For those of us who were there, it’s hard to remember “the moment” as a turning point, a seminal event in the history of the Dallas Cowboys. But there it was: Stripper Bubbles Cash, who had once worked for Jack Ruby, causing an uproar in the Cotton Bowl, as she descended the stairs toward the field, wearing a mini skirt and cradling conspicuous cones of cotton candy.
I was, at the time, 15, watching with bemusement as my dad and dozens of other men trained their binoculars — yes, back then, people actually took binoculars to football games — on a woman, who had, albeit briefly, stolen the show. It was Nov. 5, 1967, a crisp autumn Sunday, when only a few hours after church, the Sexual Revolution arrived in Dallas.
The crowd went bonkers, grown men acting for a moment as if they were 15. Engulfed by a distraction named Bubbles, they ignored the action on the field, where the Cowboys were whipping the Atlanta Falcons 37-7 en route to landing in the National Football League Championship Game, which they lost to the Green Bay Packers in what came to be known as the “Ice Bowl.”
As folklore has it, Bubbles’ swagger turned the page on Cowboys history, just as much as the Ice Bowl did, with then-president and general manager Tex Schramm looking transfixed by what was unfolding in the stands below him. The wheels of his mind always spinning, Schramm said, “We could sell this.”
And sell it they did.
Less than two years later, the Cowboys decided that having male and female high school students as rudimentary cheerleaders — nicknamed “CowBelles & Beaux” — was a concept worthy of being punted. Males were dropped from the cheerleading roster, at which point the unit became forever known by its official designation, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.
But it wasn’t until 1972, when a choreographer hired by legendary founder Dee Brock aided in the Cowboys’ cheerleading makeover by embracing another Big D — dance. Only then did the spirit squad begin to resemble the international force it became. And, oh yeah, they were wearing a lot less clothing than they ever had before.
Their history is the subject of a new podcast, brought to life by Texas Monthly and reported and hosted by writer Sarah Hepola, whose sharp prose elevates the content of the show as dramatically as a “Hail Mary” pass.
As Hepola notes: “The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders became America’s sweethearts — a very Texas hybrid of pageant beauty, good-girl etiquette and come-hither slink.”
Now 47, Hepola is the author of the 2015 book, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, which The Dallas Morning News called “a stingingly funny and wise memoir.”
So, why follow that with, of all things, an eight-part study of the Cowboys’ cheerleaders?
Hepola’s family moved to Dallas in 1978, “and we were outsiders, from the East Coast,” she says. “My mother is a woman of clogs and no makeup. She listens to classical music all the time. I just fell in love with these spangly blue-and-white princesses that I saw all around the city. The late 1970s were their pop-culture peak. Their presence was ubiquitous. They were branded on my brain in a way that feels deeply formative.”
Hepola was “a drama geek” who lived in Austin and New York City before returning to Dallas in 2011. Soon after, she saw a billboard on Central Expressway that featured a Cowboys cheerleader, prompting her to think, “Oh my God! They’re still here! I had moved away; the Soviet Union had fallen apart. But the Cowboys’ cheerleaders were still these goddesses, hovering over my city. And it occurred to me: I don’t know who these women are. They were everywhere — and I knew nothing about them.”
Even so, the cheerleader project remained a fantasy, “until you start to see all these cheerleader lawsuits. That’s when the story goes from, ‘Isn’t it funny that we still have cheerleaders?’ to being part of the reckoning” enveloping women worldwide.
Hepola marvels that the cheerleaders’ 1972 debut coincided with Title IX, which brought parity to female athletes in colleges; the release of the porno movie Deep Throat; and the volatile legal case titled Roe vs. Wade — which also had its roots in Dallas.
Her idea of following the cheerleaders from then to now carried with it the journalistic gold of “telling a lot of stories about the changing place of women in the world,” including “controversies over sexualization and fair pay” and the checkered odyssey of women in sports.
The high school students the Cowboys used as cheerleaders in the 1960s “were paid with tickets to the game,” Hepola says, noting that, in 1972, they were paid $15 a game, $14.12 after taxes. “What’s amazing is that it stayed there until the ‘90s. And then they get $50. Somewhere along the way, it goes up to $200. And then finally, the Cowboys get sued.”
The inequities reached an emotional nadir in the late ‘70s — when the cheerleaders graced the cover of Esquire magazine and appeared on network television shows and specials — “and they’re still getting $15 a game.”
Hepola zeroes in on “the dichotomy between the glamour and the glitz and the limos” and the fact that a lot of the women wearing those scanty outfits “couldn’t even pay their rent.”
And yet, the mantra “was constantly being framed as ‘this is an honor to do it, this is a privilege, but your spot will be replaced in a second — if you complain.’ "
Fast forward to 2019, the same year the Cowboys were christened by Forbes magazine as the world’s most lucrative sports franchise — with a staggering value of $5 billion that has escalated since then — when they settled a suit brought by former cheerleader Erica Wilkins.
“My first year on the team working for the Cowboys I made approximately $5,000 and the highest that I ever made my third year on the team was $16,000,” Wilkins told WFAA-TV (Channel 8), before the case was settled.
In the third episode, Hepola unpacks the 1978 scandal involving ex-Cowboys’ cheerleaders posing topless for Playboy. 1978 also marked the release of Debbie Does Dallas, a porno movie modeled loosely on the cheerleaders, whose distributor was an outfit called Pussycat Cinemas.
“Like a lot of porn companies, they had ties to the mob,” says Hepola, who notes that the 2018 documentary Daughters of the Sexual Revolution “does a wonderful job describing how Suzanne Mitchell, the cheerleaders’ leader at the time, took on the mob.”
Hepola’s podcast deals more extensively with the Playboy flap, which she calls “a big scandal.”
America’s Girls unravels the inherent hypocrisy of, in her words, the 1978 Cowboys “pushing sex and pushing sex and pushing sex” but being outraged when Playboy publishes photos of five ex-cheerleaders.
In 1978, the Cowboys were easily the best team in the league. That January, they won their second Super Bowl, crushing the Denver Broncos 27-10. They were coached by a God-fearing, World War II bomber pilot named Tom Landry and quarterbacked by Roger Staubach, “Captain America.”
And, of course, they were the only team in the league with celebrity cheerleaders, about whom Hepola says, “It’s amazing how rewarded these women were when they were cheerleaders” — though by no means financially — “and how punished they were when they stepped just a few inches of fabric to the side.”
A shining hero in the podcast is Brock, who founded the cheerleaders, and who, in Hepola’s view, is far more important than Bubbles Cash or Tex Schramm in making them the icons they became. Bubbles and Tex may have planted the seed, but Dee grew the tree. And what a tree it became. Brock, one of 50 people Hepola interviewed, is 91.
Cowboys management declined to give us a comment about the series, which includes interviews with such notables as retired sportscaster Dale Hansen, Joe Nick Patoski, who wrote a book about the team, and celebrated novelist Ben Fountain.
However, we did hear from Burk Murchison, whose father, Clint Murchison Jr., founded the Cowboys and became the first of three owners in 1960: “I would say what the cheerleaders underline is the quantum leap from Bubbles Cash walking down the aisle at the Cotton Bowl in 1967 to an era of enormous innovation and creativity made famous by Cowboys’ management.”
His father sold the team in 1984, to Dallas businessman H.R. “Bum” Bright, who then sold it to the current owner, who has cultivated his own high profile.
Jerry Jones acquired the football team (and the cheerleaders) in 1989, at a time when society itself was rippling with change. As Hepola explains, “body image and weight and physique” had suddenly become paramount issues, as had the sexualization of women.
And now, of course, the #MeToo movement has invaded the world of cheerleaders and cast a pall over its existence, with the Washington Football Team becoming the franchise that merits the greatest scrutiny, amid a web of nasty allegations involving sexual harassment.
So, is it fair to ask: Are the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders anachronistic to the point of being hopelessly outdated?
In some ways, yes, Hepola admits, but at the same time, they endure as “incredible dancers” whose talent she deems “elite.” They are, in her words, what the Rockettes are to Radio City Music Hall. An institution, yes, but also a relic of a bygone era.
When she began the project, Hepola asked her heterosexual male friends how they perceive today’s version of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. To a man, they answered with a shrug.
She did, however, get quite different reactions from her women and gay male friends, who generally adore the cheerleaders, to whom they are drawn because of the reality TV show that launched in 2006 and remains a hit on Country Music Television.
“They brought sex and glamour into the NFL,” Hepola says. “But now, we’re in a place in our culture where that is starting to be walked back. As cultural expectations change, the audience changes.
“I would say that today they’re ‘old-fashioned.’ They’re a legacy brand. Let’s put it this way: They have a look that was once transgressive that has somehow become traditional.”
One could even argue that the city of Dallas owes them a debt. When the cheerleaders began performing in Texas Stadium in 1972 — less than a year after the Cowboys left the Cotton Bowl for their new home in Irving — Dallas was awash in shame.
Because of President John F. Kennedy being assassinated on Elm Street in 1963, which led to an ugly brand — the “city of hate” — Dallas courted “a shame that lingered,” Hepola says, “through the 1960s and 1970s. It was, on its simplest level, a shame to be from here. But then you get to the 1970s, and the Cowboys are winning, and they’re a glamorous team, and their cheerleaders are the most beautiful women in football. All of a sudden, people are talking about this dumpy place as being a culturally exciting, utterly glamorous city. And the Dallas Cowboys and their cheerleaders were the architects of that.”
Then come the 1980s, when the No. 1-rated television show in the world is Dallas. It’s a decade, in Hepola’s words, “of conspicuous consumption, of oil and limos, and the cheerleaders are part of that. They’re glamour girls at the center of this world,” but as her podcast so deftly shows, “they’re still getting $15 a game.”
At this point, the podcaster chuckles.
“Which is why,” she says, “I wish we had 100 episodes,” but alas, she only has eight. And every second is a can’t-miss moment, not unlike Bubbles Cash sashaying her way through the Cotton Bowl stands.
America’s Girls is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.