Stories in this article are featured in episode three of our podcast America’s Girls. You can dive deeper into the stories from the show in our Pocket collection.

One late afternoon in July, my fingers lightly trembling, I sent a text. “I’m looking for Meg. Is this her?”

I’d gotten the number from a records search, and the message was not the first I’d sent to Meg, one of five former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders who posed topless in a December 1978 Playboy. I’d sent a note through Facebook, I’d sent carefully worded emails to two different accounts, and who knows if she saw them, little notes lobbed into the ocean. But someone saw this, because I watched as the tiny gray font underneath the blue text bubble turned from “delivered” to “read.” I stared at the screen, waiting for what she might say. I waited a while.

“That sounded creepy!” I typed, suddenly aware I had not identified myself. “I should explain that my name is Sarah, and I’m a journalist with Texas Monthly. I’m interested in talking to Meg about the 1978 Playboy shoot.” 

As if that didn’t sound creepy. Cold-calling was one of my least favorite parts of this gig. Cold-texting, whatever you call this. Diving into a stranger’s life with a microphone and a demand: Hi, we’ve never met, please tell me your secrets. And probably because I dreaded it so much, I had a tendency to overexplain, which I did in a long text to Meg. I pictured her on the other end, the way I’d seen her in cheerleader pictures. Short springy dark hair, athletic figure, probably no older than 23. Now she was somewhere in her mid-60s. She could be a grandmother now.

The tiny font changed from “delivered” to “read” again, and then—nothing.   

I badly wanted to tell the story of the 1978 Playboy scandal in our podcast, but I was having little luck. It was a moment when the forces of sex and feminism and commerce collided, and the erotic girl-next-door fantasy the Cowboys introduced was getting tricky to manage. The year 1978 also saw the release of Debbie Does Dallas, the infamous porn flick in which our title character dons a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders uniform, a copyright violation that resulted in the deliciously named court case Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, Inc. v. Pussycat Cinema, Ltd. And this scandal, along with the Playboy issue, which also led to a lawsuit, marked a turning point in the cheerleaders’ saga. Rules got stricter. The brand started pushing toward kid-friendliness and patriotism, eager to repair its image. I also thought the Playboy tale was misunderstood. People saw it as a story about boobs. I saw it as a story about fair pay, the meaning of exploitation, and what happens to women who step out of line.

I’d been warned that the women from the Playboy shoot would be hard to find. As a category, seventies cheerleaders aren’t easy to track down. Their last names have often changed, sometimes more than once. Some former cheerleaders are always chasing that spotlight, but I’d discovered that many were eager to recede into the shadows. I never knew why, but the five women from the Playboy issue had a pretty good reason. The fallout lingered for decades. “I think they’re embarrassed,” one of the former cheerleaders told me. Still? I tried to imagine being embarrassed by something I’d done 43 years ago. I was four.

But a story that ended in controversy began in triumph. In spring 1978, as the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders rode an unprecedented wave of publicity, a group of former cheerleaders joined forces to start a rival talent agency. They called themselves the Texas Cowgirls. They made appearances where the official cheerleaders would not go. Mostly places where alcohol was served, since avoiding alcohol was one of the strict rules laid down by then-director Suzanne Mitchell. They appeared at car shows and grand openings and Ducks Unlimited auctions wearing a silver and blue leotard with silver go-go boots and a black cowboy hat, their own signature uniform.

Texas Cowgirls poster
Texas Cowgirls poster, with Debbie Kepley second from left.Courtesy of Debbie Kepley

Their reasons for joining varied. Some had been cut from the squad, others left on their own, disgruntled by the $15-a-game payday and rules over where you could go and what you could wear. But the hype unleashed by the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders had revealed an insatiable appetite for beautiful, scantily clad women, and the Texas Cowgirls were happy to feed it. They were secretaries and grocery checkers and other shades of youthful struggle. Unlike the official cheerleaders, whose occasional $500 appearance fees went to a select group handpicked by Mitchell, the Texas Cowgirls would operate more equitably. 

“We won’t have favorites,” Tina Jimenez told the Dallas Times Herald in July 1978. “There’s a bond of friendship among us and we want to keep it that way.” Jimenez was an enterprising single mom, and the Cowgirls were her idea. She’d been a Cowboys cheerleader in 1976, but she was cut the next year. Cheerleaders have to try out each season for their spot, and in 1977 the competition had grown fierce. More than 600 women showed up for an audition, where only 250 had the year before. Watching gorgeous, talented women get axed from the team, Tina had the brainstorm to start an alumni-type organization. And so the Cowgirls set out to carve their own destiny. The 1978 Times Herald story contains a line that would prove momentous. “Playboy magazine flew down to discuss the possibility of a photo layout.” 

That summer, Playboy magazine was prepping a special issue that would be touted as “Sex on the Sidelines: NFL cheerleaders bare all!” Sexy sideline dancers were all the rage that year, and a number of squads opened their doors when Playboy came knocking. But the door was shut over at Cowboys headquarters (which was in the same building as the Playboy Club, by the way). So the Texas Cowgirls came on board. Their topless photo would become the issue’s centerpiece, a playful send-up of the 1977 Bob Shaw poster of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders that sold around a million copies. Five women stood in a V formation, smoke billowing around their white go-go boots, and they wore something very similar to that iconic uniform—except this time, their tops were open wide. 

I loved that image. Sexy, funny, defiant. We can have a discussion sometime about the word “objectification,” or the mixed legacy of Hugh Hefner, but the truth is that I’d been collecting old Playboys for some time. I bought them at vintage stores and Half Price Books, where they were displayed alongside Life magazines. This was part cultural study, part appreciation of the female form. I marveled at the endless booze and cigarette ads, the naturalness of the women’s bodies before plastic took hold, the damn fine reporting. I ordered the December 1978 Playboy on eBay, and it showed up in a brown cardboard mailer. Farrah Fawcett graced the cover. (No, she wasn’t naked in that issue, though she would be in later ones.) I turned the musty pages to the section on the Cowgirls, who got their own solo shots in addition to the group photo. When I learned the women’s names, I tumbled down rabbit holes of internet investigation.

A story is a search. A search to learn more, uncover some angle you hadn’t known, challenge your own perceptions. In many cases, it is a literal search to find lost data or forgotten history or people who may not want to be found. This is the part of the process I enjoy very much. The sun sank in my bedroom window as I plowed through Instagram and online databases and so-and-so’s ex-husband’s court records, feeling like a crackerjack private investigator. I messaged one of the women on Facebook, and later that afternoon, she wrote back. 

She wrote back! I felt like she’d agreed to go with me to the junior prom. We agreed to chat on the phone, but she had to cancel. We made another date, which she canceled again. She was very nice about all this, but we’d hit a wall. The Playboy episode was too painful, she finally told me. The issue came out shortly before her wedding and caused a massive rift. She wished me luck. But she would not be participating in this podcast.

At this point, my producer, Patrick Michels, joined the search, feeding me a string of possible phone numbers for the women, including Texas Cowgirls founder Tina Jimenez. One afternoon, heart pounding, I called Tina. Actually, I called a few people named Tina Jimenez, and I apologize. But on the third try, a woman answered the phone, and when I introduced myself, she didn’t hang up. Back in the day, Tina was a press hound. She crowed about the Texas Cowgirls to anyone who would quote her. But this woman sounded guarded. 

“I’ll give her your message,” the voice said. 

“Do you know Tina?” I asked. Ominous silence. 

“I’ll give her your message,” she said, and that was the last I heard.

The “NFL bares all” issue became one of the top-selling Playboy issues of all time: 6.5 million copies. Part of that is because of the scandal it created—first in the NFL, where it led to stricter cheerleading rules and several women being fired, and then with the Texas Cowgirls. The photo of the five ex-cheerleaders was turned into a poster, an idea hatched by photographer Arny Freytag (who has shot more Playboy centerfolds than anyone). The Dallas Cowboys made $3 million off their smoking-hot pinup. What kind of bounty could be reaped from a topless one? So the poster was made, and it was selling well—until the Cowboys sued. Copyright infringement, unfair competition, and a restraining order on the poster’s sale. The case was tried in Texas, and the Cowboys won. 

Arny Freytag got hit hard by that lawsuit. (It cost him $50,000, and no, he didn’t want to talk about this for the podcast, thanks for asking.) But for the women in the shoot, the fallout was more personal. They lost friends. They lost respect in their community. The 2018 documentary about the Suzanne Mitchell era of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, Daughters of the Sexual Revolution, is excellent, and I highly recommend it, but the brief part about the Playboy scandal irked me. 

“Deleted from the database” says one former cheerleader of the fate that befell those five women. Cheerleaders are notoriously underpaid, but what they have is a sisterhood. What they have is the status of being former cheerleaders. The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders alumni database connects more than eight hundred women across the decades for special events and gatherings (and Christmas ornament sales), and to be part of that elite circle means something to a lot of people. But these five women had been erased. Banned from events and message boards. Scrubbed from the roster as though they never existed. For what? The difference of a few inches of fabric? For trying to get paid?

North Dallas Forty poster
North Dallas Forty movie poster.Paramount Pictures/Photofest

In June, I got a break in the case. When it comes to tracking down former cheerleaders, your best resource is other former cheerleaders. I’d turned to seventies-era golden girl Shannon Baker Werthmann, who agreed to reach out to a woman named Debbie Kepley for me. Debbie had always seemed like my best bet, because she’d given many interviews over the years (including for the 2019 documentary Sidelined, about how the Playboy scandal rocked the Seattle Sea Gals, whose squad was folded). But Debbie hadn’t responded to my emails. I wondered if she was tired of talking about this story. Lucky for me, Debbie was not.

Debbie called a few days later. She is a journalist’s dream. Open, honest, funny, and completely unafraid to go on the record. (I’d been using the wrong email.) She lived in Los Angeles, and she didn’t understand why none of the other cheerleaders would talk. What was the deal? Why did everyone hide? It was more than forty years ago! I wondered if Debbie’s willingness to speak had anything to do with the fact that she left Dallas shortly after Playboy. She’d moved to Canada to be with a guy, and after that relationship ended, she went to California, chasing the Hollywood dream for a while before settling into a career as a personal trainer. 

Debbie had no qualms about the topless shoot. It was fun. When I asked if she had any regrets, she told me she wished she’d had bigger boobs. (See? Journalist’s dream.) And with Debbie on record, I finally had a chance to tell this story. But something was bothering me. I was relieved to hear Debbie’s comfort with her past, but I also knew it wasn’t exactly representative. There were five women in that topless picture, and four of them had turned me down. It was either can’t talk, won’t talk, or stone-cold silence.

I did have one long shot. A woman named Janice Garner, a friend of a friend. She’d been a singer and a makeup artist. She had long dark hair, and her solo shot in the Playboy issue was stunning. It feels tacky to say this, because a) all the women in that spread look amazing, and I’m not just saying that, and b) even though we judge women on their appearance constantly, it’s become politically unpopular to admit you’re doing it. But I’d shown the Playboy to a few friends, men and women, and I’m pretty sure each of them was like: Whoa, who is Janice Garner? 

Janice and I texted a few times, but then she grew scarce. I never knew if she was busy, or if she’d changed her mind, and I didn’t want to harass her. Unwanted attention was a downside for many of the cheerleaders (listen to episode two), and I was sensitive to anyone wanting to be left alone. It’s a real weak spot for me as a journalist. Ruthlessness is not my bag. But I did have a little fight left in me. One day, I sent her a friendly note, what the hell. Two hours later, I got a response. 

“Do you have time to talk?”

The exhilaration of moments like this is what cancels out the sleepless nights and the fourteen-hour days and the constant wrestling with perfectionism and ego and personal and professional limitations that has been my lot as a journalist. That was the day I met Janice Garner. Not through a photo I stared at in a magazine. Not through archived articles, where I learned about the Texas Cowgirls. Not through texts, where we were disembodied figures conveying our personalities through hearts and thumbs-up emojis. But through our voices. We fell into an easy rapport. She had a smooth contralto. 

Janice Garner selfie.
Janice Garner today.Courtesy of Janice Garner

But she still wasn’t sure about the podcast. Talking to a journalist was one thing. Talking to a journalist in front of a shotgun mic with an H5 Zoom recorder flashing its mean red dot was another thing entirely. The Playboy shoot cost her a lot. I suspect she was torn between wanting to finally claim it and wanting to banish it from memory. We did become text buddies, though. We talked on the phone a few times. One Saturday morning, we met at the downtown Dallas public library, where I was digging through old cheerleader news clippings it kept in a manila folder. Janice and I sat across from each other at a long wooden table, speaking sotto voce in a mostly empty room on the seventh floor, where I had gone as a girl with my mom when I was researching school papers in middle school. We passed yellowed pieces of parchment back and forth, pointing out curious details. I was still searching for what happened back then. Janice was still trying to remember. 

When we said goodbye in the underground parking lot, we hugged. “I’m warming up to the idea,” she said, before I even had to ask, which I appreciated. She had relieved me of the burden of having to make my greasy pitch. 

If I’m being honest, I never stopped wanting Janice to do the interview. But if I’m being really honest, I wondered if she should. Because I didn’t know what kind of fallout might result. Because once you put a story into the world, it’s out of your hands. The thought of bringing pain into her life brought me pain too. What if she gave the interview and later regretted it? What if she gave the interview and something terrible happened? It bothered me enormously that the women from the Texas Cowgirls had been treated like fallen women, while the women from the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were treated like celebrities (although sidebar: also underpaid and sometimes mistreated). And okay, fine, nudity is a big deal, otherwise we wouldn’t argue so much about it. And okay, I can see how the official cheerleaders at the time might have been embarrassed by the scandal. But to banish these women from the organization forever felt like such a steaming heap of hypocrisy to me. Sex is part of your brand. Own it. 

I told myself that if Janice disappeared again, I wouldn’t chase her. She’d have to decide whether to tell her story. That had been a problem with the Playboy shoot. Janice felt pushed into it. But once she stepped in front of that camera, she couldn’t take it back. And so a week later, my producer and I set about putting together the Playboy episode, without Janice’s voice. But one Friday afternoon, I got a text. 

“No video, right?” 

“Nope,” I wrote back. 

That Sunday, she sat across from me in my living room. She was still pretty as ever, with that thick brown hair past her shoulders. I’d set a glass of water beside the armchair, next to a box of Kleenex. We chitchatted for a bit, talking about my cat, who wandered back and forth, and then it was time. 

“Ready?” I asked, and she nodded. I pressed record to capture her story as she began.

“My name is Janice Garner, and I was a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader.”

To hear Janice’s story, and more about the Playboy scandal, listen to episode three of America’s Girls, “Naked Ambition.