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Our podcast “America’s Girls” is roughly six hours long, which represents only a fraction of the fifty-plus interviews and countless interactions I had over the past year. I reckon those interviews stretch well past three hundred hours, and that’s not just because my conversation with Dale Hansen lasted more than five hours. But within our eight-episode series, a few moments stand out.
Because I already miss this journey, I’ve compiled my favorites here—for readers to enjoy all over again, or to give those who haven’t had a chance to listen yet a taste of what they’re missing.
10. “Our Beatles moment,” episode two.
Tami Barber was the seventies cheerleader with the pigtails, one of the most iconic members of an iconic squad. She lives in New Orleans now, and was dealing with a cancer diagnosis when we spoke, so our conversation had to take place on Zoom. But the distance didn’t matter, because Tami’s voice and storytelling flair are so gripping and intimate. In the opening of episode two, she tells the story of the cheerleaders getting mobbed after a 1977 halftime show in Wichita, Kansas.
“A couple of girls started running, then we started running, and then the crowd was running. And I mean, it was our Beatles moment, where we were running for our lives because these people were grabbing at us. We were running for our lives.”
This was during the pop-culture explosion that helped their 1977 Bob Shaw poster sell about a million copies, and the cheerleaders were quickly transforming from a fun sideline experiment to a global phenomenon. The way Tami tells it, I can feel the reaching hands and the uncontrollable frenzy and the pivot from elation to fear as the cheerleaders witness what their popularity has unleashed.
“My heart was beating so fast, and it was the first time I thought, ‘Why are people crazy? We’re just us.’”
9. “Nothing From Nothing,” episode one.
We open our podcast with a trip to the former site of Texas Stadium, a once-great coliseum of sports reduced to rubble when it was torn down eleven years ago. This was my producer Patrick Michels’s savvy idea. I took this adventure with Vonciel Baker, the first woman to put on the uniform and one of the original seven cheerleaders to burst onto the field in hot pants and go-go boots in 1972.
Vonciel is a character. I can’t imagine a better ambassador to this strange world. As she and I drove from the Starbucks parking lot where we met, she wearing a crisp white suit and white jazz shoes (because she doesn’t own sneakers, which I’d suggested she wear), we chitchatted in the car while I ran the voice memo on my iPhone. I told her I planned to play the song she once auditioned to, “Nothing From Nothing” by Texas great Billy Preston, but I was worried about sound. “That is hilarious,” Vonciel said, in a voice that sounded like Texas to me.
But thanks to the magic of production (and a hefty licensing fee), our sound engineer Brian Standefer weaved that classic jam into the mix to get the party started. It’s a winking statement about the Cowboys, about the cheerleaders, and about Dallas itself, a place whose blackland prairie and dry riverbeds did not suggest it would become one of the biggest cities in America.
Nothing from nothing leaves nothing—what Billy said is true. But oh my, what a complicated and beautiful something it turned out to be.
8. The Texas Cowgirls do not become rich and famous, episode three.
One of the most fascinating side spectacles in the DCC saga is the tale of the Texas Cowgirls, a rogue outfit of former cheerleaders who formed an alternative talent agency to compete with the cheerleaders. They had a lot of momentum in the beginning. And in 1978, they posed for Playboy in an NFL special issue that would go on to sell 6.5 million copies and become one of the top-selling Playboy issues of all time. The main photo from that spread was a riff on the cheerleaders’ 1977 poster, with one small tweak: the cheerleaders showed the goods.
“We were the first Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders to ever show our breasts to the world,” Debbie Kepley told me. “And that one thing caused so many problems.”
Things got pretty complicated. A poster was made of that image, and the Cowgirls were assured by their leader Tina Jimenez that they’d make a bundle. Maybe $50,000 each. But that never happened, because the Cowboys sued to stop production of the poster.
One of the more touching moments of our podcast comes during an interview with Janice Garner, a former DCC and Texas Cowgirl who had never spoken publicly about her experience, much like the other three women. I always thought the tale of the Texas Cowgirls was so cool, but that’s not how Janice saw it.
“I had only seen my mother cry once, and that was the second time that I had seen her cry,” she told me in her smooth contralto (Janice is a singer). “And I felt horrible. Because I loved my mom and dad. I loved them dearly, and I really hurt them. And that felt awful, and it feels awful to this day, actually.”
7. The wink, episode one.
The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders have long told the story of “the wink,” the moment at the 1976 Super Bowl when a cheerleader named Gwenda Swearengin winked at the camera. It’s the origin story meant to explain how a group of pretty and scantily clad young dancers exploded into a pop-culture landmark.
A couple things about that story, though. I could not find any mention of “the wink” in any newspaper from the time period. (I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, I’m saying my copious searches never turned up anything.) And thanks to classic NFL games posted on YouTube, I also knew that Super Bowl X had close to zero cutaways to the cheerleaders. But the 1975 Monday Night Football game against the Kansas City Chiefs was a different story. Gwenda Swearengin shakes her pom-poms overhead, looks into the camera—and winks. The commentators don’t miss it.
Howard Cosell: I think she was doing that for you, Frank.
Frank Gifford: I know, she was very effective.
But I wasn’t the only one who found this “improvised moment” a bit suspicious. “When you start looking deeper into the history of televised sports, you know that that whole moment was orchestrated by ABC Sports,” says Columbia professor Frank Andre Guridy, who wrote about “the wink” in his book The Sports Revolution.
Interesting coda to this story. I was contacted by Gwenda Swearengin after the podcast aired. She was lovely, and we spoke on the phone for two hours on a Saturday, where she insisted (quite politely) that she did wink at the Super Bowl as well. She told me that neither wink was orchestrated by ABC Sports. When I asked why this moment wasn’t included in footage of the game I’d found online, she didn’t have an answer. I contemplated a bonus episode on this topic, about how hard it is nail down history, but Gwenda soon withdrew from the project. She did not understand why I wouldn’t take her at her word (she was there, after all), and I did not understand why a wink that had been so epic was not captured in the public record. We were at an impasse. She pulled out of a loosely scheduled interview, telling me she was too busy and would have to speak to me at another time. I still hope it happens.
“The wink” may or may not have happened at Super Bowl X. What our podcast demonstrates is that the wink that did take place on November 10, 1975 (among other “honey shots,” as they were called), was part of a low-key voyeurism that entered the American home in the seventies, and never left.
6. The most dazzling Dallas Cowboys cheerleader who wasn’t, episode eight.
Amazing high kicks. Perfect hip swivels. Meet Noah Guzman, a 21-year-old from Odessa, who grew up watching Making the Team, the DCC’s long-running reality show on CMT. His dream is to be a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, but while squads around the NFL add male members, Noah has been out of luck with the most elite squad. He’s tried out twice, but never got past the first round. “I’ve learned not to expect what I want,” he says, in a line that breaks my heart and puts it together every time I hear him say, “Well, there’s always next year.”
If you haven’t already, please treat yourself to a TikTok video of Noah’s exuberant routines @noah.jaide. One of them got more than a million views and earned him the admiration of many current and former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, including Maddie Massingill, one of the most popular cheerleaders of the past decade, who also appears in our episode. Will Noah make it? Time holds all the cards. But it’s hard to stop a boy with a dream.
“I like to picture myself on the sidelines,” he told me, as we stood outside AT&T Stadium, a.k.a. JerryWorld. “Sometimes I picture myself doing a kick line. And my boot is about to, like, kick my face. Yeah—just looking up into the nosebleeds and smiling and dancing, and people just like, ‘Wow, that’s a boy on the team.’”
5. “Is every cheerleader contract illegal?” episode eight.
From the time they professionalized in 1972, the cheerleaders weren’t paid much: $15 a game, $14.12 after taxes. Vonciel Baker told me it was enough to fill up her gas tank and buy a Slurpee. The low pay was tradition, a running joke, a point of private frustration for many of the cheerleaders, who often went to absurd lengths to make ends meet, while projecting an image of excess and glamour that had become the Cowboys’ (and Dallas’s) signature scent.
The $15-a-game rate stayed in place till the nineties (!), and gradually climbed upward, to $200 a game in 2018, when the Cowboys were hit with a lawsuit by three-year veteran Erica Wilkins, one of many fair pay suits hitting pro cheer. Started as a collective action, the suit ended in a settlement for Wilkins, and with a pay bump for the cheerleaders to $400 a game and $12 (from $8) for rehearsal time. But Wilkins became a pariah on DCC social media (and probably the squad), even as she doubled their pay.
I always knew the pay was lousy, and possibly unethical, but was it legal? People asked me, and I always said the same thing. “Well, they did it!” But it wasn’t until I got my hands on a 2010 cheerleader contract and shared it with my buddy Aaron de la Garza, an employment attorney in Austin, that it started to dawn on me. The answer was very likely no, and had been from the beginning.
4. Enter Jerry Jones, episode five.
You can practically hear the old spaghetti western soundtrack (or is it a horror soundtrack?) when Arkansas oil man and all-around hustler Jerry Jones enters our saga in 1989. Into the eighties, the cheerleaders had been a very Texas hybrid of sexy and wholesome, bound by a long code of rules that included no fraternization with players, no appearing around alcohol in uniform, and no behavior unbecoming a lady, at least off the field. Director Suzanne Mitchell was so dead serious about keeping things squeaky clean that she once dispatched her assistant director Debbie Bond Hansen (nicknamed “007”) to visit Dallas strip clubs incognito to assure that one candidate wasn’t working there.
But Jerry Jones had a different vision for America’s Team. His proposed changes to the rules and uniform led to fourteen veteran cheerleaders quitting, but only temporarily. One of the cheerleaders who returned was Cindy Villarreal, who would go on to become Miss Texas and a runner-up in the Miss America competition, and to work as a producer and director in L.A., where she currently lives. Back then, she was just a young cheerleader who got a rather suspicious invitation: to go on Jerry Jones’s private jet.
“My first thought was, ‘Why am I being asked to be on an airplane with Jerry’s businessmen?’ I thought it was raunchy.”
Legendary sports reporter Dale Hansen remembers that rocky transition, and the rumors flying around. “I think a lot of that was simply Jones trying to open up all of his Christmas presents at one time,” he told me. “I mean, he was so incredibly excited about owning the Dallas Cowboys. . . . He wanted to show off all the toys that he now owns. And part of that was the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.”
The Cowboys did not have any comment for our podcast.
3. “You don’t fit that uniform,” episode six.
The cheerleaders had many rules, but perhaps the most important was: don’t gain weight. The struggle to keep that perfect look required a Navy Seal level of commitment from many of the young women. Crash diets, water pills, a trash-bag jogging suit, as former cheerleader Amber Gosdin recalls in this episode. And that’s to say nothing of the more extreme measures: plastic surgery, eating disorders, Ex-Lax.
Vivian Ralena Williams knows all about losing weight. She auditioned for the squad in 2013, when cameras from the reality show Making the Team captured director Kelli Finglass saying about Vivian, “What bothers me the most is her boots are all the way up to her knees. I mean, there’s no leg. Huge quads, like a drumstick.”
She didn’t make the team. But she came back the next year, after more extreme dieting and dehydrating herself in a sauna to lose that last five pounds. The judges liked what they saw, but Vivian had also lost some of her radiance, and flagged during the dance routines. She was cut once again, a public failure that sent her into a spiral of excessive drinking and lashing out at friends.
She’s made it to the other side of that dark passage. When I spoke to her for this episode, she was bubbly, funny, and endearingly honest. She was also fifty pounds heavier.
“I personally think I look best now, better in this body than I did before. Everyone has their own personal opinion of that, but I really don’t care anymore about what other people think about my body, because it’s mine.”
Before we wrapped our conversation, I made a little joke, prompting her to offer the episode’s closing lines, and one of my favorite sound bites from the series.
2. Meet Dee Brock, episode four.
She was a model, a teacher, and a mother, and eventually earned a PhD. She also founded the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, a legacy that has mysteriously shrunk over the decades. (Though the DCC did recently honor her with a profile in the sixtieth anniversary of the cheerleaders’ issue of the Cowboys’ Star Magazine.) In this fourth episode, the needle-scratch moment upon which our drama pivots is when 91-year-old Brock tells me she was the one who came up with that uniform—not just the rebranding, which no one disputes, but the design itself.
“Well, it really came from my imagination,” she said in a Tyler home filled with books. She went on to describe the well-it-was-kinda-obvious combination of halter top and hot pants, which became so iconic they were donated to the Smithsonian in 2018.
But not so fast. We meet Paula Van Wagoner, an unassuming and talented former designer who has another story to tell. “It just didn’t happen that way,” she told me firmly in her Dallas apartment.
Whatever happened back then, the Cowboys eventually ran with Van Wagoner’s version, inviting her to the 2018 press bonanza in Washington, D.C.—one of the highlights of her life. (Dee Brock was not invited.)
We may never reconcile this history, but what is clear is that the Cowboys elevated that uniform to a legendary status but didn’t do much to reward the enterprising women who were paid nothing for this massive contribution. It’s only one way that women’s work is often invisible, not just in the NFL, but across American history.
One of the most moving moments of the podcast is when we ask original seven member Vonciel Baker who sketched that uniform. Her answer, and the details she uses, sealed the question for me.
But what struck me was the warm way she spoke about Dee Brock.
“Is she still alive?” she asked.
“She is,” I said. Vonciel was holding back tears. Maybe I was too.
“I wish you could convey that to her. . . . How I feel about her, and what she taught me as a young lady.”
There is a saying in the DCC that the uniform makes the girl, not the other way around. But it was the women that made the uniform, and the women who wore that uniform, who gave it life.
1. Fan mail, episode two.
The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders are a very specific story, during a very specific era, but it’s also a story shared across time and place. It’s about a fantasy sold to the masses, one that we all participate in (whether we want to or not), a story about who we are and who we want to be.
One of the most important figures in this podcast was Shannon Baker Werthmann, a cheerleader and star of seventies posters who went on to become the squad’s choreographer, before she was fired by current director Kelli Finglass. Shannon was seventeen when she joined the cheerleaders (she lied on her application, which said she had to be eighteen), and during her four years she kept the kind of voluminous scrapbook you might associate with that age. That scrapbook became our Wikipedia. I would call her with the most random questions. “Do you know the name of the cheerleader who appeared in the 1977 Bob Shaw poster but never cheered on the field?” Yes, she did. Kris Murillo, she texted back, sending the squad photo.
During Shannon’s tenure, she was perhaps the most visible member, a trained ballet dancer and SMU honors student who was well-spoken, gracious, and also happened to look like the (gorgeous, blond) girl next store. She appeared in media and merchandise, and she got more fan mail than anyone other cheerleader, much of which she kept. She read me one adorable letter, from a thirteen-year-old boy named Russ in Connecticut. He’d sent photos of himself in a bedroom flanked with Cowboys and cheerleader paraphernalia.
Well, there was somebody I had to find. When I clicked on Russ Dunham’s Facebook page, and saw all the posts about the Cowboys, I knew I had my man. The phone interview that resulted is probably the number one moment our podcast listeners remember.
“I want to read to you this letter now,” I told him, in a voice I hoped was steadying. “Are you nervous?”
“Oh, I’ve been nervous since I got your email the other night,” he told me, in his game-for-anything manner.
The explosion of laughter that happens when I read Russ his fan letter from forty years ago is one of those moments that journalists live for. Russ was back there again, in that jumble of adolescence, hormones, hope, and perhaps foolish dreams—but I was too.
And he took listeners along for the ride.