It's 10:30 on a cool Saturday morning, and a girl tears through the parking lot at the Baptist Sports Park toward the same bubble where the Tennessee Titans practice. She's got a pair of shimmery, pink pleather knee-high boots tucked under her thin arm. The clunky heels bob and smack her tiny waist. She whips around and enters the door to the bubble, her teased brown hair whisking across a very made-up face. And she's quickly swallowed into the mix of glitter and glam—nearly 200 girls just as beautiful, tan and done up as she is, all sprayed and shellacked to perfection for the preliminary round of the Titans cheerleader auditions.
"Can you believe it?"
Another brunette with hair that trickles well below her shoulder blades tosses her hair back and checks to see that her glittering earrings are still attached to her lobes. She's been practicing what quickly emerges as the signature move of the day: the come hither hair toss. You know, the sexy, girl-on-the-hood-of-a-Camaro-in-a-music-video kind of move. The one that starts deep in the back of her neck and ends with her luscious locks swept across her face.
She's wearing a neon lime-green get-up that shimmers under the skylight. With her cleavage-boosting bikini top—equipped with underwire, of course—and a skirt roughly the length of a $1 bill, she's got the look nailed. But if it weren't for the color of her Lycra ensemble, she might not stand out at all against the horde of girls, similarly undressed, who stretch in lines set in five-yard increments from the 10- to the 50-yard line.
Each one seems to have received the same memo: Wear something stretchy, neon and shiny. Knee-high boots are a must. So are nude pantyhose. Bonus points for anything glittery, bedazzled or dripping with fringe and rhinestones. In fact, the whole place resembles a superhero convention. It's easy to see how this colorful spectacle would mesmerize your average, middle-aged Titans fan.
The girls get their directive from Stacie Kinder, the choreographer, leader and business manager of the group: Practice your high kicks. With her spandex workout gear, blonde hair and shapely body, Kinder blends in with the crowd until she gets on the mic, reminding them to only jut their long legs into the air on the even counts—2, 4, 6, 8, she reminds them. "We all went to school," she says.
And the girls get to kicking. It's like the Rockettes en masse, except here, there's one girl only kicking as high as her waist with bent legs and hunched shoulders for every three girls nearly knocking their noses with feet pointed to perfection. It's a lot harder than some of them thought it would be. It's a lot more than sexy.
Sure, there is a lot of hair. Curled hair, teased hair, long, shampoo-commercial hair—everywhere. The easiest way to describe the Titans cheerleader look is "very"—very tan, very thin, very busty, very bare, very heavy on the makeup, very tight and light on the clothing.
You never see this many tanned bodies in Nashville in April. Here, the deep bronze splashed across more writhing bodies than you'd find at a Cancun spring break is the norm. The one redhead in the bunch who doesn't seem to have a monthly tanning membership looks a little odd and sickly against the girls drenched in that intriguing shade of Mystic Tan orange.
But as the girls filter through in groups of four to perform a dance before the judges, a group of choreographers, former dancers, photographers, a few nameless men with permagrins and the like, it becomes apparent that this isn't just a beauty contest. Well, kind of. Kinder tells the judges to mark the girls as yes, no or maybe. "If they messed up but look really great, let them through," she says. "Clearly, weight management is important."
Judging from all the sucked-in stomachs, arched backs and the way the whole crew takes to ardently fanning themselves between dances to keep their makeup from streaking down their faces and ruining their "I always look airbrushed" façade, Kinder's requirement is no secret. In fact, she gives the girls this advice: "If you knock out the dance and look like a drowned rat, you're going to get points taken off."
But as soon as the lyrics to "Bringing Sexy Back" ricochet throughout the bubble, and the first unfortunate soul literally crumbles under the pressure, you know hot just won't cut it. Somehow, she gets offbeat and drops it too early. Her ass plummets to the turf as she bends her knees wide open. The other girls are still upright, shaking it like there's no tomorrow. A look of sheer terror washes over her face. And it becomes clear: The only way to really stand out in a field full of potential Playboy centerfolds is to be the one who massacres the routine or to be fat. It's hard to tell which is a worse offense.
"The NFL is the most prestigious sports league in the world," Kinder tells the girls. "So this tryout is definitely very competitive."
Competitive and monotonous. There are hundreds of girls doing the same routine—performing moves named "chest pump," "booty booty booty," the "hair fling" and, of course, "drop it like it's hot"—over and over. It's a sea of hip shaking, stomach snaking and glitter for hours on end.
And for the most part, they all do it the same way. They strut to hit their mark in front of the judges in an unnatural, jazz-handed skip. It's a move that rests somewhere between a prancing pony and a dog show parade, with intermittent twirls and whirls. When the bizarre entrance finally comes to a halt, the girls enter a pose-off of sorts—like in a muscle man competition, except here the flattest stomach and flashiest facial expression take the prize. The small smattering of men who've gathered behind the stage—media guys, photographers and such—can't help but snicker a bit at what's transpiring before them.
One guy likens the girls' weird walks to baby calves who've just started walking for the first time. "You know, where their heads and legs move in different ways," he says. "I haven't felt this awkward since high school." And when the girls get to dancing, they all seem to adopt this certain snarl that catches the eager menfolk a bit off guard.
Some of the dancers open their mouths into the shape of small o's and close them repeatedly like cartoon fish. Others just look angry—ferocious even. Performers call this showmanship, but the guys don't know what to make of the so-called sexy snarl. "They should save that for the bedroom when it's dark, so you can't see that they look angry," another guy says. "I can't watch this."
One of them spots a Carmen Electra look-alike dancing on the end, donning a short skirt with the word "dance" spelled out in rhinestones. "How much coke do you think the one on the left end is on?" he says. "She's geeked out of her mind." This isn't what they had expected. They thought this day would be different—something their girlfriends would admonish them for—like watching soft porn. Instead, the whole process is a lot like watching sausage being made. Better just to enjoy the end product, hot, mouthwatering and mmm-mmm good, on game day.
But the girls keep on dancing. By the end of the eight-plus-hour day, they would have listened—and shimmied to—the same rotation of a handful of Top 40 songs dozens upon dozens of times. The group of 200 is whittled down to about 60, and the rest spill out of the rotating doors with tears winding wet tracks down their artfully decorated faces, their $15 audition fee and NFL dreams down the drain.
"A lot of the women who [try out] watch from the stands or on television, and they don't really realize how difficult the dancing element is going to be," Kinder says. "And women come in not realizing that you are going to have to dance in very little clothes in front of 70,000 people. So if you're not quite ready to take off your clothes because of what's underneath, this probably isn't the job for you."
Some girls are so heartbroken that they don't even dress before stepping out into the cold, rainy day. Others simply pull a sweatshirt over their shiny suits. One girl just sits on the floor near her bag of beauty products and granola bars and swipes black, mascara-laden tears from her face with a pink sleeve.
And this is just the beginning.
Titans cheerleaders don't talk about how much they get paid to show up, romp around tailgate parties, sign pages of the swimsuit calendar and bounce around the sidelines for four quarters, but Kinder says it's hardly enough to pay for the gas it takes for each girl to drive to the stadium come game day. This is not about the money. If it were, it wouldn't take long for a girl to realize that she's not even pulling in enough to cover a season's worth of hairspray, disposable razors and trips to the tanning bed.
Still, the stereotypes abound. These are girls who get paid to be pretty—showstoppers looking to make a quick buck. These are hot girls—girls who aren't good for much else than eye candy between plays. They're bimbos—or worse, strippers. The truth is, stripping would be a hell of a lot more profitable.
Besides, if a girl was in it for the money, Kinder, who's in her fifth season with the Titans cheerleaders, says these girls wouldn't last a minute under the rigorous cheer training program. Don't believe her?
After tryouts, the girls enter training camp. During June alone, the girls work five days a week—including Friday nights and Saturday mornings—for two to three hours each practice. They learn the bulk of the routines and enter into an intense fitness program designed by Kinder's husband, a former Olympic athlete. Then in July and August they cut down to three days a week.
Even once they make the squad, the girls must pass a fitness test and a written exam before they can squeeze into that uniform and hope that the TV cameras will cut their way for a quick shot after a fumble. Sure, the exam is a little flimsy, and they get two chances to pass it. (Think questions from football knowledge to dining etiquette: If you are leaving the dinner table but will return, you should do what with your napkin? And then from naming the presidential candidates to grammar: What is wrong with the sentence "Who do those poms belong to?") But at least it's something.
"We don't just show up on Sunday mornings, work it out and then go out there," Kinder says. "It's very intense. It's my product—it's what I do. And I want it to be a perfect product."
In fact, Sunday mornings are an involved process. Cheerleaders get onto the field at 7:30 a.m. to get their pre-game rehearsal out of the way before the players show up. And then they head into three hours of hair and makeup with a professional team of about five hairdressers and several makeup artists to fluff, tease and paint them to perfection. They achieve a glossed-over look of perfection, or as Kinder puts it, a celebrity glamour that is "sexy, not slutty. Classy, not trashy."
Aside from the game performances, there are the community appearances. Last year, the cheerleaders made more than 200 appearances around the community—paid, charitable and otherwise. For enough money, you could even rent your very own Titans cheerleader for a party—not to mention buy the swimsuit calendar or purchase a headshot of your favorite girl online. "NFL cheerleading is very much a business," says Kinder, a dancer with a degree in finance and marketing. "We generate a considerable amount of revenue each year."
Still, the cheerleaders don't see much of that. They're all strongly encouraged to have another job. And many of them do. They have careers, school, children and husbands—sometimes all of the above. "The obvious is that [a Titan's cheerleader] is beautiful and she's physically fit and she's talented," Kinder says. "But the not so obvious is that she is intelligent and success-driven and career-minded. It's tough to find women who have all of that."
Take Melissa Hodges. The 23-year-old may be the hottest, blondest scientist you'll ever meet. With a bachelor's degree in neuroscience from Vanderbilt, she's not the bimbo you'd expect. Her look is undeniably Jessica Simpson-esque, minus the whole lightheaded, Chicken of the Sea imbecility. Hodges uses big words, scientific words, that most of us couldn't spell—let alone pronounce—even if we tried. Even when she dumbs down her lab work into layman's terms, it's difficult to follow the words escaping her perfectly pink glossed lips. When she talks about using the post-mortem brain tissue of Alzheimer's patients to test how they react to certain medications, her blue eyes sparkle like her diamond-studded earring and blindingly white teeth. She's even adorable (and all the more awesome) when she talks about how she and her colleagues must guillotine rodents to study their brains. (Sorry, PETA. It's not every day that you meet a cheerleader who chops off rat heads.)
She's in her second season cheering for the Titans organization, but she thinks it might be her last if her med school plans come through. And while her colleagues know that she's a cheerleader and "they think it's great," Hodges says her boss doesn't know. "I do worry about the judgment," she says. "I want to be taken seriously."
As a girl who grew up dancing, the pocket-sized Hodges says she wasn't sure what to do with herself when she graduated from Vanderbilt, where she was a member of the university's dance team. The Titans seemed a natural progression. She, like many of her counterparts, likes football well enough. But she hungers for performance. And she doesn't mind all that comes along with it.
"I have a very serious, academic, rigorous day behind a microscope where I'm pretty quiet and isolated, and then I can flip the switch and dance and perform," she says. "It keeps me balanced."
The thing is, it is difficult to see her as a scientist. There's just a lot of blonde, a lot of cheerleader and a lot of bare skin to get past. Does that make her a bimbo? No. But it does make her a neuroscientist who shakes her ass any given Sunday. And it's not like the Titans organization is doing much to promote these women as brainiacs. Last we checked, the only interview process cheerleading candidates go through takes place behind closed doors. We can tell you where to buy a swimsuit calendar though.
When asked about her interaction with drunken, big-bellied, beer-breathed fans whose "get me a piece of that" comments must get a little grating, Hodges tucks a golden lock behind her ear and gives what you can only assume to be her best stock beauty pageant answer. "We've seen it all," she says with a forgiving smile. "We always try to tell ourselves that there will come a day sooner probably than later that no one will want to take our picture."
You haven't seen anything until you've seen the Titans cheerleader finalists, all 60 of them, running sprints in a relay race, made up from head to toe—wearing little more than bras and panties. Imagine a Victoria's Secret runway show on fast-forward. For the contestants, this is a warm-up for the last rehearsal before finals. They're packed into a small practice room of a local athletic club. And at Kinder's behest, they've broken into groups by age and are now in full-on competition mode for a relay mishmash ripe for an episode of The Man Show.
After the bobbing, bouncing sprints, the girls fall to the floor in a flurry of big, big hair and assume the crab crawl position. They turn around backwards, crouch down and let their hands do the walking as they raise their hips and chests toward the ceiling. Some move choppily and quite unnaturally across the smooth, shiny wood floors of the practice room. Others end up parting with that glamorous grace for a brief moment, as they lose their balance and flop to the floor in a fit of laughter and fear. (Did Kinder just see that?) In some level of man land, this is serious fetish fulfillment.
As aging men who are hitting the treadmills after work look on through the glass window with wide eyes, the girls quickly transition to a wheelbarrow race. A set of twins, who seem to have been born for one hot page on the swimsuit calendar, fly by like a two-headed, Siamese smelting of babedom joined at the hips and ankles. At this point, it's all cleavage and asses—the weirdest amalgamation of sexy and silly—so much so that's it difficult to watch. Or to take these women seriously. Perhaps that's why the girls quickly break into howling laughter at the mere sight of themselves.
After a quick break filled with applying and reapplying lip gloss, hair fluffing, texting and deodorizing—one girl complains that she forgot to shave her armpits—it's back to business. The final audition, a public show at City Hall, is several hours' worth of precisely organized dance, all while remembering to look at the judges with those bedroom eyes, those darkly drawn jewels that say, "You want me. You want me on the sidelines on game day. You want me on a calendar in your cubicle. You want me on the squad. You want me."
They're repeating the same eight seconds of dance moves over and over as Janet Jackson booms over the speakers. They start in the first position, again and again, with their legs spread, bodies folded in half and their scantily clad bottoms at the pinnacle. Even in rehearsal, they work it full on as Kinder spits out commands. "Hit it...hit it," she says. "Pop. Pop."
It's got to be a little tough on the girls, managing all that sex appeal. After all, Kinder is very explicit in what she wants, but it's difficult to tell when and if that line gets a little blurry. "If you look like you need a pole, you won't make this team," Kinder says. "That's not what we're about. There will be kids there. This is a family show." If a girl does, indeed, get a little too frisky on that proverbial pole the night of the final performance, Kinder threatens to drop everything, walk to the scorecards and give said contestant a big, fat zero.
Even for Kinder, the team's choreographer, it's a tough line to walk. Their target audience, quite obviously, matches that of the typical Titans fan: the middle-aged male. "That can be a challenge—entertaining our true target, 30- to 50-year-old men, while still entertaining and certainly not offending our women and our children," Kinder says.
When they're in their dance formation, lined up like painted Easter eggs in a carton, it's hard to imagine how the judges will ever tell them apart. They're all elbows and ribs poking out, hips and smiles. Some have the telltale signs of hours in the tanning bed: two crescents of pale skin cupping a pair of fit ass cheeks and white patches tucked away in their armpits—the few inches of skin that aren't bronzed to high heaven.
As Janet Jackson growls out "Nasty Boys," the girls lose count and flub the routine. Kinder promptly stops the music. "You've got to know where you are, girls," she says. "This is not Alice in Wonderland."
This cannot happen the night of the show. Because this isn't just breasts and dance beats, and it isn't just entertainment and sex. It's a business—and a profitable one at that. With their calendars and autographs and paid appearances, the Titans cheerleaders are a franchise all their own. The lucky few in this sexy pack will become a commodity. And Kinder just won't stand for a botched show. Once the spotlights are on, nervous mistakes and missed cues are not permissible. "At this point, I don't so much care about you guys as much as I care about the show," Kinder says. "Don't mess up my show. People pay a lot of money to see this."
The girls practice a routine called the "Parade of Beauty," an act that's remarkably true to its name. The candidates come onstage in groups of six, strutting, smiling and snarling until their perfectly painted faces hurt. "You need to walk not like you're walking in the grocery store," Kinder says. "When you walk, you need to sell it."
It's difficult to understand why any woman would want to be on parade, especially in little more than her underwear, especially for a group of half-drunk men. But it's just so difficult to ponder that thought, or any other, around all that skin. You catch yourself wondering if it's OK to leer at them—at the strategically uncovered flesh that inches out of costumes designed to tempt you.
Then one girl with tousled brown hair with light blonde streaks struts by. Aside from her pale-blue Lycra top and standard black spandex booty shorts, she could be a kindergarten teacher. But as she jiggles and swings her way by this reporter tucked away near the 10-pound free weights, she smiles and holds eye contact until the parade lures her away. In that instant, she's the only one who isn't flirting with her reflection in the mirrored wall. And you do feel special.
This is it.
For that moment she holds your gaze. She owns it. And your stomach flops and tingles a little. You don't know whether to wave or turn away, but it's her job to get this personal. It's her job to make you feel like this: As if, just for a split second, you were the only one in that practice room—or in that packed stadium—who she wants.
Kinder breaks the trance. "This is not your eighth-grade beauty pageant," she says, instructing the girls to sass it up. It sure isn't a kiddie pageant. This isn't any Jon Benet plastic fantastic sweetness. This is sex on parade.
"One foot in front of the other like haaa," Kinder says with a deep gasp.
When Kinder divides the girls, directing the contestants who were assigned even numbers to enter stage right and odd number to enter stage left, it's bad news. They're strutting all over the place, and it's chaos. "I'm learning a lot about you girls tonight, and some of you won't make the team because of this," Kinder says. "And you'll think, 'Hmm. Maybe it's because I'm not very smart.' "
She continues, "My son is in kindergarten. They're working on greater than, less than. So that's how you'll come onstage: smallest numbers first."
The girls stand quietly with their arms crossed. All giggling and chatter has stopped. They sway nervously. Some twirl long strands of big barrel-curled hair in their expertly manicured fingers. They know she's right. One misstep, and it's over. No Monday Night Football. No calendar. No autographs. Screw up, and it's back to being nothing but the hottest girl in class, at the bar or in the office.
Abs hard as Kinder or Hodges may try to dispel the cheerleader-as-sex-object pigeonhole, it's difficult to see the girls as anything else when the announcer kicks off the final show with booming encouragements for the audience to "Get ya a good look-see" as the girls execute the Parade of Beauty. It's the night of final auditions, where the good performers will be separated from the Titans cheerleaders, and City Hall is packed from stage to bar with families carrying cutout head shots of their daughters, sisters and friends glued to yardsticks.
"How many of you guys wish you could talk to a Titans cheerleader?" the announcer asks. Packs of guys, presumably boyfriends and friends of the girls prancing onstage, line the back of the club with beers in hand. A woman up front blocks the view of posing girls—whose breasts and hair somehow appear even bigger than before—with a large sign fashioned out of cardboard.
"Bitch down in the front, put that sign down," one guy yells. "I can't see and I've been drinking. She's probably a whore anyway." He grips his sweating 16-ounce can and quiets down when the twins come onstage. "I need some binoculars." The guys around him snicker, but no one else seems to notice.
Two male judges on the end of the panel bob their heads and bump their shoulders to the music. "All the ladies are looking ripe," the announcer says. In their jewel-encrusted bras—custom-made costumes rumored to cost upward of $1,000—the girls shake and snake their way around the stage.
The procession of the 53 finalists is monotonous at best. It's just a blur of neon, spandex and sparkle. Some contestants shake it so hard under the Technicolor spotlights that they lose earrings and send what were once unseen dust particles floating off the stage toward the lights. One loses a marabou feather off of her knee-high boots, another accidentally rips a gold swatch of fabric off her backside.
Three hours (and this reporter's $30 beer tab) later, the results are tallied. A dolled-up Kinder takes the stage like a proud mama, commandeers the mic and calls out a series of numbers. As the 32 Titans cheerleaders, ranging in age from 19 to mid-30s (Kinder won't say exactly how old), run onstage and receive a Miss America welcome, they quickly amass at center stage for their first group photo. Stomach in, chest out, they plaster on a shining smile for the cameras—hundreds of them.
These are the girls who met Kinder's intangible "it" factor. It is what distinguishes a good dancer with a hot, taut body from the girl who you'll miss a play for because she's just so damn, well, something. Busty? Alluring? Bare? Limber? Everything.
And somehow in the mix, the girls who were lacking sneak out the back door. They've been strategically held behind a big blue curtain. Tears aren't sexy.
As the music still booms inside, these women scurry to their cars as the sequins on their costumes catch the light from the street lamps and flash. One girl with a pink costume peeking out from under a gray sweatshirt walks with a friend who is trying to console her. But all the contestant can talk about is finding the nearest hamburger joint. Along the now-dark windows at Provence Bakery, only steps away from the celebrating girls still hugging and making hurried calls on the stage of City Hall, the girl in pink stops and inhales deeply. "Buy me a loaf of bread," she says. "I've been starving myself for two weeks."
Then she looks toward a van rumbling to a noisy halt at traffic light on the corner. It's her: the brunette from the audition, the only one who tore her eyes away from the wall of mirrors to seize this reporter's eye ever so briefly. Now, slumped into the passenger seat of what seems to be her boyfriend's beat-up van, her gaze is lacking verve, that seemingly innate "look at me" desire. She just looks embarrassed.
As the van grumbles away and down the hill, another girl rushes by in full shimmering garb. "Ohmygosh, I made it," she says, a cell phone pressed to her ear and nearly lost in a curled mane teased to the size of a small Labrador retriever.
"Can you believe it?"
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