Otis McCutcheon, the lone Black dancer in a mostly white troupe in the new Hulu series Welcome to Chippendales, is not a real person. But he does seem to be loosely inspired by a former dancer and current entrepreneur named Hodari Sababu, who, like the fictional Otis, learned some business skills from Soren “Steve” Banerjee.
On the show, Otis (Quentin Phair) is a family man who becomes the immediate breakout star at Chippendales. He has a background as a dancer and actor, and is so wholesome that he resists taking part in the “tip n’ kiss” routine in which dancers kiss female clients in exchange for cash. He also dreams of someday opening his own business, and picks up business tips from Banerjee (Kumail Nanjiani). He’s in awe as he watches Banerjee manipulate local church ladies into protesting Chippendales, then calls local news media to cover the protest. The free publicity is worth thousands.
On the excellent Welcome to Your Fantasy podcast, host Natalia Petrzela interviewed Hodari Sababu about his experiences as a Chippendales dancer, which seem to overlap at times with those of the fictional Otis McCutcheon. Welcome to Your Fantasy, which came out last year, covers all the same ground as the new Welcome to Chippendales – but doesn’t make things up. It’s based on Petrzela’s interviews with 66 people familiar with the Chippendale’s story.
Sababu now runs LA Hood Life Tourz, which takes guests through L.A. hip-hop landmarks like Eazy-E’s home, the site of Tupac’s “To Live and Die in L.A.” video, and the childhood home of The Game. (Hodari Sababu has been described as The Game’s stepfather, which the rapper has disputed in the past.)
Sababu, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story, has had a fascinating life. When he was hired as a Chippendales dancer in the 1980s, he was also working as a reporter for the Black-owned newspaper the L.A. Sentinel. He says in the fourth episode of Welcome to Your Fantasy that he soon learned he could make a more lucrative living with Chippendales. As the sole Black dancer, he says on the podcast, he often found himself an outsider, or exoticized. Some dancers didn’t want to stand next to him, he said, “because it would make their tan look bad.” But he stood out with the female customers.
“Because I was the only Black guy, I got approached a lot by women, mostly white women,” he says on the podcast. “And they would be like, ‘Oh my God, Oh my God, I’ve never been with a black guy.'”
He added: “That’s when I started asking for a fee.”
While Otis McCutcheon on the show is hesitant about taking money for kisses, Sababu said he eventually started accepting money for sex. He says on the podcast that he would charge women hundreds of dollars to go home with them, and eventually charged up to $1,500 or $2,000. Eventually, he says, the white dancers starting charging a fee as well.
Though he was making thousands of dollars, he was aware of frequent racial slights. He said Banerjee wouldn’t let him pose for the lucrative Chippendales calendar, for example, because he was Black.
“Steve’s thinking was, ‘Well, I can’t sell calendars down South if for 30 days they got some Black guy up on the walls. Some white woman has some Black guy on the wall? I can’t put Black guys in my calendar,” Sababu said. But he did pose for other Chippendales merchandise, including greetings cards and an air freshener, he said. However, he said he was only paid $800 to pose for the air freshener — half as much as the white models.
Still, he learned from Banerjee.
“I used to go there during the day, just to hang out because I had nothing else to do,” he says on the podcast. “And you know, we would talk, and he liked me. So he said, ‘Look, well, just kinda hang out, and I’ll show you how to negotiate deals. I’ll show you the business side.’”
As the podcast details, Sababu had a wild ride at Chippendales. He says that at one point, he tried to help Chippendales escape a lawsuit accusing it of racial profiling to keep out Black customers — and even warned the main plaintiff in the suit that his life was in danger. He eventually angered Banerjee by trying to start his own male-model calendar, and his relationship with Chippendales ended when he punched Banerjee in a dispute over money.
After Sababu left Chippendales, he started his own all-male revue, featuring Black performers. He called it Lady Killers and Bad Boys. He drummed up publicity using a tried-and-true Banerjee technique.
“I called all the news channels and I called all these Baptist churches and I told them all I heard there was going to be some naked guy and it worked to perfection,” Sababu says on the podcast. “We got so much free publicity.”
Later, Sababu served 10 years in prison for armed robbery, before eventually opening his tour business. Banerjee, meanwhile, had business partner Nick De Noia murdered in a dispute over influence and money, and pleaded guilty to murder for hire and other charges before committing suicide in 1994.
Hodari Sababu continues to have very complicated feelings about his former employer and occasional mentor.
“I think Banerjee recognized… that I would rather own the place than be the talent,” Sababu says on the podcast. “That’s why I started my own calendar. That’s why I started my own club. And I learned all that from him. The business part I learned from him.”
He concluded: “To this day, I use stuff that I learned from Banerjee.”
You can listen to the whole episode of the podcast here.
Welcome to Chippedales airs on Hulu, with new episodes arriving Tuesdays.
Main image: Quentin Phair as Otis McCutcheon in Welcome to Chippendales. Photo courtesy of Hulu.