Their day jobs vary. A graphic artist, an accountant, a coder. One has a background in architecture, another a business degree. One is working on his first invention — patent pending.
One thing they all have in common: On the weekends, they strip.
If the 2012 film “Magic Mike” gave a fictional glimpse into the world of male entertainers — Hunk-O-Mania, a New York-based entertainment company that specializes in male strippers and dancers, is the real deal. And while the film garnered more attention to the profession, it didn’t necessarily reduce the stigma.
“When people think male dancer, I think everyone thinks male bimbo. That’s everybody’s perception,” said Brian Maldonado, 32. “Even though a lot of the guys I work with are educated and multifaceted.”
The men of Hunk-O-Mania Chicago produce 100 shows a year, holidays included, in a variety of venues across the city. Each show features five acts of 15-minute dance routines. Performers choose their own costumes and clothing (or lack thereof) based on personal interests or tropes they want to have fun with.
About half of the average audience is there for a bachelorette party, 40% are celebrating birthdays, and the rest is a mix of divorce parties, graduations or general girl’s nights out, according to manager and host James Thompson, which is his stage name. He prefers not to share his real name.
“Honestly, this is one of the most impactful things I’ve ever done with my life,” said Kyle, 25, who also prefers to share only his stage name. “It taught me so much about confidence, about myself, about what matters in life and taking rejection.”
Kyle originally entered the profession to find that confidence. Since joining Hunk-O-Mania, he works out three days a week, eats a mostly paleo diet and rehearses routines at least five times before premiering them. He started dancing a year and a half ago, averaging $500 per weekend, less in colder months.
Thompson said his best night earned him $850, but wages vary with each entertainer.
An accountant who dances with Hunk-O-Mania said he earned $2,000 a weekend dancing before “Magic Mike” even hit theaters, and the film boosted that income. The 13-year stripping veteran once used the job to help pay for day care, then stepped away when other entrepreneurial opportunities presented themselves. He’s since returned.
Maldonado, a self-described exhibitionist, has danced professionally since age 28 and plans to stick with it as long as he’s “young and pretty-looking.” His sister, Amber Raber, of Hammond, recommended he start dancing at a club in Boystown, Chicago’s traditionally gay neighborhood, after he had recently gotten into shape.
He’s been dancing ever since.
“For him to get into it, was nothing,” she said. “When my brother started to get into body building, I told him he would make bank with those six-pack abs. We’re all supportive of the dancing ... he’s doing it for the love of dancing and for the money, obviously. ”
Single and married, entrepreneurs and former military personnel — each of the men have different reasons for joining the company, which operates 52 weeks a year.
Thompson (who plays a cowboy in the show) is a nine-year veteran and not giving up the gig time soon. The schedule allows entertainers to pursue careers and other life goals during traditional workday hours. For Thompson that means graduate school for mechanical engineering. When he’s not hitting the books, he’s at the gym — except “cheat day” Saturday, when after the show he indulges in junk food. On Sunday it’s back to the regimen, kale shakes and protein to stay fit for Hunk-O-Mania.
“When I first started in 2010 and I told my mom, she gave me the ‘mom face.’ But then once she realized this lifestyle is not drugs, it’s not just take a girl home — but it’s a party, it’s safe and fun and I get paid to throw the party that other people are going to — she wasn’t embarrassed or apprehensive,” Thompson said. “A job like this is not just cash, it’s an opportunity.”
Thompson’s Hunk-O-Mania work starts Thursday when he spends at least two hours calling soon-to-be audience members to remind them about event time and location, and to bring single dollar bills to tip the dancers. He also provides change in the form of singles at the event in case attendees forget.
“I used to bring $400 in singles, but I found out that I was running out often, before the end of the night, so I started getting $800 in singles and that seems to work — even though there have been some nights where I’ll only have $60 left,” he said.
Thompson also brings tchotchkes and party memorabilia, think sashes and tiaras for guests celebrating special events, the occasional penis-shaped water bottle for those wanting a keepsake from their “once-in-a-lifetime experience,” and extra tank tops for the performers.
To be clear, the dancers don’t reveal everything. According to Thompson, the stripping stops at boxers or briefs (read: no thongs). So choice of underwear is vital, as are extras, just in case.
The misconception that dancers get completely nude is one of many that accompanies the stigma of male stripping. People also assume the job easy, but that’s not true says 25-year-old Avelino Martinez,aka Romeo Suave, a dancer of eight years.
“It is really psychological,” he said. “It’s mental — you have to look like you’re carefree, but in reality, you’re always strategizing, always assessing the customer base and trying to feel out and understand what people are comfortable and not comfortable with.” It was his girlfriend who proposed male entertaining and his mother who drove Martinez to his first day of Hunk-O-Mania. The rest is history.
Ramona Slick, 23, has been dancing for three years in strip clubs that traditionally serve male clientele. The North Sider, who identifies as gender queer and also prefers to only share a stage name, saw stripping as a stable form of income. Dancing two or three times a week, Slick’s best day brought in more than $1,000.
Slick says each entertainer’s work experience is unique but judgement exists regardless of gender.
“Female workers are more stigmatized due to misogyny, but the reality is being a worker is hard,” Slick said. “It’s rewarding, but it can be a very emotionally and physically taxing job to have, and that’s regardless of whether you are a male dancer or a femme. At the end of the day, you still take on the stigmas. People will still think about you what they want to think.”
Think the male dancers have more luck than the average guy when it comes to dating? Not so much, say the men of Hunk-O-Mania.
When dating someone new, Martinez said he makes his job known right away to gauge the reaction. “If they can’t accept you as a stripper, then it’s not going to work,” he said. Thompson, however, saves the conversation for date two or once people get to know him.
“It’s the stigma that has people immediately judging me as a player, a womanizer, dirty,” Thompson said. “But once people get to know me, then they’re like: ‘Nerdy guys like you manage shows like that?’ I am a nerd; most of us are nerds. We all saw ‘Avengers: Endgame’ opening weekend, and we all talk ‘Game of Thrones’ in the bathroom. Once people get to know me, they’ll say ‘he’s just a nerdy guy who has a weird job.’ ”
Other false assumptions: Good dancing skills are required to land a position, and performers never get shy on the job.
“People think male entertainers are just going to come to their party, take off their clothes and have sex with them, and that’s not the case,” said Julian Kerez, 29, aka Kerez Dreama. “Just because we’re dancing in our underwear for a couple of hours doesn’t mean that we’re out here doing all this dirty stuff.”
Hunk-O-Mania dancers are pursuing careers in everything from real estate to modeling, and at least one is mulling a possible TEDTalk. Dancing provides a type of freedom they turn around and offer to the audience, Martinez said.
“When they come in here, it’s allowing them to be free, allowing them to be in control,” he said. “We’re selling a fantasy.” Martinez is studying to become an IT programmer but plans to keep dancing for the foreseeable future.
“People always ask me how long do I expect to be doing this and honestly, even if I get a job in IT down the road, I still would love to,” he said. “This job has become a part of me.”