For a show that trades in brawn and men’s gyrating crotches, Magic Mike Live is actually pretty clever. The 90-minute spectacle, which has played in Las Vegas since 2017 and is currently at the Sahara hotel casino, repeatedly subverts the expectations it sets by virtue of being an all-male revue. I almost hesitate to print its first trick, because experiencing it without knowing a thing about it going into it was enough to make my head spin when I watched the show Saturday. Set in the round (the stage is more like a boxing ring than anything), Magic Mike Live begins with a lineup of dudes on the stage in typically “manly” costumes (a fighter fighter, a cop, a dude in a tuxedo shirt with its sleeves cut off) while an MC motormouths obscenities. He reminded me of Henrietta ‘Mama’ Bazoom in Showgirls (“Did someone just stick their finger in my ass?” was his idea of a joke). The dancers start to infiltrate the audience, grinding on various women, hard. I saw one yank a woman’s chair with such force from behind that I was surprised she didn’t hit the floor. He proceeded to climb onto her and then force her onto the stage. The look on her face was so scared and disoriented, I thought she might be on heavy drugs. I was terrified for her.
And then the stage went dark, a spotlight shone on her, and she delivered a monologue to an invisible unicorn in the sky. Twist! This wasn’t the show she wanted, so could she maybe steer the ship? The bait and switch resulted in her taking over as MC, guiding us through a show that’s wall-to-wall packed conventionally attractive men of varying backgrounds (though the body fat percentage is uniformly low, and their ages don’t appear to cross 40). It’s a gentler spin on the pecs-and-ass showcases that help define the Strip’s entertainment, and rather self-consciously so. There’s a better way, says Magic Mike Live, and then it shows how.
Fittingly, Finding Magic Mike, the new HBO Max reality competition, is as much a formal response as the live show it’s associated with. It puts 10 finalists who’ve “lost their magic” through a bootcamp of sorts inspired by various elements of the Magic Mike Live show. Their ultimate prize is not to join the company of the live show, but $100,000 and something a bit more ephemeral: personal growth.
Showrunner Alycia Rossiter said during a recent junket in Vegas that she went into her first meeting with series producers Peter Kiernan and Vince Marini (who also produces the live show and mentors on the reality show), knowing that she was not interested in helping them search for America’s Next Top Himbo Stripper.
“I came to [the producers] with a take of: In the post-MeToo era, let’s talk about what it means to be a man and what is sexy,” explained Rossiter. “A lot of men have the wrong perception of what women want from them. And we’re going to sort of teach them about communication and about being soft and about all of the things that make, I think, a man in 2022 a man.”
“Dance was the vehicle, but we weren’t looking for the best dancer,” added Alison Faulk, who choreographs Magic Mike Live and the guys on the TV show.
While it may seem circuitous, if not outlandish, to train men moves like the dolphin dive and kip-up with no plans to actually hire them to perform them onstage, there’s some precedence to the benefits of the Magic Mike process—the show’s host and mentor Adam Rodriguez, who played Tito in the Magic Mike movies, said the experience of dancing nearly nude in front of the world was actually useful in the bigger scheme of his life. “I knew how much I grew from the experience of doing the movies—pushing past my own vulnerabilities and my own hesitations about body or dancing in a G-string,” he said. “Just doing things that like would have seemed like the scariest thing in the world at one moment. And when you push past them and then have the experience and realize what’s beyond the fear, you know, you’re like, Oh, fuck, I got to help other people get there too and see what’s beyond this.”
Finding Magic Mike filmed in July and August of 2021 for about eight weeks. To maintain the show’s covid bubble, the contestants were sequestered in separate hotel rooms when they weren’t practicing or performing.
“I think the toughest thing mentally was probably being locked away in a room and not being able to have like my freedom that I wanted,” said contestant Nate Bryan, 32.
In addition to the necessitated novelty of covid-era TV making, Rossiter did not run her show like typical reality fare (previously, she’s produced shows like The Bachelor). This isn’t quite Tool Academy in cock socks.
“We did not try to pit them against each other,” she said. “We did not ask them questions to make them judge one another. They were not the type of guys that wanted to sit down and tell us shitty things about everybody else. That’s what we wanted.” The softer hand falls in line thematically with Magic Mike Live’s softening on the all-male revue and the guiding Magic Mike ethos of providing a softer take on masculinity, though Rossiter mentioned another reason for attempting to foster brotherhood over acrimony. “We went through a pandemic,” she said. “We were locked in our houses. Should we really be producing fistfights, or should we be laughing and uplifting people in a fun way? So for me, that’s what I’m gonna do.” The producer pointed out that what the show lacks in interpersonal drama, it makes up for in humor and sex appeal.
The reality show is gentle to the point of scrapping the traditional elimination ceremony—instead of an group effective countdown to the contestant who will be sent packing that week, a few guys are pulled aside by the various mentors and critiqued and/or praised individually. The eliminated contestant is informed he’s going home in this one-on-one configuration before returning to the waiting group to say his goodbyes. “We wanted to do something that was dignified and didn’t feel like we were really singling somebody out for being the winner or the loser,” said Rodriguez. “It was more just about like, ‘Look, I think we reached the end of the road here.’”
The net effect is a lot of open philosophizing about masculinity, which has traditionally been taken for granted as just the way things are. For a light competition show that is very much invested in male beauty in various forms, there’s a surprising amount of deconstructing and attempts at rebuilding manhood. After a lap dance that takes place in one episode, in which jacked contestant Ross takes off his belt and uses it to bind the hands of the woman he’s dancing on, mentor/choreographer Luke Broadlick tells the group that, “It’s actually nicer when a strong man is soft.”
“There’s already intimidation when it comes to strength, but if that strength can be just softened, it makes that man actually stronger,” Broadlick explained during his interview with Jezebel. “If men can handle that versus just being rigid, there’s a disconnect when that happens.”
Marini said the way the Finding Magic Mike contestants interact reminds him “of the way that I would talk to my best friend.” He continued: “I wouldn’t necessarily say [these things] to the guys that I’m in the locker room with after playing soccer. But if we’re hanging out late night at a diner and I really want to tell him something, that’s sort of what I feel like the show is about. It’s about guys opening up. And for a lot of them, they don’t have those relationships in their lives. They don’t have those kinds of male friends in their lives. And you can just tell.”
Bryan and fellow contestant Johnny Dutch, also 32, compared the bonding on set to that which they experienced in team sports. “For me, masculinity was hard to grasp because I grew up father,” said Bryan. “My mom told me how a guy treats a woman, you know? I heard about those things, I just never saw it. But I think it’s like taking care of business. Being a man is so much more than just like being macho. It’s having a soft side, being able to pick other people up that are down. Being stronger, and not just with muscles. Being stronger with emotional support.”
During a conversation with two other contestants that’s seen on the show, Dutch came out as fluid, which he said he had not expected to do going into the show. “I no longer want to live my life where I’m not being authentically me because it’s kind of suffocating,” he said. “I was tired of not being able to breathe. So this was the perfect opportunity. And then also it was the brotherhood. They made me feel like I could really express myself. And when I did, they were like, ‘Cool.’” Dutch said the lack of backlash he received was a “shocker” compared to what he witnessed during his conservative Southern upbringing.
In virtually every episode, the guys try out what they’ve learned for (and sometimes on) a group of women brought in, who then provide direct feedback, which offered the opportunity for further introspection. “I’ve never been the type person to be in a relationship and ask, ‘What do you like about me that’s sexy?’” said Bryan. “But like, a girl sitting in a chair and you trying to be sexy and she’s like, ‘Okay, well, you’ve got to fix this. You’ve got to fix that.’ You’re like, ‘Oh, damn, I didn’t even know I was doing that,’ because you never asked that question. You’ve never been coached on being sexier or carrying yourself a certain way.”
“In Finding Magic Mike, as we’re trying to help these guys figure out their place in the world, we’re using the voices of women to help them understand how they really come across,” explained Marini. “Like how are they really perceived? Because it’s such an unusual thing to get people that can be honest about what you’re projecting into the world.”
Faulk said discussions with various women played a major role in the conception of Magic Mike Live, and the result is the “plethora of men and things and ideas and stuff, that will appeal to women’s brains a little bit too.” While Finding Magic Mike, the TV show, is necessarily about the men who are competing, in Magic Mike Live, the woman MC’s voice prevails and dictates. Toward the end, this veered close to empowerment feminism—“You are enough!” the MC shouted to the crowd, which was probably 95 percent women. They were so engaged throughout the show, the crowd noise might as well have come from an amusement park, a repeating pattern of gleeful screaming whether it was the result of lap dances, aerial choreography, or a number featuring a male and female dancer so explicit it could have been called rhythmic dry humping if they weren’t soaked in water raining from the ceiling. Just when the narration started to get cloyingly touchy-feely, the MC concluded with what would roughly be called the moral of the story: “As you can see, there are plenty of good guys with good dicks to go around,” she shouted to the crowd. It’s not a bad takeaway at all.