What the hell else are women for? —Don Courtney, public relations, Ottawa’s Silver Machine
In a sweat-drenched high-school gymnasium on a brutally hot summer night, the Argo Sunshine Girls are working out. Your body, my body, everybody move your body, is the breathy message oozing out of a disco tape as the girls—one of seven teams in the big, new Canadian Football League cheer-leading lineup this year—show every sign of having reached a higher state of consciousness, so fixed are their expressions, so euphoric their stares. They are concentrating as they slide across the floor in a bumwiggling disco walk. They are positively rapt as they make a sharp turn and head into the Hustle. They are approaching their task with a breathtaking seriousness. If any further evidence is needed, head cheerleader Pamela Smith, black hair all sexily atumble, is there to provide it: “As I see it, we’re making history.”
There’s something strange going on in Canadian football at the start of a new season when 22 disco-dancing cheerleaders in vinyl go-go boots and cleavage-baring sailor tops can generate as much attention as the arrival of possibly the best running back in the league—the Toronto Argonauts’ quarter-million-dollar baby Terry Metcalf, late of the St. Louis Cardinals. What has happened is simply that sex has come to the CFL.
It’s scarcely an original thought: cheerleaders have traditionally provided the sexual interest at football games even when they’ve been the wholesome freckle-faced type. But back in 1972, the Dallas Cowboys, certainly one of the top clubs in the National Football League, went overt about the whole thing by bringing in dancing ladies with a come-hither, halfway-out-of-their-uniforms appeal that upped the blood pressure of football fans everywhere. (The “last gasps of a dying civilization,” snipped Ann Landers.) The 1976 Super Bowl was a pivotal point in flash and trash cheerleading history. It was a stunningly successful appearance before the huge TV audience the Super Bowl attracts. (Not so successful for the Cowboys they were cheering on: they succumbed 21-17 to the Pittsburgh Steelers.) The Dallas cheerleaders graduated to cover-story attention in major American magazines, promotional tours extending into Canada (causing a near-riot at the Toronto Sportsmen’s Show last March) and even a television special of their own.
Now lightbulbs of a similar, if not exactly high, wattage are lighting up the minds of CFL club managers from coast to coast—If Dallas can do it, so can we! The rationale remains a little fuzzy—CFL attendance has surged of late (increasing by 200,000 a year over the past two seasons) so it can’t be to draw crowds, but it may be to keep ’em happy once they’re there. B.C. Lions General Manager Bob Ackles reports the average age of game-goers has dropped in the past few years. “We’re getting a lot more 18to 35-year-old men. They used to be much older.”
Whatever the reason, by providing what they straight-facedly herald as new “entertainment packages,” the clubs really have nothing to lose. Most of them have found sponsors who are only too willing to separate upward of $20,000 from their promotion budgets to outfit the girls who in the tradition of Dallas receive, if anything, a token $15 a game. While that won’t keep them in hair spray and panty hose for more than a few games, they still are painfully eager to sacrifice three nights a week in rehearsal and game time to be an Argo
Sunshine Girl (“our uniforms are perfect,” breathes one of them) or an Edmonton QTee (with garish yellow sweaters stretching over mammoth breasts, Alberta crude may take on a whole new meaning) or part of the Silver Machine, a joint effort by the Ottawa Rough Riders and the Voyageur Colonial bus line, offering modelling agency lovelies rigged up in $200-a-pair, silver lamé kid boots and silver romper suits. The Ottawa girls (girls may have become women in the lexicon of women’s liberation, but cheerleaders, with or without their pom-poms, will always be girls) arrive in a silver bus, accompanied by two bodyguards “trained in a martial arts situation,” according to Rough Riders’ spokesman Don Courtney. “By doing this, our girls get a chance to expand as people,” he explains.
“I like to call them the icing on the cake,” beams Dick Shatto, general manager of the Toronto Argos and a man noted more for his silver-haired handsomeness
than his innovative ideas. As Shatto tells it: “Over the off-season we became more and more convinced that somersaults and rahrah stuff wouldn’t wash anymore. We’re in a big-league city and we need big-league entertainment. Then one day it hit me: The Argo Sunshine Girls!” Quick as a bunny Shatto was on the phone to Doug Creighton, publisher of The Toronto Sun, a feisty little tabloid that has thumbed its nose at feminists and made its reputation partly on its daily pictures of flesh-revealing “SUNshine Girls.” Within 30 seconds Creighton was on the case, agreeing to sponsor a squad of Dallas-style cheerleaders which would feature, said Shatto, “a wholesome, fresh, personality-type girl with, naturally, a nice figure.” The girls would also have to possess dancing ability, said the Sun's promotion manager, Lynda Ruddy, and “they would have to sort of remain dignified.”
If there is a tongue-in-cheek aspect to the promoters’ use of the word “wholesome,” there is at the same time a touchingly naïve quality to be found in the cheerleaders’ perceptions of themselves. Filing past a bench of big, bad Argos just before the start of a recent game, the Argo Sunshine Girls offered the players sweet, almost sisterly smiles. “You know, I think they really respect us,” cooed Jeanette. Just out of earshot, one of the players spoke lazily: “I think we should have us a gangbang.” The others laughed.
Notwithstanding the fact that players and cheerleaders are forbidden to mix socially, it is understandable that—randy comments aside—the players have other things on their minds. The Argos, fired up by the presence of Metcalf, are talking once more of going to the Grey Cup, although they haven’t managed to win it since 1952. Over in Hamilton, the Ticats’ controversial owner Harold Ballard, a man who likes to be different and loud about it, made extra waves by insultingly describing the new cheerleaders as “a lot of broads half-dressed jumping around like ninnies,” and implying they were straight out of the body-rub parlors. Ballard preferred to put his money on the likes of Jimmy Edwards, last year’s finest player in the CFL who this season was rewarded with a new $1-million, six-year contract. In Montreal there seemed to be extra reason for the presence of Les Gentilles Alouettes (short white skirts with side slits, made to measure red underpants—“Very cute, but we’re not going the sex route,” says their coordinator). Despite the team’s depth and its (say the sportswriters) almost guaranteed firstplace Eastern Conference finish, the Alouettes are reportedly having trouble selling season tickets.
In the West, the Edmonton Eskimos have their new 43,000-seat Commonwealth Stadium, and with 39,000 season tickets already sold, thanks to Edmonton’s silverplated prospects of going to the Grey Cup, the Eskimos are suddenly the wealthiest team in the league—a title Toronto used to
run away with. With veteran quarterback Tom Wilkinson as ineffective-looking and as effective-playing as ever, and Rose Bowl star Warren Moon backing him up, the QTees may not be getting as much attention
as the cheerleading squads of less skilful teams. Saskatchewan Roughriders, whom everyone expects to finish dead last, need their Golden Girls to help ease the pain of losing. In Calgary, a city where the movie The Pom-Pom Girls played for an entire year, setting a world record, the fans will be wooed by the Outriders, a group of girls chosen for their “bubbly personalities,” says their spokesman. And B.C. Lions, which will probably finish second, are secure enough to promise their girls “won’t be falling out of their sweaters,” a guarantee which may have more to do with community morals—the Western teams are community-owned—than a desire to keep exploitation out of all this.
While the teams were getting ready for business as usual (with one sportswriter lamenting, “It’s all become a bit of a bore”), the cheerleaders were making things lively on another front with some not-very-nice sniping at one another: “Those Ottawa girls are all boring models and I hear their uniforms are just awful,” said one charitable Argo girl. The Silver Machine’s Don Courtney rose gallantly to his girls’ defence: “Well I’ve heard the Toronto girls are so top-heavy they can’t lift their arms over their heads.”
As the squabbling continued the girls on all teams were mildly wondering about a problem the Dallas cheerleaders don’t have: to wit, the threat of frostbite on their “naturally nice” figures once the cruel
Canadian fall and winter sets in. Don Courtney, as much a friend to the ecology movement as he is to feminists, hopes to have the Silver Machine outfitted in silver fox coats, while other teams are going the capes and leotards route. Although you can bet “they’ll have to leave something showing,” says Argo girl Annette with just a trace of worry.
In the Argo Sunshine dressing room at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium, there is the usual pre-game tension. One girl is staring intently into a mirror, “just checking to see how the extra stuffing in my bra works.” It works fine. A few others, lips glossed, hair lacquered, sit rubbing their vinyl pom: poms (they tend to wilt in the off-hours) : and complaining about their latest promotional appearance (for which they get paid extra), requiring them to stand outside a Yonge Street store in their little outfits on a Friday night. It had not looked good, j “What if Hal Ballard had been driving by!” wails one of them “He woulda thought • he was right about us.”
Most of the girls express a fervent desire to help their team. Some of them would also like, if at all possible, to end up in a spectacular show in Las Vegas and have flowers and telegrams sent to their dressing rooms. “I am very sincere about this,” says
Argo girl Cassandra Frances, who has a nine-year-old son and an aching desire to fulfil her potential as a “child prodigy” and become a country and western singer. “I am not out there to be, I’ll put it bluntly, tits and ass. I am in the process of being discovered and this is part of my training.”
A lot of them who, truth to tell, lead pretty mundane lives as legal secretaries and bank clerks when they’re not out there shaking their booties in front of thousands of screaming fans, blushingly confess they like being “celebrities.” “My boss introduces me now every time a new client comes to the office,” says one.
The call comes to move out to the field and during the first half of the game the girls go through a few disco routines with a lamentable lack of coordination and, with smiles like poured concrete, gamely face a steady trickle of lewd suggestions from the crowd, who seem to haver, to put it politely, a “cartwheel fixation.” “They’re not even supposed to call us cheerleaders,” twitted one girl. “We’re choreographed dancers.”
During half-time the choreographed dancers are herded back to their dressing room; they are considered inappropriate in the traditional atmosphere of marching bands and majorettes. Head cheerleader Pam Smith takes the opportunity to give them an off-the-record lecture that includes some words Sunshine Girls are not supposed to know, the essence of it being: Shape up; pay more attention; be more professional; learn not to boogie your brains out while Terry Metcalf is making a brilliant run. The girls get the message. After all, they want to get better for the relentless eye of television.
As it happens though, the first few televised games of the season have focused for only a few seconds on the girls. “People are tuned to watch football, not cheerleaders,” explains CTV sports producer Cam Rourke. “If we’ve got time, we’ll cut away to them, but as soon as a good replay comes up, we’re back in the game.” Perhaps the girls could look forward to more exposure (their favorite word, served up totally without irony) through a $100,000 cable television deal the CFL has negotiated to
give itself some play in the U.S.
There is no doubt their first few times out shook up the Argo girls a bit. But despite the lewd comments, the grueling hours and the less-than-substantial monetary rewards, they’ll keep trying. Pamela and Cassandra and Jeanette and Catherine are not the kind of girls to let their team down. Even so, Catherine, who is 22 and looks a bit like Lisa Minnelli and wants so very badly to be a somebody in show business, looks a little hurt about the hooting and hollering. She hopes it won’t go on all season. She hopes no one out there really thinks she’s nothing but a bare-skinned rah-rah girl. “I’ve got more to offer than that,” she says softly.0
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