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.

Elizabeth Berkley and Kyle MacLachlan in Showgirls.
Kyle MacLachlan and Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls

Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox—All Rights Reserved

Showgirls is an easy movie to laugh at but a hard one to spoof. Elizabeth Berkley played the lead role with such vulgarity that it parodied itself; to outdo her requires an inventory of something deeper and more manic. April Kidwell has that in her. She’s a fiery comedian, Kristen Wiig–like in her eye-bulging energy and weirdly Berkley-like in appearance, and she’s currently starring in a musical theater spoof called Showgirls! The Musical!, which runs through June 15 in Manhattan—and which has become an unlikely form of personal redemption for her.

You remember the original Showgirls: It’s a drama in which almost every woman is topless and nobody can act. Berkley’s character is Nomi Malone, an unhinged Las Vegas stripper who licks the pole she dances on. But she has larger ambitions—joining a flashy hotel show, then replacing its big star. Toward the end, her old strip-club boss shows up to compliment her: “Must be weird not having anyone cum on you,” he says without irony. It seems to be a story about empowerment but comes off as tone-deaf and ugly.

Once considered 1995’s greatest cinematic bomb, the film is enjoying an unexpected second life as a useful piece of art. Initially derided by Roger Ebert as “a waste of a perfectly good NC-17 rating,” it’s become the gay community’s new Rocky Horror Picture Show. Even Elizabeth Berkley, whose career was nearly destroyed by the film, now sees it as a source of strength. “My character’s name in the movie was Nomi, which over time came to symbolize to me how through this experience I came to ‘know me,’ ” she writes in Ask Elizabeth, a 2011 book that grew out of her “Ask Elizabeth” project, a series of talks she gives schoolgirls about self-esteem and overcoming adversity.

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Now there’s Kidwell’s musical parody version, in which pole-licking gives way to a song about all the STDs she could pick up. “By saving it, by reading it in new ways, by finding a message of empowerment in it, women are rescuing the film from a tendency to dismiss women's culture and concerns,” says New York University film-studies professor Dana Polan. Academically speaking, this is a familiar turn, and not just for movies about women. Self-serious, wildly off-the-mark films have been revived this way for decades, at least as far back as the 1936 morality tale Reefer Madness, which portrayed marijuana as a whirlpool of destruction and resurfaced as a 1970s college-campus favorite. “Performing Showgirls as camp offers safety through nostalgia,” says Joshua Louis Moss, who teaches film at University of California–Santa Barbara. “This allows someone feeling marginalized to find the codes to express that marginalization.”

But for Kidwell, Showgirls has become more than just a means of expression. Last January, when she was 27, a guy at a bar slipped something into her drink and then took her home; she remembers only flashes of him raping her while she screamed. She had no money for counseling, and the government social worker didn’t help, so Showgirls!, as ridiculous as it is, has become the culmination of years of self-therapy. “Nomi sees herself as a victim,” Kidwell explains. “She’s so untrusting of everyone. She’s like a feral cat. There’s no doubt in my mind that that character was molested and raped. ... So for my role, for my job, I get to go to this place of victimhood and aggression and anger and fear and see that it’s not helpful. I wake up the next morning after every performance and it’s like Disney cartoon hummingbirds. I’m so thankful and grateful for trees and plants and sunshine.”

Kidwell moved to New York after a lifetime of bouncing around. Her parents were in the military and transplanted her 16 times during her childhood; she then spent three years singing on a cruise ship and tried out an unsatisfying stint in Los Angeles. She was a free-spirited Burning Man type trying to jump-start an acting career. But after the rape, she says, “It’s like somebody strikes lightening in your brain and you are completely separated from yourself and you forget everything you ever knew about yourself.” She withdrew. She had panic attacks. She needed to hear from someone she trusted, and, at a loss for anyone else, she chose herself: She spoke supportive thoughts into a camera, then watched the videos back as if she were the audience.

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.

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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