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Collars, Cuffs, and History Collaborations

They have almost 270 episodes of the Past Present podcast under their collective belts and continue to drop a fresh, 35-40 minute episode every week, hardly ever taking a break. But well over a year ago, historians Nicole Hemmer, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, and Neil Young, all of whom are writing books and opinion pieces, took on a new challenge: a multi-episode “story” podcast produced by a major studio. Known for months as “the super-secret project” (I can testify that updates were often delivered with the warning “You can’t tell ANYBODY”), this week the veteran team is dropping “Welcome to Your Fantasy,” produced by Pineapple Street/Gimlet Media. For now, it is exclusively on Spotify. About the Chippendales male dancers’ franchise, the podcast tells the story of how an immigrant’s American dream began in Los Angeles, capitalized on the feminist sexual revolution, and grew to become an internationally famous brand. To register for a conversation with the team on March 15 at 6:00 p.m. EST, go here.

Neil, Niki, and Natalia sat down with me to talk about the project, but I also wanted to dig into their partnership, their ideas about collaboration, and their thoughts about where podcasts fit in the bigger picture of historical scholarship and general audience writing.

This is what they said.

Claire Potter (CP): I think your fans, which include me, want to know how you met, and how you ended up doing a podcast together.

Nicole: I can kick the story off. I was getting ready to leave a formal academic job and I knew I was going to miss teaching. As I was thinking about it, I talked to Neil and Neil said: “I’ve always wanted to start a podcast with you.”

Neil: When Niki brought this idea up I said we need a third person and that third person needs to be Natalia, who I knew socially. When I asked her to join, she said: “Absolutely!” The next thing she said was: “What is a podcast?” Which I thought just spoke to Natalia’s zest for life and her willingness to do anything.

Natalia: I should say I said yes because of my zest for two things. One was to work with cool people who I admire intellectually, then also to get engaged in the history communication business in a way that was not writing. 

CP: Niki and Neil, as people who were making careers that were of that tenure track hamster wheel, how did you think about podcasting as part of your portfolio?

Nicole: So for me, I can’t say that they ever fully let me on the tenure track hamster wheel. I knew that I needed to build my public profile. I was working on my first book at the same time, but I wanted to occupy more of a space that blended current events with history and interacting with a public audience.

Neil: I would agree with a lot of that. As someone who was in academia for a while, but had been writing for a public audience since graduate school, I love the thrill, that excitement, the speed of writing for a general audience. But I also just loved the interactivity of it and knowing that there was an American and a global audience out there that are both hungry for this sort of historical analysis.


CP: I also think readers who aren’t historians should know that this kind of collaboration is simply something that they don’t teach in graduate school. 

OK, let’s get back to the Chippendale story. What are we all going to be listening to?

Natalia: Imagine that the scene is set in late 1970s Los Angeles. An Indian immigrant, Steve Banerjee, had come to LA about a decade earlier and had bought a gas station, but he had bigger dreams than that. One of the things he does is buy a somewhat rundown nightclub. He tries a whole bunch of things there, everything from backgammon to disco dancing lessons, to female mud wrestling. He also tries male stripping—no choreography, or artistry. It was just, take it off, and the guy with the biggest applause gets an award. That drew the biggest crowds. So Banerjee teams up with a few other collaborators to expand the male stripping part of his business. 

This is of course happening in the late 1970s, early 1980s as second-wave feminism is very much changing the culture. So, these guys, (and they’re all guys), start to frame their male strip show as part of women’s liberation

The business starts to grow when another very important character comes to the scene, a children’s TV producer from New York City who moved out to LA to make cartoons with Hanna-Barbera. Instead, he finds himself producing the Chippendales. 

CP: I’m excited. Niki and Neil, can you pick up the story from there?

Nicole: I would emphasize the role of the women’s lib story. The language of the time is, we’re turning the tables on men, and women will finally get equality by being able to ogle men taking their clothes off. The bigger through-line is fantasy. The club owner is selling a fantasy to women. The men on stage are living out their fantasies of being attractive to rooms full of women. The men behind the stage are pursuing their own Hollywood fantasies. 

As any good novelist knows, of course, fantasies tend to turn dark, and, in this story, they do.

Read entire article at Public Seminar