"Very few Indian Americans know his story."
Hulu’s Welcome to Chippendales recently came to an end and it told the story of Mumbai-born Steve Banerjee (played by Kumail Nanjiani) founding US male strip club Chippendales in 1979.
He transformed it into a hugely successful franchise and made a fortune.
However, a murder brought his world crashing down.
But despite his sensational story, Banerjee and his work are hardly known in India.
K Scot MacDonald, co-author of the book Deadly Dance: The Chippendales Murders, said:
“Most people would think that the founder of Chippendales was an outgoing party animal who chased women, did drugs, and drank heavily.
“Steve was a reserved, controlled man with a clear goal of creating a worldwide brand to rival Disney, Playboy or Polo.”
Somen ‘Steve’ Banerjee left India for Canada in the late 1960s and soon ended up in California where he owned a petrol station in Los Angeles.
But he had bigger ambitions.
In the 1970s, Banerjee used his savings to buy a dive bar called Destiny II and turned it into a nightclub that featured female mud wrestling and a ‘Female Exotic Dancing Night’.
In 1979, nightclub promoter Paul Snider suggested that Banerjee bring in male strippers. Renamed Chippendales, this was the first of its kind in the United States.
Chippendales soon drew large crowds of women every night.
Inspired by Hugh Hefner’s Playboy bunnies, the dancers wore cuffs, collars and black pants.
Historian Natalia Mehlman Petrzela said that for 1980s America, “this was shocking” but in the wake of the sexual revolution, it came at a time when women’s empowerment and sexual liberation could be commodified.
Barbara Ligeti, a club promoter, said women needed a place “they could have a blast and be exonerated”.
“They could see each other, have a few drinks, pinch a butt, put $20 in a G-string of a good-looking guy.”
Nick De Noia
In the early 1980s, he met Emmy Award-winning director and choreographer Nick De Noia, who convinced him that the show needed an upgrade.
He helped take Chippendales to New York City and expand the production across the country through a successful tour.
But this led to tensions as De Noia became the face of the brand, with the media dubbing him “Mr Chippendale”.
Meanwhile, Steve Banerjee remained in the background.
They soon dissolved their partnership and De Noia planned to start his own company called US Male.
This reportedly sent Banerjee “over the edge”.
Many who knew Banerjee described him as a “paranoid” man for whom success was a zero-sum game.
“He felt if others succeeded, that would necessarily take away from his own success.”
As rival strip clubs appeared, Banerjee hired Ray Colon, a friend-turned-hitman, to sabotage competitors.
In 1987, under Banerjee’s orders, Colon hired an accomplice who shot De Noia dead in his office.
Although there was suspicion that Banerjee was involved, it was years before the FBI made the connection.
According to Banerjee’s lawyer Bruce Nahin, “the murder didn’t affect the brand at all”.
The Brand continues to Grow
Chippendales travelled to Australia and Europe.
In 1991, while in the UK with the Chippendales tour, Banerjee asked Colon to take out members of a rival troupe started by former dancers from his club.
According to FBI evidence, the plan was to inject them with cyanide which Colon provided to an accomplice named ‘Strawberry’.
But ‘Strawberry’ reported Colon to the FBI.
Colon was arrested and charged with conspiracy and murder for hire. According to the agency, 46 grams of cyanide were found during a raid on Colon’s house.
For months after his arrest, Colon remained loyal to Banerjee, pleading not guilty.
MacDonald said: “It was only after Steve refused to help him by paying for an attorney that Ray finally broke with Steve.”
In 1993, the FBI used Colon to secretly record a conversation with Banerjee.
Banerjee was arrested for racketeering, conspiracy and murder for hire among other charges. He pleaded not guilty.
He later agreed to a plea deal – 26 years in prison and forfeiture of Chippendales ownership to the US government.
Banerjee’s lawyers unsuccessfully tried to avoid the seizure of the business.
In October 1994, a day before sentencing, Banerjee took his own life in his jail cell.
Anirvan Chatterjee, who organises a South Asian radical history walking tour in Berkeley, said:
“Very few Indian Americans know his story.”
Banerjee’s life was “the funhouse mirror version of the standard 1990s Indian California business story” and it contradicted every stereotype about the community.
Petrzela said: “It’s clear other people always saw him as very foreign and very Indian.
“Even in death, the first thing that people did when commenting on him is starting imitating his accent.”
Nearly three decades after his death, Banerjee’s story has been the subject of a podcast and several TV shows, and Welcome to Chippendales is the latest one.