When we think of Las Vegas most of us think of glittering lights, busy casinos, cocktails, and most importantly, showgirls. The Vegas showgirl is synonymous with the allure of the thriving metropolis and has been ever since the early 21st century. But these girls are much more than feathers and glitter — and you might be surprised at what goes into being one of the world’s most beloved entertainers. From the strict entry requirements to the unbelievable value of the incredible costumes, take a look at the glamorous lives of Las Vegas showgirls.
They’ve Always Been Closely Associated To The Mob
Working in Las Vegas sees you mix with the dark underbelly of the city of sin. In the ’40s and ’50s, the mob was still largely in control and would often party with showgirls. Some of them would become the mistresses of married men, or if they were lucky, rub shoulders with the likes of Frank Sinatra.
Veteran former showgirl Lisa Malouf Medford told The Washington Post that while at times it felt dangerous, she missed those days. “I loved the mob,” she confessed. “I loved those days. They protected you.” Medford wasn’t the only one to long for times past either, with many sharing her sentiment.
They’re Classically Trained
You might think that all you need to be a Las Vegas showgirl is a toned body and the willingness to wear crazy outfits, but you’d be wrong. These girls might not be performing in the Royal Ballet, but most of them are classically trained.
The routines have to be so tight and on point that every single girl chosen has to be the best at what she does. It takes a lot of time, years of training and a lot of stamina to perform on that stage, even if some people don’t realize that it takes more than glitter.
The Average Las Vegas Showgirl’s Salary
The originator of the Las Vegas showgirls, Margaret Kelley (also known as Madame Bluebell) brought the Parisian-style act to the strip. Without her, it’s possible that there would never have been Las Vegas showgirls. While she was all about the business, Kelley also treated the girls well.
Among other things, she insisted that they were all paid a handsome salary for their performances. After all, why should they get pennies when other dancers in high-profile troupes were raking in the dough? In 2014 Simply Hired stated that the average yearly wage for a showgirl was $39,000. That’s not the best but it’s also not half bad when you’re doing something you love for a living.
The Costumes Are Incredibly Expensive
How much could a few rhinestones and feathers cost, you ask? Try more than you make in a year. Pete Menefee had a long and illustrious career as a costume designer for the showgirls.
When the costumes had to be replaced for one of the main shows in 1990, Menefee was given a budget of $3 million dollars, working out at roughly $20,000 per girl per number. “Pheasant feathers from South Africa cost $36,” he explained. “I had 300 of them on the two principals.” The showgirls have to encapsulate the epitome of the Las Vegas ideal — luxury, mystique, and excess.
Tattoos Are Banned
If you want to be a showgirl, then there’s one ultimate no-no. Absolutely no visible tattoos – and as you might be baring some flesh, that leaves some pretty limited places to get some ink.
Some believe that the rule is a little outdated, but it’s all so the girls can appear clean-cut. Once they’ve left the chorus for bigger and better things, that’s an entirely different story. Former Jubilee performer Sabina Kelley went on to become a tattoo model after spending almost a decade kicking up a storm on stage. While she never regretted her time in Las Vegas, she did admit that she had wanted a tattoo for years.
You’ve Got To Be Tall
In Ballet, the more petite you are the better, but if you’re headed to the glittering lights of Las Vegas, then you’d better be able to reach that top shelf. The minimum height requirement is 5’8″, but even that is considered short.
The taller girls will be between 5’10” and 6’2″. Many girls have expressed how difficult it was for them growing up as they often felt insecure because of their height. Now that they’re on the stage, they feel much more at home as they’re around girls of a similar stature as them. Thank goodness they don’t have to wear heels!
They Have Worked With Beyonce’s Choreographer
Jubilee was by far the best and most revered production that Las Vegas had ever seen, running from 1981 to 2016. Producers began to realize in the early aughts that audiences were gravitating to different types of entertainment, and did whatever they could to renew their appeal.
They switched up the costumes, re-did the sets and even invested in the world’s largest stripper pole. As for the dance routines, they called in the best of the best and hired one of Beyonce’s own choreographers. Unfortunately, Jubilee’s days on the strip were numbered, and there was nothing anyone could do about it but sit back and watch.
They Have To Be Super Fit
Not only are these girls incredibly well-trained dancers, but they have to be in peak physical condition too. There’s a difference between being able to dance on your tippy-toes and being able to bear the weight of a huge rhinestone-studded headdress.
The costumes are often heavily embellished, meaning that they have to support all of that weight, while moving effortlessly through their routines for the entire 90-minute performance. They make it look easy, but it really isn’t. While the girls don’t have to wear skyscraper high-heels, they’re required to wear a good three inches which can be tricky when you’re climbing stairs on stage.
Training Is Intense
When showgirls get the job — and even if they’ve already completed years of dance training elsewhere — that doesn’t mean that they can jump right into things. Instead, they’re put through vigorous training. If they can’t handle the pressure, then they’re out.
The program lasts about four weeks and tests everything from their stamina to their ability to hold a smile for 90 minutes straight. They’re expected to pick up routines quickly and remember all of the steps. If they show any signs of not being ready, then they’re booted out and won’t get a chance to perform as part of the world-famous show.
They Work Hard And Party Hard
Las Vegas is primarily a nighttime town. People from all over the world go to sin city to cut loose and blow off some steam, so that means that pretty much everyone working there is used to working nights.
The showgirls usually have one show at 8 p.m., then they get a half an hour break while the stage is reset at 9:30 p.m., before doing it all again at 10 p.m. By the time they’re done and out of the theatre, it’s after midnight. According to an article penned by a showgirl for Las Vegas Weekly, the girls often end up going out for drinks afterward and don’t turn in until the early hours.
El Rancho Vegas Was The First Casino To Feature Showgirls
The showgirl concept first appeared at the El Rancho Vegas in 1941, thanks to the work of Madame Bluebell. Over the course of the next few years, the girls became the opening and closing act for Las Vegas headliners, rather than an act themselves.
They went on to be introduced at the Sands Casino for a show with Danny Thomas, before evolving into an act that people wanted to come and see on their own merit. It soon became clear that the showgirls themselves were an attraction and not just a distraction to keep punters entertained during breaks and intermissions.
Jubilee Dancers Found Out It Was Closing Mid-Performance
Jubilee was the most highly-prized showgirl extravaganza on the strip, and while showgirls perform in other productions, nothing was as big and bold as the 34-year strong show.
Bally’s announced the closing of the show while the dancers were mid-performance in 2016, meaning that the show really did have to go on. The cast and crew were devastated, having dealt with the death of longtime manager Fluff LeCoque just a few days prior. The show had undergone a full facelift just two years previously, meaning that millions of dollars went down the drain for virtually no reason.
There Are Career Opportunities
Dancing in the chorus might seem like the tip-top place to be in Vegas, but many showgirls have gone on to bigger and better things. BAFTA award- nominated actress Valerie Perrine started out as a Las Vegas girl before launching her ’70s movie career, and Diane Palm rose from dancer to company manager.
“Offstage, we would go unrecognized,” she confessed. “Except for the height thing. You didn’t take it home with you.” Another ’70s star, Felicia Atkins, caught the eye of Hugh Hefner and went on to become Playmate of the Month.
Frank Sinatra Married One
Back in the ’50s and ’60s, showgirls were in their prime and Las Vegas was the place to be if you were rich and famous. Frank Sinatra spent a lot of time on the strip and supposedly had numerous flings with many women, even when he was married.
His fourth wife, Barbara, was a former showgirl and model — but the two didn’t meet on the Las Vegas scene. In fact, it wasn’t until Frank was 60 and Barbara was 49 that the two met, well after ol’ blue eyes had hung up his Las Vegas hat. Still, the crooner clearly had a soft spot for girls that could dance.
They Don’t Party In Vegas
Back in the ’50s, showgirls were expected to hang out with the high-rollers after the show and make them feel special — mostly so that they would carry on drinking and gambling. The casinos actively encouraged it. Now, it’s really unlikely that you’ll see an off-duty showgirl partying on the strip.
According to Thrillist, the girls take off their costumes and go and shake their tail-feathers away from where they work. You’re more likely to find them in East Fremont at bars like Beauty Bar, Gold Spike and the Commonwealth where they can enjoy themselves without the prying eyes of fans.
They Fall A Lot
These girls are professionals at what they do and have more training than you can shake a stick at, but that doesn’t mean that falls don’t happen. In fact, couple the vigorous routines with tall stairs and incredibly heavy costumes, and falls happen during every performance.
Former showgirl Erica Tremaine recalled, “You’d fall, slope off backstage if necessary to fix yourself and the first question that the crew would ask is, ‘Is the costume okay?’ When your outfit is worth a small house that’s where the concern goes. They’re not worried about you, you’re easily replaceable. The costume is a different story.”
Minsky’s Follies Introduced The Topless Showgirl
By 1957, Minsky’s Burlesque had set up shop in Las Vegas after being outlawed in New York for their risque performances. Harold Minsky opened at the Dunes, setting up a chorus line of showgirls that would become the world’s first topless performers of their kind.
The act was a hit that ran for six years at the Dunes before moving into other landmark casinos such as the Silver Slipper, the Thunderbird and The Aladdin. These days there’s a lot less nudity in the acts, but it still can be seen on occasion, depending on the show that’s being performed.
They Change Costumes Multiple Times
In a true showgirl number, costume changes happen more frequently than at a Beyonce concert. You might’ve thought that the likes of Queen Bey and Taylor Swift knew how to switch things up, but they’ve got nothing on the Las Vegas showgirls.
Depending on the production, the dancers can expect to change costumes between six and eight times per show. With each show lasting just an hour and a half approximately, that doesn’t leave a lot of time for malfunctions. It’s not as simple as slipping on a pair of pants a new top, but rather complicated bejeweled bustiers and headdresses that are anything but quick.
Even Busts Were Measured
If a show such as the long-running extravaganza Jubilee required a dancer to go topless, then it wasn’t as simple as taking off some clothes and getting on with it. Girls were paid around $50 extra for stripping off back in the day, but not everyone could do it.
Showgirl legend Fluff LeCoque was an icon in the biz. Before directing Jubilee, she starred in several high-profile productions and insisted that her girls have small busts so as not to distract the audience from the elegance and uniformity of the dancer’s line — many think she was right on doing so.
You Can Get A Showgirl Tour
They may be up on stage twice a night and working their butts off for the entertainment of others, but their job doesn’t end with the curtain call. Instead, the girls are often required to do extra things, like give backstage tours to VIP ticket holders.
On set days, you can purchase a ticket and go behind the scenes to see where the costumes are set up, where the makeup is done and where the girls assemble before they head out on stage. It’s not all glamorous, but it certainly looks exciting to an outsider looking in, doesn’t it?