As part of hunky boy band 98 Degrees, Jeff Timmons grew accustomed to hordes of women going wild with ecstatic screams each time he went shirtless. "98 Degrees weren't known as being incredible dancers -- we were the guys next door who were fit," the now 44-year-old performer laughs. At 18, Channing Tatum also got a taste of serving as eye candy while working as a stripper in Florida. Model Tyson Beckford, 46, meanwhile, recalls walking past New York's Chippendales club as a kid, thinking, I want to look like that someday. He has since become used to ogling eyes excitedly checking him out in shirtless ad campaigns.
While the thrill of physical adoration has undeniably helped the trio make a buck over the years, none of them could have imagined that years later they would help transform the male entertainment scene in the strip show-saturated city of Las Vegas. Tatum recently launched Magic Mike Live, capitalizing on the incredible success of his film franchise; Timmons' musical revue, Men of the Strip, premiered on July 14; and Beckford's popularity as the host of the Chippendales there just triggered a contract extension.
With such star power dominating the industry, what was once perceived by many as seedy is increasingly being seen as acceptable, sexy and enticing, and it's attracting flocks of women -- and men.
"This has been my legacy whether I liked it or not," says Tatum about how Magic Mike Live has cemented his place in the evolution of strip shows. "It's like my name is synonymous with stripping, so I thought I might as well make something that's more in line with who I am now."
Indeed, Tatum's Magic Mike movies have played a significant role in Vegas' male strip scene.
A.J. Trunk, producer and MC of the male revue Men of Sapphire at the strip club Sapphire, recalls the immediate effect of the first film's 2012 success. "Up until that movie, male revues were taboo," Trunk says. "People didn't know what to expect, so they pictured a scene from the '80s -- a bunch of guys with long hair wearing green G-strings, with too much oil on their bodies, gyrating. Magic Mike made women see the business in a different light. The business is evolving with all the movies that have come out -- two Magic Mikes, Chocolate City, La Bare. People want to do what they see onscreen, whether it's watching rap videos and going, 'I want to be in a club with ladies around me,' or seeing Magic Mike and going, 'I want to be tipping guys with dollar bills, get crazy and have fun.'"
For Alison Faulk, Magic Mike's choreographer and the live show's co-director, the effect of the movies is still hard to get her head around, but she's proud to have been a part of something that has lessened the stigma associated with male entertainment. "The movies made it safe, accessible and OK for women to explore this area," Faulk says. "And on their own terms -- not every woman has to show up and go wild; some just want to watch. It sounds silly, but even in 2017, women are sometimes expected to sit back quietly, be nice and all these things, so the films and this night out in Vegas give them permission to experience this world as a safe place."
Timmons adds that social media has also played a key role in helping the industry shed negative perceptions. "People can actually see what these shows are like online, which is changing the overall perception and stigma that has been related to male revues for so long," says the musician, who previously hosted Chippendales, then launched Men of the Strip before revamping the show for its latest run at Hard Rock Live. "I took Men of the Strip on the road to a mainstream audience at grassroots level in 2014 and that went viral -- people could see it was more of an entertaining show than a raunchy one. And Magic Mike really took it mainstream. It's not taboo anymore for folks to go out and enjoy a show like this."
Although films like Magic Mike have gone a long way toward changing perceptions of male strip shows, having a celebrity name attached to live productions is what appears to be helping attract new audiences. While groups may have once hit town and then decided to check out a show like Thunder From Down Under after they arrived, many fans are now organizing vacations around Tatum, Timmons and Beckford's shows.
"I think by having a celebrity in the show, it does open it up to a broader audience,"' says Beckford, who hosted Rio All-Suites Hotel & Casino's Chippendales in 2015 and returned this year, with his latest stint recently extended until Sept. 3. "I have been so used to being shirtless in the fashion world, but this show gives my fans the opportunity to see me up close and personal!"
"People feel safer because there's a celebrity name attached to it," adds Timmons. "Not only that, but their significant others also feel like, 'OK, my wife/husband isn't going to a super seedy, raunchy show -- they're going to something with a professional gloss to it.'"
Making the audience feel safe was a major priority for the team behind Magic Mike Live, who recognize that while creator and co-director Tatum's star power might help fill seats and attract people who might not otherwise attend, making them feel comfortable once they're there is also important. Faulk and choreographer Theresa Esposito worked hard to research what women want, find guys with great personalities, present a diverse cast and put strip show first-timers at ease.
"Having a guy get into your personal space without knowing them first, for women, is very jarring, so we've worked with the guys on how you get women to feel safe in three seconds and establishing trust," says Esposito. "We also have our MC, Lyndsay Hailey, who brings humor to it."
Down the road from Magic Mike Live's home at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino's Club Domina, Timmons is giving male revues a '90s pop flavor with his revamped Men of the Strip production at Hard Rock Live on The Strip. Having hosted Chippendales in 2011, the singer and producer noticed groups of 98 Degrees fans were attending -- all grown up, noticeably naughtier and ready for a wild night. Inspired to create a male revue with a musical element, he produced Men of the Strip, which came on the back of 98 Degrees' comeback album 2.0 and summer tour with New Kids on the Block in 2013.
The new version of the show, which runs until July 28, then may hit the road, sees him performing 98 Degrees hits, but also showcases its cast members' vocal abilities. Celebrity guests, including fellow boy banders, soap stars and a comedian, are in talks to make cameos. "What I learned from hosting Chippendales and seeing some competitors' shows is that there's an element, musically, that isn't included," says Timmons. "The vocals aren't as focused on, so my whole thing was to create a fun night incorporating as much music as I can. It still has all the dancing of a male revue, but it's an edgier boy band model."
THIS is what a @menofthestrip show looks like. Complete reinvention of the the male revue genre. @glennpackard is a genius. @moneymikemots is incredible. @dan_k77 is the man. And the cast and partner @hrcvegasstrip couldn't be better. There are only 4 dates left on this limited run. If you don't get your tix now, your missing out! #Repost @hrcvegasstrip (@get_repost) ��������� Have you seen our @menofthestrip lately? #jefftimmons #98degrees #limitedengagement
A post shared by jefftimmons (@jefftimmons) on
So, how do established Vegas shows like Thunder From Down Under feel about celebrities entering the scene?
For Thunder's co-owner Adam Steck, shows like Magic Mike Live have only heightened awareness and demand. It was a starkly different scene when the SPI Entertainment CEO discovered the touring male troupe in 2000. "I said to their owner, Billy Cross, 'Why don't you just base it in Vegas? There's nothing for ladies here.' Everything was topless this and topless that in a very male-centric town."
The two went into partnership and signed a 125-seat room at New Frontier Hotel and Casino. At first, they were getting around 20 audience members a night, with Steck "literally on the street hustling to get them in." He says word slowly spread, but after 9/11, business took a steep downturn until MTV brought its Spring Break programming back to Sin City i. By March of 2012, crowds of women were queuing around the block.
Thunder From Down Under eventually landed a home at Excalibur Hotel & Casino and began touring internationally. July will mark 16 years of the show on the Strip. Steck credits films like Fifty Shades of Grey and Magic Mike for putting women "more in touch with their sexuality" and bringing in even more business.
"We've always been a silent juggernaut," he notes. "We've been in incredible business for years, and every time another male revue comes to town, it just expands awareness of the scene. And, now with Magic Mike -- thank you, Channing Tatum! -- it's become more acceptable and super mainstream.
"We're very proud that we helped changed the face of the male revue back in the day," Steck says. "We took the dollar-bill sleaziness out of it to make it more fun, entertaining and comedic. Plus, we've got the Australian angle. There's something very sexy, macho and real about Aussie guys that girls go crazy over!
"But there's something for everybody," he adds. "Maybe people will see Magic Mike Live and go, 'What else is out there?' I don't think you can get more of a titanic than Magic Mike coming to town and threatening our brand, but we've been very resilient and the ticket [sales] have gone up. It's the rising tides philosophy."
Men of Sapphire's Trunk says that they, too, aren't suffering from the celebrity presence.
However, while male revues with a celebrity twist may be on the rise, their female counterparts are few and far between. Planet Hollywood's burlesque production, Peepshow, landed Spice Girl Melanie Brown and former Playboy Bunny Holly Madison during its 4-and-a-half-year run, but ended in 2013.
"We misjudged the market," says a Peepshow insider. "There wasn't really a market for a high-end, Broadway-caliber show with a female lead. With male revues, you get groups of women celebrating birthdays and bachelorette parties, and with Peepshow, we expected groups of guys and some couples, but it turns out guys are only going to strip clubs. They're not going to go to a production show."
Having witnessed both the male and female strip scene at Sapphire, Trunk agrees that men are less interested in artistic productions. "Guys don't care about a show or pole work," he says. "They're not as into the art of dance. They just want a good lap dance, drink and some boobs in their face. It's different to what girls want, and if you look at our show it's surprisingly clean ��� I literally wouldn't mind if my mom saw it."
For stars like Tatum and Timmons, the female influence is a driving force behind their moves, their shows and their success.
Tatum has previously discussed practicing his moves and getting input from his wife, Jenna Dewan-Tatum, while Timmons says it's his wife, Amanda, who orchestrated his whole journey into striptease.
"She's the one who encouraged me to host [Chippendales,] then we caught the bug," Timmons says. "It's really her brainchild, because she said, 'Hey, let's create a more pop version of something like this.' She is definitely behind the success of the brand and she gives me tips on how to act, sing and dress. All credit to her!"
As for the other leading ladies in their lives -- their daughters -- Timmons and Tatum have no qualms about explaining their shows to their girls.
"It hasn't been challenging to explain because she shows have been safe," Timmons says. "Even when I was hosting Chippendales,they saw part of the shows and understood it's not that different to seeing their dad 10 or 20 years ago with his shirt off in a music video. They haven't been exposed to lap dancing or anything crazy."
Beckford's grown son, Jordan, "gets a kick of out," of his dad's career, while Tatum, 37, isn't fazed by what he might say if his adorable 4-year-old girl, Everly, one day asks about his strip show legacy. "There's nothing to explain, it's just an awesome show," he says. "It's fun!"
What he ultimately hopes is that his venture into live male entertainment raises the bar of the world he fell into while searching for adventure as a young college dropout. "[The show] is his desire to leave a mark," Faulk says. "He's so associated with stripping, and I've heard him say, 'I really want to leave this stripper world better than it started.' He had very seedy experiences in Tampa back in the day, so he wants to leave the game elevated, in a way where people go, 'This is so cool.'"