How a Showgirls Musical Spoof Became Its Lead Actress’s Salvation

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May 13 2013 10:51 AM

The Restorative Powers of Showgirls

How 1995’s greatest cinematic bomb is finding new life onstage—and giving new life to a wounded actress.

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The idea morphed. Soon she began filming herself dancing, often in her underwear. She’d do this multiple times a week, so often that she’s lost count, and would occasionally post the videos on YouTube. Something about it felt freeing, safe and yet sexual, a defiance of her fears. She hoped other abused women watched and felt inspired. Her boyfriend encouraged her to try out for a musical spoof of Saved by the Bell, and she got the part of Jessie Spano, the brainy feminist originally played by Elizabeth Berkley. Kidwell was so nervous that she smoked pot before every performance. Toward the end of the run, she and the guy playing A.C. Slater cooked up the idea for Showgirls!. “No matter what I do, I dive in,” she says now, which seems as much an explanation as an affirmation. “I’m not going to hold back, because then I’m afraid.”

Preparing for the role of Nomi meant getting a stripper pole and some lessons, which she bartered from a local school in exchange for some ads at the show. It was fun, she says: a hell of a workout. “Being naked hasn’t been a challenge. I was always naked in college, chasing around my gay roommates,” she says. “But the thought of, like, the intention behind it, the sexual energy, showing that part of yourself. Oh, is that too much? It’s just moving your butt in a certain way. That’s been huge therapy for me, getting over that fear.”

Kidwell has an advantage Berkley never did: “I have no doubt, no reservations, doing a show specifically because it’s comedy,” she says. On stage she’s at once topless and joking, sexy and unserious. If only Showgirls director Paul Verhoeven, or United Artists, had marketed the original as a send-up of Vegas stereotypes—like Starship Troopers for strippers. “It would have been a different experience for her,” Kidwell says. (Berkley’s representatives didn’t respond to requests for comment.) There’s no way to know whether audiences in 1995 would have embraced the original Showgirls as parody, but it could have at least spared Berkley years of heartache: It’s easier to be a clown who flubbed a joke than a gyrating woman who failed to entice.

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As Showgirls! The Musical! neared its opening date this spring, Kidwell got to thinking about what else she might take from the experience. She felt repaired and ready for more challenges, though she was also pretty low on cash. So she went onto Craigslist looking for “dancer wanted” ads. Now that she has the skills, she figured, why not make a few bucks? She eventually connected with the owner of a Manhattan lounge, who told her to come start work immediately. She arrived in a lace dress and was given the barest of instructions: Chat up the men and give them lap dances. She’d earn $20 for each one.

“I told myself, ‘I’m an actor, this is what I do, I’m committing 110 percent,’ ” she says. “I’ve only been in a strip club once, when I was 21 with a guy I was dating. I was like, ‘This is horribly offensive!’ ” But now she was in an even seedier establishment—not a strip club so much as a nearly empty second-floor bar, rimmed with those slide-off-the-leather rounded couches. Kidwell gave dances to two men, which she thought went pretty well until a female employee walked up and called her a whore. “And then I realized, everything I know about lap dancing I learned from watching Showgirls,” Kidwell says.

In the movie’s most memorable scene, Nomi gives a lap dance that quickly devolves into a grinding, mechanical dry hump—and so Kidwell had taken that cue, speeding straight to the finish. “Which apparently is, you know, not appropriate,” she says. But she didn’t feel foolish. She didn’t feel ashamed. She’d simply reached the limits of what Showgirls had to offer. So she collected her $40 and went home.

Jason Feifer is a senior editor at Fast Company and tweets @heyfeifer. He lives in Brooklyn.

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