancers for eight years. Her duties included organizing daily tanning sessions and four-hour sessions at the gym sculpting their “Olympic caliber bodies”.

The bronzer of the bods: Candace Mayeron, surrounded by Chippendales.

Almost everyone involved with the Chippendales claims that it was a feminist venture, a milestone on the path to women’s lib. To Petrzela this doesn’t stand up. The ideas espoused by the feminist movement in the 1970s were in the mainstream by the 1980s, she says. What it does show “is the whole notion of selling women their own empowerment. I think that’s really relevant today because it’s still happening all the time. The Chippendales was a very early version of that”.

The people pulling the G-strings were all men, and as the brand took off those strings began to fray. By 1982 DeNoia had convinced Banerjee that it was time to move to the east coast, having negotiated himself a share of the New York ticket sales. Even more importantly, he persuaded Banerjee to sign over the touring rights to the Chippendales in perpetuity. The contract, scrawled on a napkin, would turn out to be catastrophic for both of them. DeNoia was a difficult character to work with and had a sadistic side. Footage shows him tormenting the dancers backstage: “Lift. That. Leg. Higher!” Another dancer remembers having his love handles grabbed by DeNoia, who barked: “Do you think a lady wants to come to Chippendales to see a pudgy, fat little f***? Hellooooo?”

Jazz hands? Choreographer DeNoia, far right, watches a rehearsal.

The show was as big a hit in New York as it had been in LA and DeNoia led the dancers on a carousel of daytime TV appearances. Footage shows the men, in their trademark collars and cuffs and not much else, answering questions while the TV audience whoops and hollers. For the men in the spotlight it was an extraordinary time.

It was the dying days of the 1970s, a decade of sexual promiscuity sandwiched between the advent of the contraceptive pill and the first cases of HIV.

Scott Marlowe was 23 and an ex-marine when he turned up at the end of a show hoping to pick up women. Sneaking a look inside, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “There were thousands of screaming women. They were out of their minds.” Onstage was Rapp, grinding away in a gold lamé vest. “I thought I could do that,” Marlowe recalls.

He jacked in his job on Wall Street, where he had been training as a currency trader, to become a host and eventually a dancer. His routine, the Biker, involved the real challenge of taking off jeans seductively in order to “f*** a motorcycle on stage”. The audience went wild. Up until this point, women who were sexually assertive were considered “sluts”, Marlowe says. Here, they were encouraged to do whatever they wanted. Drugs were everywhere.

“Perfect Man” Michael Rapp.

He remembers being followed through the streets of New York like a real-life Lynx deodorant advert. “We were like the Beatles without the musical talent,” he says. Some dancers look back on it as the best time of their lives. Marlowe is less sure. He felt like a “circus show” on those TV appearances. “They may as well have put bridles on us and taken us around the ring,” he says.

It also had a lasting impact on his sex life. “When was the last time you had to kiss 300 people in a night? I had to do that night after night. It was dehumanizing and disgusting but you couldn’t let anybody know that because it was part of the job,” he says. He was sleeping with several women a day for several years and went off sex. “I knew I wasn’t gay. But when women stopped being interesting to me, where do you go from there?” he asks. Worst of all was the expectation that he should be having the time of his life. “You start thinking: If I don’t like this, what is wrong with me?” Today Marlowe is a fitness instructor and says he still has trouble kissing.

The brand continued to grow. By the mid-1980s there were Chippendale mugs, key rings, calendars and teddy bears. At its peak the business grossed an estimated $35 million a year. Banerjee was obsessed with taking it even further. He wanted to do a fashion line, colognes and even talked about a Chippendale ride at Disney theme parks. DeNoia, meanwhile, was busy hogging the limelight, regularly crediting himself as the creator of the Chippendales.

Former dancer Read Scot, center, with two other dancers.

The men began to argue publicly as the relationship deteriorated. Banerjee eventually fired him. But DeNoia invoked the napkin deal and set off on tour with Mayeron at his side. It turned out to be a lucrative venture. The Chippendales performed sellout shows around the world from New Zealand to the Philippines.

The people pulling the G-strings were all men, and as the brand took off those strings began to fray.

In 1987 DeNoia made a business trip from Indianapolis, where the group were performing, to New York. The following day someone pretending to be a messenger walked into his office and shot him in the head. Mayeron remembers the call telling her that her boss and mentor was dead, and feeling her world fall apart. It shouldn’t have been a difficult crime to solve. The murder happened in broad daylight and a witness saw a Latino man of medium build going into his room. But New York was in the middle of a crime wave and the investigation led nowhere.

Hair-raising: Dolly Parton and Chippendales in Dolly, 1987.

It would be seven years before anyone came up with any answers to the mystery of DeNoia’s death. By then the Chippendales brand was beginning to tarnish. Banerjee, a South Asian man who had built a fortune cashing in on the sexual fantasies of white American women, was accused of discrimination for turning Black men away from his LA club. He lost the case, his liquor licence and, eventually, his venue. Meanwhile, copycat acts were beating him at his own game. The most successful of these was Adonis, a troupe starring many of Banerjee’s former employees, including a dancer called Read Scot. He felt the brand was beginning to wane and this new venture was a chance to try something new.

Scot was in Blackpool with Adonis in 1991 when two officers from Scotland Yard took him backstage. They had become aware of a plot to kill him and fellow ex-Chippendales employee Steve White, Adonis’s Australian business manager, with an injection of cyanide. It was an extraordinary moment. Read recalls spending months in his hotel room too terrified to go out.

In July 1991, the FBI had been approached by a man called Lynn Bressler, who was offering his services as an informant. Bressler told the agency he had been hired as a hit man by Ray Colon, a regular at the Chippendales club in LA. Colon had asked him to travel to Britain and kill two members of Adonis, who were performing at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool. The fee was to be $25,000 a head. Colon confessed to having been hired by Banerjee.

Oh, yes, it’s ladies’ night … every night.

Fueled by cocaine, Banerjee had become increasingly paranoid and ruthless. “He was a very complicated person. His business model for eliminating competition was not coming up with a better product. His business model was to eliminate the competitor,” Mayeron says. It emerged that over the years he had hired hit men to firebomb rival clubs in LA and to kill DeNoia. It took the FBI a year to build the case against Banerjee, finally recording a covert confession in a hotel room in Switzerland. He was charged and convicted, but hanged himself in his cell in 1994, hours before he was due to be sentenced.

By then the hysteria about the Chippendales had begun to die down. Petrzela thinks it was when “it became clear that that sort of objectification of men doesn’t bring about any meaningful change in power relations”. These days we know that pawing men and shoving cash in their pants “isn’t going to change the patriarchy”, she adds.

Mayeron is still angry that DeNoia’s murder never received the attention it deserved. “Was it all over the news? Was it all over the television? Not at all,” she says. “I don’t think anybody is that interested in the murders. I think they want to see the pretty boys dancing and the women screaming. I just think people love seeing that,” she says. Perhaps it is lasting proof that the men behind the Chippendales got it right: whatever is going on in the background, there is nothing more entertaining than big men in small pants.

Rosie Kinchen is a writer and editor for The Sunday Times of London