Muscular men dressed only in bow ties and belts to pamper women in smoky woods is not a legacy often associated with American naturalized immigrants from India.
But that’s what Bombay-born Steve Banerjee did when he broke out of the traditional American dream they used to have in South Asia by founding the Chippendales men’s strip club in Los Angeles in 1979.
The rest is history. Banerjee made a fortune from what turned out to be an enormously successful franchise. If we add sex, drugs and murder, Banerjee’s story becomes a sensational story.
In India, Banerjee and her works are hardly known. In America, the Chippendales brand seems to have eclipsed its founder’s controversial reputation. This is changing.
reserved and collected
Nearly three decades after her death, podcasts and a variety of television shows – including Hulu’s most recent drama series, Welcome To The Chippendales, starring Kumail Nanjiani – are remembering Banerjee’s story.
“Most people think that the founder of the Chippendales was an extroverted party animal who chased women, practiced drugs and drank too much,” says Scott Macdonald, co-author of the 2014 book Lethal Dance: The Chippendales Murders. The Chippendales”).
“Steve was a reserved and collected man with the clear goal of creating a global brand to rival Disney, Playboy or Polo.”
“It’s an amazing piece of history,” says historian Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, whose podcast, Welcome Fantasy, has renewed interest in the Chippendales’ legacy.
Shy, dark, and shy, Banerjee was in stark contrast to the “yellow, white, California guy” fantasy of selling her freedom.
Coming from a family of printers, Banerjee left India for Canada in the late 20s in the 1960s, soon arriving in California, where he owned a gas station in Los Angeles.
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But Banerjee’s ambition was greater. “I want to drive that car,” he would say when people showed up to show off their luxury vehicles, Petrzela says.
In the 1970s, Banerjee used her savings to buy a seedy bar in Los Angeles, which she named Fate II, and tried everything to attract crowds: backgammon games, magic shows and women’s mud wrestling.
In 1979, Paul Snider, a nightclub promoter, suggested that Banerjee find male detractors, normally seen only in gay clubs – intended for women’s entertainment.
Then, the bar was already named Chippendales to suggest that it was a classy place.
Nude displays were posted everywhere women gathered across West Los Angeles, from nail salons to spas, Petrzela says in her podcast.
The Chippendales were an immediate success and soon attracted large numbers of women during the night.
“Disneyland for Adults”
Inspired by Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Bunnies, the dancers wore cuffs tied around their wrists and necks and form-fitting black pants.
For 1980s America, “This is bad,” says Petrzela.
But Banerjee’s Chippendales also came at the right time, on the eve of the sexual revolution of the 1970s when women’s empowerment and sexual liberation could become more comfortable, the historian explains.
The women needed a place where they could “have fun and be excused,” said Barbara Ligeti, a club supporter featured in the A&E documentary series The Chippendale Murders.
“When you see each other, have a few drinks, press your hips, put $20 in a decent man’s chest,” he added.
Banerjee wanted to create a kind of “adult Disneyland,” a brand big enough to emulate her heroes: Hugh Hefner and Walt Disney.
A show to go on
In the early 1980s, he met Nick De Noia, an Emmy-winning director and choreographer, who convinced him that the show needed a revival.
Chippendales dancers and producers turn the show into an interactive stage production with characters and stories.
De Noia helped produce the Chippendales New York production and expand it to the United States through a successful tour.
But the situation quickly reached a climax between the two men, as the charismatic choreographer became a well-known face to the point of “Mr. Chippendale” in the media.
Banerjee, on her part, remained in the background, running the Los Angeles operation.
As the differences and clashes between the two increased, De Noia and Banerjee broke up their partnership, making plans for the choreographers to form their own company, US Male, apparently.
This was the last straw for Banerjee, Chippendale’s former working partner, who helped De Noia in the new venture, said in the A&E documentary.
Many who knew Banerjee described him as a “paranoid” man for whom success was only one game he could win. “He believed that if others succeeded, he would take away the success,” Petrzela said.
As the clubs’ strip of competition emerged, Banerjee hired Ray Colon, a friend turned barbarian, to sabotage rivals.
Thus, in 1987, Colony Banerjee supplied the accomplice who shot De Noia to death in his office.
Although friends and associates were suspected of Banerjee’s involvement in the crime, it was a few years before FBI investigators were able to establish a connection.
Banerjee’s lawyer, Bruce Nahin, said the murder “doesn’t touch the mark at all”.
In 1991, while on tour in the UK with the Chippendales, Banerjee asked the Colony to remove members of a rival band from a club once formed by dancers.
According to FBI testimony, the project involved the release of cyanide, which Colony provided to an accomplice named Classic.
But the impatient Classic reported Colony to the FBI.
a distorted mirror
Colony was arrested and charged with conspiracy and conspiracy to kill. According to the US intelligence agency, 46 grams of cyanide were found in the expedition home.
Colony, however, pleaded not guilty and for months Banerjee remained in custody in their custody.
“It was only after Steve refused to help him by paying the lawyer that Ray finally broke up with him,” MacDonald said.
In 1993, the FBI finally managed to gather enough evidence against Banerjee by using Colonia to secretly record the conversation. Banerjee was arrested for racketeering, conspiracy and murder for hire, among other charges. The defendant refused.
But after several months of trial, Banerjee received much of the 26 years in prison and accepted the forfeiture of Chippendale’s assets to the United States.
Petrzela claims that the businessman’s lawyers tried every means to prevent the company from going public, but to no avail. In October 1994, one day before he was sentenced, Banerjee was found dead in his cell.
“Very few Indian Americans know their history,” says Anirvan Chatterjee, organizer of a walking tour chronicling the history of the Southeast Asian community in Berkeley.
Banerjee’s life was “a twisted mirror version of your typical 1990s California-India business story,” he says, and it contradicted every stereotype about the community.
In his research, Petrzela found that Banerjee had worked to assimilate and become a true Californian businessman, but that his Indian accent was always present in the memories of his conversations.
“Literna” is always seen by others as very foreign and very Indian,” he says. “Even the dead, the first thing people do when they comment on it is to imitate the accent.”
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