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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: As someone who was pursuing a more traditional, tenure-track historical career, what would you say Natalia?
Natalia: It’s especially exciting to have this conversation with you Claire because you were there in the early days of blogging. Similarly, I feel that in many ways we entered the early days of podcasting. It was a moment when three history PhDs with modest online followings could start a podcast effectively in our bedrooms, with $80 mics, goodwill, luck, and some skill and knowledge. That’s changed a lot. So it feels exciting to have been able to be there at a particular moment in the history of media and podcasting too.
CP: Yeah. I think that’s amazing. Having produced a podcast, I also know that it’s incredibly difficult. Before we turn to your new enterprise, “Welcome to Your Fantasy,” I just want to remind our readers that Niki did an amazing story podcast, A12, about the white supremacist attack on Charlottesville which was so riveting I just listened to it from the beginning to end. I happened to be in the car at the time, so I just kept letting it roll.
OK, Let’s go to the Chippendales. How did this idea come about?
Natalia: It’s a good story because it shows how what can feel like a distraction at the moment can then become a really meaningful project.
A producer reached out to me to say that she was making a documentary in German, and wanted to know more about sexual culture in the United States in the 1980s. I started doing some research and by accident saw that Chippendales, which was a Los Angeles Club famous for its hunky, All-American male strippers, was founded by an Indian immigrant. I didn’t expect that. Then I turned up the information that Gloria Allred, the feminist attorney, was hosting fundraisers there and fighting with the National Organization for Women (NOW) about whether Chippendales was feminist or not. Then, I find out that there are this whole murder and arson plot. I screenshotted a bunch of those headlines and shared them in my Instagram stories.
Someone who follows me, and who is related to one of the founders at Pineapple Street Studios texted me and said, “you need to pitch my sister on a podcast about this story.” We took it to Pineapple Street, went through the process with them and that’s how it started.
Nicole: It might sound like we’re just continuing the Past Present podcasting project, but this is a different realm. It’s the difference between turning your dissertation into a book and writing narrative nonfiction. I think we do Past Present well and have a professional product, but a conversation podcast is a world away from the kind of professionally produced story that Pineapple signed us to do.
Natalia: I continue to be amazed at how the producers have helped us craft an engaging story for a mass audience without losing any of the rigor that we all value as historians. Our scripts have footnotes, and not just because of us.
CP: Now I’ve seen how you guys work as a team on Past Present, and the energy as you tell a story together. How did you adapt your team dynamic to an entirely different kind of podcast?
Nicole: First, I have to underscore that the three of us are not the total team. There are producers, lawyers, and writers behind the scenes who are working with us every step of the way. Between us three, however, Natalia has taken the lead as host and lead interviewer. Neil has been doing endless archival research for more than a year. I’ve been focused on the writing team, trying to put together episodes that then are cleaned up and turned into these beautiful gems.
Neil: I think I would emphasize what Niki said about giving credit and attention to the team that we’re working with. For those producers, writers, editors, sound people, and artists, this is a full-time job and it’s not for us.
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.
CP: So there’s a tragedy. Okay. Neil, take it away.
Neil: Oy yes. There’s murder, there’s arson, there’s an FBI investigation, there’s an international conspiracy, there are drugs and more. I think because we are all historians of the 1980s, this has been a particularly interesting lens to rethink the decade. It has let us think about sex, sexuality, and gender; about the changing politics of the decade, Reaganism, the American Dream, the AIDS crisis, and capitalism.
As Niki said, this is a story about selling things and some of those things are people’s bodies.
CP: As someone who has done a lot of research on sex and pornography in the same period, one of the things that stand out is that feminists agree that women are being sexually exploited by men, but nobody quite understands how men can be sexually exploited or objectified by women. I wonder if you could just give our audience just a little peek about where you go with that.
Natalia: In many interviews, you can tell that these guys struggle between seeing this as the high point of their lives—”a thousand screaming women, everybody wanted me”– and also: “All I was, was a piece of meat, and in many ways an underpaid piece of meat.” Another interesting tension that comes up is the blurry line between sex work and what the Chippendales did: a sort of theatrical sexy show. And when those lines get crossed, it’s interesting how different men feel about that.
CP: So you are launching this week on Spotify, and you keep kicking out your wonderful Past Present every week but have you three even thought about what’s next?
Nicole: We’ve been very focused on getting this podcast to the finish line, but anytime you work on something this big, you think: what’s the next podcast that you could do? There aren’t many podcasts out there that have Ph.D. historians who are part of their development and writing and hosting. So we want to show off what we can do with that.
Natalia: We do have a couple of ideas for the future, but we’re not going to say what they are yet.
Neil: We have been talking about ideas to develop into additional seasons or other podcasts. But I think this experience has also taught us a lot about the work we already do as writers and historians. I think I am taking so many lessons back to my research. We’re essentially in a seminar on our weekly production calls. It’s been so wonderful to be constantly sitting at home and thinking about this collaboratively, and I think that’s probably been the best part of it.
CP: What have you learned about collaboration that younger historians who are looking ahead to a career should know?
Nicole: One thing I would say is that choosing your partners well is the most important thing for any collaboration. Focusing first on relationships is a must because getting stuck with collaborators who you don’t respect or who don’t pull their weight is kind of a nightmare.
Neil: I would also say that I think collaboration always improves the product. As scholars, we tend to want to hold onto our ideas to protect them or to not allow someone else to violate them. Yet usually they are improved by letting other people interact with them. I just think of how many ways we have rewritten each script of every episode, and how bringing each of the different perspectives on the team has led to great improvements in what we’re creating.
Natalia: I’m speaking from a formal academic position, and I think that there are people who might be worried that doing this kind of work won’t count, or move them ahead. I feel lucky that this opportunity came along after I had tenure, of course. But I have always been of the mind that we should judge the value of a project on what it can contribute to knowledge, and to conversations that you care about.
CP: I think you’re right. And to paraphrase the tagline from my favorite podcast, “with that, this interview is history.”
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research, and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar.
Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at the Obama Presidency Oral History Project, Columbia University.
Natalia Mehlman-Petrzela is an Associate Professor of History at Eugene Lang College, The New School.
Neil J. Young is a historian. He writes on American politics, culture, and religion for publications including The New York Times, The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, HuffPost, Vox, and Politico.