Exclusive: ‘The Office’ star Phyllis Smith sets us straight about her NFL cheerleader and burlesque-dancer past

Phyllis Smith as a burlesque dancer circa 1978/79 and as Phyllis Vance on 'The Office'
Phyllis Smith as a burlesque dancer circa 1978/79 and as Phyllis Vance on 'The Office'

In "The Office," Phyllis Smith is endlessly amusing as Dunder Mifflin Sabre sales rep Phyllis Lapin-Vance, who is sweet with a sassy side. In the years the show has been on the air, we've grown used to seeing her character in cardigan sets and carrying knitting needles, so when we discovered a photo -- purportedly of Smith -- from her days as an NFL cheerleader, we were all over it. Our original story, which you can read here, detailed her yearlong cheering gig with the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1970s. The accompanying photo showed a pretty young woman in red-and-white cheer gear -- and really awesome helmet hair, popular in that era. The only problem? While Smith was a cheerleader, the photo -- which is all over the Internet -- isn't of her, and she called us out on it.

Color us embarrassed!

Smith, who is hard at work of Season 9 of the show, is a great sport, though, and called us up to discuss this case of mistaken identity, which has been following her for some time. (Just do an image search for "Phyllis Smith cheerleader" and you'll see what we mean.) The 61-year-old actress, who hails from St. Louis and started dancing at the age of 7, provided us with real photos of her from her time in burlesque dancing, which she did for seven years after she hung up her pompoms. We have never been so happy to be wrong, because not only are these photos even better, but also we were able to chitchat with the affable actress.

First, let me apologize for our mistake.
Oh, that's OK -- this is the third time this picture surfaced, and I don't even know who that woman is. I don't think that we even cheered together. She must have been a different year than me.

What did you think when you saw our story saying that woman was you? "Those dummies …"
Well, the article was accurate, but I went, "Here we go again!" with the photo. The first time it happened, I was being interviewed for "Bad Teacher" -- you know, the film with Cameron Diaz -- and the gentleman [interviewing me] was so happy and proud because he found a picture of me as a cheerleader. We were on camera and I didn't want to embarrass him, but I couldn't own it either because it's just not me. I said, "Oh, that's a lovely photo, but it's not of me." And then during a second interview that I did in St. Louis, [the reporter] showed it to me before we went on air, so I was able to stop that before it hit the airwaves.

Who is the mystery woman in this photo everyone mistook for Phyllis Smith?
Who is the mystery woman in this photo everyone mistook for Phyllis Smith?

Was that even the uniform that you wore back then -- a red V-neck sweater with white stripes along the neckline and a white skirt?
No, we had midriff blouses tied up in the front, hot pants, and white boots up to our knees. The year I cheered was the second or third year after cheerleaders were first coming into being -- the beginning of cheerleading days. I think the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders had been around one year; then we came in around the second year. It was when the Cardinals were still in St. Louis, which is where I am from.

How did your cheerleading career come about? I know that your dad was a season ticket holder, and you went with him to the home games.
He had season tickets, but how it came about [was] that I auditioned for the Municipal Opera of St. Louis. Out of that audition the lady, who was also the choreographer for the St. Louis Cardinal cheerleaders, asked me to audition for the cheerleading squad -- and I made it! It was just the perfect job for me at the time. I really enjoyed it because I loved football, so I was able to watch the game, dance, and be there and look at the cute guys across the field. So it was the triple threat there (laughs).

After your year as an NFL cheerleader, you transitioned into a career as a burlesque dancer. How did that come about?
I was a dancer, and every year this vaudeville/burlesque show would come through town. They played in St. Louis and all over the country when dinner theater was at its peak. A gentleman by the name of Will B. Able, who had a long career as a dancer, would hold auditions. Every year, I would audition and he would just praise me and say how wonderful I was, but he never hired me. So one of the last years he came through St. Louis, I didn't bother to audition, but I went to see the show. While we were there, he was talking about how I was so good, and blah, blah, blah. He said, "Oh, I'd love to hire you," and I said, "Well then, why don't you?" So he ended up hiring me about eight to 12 months later when a position opened in the show. Then I was on the road doing that for about seven years.

You've said that, although it was burlesque, it wasn't risqué.
Right -- there was no stripping. We had strategically placed feathers and G-strings with feathers covering our rumps (laughs). It was quite sexy, but no stripping or nudity.

Phyllis Smith doing a jump split while dancing with a small revue at Shoreline Village in Long Beach, CA
Phyllis Smith doing a jump split while dancing with a small revue at Shoreline Village in Long Beach, CA

And then two decades later you're working as a casting director in Hollywood, casting for "The Office," and the producers liked you so much that they created a role for you.
I'll tell you, I have been very blessed. I always say this and I mean it: God had a better plan than I ever anticipated for me. All I did was try to be responsible, pay my bills, and do my best at whatever it was I was doing, but I just feel extremely blessed as how it has turned out.

Are you still a football fan?
I am still a fan. I'm not as involved in it as I used to be. Like I said, my dad and I used to go to all the home games. And the Rams in St. Louis have kind of … let's just say they're struggling. To put that gently, they're struggling a great deal. I'm not involved in fantasy football or anything like that; the guys on the set here are all into fantasy football, but I haven't gotten into that group. I still love it. I watch it when I have a moment to sit, but I'm not a crazy fan.

Do you look at the cheerleader outfits and size them up?
A little (laughs). They're pretty similar except they're showing a little more cleavage than what we had. I'll tell you, St. Louis tends to be cold, very cold, and we would be out there with our midriff tops and short-shorts freezing to death. Now they have the domes, so they don't have to worry about the ice on the ground like we used to.

Have you ever played a cheerleader as an actress?
Actually today! Funny enough -- for my Halloween costume this season I am a cheerleader. In a few minutes I'll be putting on my little cheerleading sweater and oxfords and pompoms and stuff like that.

We can't wait to see Phyllis as a cheerleader. Will you give us a tease of what else is ahead for your character during the final year?
I'm still in the dark as far as how it's going to play out as the series ends. I understand that each character does have some sort of a closure connected to it, but I think they're keeping that under wraps. So I really don't know. I just come here, get my bouffant hairdo done, and I'm just as anxious as everyone else to see how it will turn out.

What has the experience of being on such a successful show meant to you? I'm sure it was life changing.
Oh, it's been incredible. I never anticipated this at this point of my life. Not only has it professionally opened up so many opportunities that I never would have had, but also in my personal life it has afforded me the time to go and take care of my mother, who is elderly and living in St. Louis. I know you hear this all the time on the award shows, but the people I have worked with the last nine to 10 years -- I say 10 because Allison Jones, the casting director on the show, and I actually worked on the pilot prior to our nine seasons -- but we've become a family. There have been so many babies born and other milestones. It's just been an unbelievable experience. Somewhere in the beginning I remember Steve Carell saying, "I think this is probably going to be the best TV job we'll ever have." And I think it's true.

Speaking of award shows, will you be at the Emmys?
Not this year. We're not nominated. We've been blessed to be there all the other years, but this year we're not nominated, so I get to watch it in the comfort of my home.

Well, I know you are past due in hair and makeup, so I'll let you go, and again, we're sorry for the mix-up.
Hey, it's no problem. I just keep thinking about the woman in that photo and wonder what her real name is.

Maybe she'll come forward now …
Yeah, she's say, "Hey, that's not me."

We'll soon see.

Watch Phyllis on "The Office":

The final season of "The Office" premieres Thursday, September 20, at 9/8 pm CT.