It’s 45 minutes until kickoff, and the action at L.A.’s Memorial Coliseum isn’t on the field—it’s just outside the stadium, where a handful of guys are waiting in hopeful anticipation.
In the center of the group, eight smiling L.A. Rams cheerleaders are patiently posing for pictures. Of course, they’re decked out in full glam—hair, makeup, rhinestone crop tops, white go-go boots—and their fluffy pom-poms only partially obscure their toned abs. Next to the Rams fans, in their oversize jerseys and drapey camo shorts, the women, sparkling there in the California sun, seem as if they’ve been airdropped from some more glamorous planet. And if they’re uncomfortable, you wouldn’t know it. This sort of fan meet-and-greet is the de rigueur duty of the modern NFL cheerleader, and they appear inured to the awkwardness of it all.
The gaggle of fans, consisting mostly of men, is being shepherded by a small squad of security guards, busily providing instruction about the sorts of poses that are permitted (arms around shoulders only).
Absent from these particular pregame festivities are the squad’s two male cheerleaders, Quinton Peron and Napoleon Jinnies, who made history last season when they, along with New Orleans’s Jesse Hernandez, became the league’s first male dancers. Previously, men had performed stunts alongside cheerleaders on some teams, but Peron and Jinnies are dancers, full stop.
Their hiring comes at an opportune time, as the idea of an NFL cheerleader is long overdue for a refresh. Over the years, the drudgeries and duties of NFL cheerleaders have been documented: They endure dismal pay and long, difficult hours to pursue a demanding part-time job that’s made to feel, in some ways, like a mere hobby. And the indignities described in a spate of recent lawsuits against the league and its teams suggest even more problematic working conditions.
In 2014, Raiderettes cheerleader Lacy Thibodeaux, after being forced to front the money for team-mandated hair and makeup—including French manicures and a pricey Rachel McAdam’s–inspired dye job—sued the Oakland Raiders for wage theft. She and another cheerleader claimed that the team was breaking labor laws and failing to pay the dancers minimum wage. The two sides reached a settlement that reportedly awarded the women $1.25 million—a good deal more than the $7,000 that Thibodeaux otherwise would’ve been paid for the entire season’s labor.
But meager pay is only the tip of the iceberg. A new documentary that chronicles Thibodeaux’s suit—and another brought against the Buffalo Jills by Maria Pinzone—details the sorts of pressures the women face to look the part of an NFL cheerleader. In A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem, Pinzone describes “jiggle tests,” which involved doing jumping jacks in front of management in order to show they are fit enough to perform in that weekend’s game.
The documentary also highlights the teams’ willingness to put their cheerleaders in vulnerable, uncomfortable positions, especially at events with deep-pocketed sponsors. Yu Gu, the film’s director, recalls footage from a time when the Buffalo Jills worked a golf tournament where they were asked to sit on attendees’ laps, perform in-costume routines, do tricks, and sit in a dunk tank. “Because #MeToo hadn’t happened yet, those issues were somewhat sidelined to focus on the fact that they were paid nothing,” Gu says. Last year, five Washington Redskins cheerleaders told The New York Times about a photo shoot where some women were asked to pose topless or while wearing only body paint, an event the team invited a few sponsors to watch. Afterward, the women allege, the sponsors chose nine of the 36 to be their “personal escorts” at a nightclub. In a lawsuit against the Houston Texans, one cheerleader recounted that, after she was attacked by a fan at a game, the team told her to “suck it up.”
Taken together, the distressing complaints presented in the lawsuits paint a troubling picture for a league that’s already under increased scrutiny for things like long-term brain damage and incidents of domestic violence.
So, in the summer of 2018, representatives from each of the 26 teams that employ cheerleaders convened behind closed doors with NFL execs to discuss some of the issues being surfaced in the suits—and, according to Vanity Fair, considered ways to make the dancers’ image “less saucy.” Since then, the Saints cheerleaders have debuted new uniforms—they’re now more conservative one-pieces—and hired Hernandez, their first male dancer. Following the allegation in The New York Times of a topless photo shoot, the Washington Redskins, in tandem with the Indianapolis Colts, have also shifted to less revealing, more “family-friendly” uniforms.
Gu believes these moves to be flimsy, surface-level attempts by the NFL to skirt any substantive changes to how it treats its ranks of female entertainers. “If you want to evolve what it means to be a dancer or a cheerleader in the NFL, that needs to be a conversation that includes the workers,” she says. “It shouldn’t be ‘Oh, here, I’m just gonna change it. You guys have to wear catsuits now.’ ”
Keely Fimbres-Bledsoe has been coaching the Rams cheer team for nearly 30 years now—including the 20 years the team spent in St. Louis, before it returned to Southern California in 2015. The move was a happy homecoming for Fimbres-Bledsoe, who was a cheerleader herself through high school and college right here in Los Angeles. During her tenure with the team, she’s worked with hundreds of Rams cheerleaders, and she says she spotted something special in Peron and Jinnies almost immediately. “Seeing them come through the door and stretch and their technique and their dance ability—I mean, right away it was amazing,” Fimbres-Bledsoe tells me.
She says the team would have considered men earlier—auditions had always been open to anyone—but none showed up until last year. Both Jinnies and Peron knew women who were already with the Rams and were encouraged to try out. But each was surprised to see the other on audition day, having competed against each other on several prior occasions.
“I walked up to him and I was like, ‘Hey, since we are the only two boys here, let's root for the boys.’ And that moment I think solidified our spot,” Peron says. “ ‘If they're going to take us, they're going to take us. But I don't think they can choose between one of us.’ ” Turns out that instinct was right.
“They call my name, and I make this really weird sound, like, ‘Aaauuhh,’ ” recalls Jinnies. “They hand me my shirt, and [I’m] like, ‘I did it,’ and there's just rivers of water coming out of my face.”
The season that followed ended for the Rams at the Super Bowl, making it an improbable rookie year for Jinnies and Peron, who became the first male dancers to perform at the NFL’s grandest game. In the year since, they’ve traveled with their teammates, dancing, speaking, doing volunteer work, even visiting troops overseas.
When I meet with the two in the Starbucks across from their practice facility, they’ve both just recently returned from military visits to Guam and South Korea. Peron, who’s also a dance teacher, says he spent a portion of his time teaching the kids on the base some cheers. “Some of the dads tried,” he adds, smiling.
For both Peron and Jinnies, arriving at that moment was a long and, at times, painful road. Peron didn’t discover his passion for dance until his junior year of high school—relatively late for someone who's now a professional athlete. He credits So You Think You Can Dance for inspiring him: Watching tWitch and Will—black men who looked like him—perform, he knew he wanted to do that. He quit his basketball team that weekend, infuriating his father, the coach, and started taking classes at a local studio.
His parents staunchly opposed his pursuit of dance, in big and small ways—ragging on him when he wore tights to ballet class, complaining about all-day competitions, and refusing to pay for dance tuition. As a result, Peron, who’s tall and broad-shouldered and frequently flashes a big, warm smile, took classes on scholarship, staying for hours to clean the studio after his friends had gone home. It wasn’t until he signed with an agent and started collecting paychecks for his choreography work that his parents really came around.
Jinnies’ parents, on the other hand, moved mountains to afford for their son the best dance education possible. When he started getting serious about dance in high school, his mom would make the two-hour drive from Santa Barbara to Costa Mesa after a full day of work so that Jinnies could attend class, and then they’d drive home. They did that twice a week, until he saw his high school dream team perform. He decided to audition, despite knowing that if he made it, he’d need to live in the school’s district, in Anaheim, which would mean moving out of his parents’ home.
By then, Jinnies was already dealing with severe bullying problems due to his sexuality. So when he made the team, he voluntarily packed his things and moved himself down to Orange County, at age 17.
Even though it was painful, having those experiences earlier on in life prepared Jinnies to step without fear into the spotlight as one of the NFL’s first male dancers. “It would have sucked,” he says of making his debut on the sidelines, “if I was worrying about what is everyone else thinking, you know? I was worrying about my material, my choreography. Where am I standing? Is a football player going to run into me? I have other things going on in my head versus is someone going to call me a faggot.”
With added ranks this year, the NFL’s male cheerleaders can lean on one another for support, via their big group Facebook message where they encourage one another. Last year, Peron says, a guy named Dylon was cut during the finals for the Pelicans auditions. “He was like, ‘Q, I just want to say thank you. You making the team gave me hope. I'm going to try out for Saints next year.’ ” The Saints picked him up this season, along with another man, plus Hernandez makes three. The Buccaneers and the Eagles each hired a male cheerleader; the Patriots added two. The Seahawks Dancers, formerly known as the Sea Gals, added a team of eight men, and the Titans added eight as well. All told, there are at least 25 men on official NFL cheer rosters this year.
The NFL isn’t alone in moving toward co-ed entertainment teams; the NBA is increasingly dumping its all-women, jazz- and pom-focused dance teams and opting for hip-hop-focused troupes that feature men and women instead. Laudable though these efforts may seem, reconfiguring dance teams in this way creates its own burdens for trained female dancers, who now feel squeezed out of the profession. One such dancer is Bailey Davis, who made headlines last year after she was dismissed by the New Orleans Saints after posting an image of herself in a black lacy bodysuit on Instagram. She had planned to restart her career in Orlando, where she’d moved with the intention of trying out to be a dancer for the NBA’s Magic. But when the Magic scrapped its traditional dance team in favor of this new approach, she was out of luck. “I understand wanting to make it more family-friendly, but saying that an all-female team is not family-friendly is not the girls' fault,” Davis says. “That's a management problem."
Across the sports world, the trend is a concerted effort to walk back the overly sexed-up image these pro leagues implemented years ago. Of course, those inclined to be a little suspicious of the motives of league executives suggest that employing more men makes cheerleading seem less like a gendered job, which may weaken women’s claims of sex discrimination. “It’s taking these guys and slotting them into their same exploitative system that the women have been a part of for decades,” Gu says.
At my childhood dance studio in suburban Atlanta, boys were a rarity. Occasionally, one would show up for a year, maybe stick it out long enough to perform at a recital. But then they’d quit—for soccer, or basketball, or tae kwon do, conveniently taught just a few doors over in the strip mall. Every so often, my teachers could persuade someone’s brother to guest as Tarzan or Elvis for a big opening number. When we did wrangle one, though, they were the centerpiece of the routine. They stood in the middle, had separate choreography, and, of course, a different costume. In a sport where the whole point is to blend in and move in synchronicity, they were made to stand out.
In the routines I get a chance to observe at practice, the Rams highlight Peron and Jinnies this way, too. Cheerleaders are typically sorted by height into mini-squads called “lines,” and both men are positioned in the center spot of their pods. In a halftime routine that’s ultimately abandoned for Sunday’s game because T-Pain agrees to perform at the last minute, they’re featured prominently and execute an impressive turn sequence as their teammates dance around them. Otherwise, though, the two men do perform nearly the exact same choreography as the women. Shimmies and shakes and all.
There are, however, certain subtle differences in how the movements are performed—an open hand instead of a fist, a less exaggerated plié. While they don’t feel pressure to present more masculine, exactly, Peron and Jinnies talk a lot about underscoring their movements with strength. “As a professional,” Peron says, “your job is to make [the choreography] work for you. Not change the choreography, but we can dance it a little differently.… I don't want to say make it more masculine—I hate that—but just making it a little stronger.”
“For the most part,” Peron says, “I think [having men on the team] pushed our choreographers, because now it's not just about the hair and the booty.” One of their teammates, Shayla Gabbedon, echoes that sentiment. “Our society believes that men are stronger and more powerful, and I think they bring that dynamic to our team,” she says. But at the same time, “it is sort of a reminder for us. We have to be strong, too.”
The only obvious difference between Jinnies and Peron and the women on the team is that the men don’t use pom-poms. “That was a question I asked them early on,” recalls coach Fimbres-Bledsoe. “They both said, ‘We're not interested in pom-poms.’ ”
In fact, from the moment they made the team, Jinnies and Peron have participated in nearly every facet of the decision-making in terms of their incorporation within the team. They were closely involved in designing their costume—a form-fitting shirt-and-pants set with a slight V-neck, a curved hem, and sleeves that allow their cut biceps to flex away—and making sure they were functional for game time. “When we put our arms down, the shirt slides straight back down. It doesn't get bunched up, and we don't have to adjust. Every little detail was thought out,” Jinnies says. “It’s like the treatment the football players would get.”
They also receive all the comped swag the women get, including access to makeup professionals on game days—but as a makeup artist himself, Jinnies applies his own, usually a warm, smoky eye, blown out for the stage. “If they get fake...well, I use the lashes for when I do makeup on other clients, but they give us, you know, the nylons, they give us the nails,” Jinnies says. They get dressed together in the same trailer, too, which was a no-brainer decision from the entire squad.
Interestingly, Peron and Jinnies cite the corporate-sponsored events as their favorite part of the job, and over-delivered on their quota of 20 last year, perhaps partially due to the uptick in requests for appearances after their historic hiring. Jinnies says that people will ask, “ ‘Oh, do you make enough money?’ And I'm like, ‘If you're available to work, you make enough money.' But then also this isn't everyone's only job. So can you imagine having your career and then having this [other] awesome paying job if you're available to make more,” he says, also noting they’re compensated for every mile they travel. “It's like a normal job—you don't do work for your company and not get paid.”
And for the most part, except for the occasional fan who’s too many Bud Lights deep, the Rams community has been supportive. “The bullying, I expected it, of course,” says Jinnies. “Not everyone's going to get it, but I also realized that it's not my job to make them try to understand or get it.”
Late on Thursday, just a few days before Sunday’s game, the cheerleaders are practicing their routines in fluorescently lit, too-tight quarters at a downtown 24 Hour Fitness. It’s L.A., so the normie gym-goers are an unusually attractive and fit bunch, but even so, the Rams cheerleaders stand out. It’s just practice, but a film crew is taping tonight, so the women arrive in coordinated navy leggings, loose I-woke-up-like-this curls, full-face makeup, and tank tops emblazoned with phrases like CHEERLEADER, tied up in seemingly impractical but admittedly flattering ways. Peron and Jinnies, meanwhile, wear matching tees and shorts.
At one point during the rehearsal, a man walks in from the weight room and, making no eye contact, walks silently to the back, where he proceeds to rest one hand on the mirrored wall and feign the weakest stretching I have ever seen. He’s not directly facing the women, but there are mirrors on every wall, and it’s clear why he’s there. One of the cheerleaders’ PR managers runs over to explain that this is a closed practice and he needs to leave, but he refuses, until the 24 Hour Fitness guys from the front desk arrive to manually escort him out.
Peron has dealt with female fans going into Magic Mike mode at events. “I went to this one event where you were not supposed to be touched,” Peron says. “And for some reason, I guess the ladies get excited now, and so they're all on me and I'm like, ‘Hold on.’ But one of the guys grabbed my teammate Val—just to get a picture. And I could tell where his arm was, but had to jump in and was like, ‘Hey, sorry. None of that. You can take a picture together, but please hands to yourself, hands by your side.’ ”
But for every off-putting fan interaction the cheerleaders deal with, there’s a positive one to counter it. Reading with grade-schoolers on Dr. Seuss day, Christmas shopping with underprivileged kids, visiting with the troops overseas—those are the memories that stand out. Earlier this year, Jinnies surprise dropped in on a local elementary cheer team after hearing one of the boys who’d signed up was being teased about it. “I gave him one of my Super Bowl Rams pins and told them about teamwork and how they have to rally together and protect each other,” he says. “You never know who you're touching. Whatever second you can offer up could be potentially, hopefully, life-changing.”
It’s all made even sweeter when they consider that, just a few years ago, this dream job wasn’t a viable career path. After hitting the ceiling on their post-collegiate competitive dance opportunities, the All Stars teammates were beginning to audition for NBA and NFL teams. Jinnies recalls one moment in particular when a girl called up their coach for encouragement before her final audition. “Everyone was around the phone like, ‘You've got it, girl!’ encouraging her, and I remember thinking, ‘I will never be in that situation. I will never be at a finals for a pro team, calling my coach, getting that pumped before I need to go dance.’ It was not an option at the time.” But then last year they showed up and made it one.
“For me,” Peron says, “that uniform...it's like a superhero cape.”
Stephanie Talmadge is GQ.com's sex and relationships editor and senior manager of newsletter strategy.
Originally Appeared on GQ