Listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Google. Read the transcript below.

I was five when I fell in love with the cheerleaders. The Dallas of my youth was plastered with their pinups, and over the years I’ve wondered how those images shaped me. How they warped me . . .

In this first episode of “America’s Girls,” we visit the remains of Texas Stadium with Vonciel Baker, the first woman to put on the iconic Cowboys cheerleaders uniform in 1972. The cheerleaders shot to national fame over the next few years, a provocative mix of sexy and wholesome, as their choreographer Texie Waterman helped them bring Broadway to the Astroturf. And we take a closer look at the moment on Monday Night Football—remembered simply as “The Wink”—that many sources say catapulted them into the national spotlight.

Dive deeper into the stories in this episode in our Pocket collection at You’ll find vintage videos and news stories about the cheerleaders, plus stories about Dallas’s swinging seventies, and the creation of the TV show Dallas.

You can also read more about the stories in this episode in Joe Nick Patoski’s book on the Cowboys, The Dallas Cowboys: The Outrageous History of the Biggest, Loudest, Most Hated, Best Loved Football Team in America and Frank Andre Guridy’s book The Sports Revolution: How Texas Changed the Culture of American Athletics. Thanks to the UCLA Film and Television Archive for the audio from the documentary A Great Bunch of Girls, directed by Mary Ann Braubach and Tracy Tynan.

America’s Girls is written and reported by Sarah Hepola. Executive producer is Megan Creydt. Produced and edited by Patrick Michels. Edited by J.K. Nickell. Production, sound engineering, and music by Brian Standefer. Additional research and audio editing by podcast intern Harper Carlton.

Theme music is “Enough” by the Bralettes.


Sarah Hepola: Okay, we are going on an adventure

Vonciel Baker: Okay, I’m excited.

The woman next to me made history, but you probably don’t know her. We met up recently in a Starbucks parking lot in Dallas.

Sarah Hepola: And we’re gonna drive to the site of Texas stadium.

Vonciel Baker: Is it depressing?

Sarah Hepola: [Laughs.]

Vonciel Baker: That’s what somebody said, it might be.

Sarah Hepola: You know what, we’ll find out. 

Sarah Hepola: We’ll go back in time together. I’m ready to take this adventure with you.

Vonciel Baker: OK, this is exciting!

For a long time, I didn’t know this woman either. But I grew up staring at her on playing cards and calendars and TV screens, alongside other women in various shades of gorgeous.

Sarah Hepola: And I apologize for not having any music in the car. I was going to play . . . What was the song you auditioned to?

Vonciel Baker: “Nothing From Nothing.”

Sarah Hepola: That’s what I was gonna have playing!

Vonciel Baker: That is funny.

Sarah Hepola: But just so you know, I was thinking of the atmosphere.

Texas Stadium was the longtime home of the Dallas Cowboys. It was actually torn down eleven years ago, and these days it looks more like a landfill. The roads leading there aren’t much to look at. I once heard a theory about Dallas—that in absence of any natural beauty, it was the women who gave people something to see.

Sarah Hepola: Will you tell me who you are and your association with the Dallas Cowboys?

Vonciel Baker: Yes. My name is Vonciel Baker and I’m one of the original seven professional Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders.

It’s hard to imagine, looking out at this wasteland now: Texas Stadium was unlike any that had come before it. This is where the Cowboys became America’s Team.

It’s been nearly fifty years since Vonciel first visited this place. 

I was worried about her getting muddy, so I told her to wear sneakers. But Vonciel isn’t a sneaker person. She came in a crisp white suit and white jazz shoes. We unfold a couple of chairs and take a seat, facing the blasted-out terrain.

Sarah Hepola: And so when you look around at this spot, what do you think about?

Vonciel Baker: I can feel that I’m at the stadium. I can feel it. The first time we walked down that tunnel. And all of a sudden, we heard noise from the fans and stuff and we’re going like, “What’s going on? What’s going on?” And they’re pointing at us and stuff, and we didn’t know that we had introduced something new to football.

And what they introduced would change how we look at sports. It would change how we see women on television. And it would change countless childhoods of boys and girls like me.

The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders became America’s sweethearts, a very Texas hybrid of pageant beauty, good-girl etiquette, and come-hither slink.  

They brought sex and glamour into the gladiator arena of modern sports. They launched a wave of imitations across the NFL. Dallas became synonymous with their look: the big hair, the razzle-dazzle. It’s a blueprint for beauty that’s practically branded on my brain—and chances are, it’s branded on yours too, whether you know it or not. 

But despite their fifty years as a global phenomenon, despite being endlessly photographed, televised, commercialized, what’s always been missing from the story of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders is the voices of the cheerleaders themselves. It’s about time we changed that. 

Tami Barber: What the cowboys gave me, nothing in my life will ever compare to that time—nothing.

Sarah Hepola: So then where does the uniform come from?

Dee Brock: Well, it really came from my imagination.

Sarah Hepola: What words come to mind when you think of the cheerleaders?

Ben Fountain: Boobs, skin, flesh, sex, hair, big hair.

Cheerleader: It’s not just about being beautiful or having a rock-hard body. It’s about, you know, being smart.

And so, I went on a search to understand this legacy in all its complications. I saw their story as part of an ongoing battle over women’s bodies, over women’s behavior, over who and what determines our value.

Jia Tolentino: It bothered me that I was supposed to sexualize myself on game days and not allowed to any other days.

Shannon Baker Werthmann: There was an awkwardness ’cause I’m seeing my friends in Playboy magazine.

Sarah Hepola: They’re both major lawsuits for the Cowboys.

Paul Heckmann: Yeah.

Sarah Hepola: And they change the culture of being a cheerleader. 

Paul Heckmann: Yeah.

Dana Presley Killmer: Whatever you’re doing, you’re multitasking, you have so many things to do—and then they’re asking you to do this five nights a week and not pay you for it? 

Over the course of this series, you’ll hear those voices as they navigate all that came after that first time they burst onto the field.

This is a saga of high kicks, and scandal, and cleavage, and controversy.

I’m Sarah Hepola. From Texas Monthly, this is America’s Girls, episode one: “The Rise to Fame.

I was five when I fell in love with the cheerleaders. The Dallas of my youth was plastered with their pinups, and over the years I’ve wondered how those images shaped me. How they warped me. 

Today, the flashy spectacle they pioneered is changing, as sports franchises get more modest costumes and add men to their squads, or fold their cheerleaders entirely. But the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders haven’t just survived, they’ve expanded their reach, with a hit reality show whose fans around the world may never even watch a football game.

The cheerleaders have been around so long—they’ve been part of the culture for as long as most of us can remember—it’s easy to forget there was a time when they didn’t exist. But of course, there was a time . . .

In the early seventies, Dallas, Texas, was a swinging place.

Joe Nick Patoski: Well, Dallas became the most glamorous city between either coasts since Chicago in the early twentieth century. 

This is Joe Nick Patoski, a Texas writer whose book about the history of the Cowboys was so good I couldn’t put it down, and I don’t even like football.

The book brought the contradictions of Dallas to life in a way I’d never seen them before.

Joe Nick Patoski: It’s very much a Southern city, very upright, was one of the last segregated cities in the United States . . . and yet there’s always been this underbelly.

This is a place of churches and strip clubs. The country’s first porn star, a stripper named Candy Barr, made her name in Dallas, but it also has some of the largest Baptist churches in America. There’s a thick evangelical streak, but also an outlaw spirit.

And by the early seventies, the Bible Belt was loosening up in Dallas.

Joe Nick Patoski: It was things like the garden apartment. There were dozens of these new places, apartments where young singles could live, and not only live but party and have a good time. 

The city had just legalized selling liquor by the glass. People flocked to these new bars like TGI Friday’s, which was actually a really cool place back then. This wasn’t too long after Kennedy was shot in Dallas, but there was a new energy in the town trying to shake its reputation as the City of Hate. There were “stewardess colleges” for American and Braniff airlines, filled with young, ambitious, beautiful women. And then the upstart, Southwest Airlines, whose flight attendants hit the skies in 1971 in orange hot pants and go-go boots.

Joe Nick Patoski: And that’s where all of a sudden, it was post-assassination, people are talking about Dallas in a very different way. And especially for the South or the Midwest, no city was comparable. Of course, no city had the Dallas Cowboys.

The Dallas Cowboys gave the city a new identity. A glamorous team, and by the early seventies, a winning team—and a lot of that was thanks to their general manager, a guy named Tex Schramm.  

Joe Nick Patoski: Tex Schramm was a visionary. And part of it was that he came to the Cowboys direct from television.

Tex Schramm had worked at CBS Sports, and he was always looking for ways to innovate, to make the game more of a show. Instant replay, a referee with a microphone, that was all Tex Schramm.

Joe Nick Patoski: It was little nuances like that. These were things that obsessed this guy, and no one else was doing this in sports. So it’s very important to acknowledge that this gentleman saw the future of professional sports on television and specifically the future of the National Football League on television.

There was one big problem with turning a football game into a television show. Every action-packed play was followed by long stretches where nothing happened. What were the fans supposed to watch during all that downtime? 

Joe Nick Patoski: When the Cowboys came into being in 1960, cheerleading was kind of a quaint little item from the sideline that was borrowed from colleges.

The Baltimore Colts had the first professional cheer squad in 1954, but it was a straight-laced collegiate type. For the first decade the Cowboys were around, they had something similar. Local high schoolers in pleated skirts and button-downs trying to lead the crowd in cheers.

Joe Nick Patoski: It was nice, it gave the high school kids something to do, but this was a second thought, an afterthought, and frankly, nobody gave a s— about it.

But in 1972, right on the heels of winning a Super Bowl, and after they move into their new stadium, the cheerleaders introduce a bold new look. 

Joe Nick Patoski: And gone are the pleated skirts and the sweaters that we identify with cheerleaders, and instead the outfit for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders are halter tops. No one’s doing that anywhere. Halter tops, white hot pants, and go-go boots. That’s what walked out on the field in 1972, a whole new kind of cheerleader. And it was electric.

Vonciel Baker, who I met in that Starbucks parking lot, was the first cheerleader to ever try on that uniform. She was raised by a single mother in South Dallas, who started the city’s first licensed black daycare. Vonciel shared a bedroom with her sister, and some days she’d sneak out to the park to practice dancing.

Sarah Hepola: What songs would you dance to growing up?

Vonciel Baker: A lot of James Brown and a lot of Rolling Stones. I loved Mick Jagger. At one time, I wanted his lips. Not anymore.

She tried out for cheerleader at her all-Black high school, but didn’t make it.

Sarah Hepola: Why do you think you didn’t make cheerleader in high school?

Vonciel Baker: Well, I’m going to tell you what was told to me, that I was too skinny and just not attractive enough. 

She went to Texas Lutheran University, where she tried out again—and this time, she made the team. She was the first Black cheerleader in the school’s history.

And then at twenty years old, back in Dallas and studying at fashion college, she hears a radio spot for an audition for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Radio jingle singing: “KVIL, KVILLLLLL.”

Ron Chapman: “I’m Ron Chapman, it’s seven twenty-eight almost right now on KVIL . . .”

Vonciel Baker: All we knew was to come there with a two-minute routine. That’s all they told us.

She and a hundred other hopefuls crowd into the Cowboys headquarters off Dallas’s Central Expressway. Many of these girls have pageant backgrounds and ballet experience and years of dancing on drill teams. Vonciel has none of that.

Vonciel Baker: So I just put some of my little James Brown steps in and I’ll never forget. I saw Texie over there and she just laughed.

She’s talking about Texie Waterman, the choreographer for the cheerleaders, who’s running those auditions with the cheerleaders’ director, Dee Brock. They’re looking for talent and beauty, but also a certain spark.

Vonciel left thinking she didn’t make it. But then she gets a letter marked “Special Delivery.” 

Vonciel Baker: Yes, came to the house. And you know, I was scared to open it. And my brother said, “I’ll open it.” And I thought that it was going to say, “Thank you for trying out.”

But instead . . . it says she made it.

The squad Vonciel made was something of an experiment. The idea was that these cheerleaders wouldn’t actually cheer—they’d be dancers. And nothing announced the change like their new uniform. Vonciel saw it for the first time when she went in for her fitting.

Sarah Hepola: Can you tell me about the day that you went and tried that on for the first time?

Vonciel Baker: Oh, that’s a moment I will never forget in my life.

A few weeks before their debut, Vonciel takes a bus to a clothing store called Lester Melnick. She’s so worried about being late, she shows up three hours early. Well before anyone else. And that’s when she sees it: The royal blue halter top that ties at the rib cage, the white fringed vest with blue stars, the white hot pants. This is when she steps into history—she becomes the first cheerleader to ever put it on.

Sarah Hepola: And what did you think when you saw it?

Vonciel Baker: I just went, “Where is the stuff going to go in there?”

Those uniforms would become legendary, and also a lot smaller, but at the time, Vonciel doesn’t see it as a big deal. She figures it’s kind of like a bikini.

Vonciel Baker: It just felt so good. And I was walking on cloud nine all day when I went home.

And like that, she’s off.

There were seven of them on the squad that year. Carrie O’Brien, Dixie Smith, Anna Carpenter, Deanovoy Nichols, Dolores McAda, and Rosy Hall, whose sister Jerry Hall would become an eighties supermodel.

And from the moment they run onto the field on August 5, 1972, Dallas fans are paying attention.

Vonciel Baker: Because it was something nobody had seen. Texas Stadium held sixty-five thousand people. And I would say, at least, we saw about twenty thousand heads stand up and go, “What is that?”

The stark contrast of all that female flesh against the backdrop of men in helmets and shoulder pads—well, it was hard to miss. Out on the field, you’ve got these players smashing into each other.

And over here, seven women in crop tops and bare midriffs, dancing to “The Stripper.” They actually danced to this song at their first game!

Vonciel Baker: Actually, we didn’t see ourselves as sexy. Out of the seven of us, I’ve never heard anybody talk about being sexy. We didn’t know any of that stuff.

This year, 1972, is a moment when feminism and the sexual revolution are pulling women in different directions. It’s the year Title IX opens the door for girls in sports. It’s the year Deep Throat introduces porn to the American mainstream. Roe v. Wade, which also began in Dallas, was being argued before the Supreme Court.

And into this moment arrive seven scantily clad cheerleaders with big smiles. And if the cheerleaders didn’t see themselves as hot and sexy, maybe that’s not so surprising. Hot and sexy weren’t words thrown around by young women back then. The cheerleaders would be part of what changed that. 

In these early years, it wasn’t so glamorous. Their dressing room was so cramped they put on makeup at home. They rehearsed after work, in a hot studio, without air conditioning. And there were rules. No dating players. No chewing gum. No smoking on the football field.

But Vonciel says she would have done it for free. And she almost did.

Sarah Hepola: You want to tell me how much you made per game?

Vonciel Baker: We made fifteen dollars a game. It was fourteen-twelve after taxes.

Sarah Hepola: What did you think of that at the time?

Vonciel Baker: I didn’t even think about it. I just went, well, that’ll get me … back then. It’ll fill up my tank and buy me a Slurpee. That’s all I thought about.

The whole enterprise was designed as a hobby. 

The cheerleaders were expected to have jobs or be enrolled in college, that was the deal. 

But they became so popular, fans started complaining they didn’t get enough of them.

Vonciel Baker: There’s a whole stadium, there’s sixty-five thousand people, and they’re going like, “We want them to dance in front of us too. We need them on this side.”

So the squad grew. The next year, 15. The year after that 21, eventually rising to 36.

And when I look at these early photos of the squad, what strikes me are the fresh faces and natural Afros and barrettes, more of a casual sweetness than the gloss and polish that would come to define the look. Later, they’d have regular weigh-ins and even stricter codes of conduct. But these are the pre-glam years. 

This was not yet a well-oiled machine. These were amateur dancers, and the high kicks were a little messy, but out on the field innovation was happening. The cheerleaders introduced a free-wheeling style that hadn’t been seen in professional sports. And that was thanks to one woman in particular who developed their routines.

Texie Waterman: Alright girls, the rules. As you all know, you are not to miss rehearsal unless there is a very, very good excuse.

Texie Waterman. She was pretty much the musical theater and jazz teacher in Dallas. We’re so accustomed to grand spectacle in a stadium that it’s easy to forget—it didn’t exist once. Someone had to invent that. 

Texie died in 1996, but here she is, in a 1979 documentary about the cheerleaders called A Great Bunch of Girls:

Texie Waterman: People have told me I have a distinctive style in dancing, and actually my style is more your New York jazz dancers.

I see a few clear influences on what the cheerleaders were doing: The Rockettes brought kick lines to Radio City in 1925, and the Kilgore Rangerettes—the drill team in East Texas—they brought precision high kicks to sports in 1940. But it was Texie who brought theatrical dance moves into the stadium.

When the Cowboys first approached her for the gig, she told them they were crazy. You can’t dance like that on a football field. There’s no illusion, stage, lighting. But she went for it anyway—and brought Broadway to the Astroturf.

Here’s Tami Barber, one of the cheerleaders from those early years. 

Tami Barber: And she was so innovative in our choreography. And picture somebody who has the vision of what thirty-six girls are going to look like on a football field, but yet she’s putting together a Broadway show.

Texie was like a character off of Broadway too. And she brought that Bob Fosse energy to her studio in East Dallas. Here’s Vonciel again:

Vonciel Baker: Texie Waterman is an angel dancing on air. I don’t know any other way to put it. The first time I saw this red hair, I mean red hair, and this unbelievable little body. She could smoke, talk, smoke, dance, and, “Okay, girls I’m ready for y’all, five, six, seven, eight.” It was hilarious.

Vonciel loved watching Texie dance so much she’d trick her into showing off.

Vonciel Baker: We will sit there and when she would show us what to do, I mean, she said, “I’m just marking it so y’all can catch on.” And we’ll say “Texie, we’re not really getting it,” just to get her to dance for us.

Texie was the daughter of a Dallas dance instructor. She followed her dream to New York in her twenties, where she had gigs at lavish night clubs like the Versailles and the Copacabana. She danced on Sid Caesar’s TV variety show in the fifties. But by the early seventies, she had let go of that dream and was back in Dallas, working with her mom in that dance studio. But she brought a little razzle-dazzle back with her. 

Texie made everything big: big steps, enormous pom poms the size of shaggy dogs. Today, cheerleading has become such a slick operation, all that hair-flicking to stadium anthems, but the early songs the cheerleaders danced to were often much slower. “Delta Dawn” and “Son of a Preacher Man.”

Vonciel Baker: Mm-hmm, yeah. Because she wanted you to see the movement, not so much just bump, bump, grind and stuff. She wanted the feet, the arms. She wanted the whole picture.

Texie Waterman: A one, two, three, and four. Kick, ball change, pivot and tap. . .

But most people never got to see that whole picture, because there was this other innovation happening at the same time: Monday Night Football. It launched in 1970 and transformed how Americans experienced sports. The TV cameras took Texie’s grand vision and shrank it down for a small screen, with closeups that were unimaginable from stadium bleachers.

And there’s this one particular broadcast that rockets the cheerleaders to fame—but also changes the way they’re seen.

According to the Cowboys’ own history, this is the moment when the country “discovered” the cheerleaders. They say it happened at the 1976 Super Bowl. And this version of the story has stuck—I’ve read it in so many newspapers and magazines and websites about the cheerleaders. But it’s actually a few months earlier, at a Monday night game against the Kansas City Chiefs on November 10, 1975.

And the Cowboys cheerleaders have become a big part of the show. Remember, nobody else in the NFL has cheerleaders like this.

Vonciel Baker: The cameramen were more on us on the field, but they followed us during breaks and stuff.

Vonciel says she never paid much attention to the cameramen.

But then there’s this moment. Near the end of the third quarter. The camera settles on this one cheerleader. A beauty pageant girl-next-door type named Gwenda Swearingen. 

Vonciel Baker: Gwendolyn. Gwendolyn with the blue eyeshadow. I remember her. She was so cute, she had the Farrah Fawcett hair.

It’s her second year on the squad. She’s shaking her pom poms overhead, hair cascading down both shoulders, when she looks into the camera—and winks.

The commentators, Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford, don’t miss it.

Howard Cosell: I think she was doing that for you, Frank.

Frank Gifford: I know, she was very effective.

Don Meredith: Did ya like that Frank?

Frank Gifford: I did like that. A little wink.

Coy but flirtatious. The perfect tease. One beautiful woman, shining her light on every viewer in their living room recliner.

Here’s how the Cowboys tell this story, quote: “It probably never occurred to her that she was on national television.” And American viewers, they said, “didn’t take their eyes off what they saw.”

According to this version of history, the Cowboys’ phones started ringing off the hook. Overnight, everyone wanted a piece of the cheerleaders. 

They call this moment “The Wink.” And it’s an amazing story to explain the cheerleaders’ meteoric rise over the next few years. But like a lot of amazing stories, something about it isn’t quite right. I’ve watched that game, on YouTube, and what strikes me more than the wink moment is how the commentators talk about the cheerleaders. Like your awkward uncle at a teenage pool party. Announcer Alex Karras sees a cheerleader taking a drink on the sidelines, and he says …

Alex Karras: “Do you like that pop, little girl?”

It’s too easy to judge the past by present standards, but I wanna stay here for a moment, because these sorts of cutaways of the cheerleaders—which many of the women likely never saw, by the way, since there’s no internet, no VHS at the time—they introduce a chummy and guilt-free voyeurism into the American home that I grew up with, and never really questioned.

Near the end of the game, you see Gwenda yet again, shaking her pom poms. Even the commentators are getting exasperated by the frequent cutaways. Frank Gifford asks to get her off the screen.

Frank Gifford: “She found every camera we have in the stadium.”

As if she was the one seeking out that camera, and not the other way around. I talked with another cheerleader, Shannon Baker Werthmann, about this game. She wasn’t there that day—she joined the squad the following year—but she remembers what it was like to square off with those cameramen.

Shannon Baker Werthmann: Could I see them? In your face, in your everything else and coming up and saying, “We’re getting ready to go to break. Can you give me one of these pom poms and say, ‘I love you.’” “No, I can’t.” Oh yeah, they were very bold and in your face.

Sarah Hepola: That makes me wonder if Gwendolyn was told to do that wink.

Shannon Baker Werthmann: Probably. I would say 99.9 percent, yes.

I wasn’t the only one who found the wink myth a bit suspicious.

Frank Andre Guridy: This is portrayed in Cowboys lore as this improvised moment where Swearingen just so happened to wink at the cameras.

This is Frank Andre Guridy, a history professor at Columbia University, who wrote about this moment in his book The Sports Revolution, about how Texas sports changed American culture.

Frank Andre Guridy: But then when you start looking deeper into the history of televised sports, you know that that whole moment was orchestrated by ABC Sports. They were accustomed by the 1970s to orchestrating what was called the honey shots.

Honey shots. That’s a term coined by Andy Sidaris, one of the producers for Monday Night Football, who took credit for this idea in a 1976 documentary called “Seconds to Play.” 

Andy Sidaris: “How did I come up with the honey shot? Because I am a dirty old man.”

In this video, he’s standing in a control room, puffing on a cigarette, remembering his college days when he’d watch the women at SMU.

Andy Sidaris: I turned seventeen. I remember it was terrifying. Every time I looked at a girl I’d just tremble. And I thought if I’m like that, maybe other people are like that, and you know what? They are. They sure as hell are.

But whether it was America falling in love with the cheerleaders, or male viewers ogling the girls who scared them in high school—or both of these at once—this massive exposure ramps up the cheerleaders’ profile. 

In 1976, the cheerleaders hold their tryouts at Texas Stadium. They bring in local radio and news to make it an event.

Jim Ruddy: “This is the first year the Cowboys will hold open cheerleader tryouts. The girls will only be paid $15 a game. But they don’t appear interested in the money.”

Terry Dodson: “I love to dance and jump around. I love football, mostly.”

Jim Ruddy: “And just what does it take to become a cheerleader? The Cowboys’ director of choreography explains.”

Texie Waterman: “We’re looking for an all-American, sexy girl.” 

This is Texie Waterman again, and I love the way she leans into that word, sexy—a word you didn’t hear Texas women say that much in 1976. But I can’t help noticing the tightrope of that phrase, to be wholesome but also sexy, to be old-fashioned and liberated at once.

Texie Waterman: “One that has a very good background. A nice proportioned body. One that has a very good personality as far as representing the Cowboys and Dallas, Texas, really.”

One of those hopefuls was Shannon Baker Werthmann. She once danced with the Bolshoi Ballet as a little girl, but she was headed to SMU in the fall. She remembers being told to show up in hot pants and a crop top. 

Shannon Baker Werthmann: They asked me what my name was and I wrote Helen Shannon Baker and they go Helen? And I said, “Well, I go by Shannon,” and they said, “That’s better.” Like I was being tested on the image of my name right away.

Two hundred and fifty women try out that year. The next year, more than six hundred. Suddenly this little experiment has exploded into something nobody could anticipate.

Of course, not everyone loved the cheerleaders. Coach Tom Landry was a devout Christian and was not a fan, nor was his wife Alicia. Lawrence Herkimer, who cheered at SMU and is remembered as the “father of modern cheerleading,” the guy who invented the “herkie jump” and the pom pom—he called them a “T&A squad.” Some newspapers that printed photos of the cheerleaders got complaints. Ann Landers, the advice columnist, called the cheerleaders “the last gasps of a dying civilization.”

It’s a debate that gets repeated and repeated over the decades: Were those pretty dancing girls elevating the sport or ruining it? Were they powerful performers or degraded sex objects?

But dance is sexual. There’s no way around it. It’s one of the reasons dance gets banned in conservative places. You know, the town that inspired the movie Footloose is a couple hours north of Dallas.

And I think this is part of what Texie was pushing back against with some of those bawdier numbers, like dancing to “The Stripper” in their first season. She was trying to loosen the corset in a part of the Bible Belt where it was pretty tight. That’s what I always hear about Texie: she was fun-loving and she wanted other people to take everything a little less seriously. But whatever hip-swiveling moves these women performed could be too easily reduced to words like sex object, vulgar, offensive. Here’s Texie again, in that 1979 documentary. 

Texie Waterman: “We have had very bad press at times as far as the bump and grind, and actually there’s not one bump, not one grind in anything we do.”

There’s this incredible moment I heard about, in 1977. The owner and coach’s wives—Anne Murchison and Alicia Landry—have an idea to put the genie back in the bottle at this one game. The cheerleaders run onto the field wearing “modesty shields”—basically, a triangle of fabric that covers up their cleavage. The crowd boos, and the shields are gone by halftime.

By now, people are in love with the cheerleaders, and what they’ve introduced can’t be walked back.

In October 1977, the cheerleaders land their first cover story in Esquire magazine. The headline says, “The Dallas Cowgirls: The best thing about the Dallas Cowboys.” Okay, so they got the name of the squad wrong, but the point is: the cheerleaders are becoming more popular than the football team.

The photographer who shot that Esquire magazine spread is a guy named Bob Shaw, who had a studio in Dallas. The photos turn out so well, Tex Schramm asks him to do another shoot—this time, for the Cowboys to sell. Here’s Bob:

Bob Shaw: I said, “I’d love to. . . . Let me come up with an idea.” 

Tex wants a pinup like the picture of Farrah Fawcett in a red swimsuit that was on its way to becoming the best-selling poster of all time.

Bob Shaw: He asked, “You can do that?” I said, “Set me loose.”

So Bob sketches a backdrop with a neon shooting star. And in his cramped studio, he sets up Christmas lights and a smoke machine—it’s a fantasyscape of glamazons emerging from the fog, borrowing a little inspiration from the big movie of the summer.

Bob Shaw: George Lucas had just released Star Wars, and I gave the Cowboys atmosphere and light sabers.

They spend hours taking different shots, and the one that hits is a triangle formation of five cheerleaders with a sultry-eyed brunette— Suzy Holub—front and center, with her right leg cocked to the side.

Bob Shaw: The temperature rose, and it wasn’t from anything other than, “Okay, we’re getting ready to shoot, ladies. Look here, look into the camera.” At one point, Susie moved her foot and did that foot thing and the result of it was Tex Schramm leaning over that transparency saying, “Damn, if that ain’t a come hither look.” I said, “Yeah, I guess you could say that, Mr. Schramm.”

The poster sells about a million copies. It becomes the top seller of 1977 and turns the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders into the country’s hottest new pinups.

By the fall of 1978, twenty-two teams in the NFL have added sexy sideline dancers. That year, Sports Illustrated runs a story on what it calls the “Great Cheerleading War.” The writer, Bruce Newman, says, “The only thing anybody talks about anymore is S-E-X and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.”

Tami Barber: And then all of a sudden the television appearances started and people came to us to film things. 

Tami had grown up in a small town in Nebraska, and now she’s part of this whole other world.

Tami Barber: We did Jerry Lewis telethons in Las Vegas, and I got to see Johnny Carson and Frank Sinatra and Dionne Warwick. I mean, I was the fan at that point.

All these appearances are being coordinated by the cheerleaders’ new director, a woman named Suzanne Mitchell, who pulls them off the sidelines and brings them into center stage.

Family Feud announcer: “Let’s start the Dallas Cowboys Family Feud special!”

Fabergé commercial: We Dallas cheerleaders are telling our friends about super rich Fabergé organic shampoo with pure wheat germ oil and honey. . .

Meanwhile, the Cowboys’ merchandising arm starts cranking. Playing cards, calendars, more posters blanketing childhood bedrooms and lockers.

In May 1978, the cheerleaders land their first big non-sports television moment on the Osmonds’ variety show.

Osmond brother: “Well,, but we’ve got Bob Hope, Crystal Gayle, Andy Gibb, Johnny Walker, and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders!” (Cheering and applause.)

That September, they kick off the fall football season with their own ABC special. It’s called The 36 Most Beautiful Girls in Texas. It’s a series of fantasy sequences about how amazing it is to be a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader. You see them riding a roller coaster and swimming like mermaids in a pool.

1978 is also the year a show about a scheming oil man named J.R. Ewing lands in the zeitgeist. Joe Nick Patoski says in his book that the show’s creator, David Jacobs, had never been to Dallas when he came up with the idea. He only knew the Cowboys and the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. 

The cheerleaders had created a Hollywood fairy tale smack-dab in north central Texas, a new formula for status and prestige, where a girl from any small town could step into the spotlight—and who knows where it might take her? 

This was the world I grew up in, and where I first fell in love with those cheerleaders. Back then, you used to hear people say: “Every girl wants to grow up and be a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader.” It was my fantasy too.

But no fantasy comes without shadow sides, and over the decades, as I wrestled with my own body, I wondered about the lessons I absorbed, about image and worth and who gets to perform.

And the reality of being a beloved Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader wouldn’t come without its shadow side either. They’d shot to the top—but dealing with this overnight celebrity, that would be another battle entirely.

That’s next time on America’s Girls.