Your favorite go-to resource to discover, save, and spend time with interesting reads, has gone to Texas. This December, Pocket has teamed up with Texas Monthly, bringing Pocket users weekly deep dives on every episode of America’s Girls, Texas Monthly’s fascinating new podcast about how the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders became international icons.
From the scandals over the squad’s uniforms and their bizarre rule book, to a look at how their fame has influenced pro sports teams over the past 50 years, each weekly collection brings Pocket users behind the scenes with curated reading lists by Texas Monthly writer-at-large and “America’s Girls” host, Sarah Hepola.
As someone who lives in Texas, can you set the stage for us about the role the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders have locally and then also in your life–what sparked the inspiration for the 8-part series? How big of a deal are they and has this changed over time?
They were the wallpaper to my childhood. I was five in 1979, when the cheerleaders were in their own made-for-TV movie, a Faberge hair care commercial, and appeared on The Love Boat. My family had just moved to Dallas from Philadelphia. My mother wore clogs and no makeup, and I fell in love with these sparkly princesses that I saw on posters across town. A lot of Texas girls from that era grew up knotting their shirts at the rib cage and shaking their pom-poms. And you couldn’t walk into Sears (the Target of its time) without being bombarded by frisbees and sleeping bags and coloring books.
I went to college in Austin and later lived in New York, but I moved back to Dallas about ten years ago. One day I was in a parking lot staring up at a billboard at this blonde goddess in a blue and white uniform, and I was like: They’re still here? That’s when it occurred to me that I knew nothing about these women. I’d been staring at them for so many years, but I didn’t know their names, their backstories, anything. Of course I eventually learned that the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were the start of modern professional cheerleading, and I began watching their CMT reality show, which was weirdly addictive. Then in 2014, cheerleader law suits started rippling across the NFL over fair pay, sexual discrimination, body shaming. Teams started folding their squads. Whatever the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders had started, it was being walked back. I was fascinated by this story, but I couldn’t get my hands around it. It was too shape-shifting and multi-dimensional for one article. And that’s why we did a podcast.
You’ve been a podcast guest many times before, but this is your first podcast “baby” Why did America’s Girls come to life via podcast? And how has it been different to host v. guest?
I was brainstorming with my editor at Texas Monthly, JK Nickell. The magazine had just entered the podcast space, with “Boomtown,” and the idea of connecting through the voice is deeply appealing to me. So I was throwing ideas out that reflected my work and life at the time—dating, singlehood, middle age—and he said, “What about the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders?” Because he knew I’d been chewing on that story. I’d just listened to “Dolly Parton’s America,” and I loved how Jad Abumrad used Dolly’s life to tell a bigger cultural story. So the moment JK said “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders” it’s like the screen I was staring at went 3D.
I adore being a guest on podcasts. I wish it paid. It’s so easy! But doing my own podcast has been much harder. I’m pretty hopelessly analog, so just figuring out how to work the audio equipment was a challenge, but then there’s a specific way you interview people, and then a specific way you write for podcasts. Overwhelming. Let me just say: I have a whole new respect for podcast hosts. And my producer Patrick Michels was a huge help.
Did anything surprise you in the process of putting this podcast together? Is the final story you are telling in this podcast the story you originally thought you would be telling?
I was surprised by how much fear a lot of the cheerleaders had about speaking to me at all. Especially the more recent cheerleaders. I very naively thought they’d welcome the spotlight, but that’s a tight sisterhood, and a fiercely protective brand, and there’s a deep-rooted suspicion of outsiders. But the women who did speak to me—I was surprised by how deeply we connected. All the things they were talking about—body image, finding the limits of their own talent, self-confidence, fair pay, hard work, being valued—I’ve struggled with that, too. I could have talked to them for days (and sometimes did).
I envisioned this project more as a social commentary, with the primary voices being historians and cultural critics, but eventually the women took center stage. As they should.
Over the last 15 years or so the presence of social media and the internet has expanded the reach of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and allowed more people access. How do you think this has impacted the actual women working as the cheerleaders?
What really changed the brand was the reality show, Making the Team. Now hard-core viewers knew their names and childhood sagas, and you can find fan pages where people are talking about whether they’ve gained weight or what kind of shoes they wear in a certain episode. It’s intense. I think social media presents its own problems, but the cheerleaders I spoke to were pretty good about keeping good boundaries there. I do think it’s harder to get away with stuff now as a cheerleader than it was in the Seventies. Back then, you could hang with a player at a bar and nobody would find out. Now it’s very easy to get busted—and fraternizing, of course, is against the rules.
What is your favorite “fun fact” about the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders?
You get them for $5. (And you still can! I bought a pair.) I was always curious how they wore pantyhose with the low-cut booty shorts, but I learned they cut off the tops of the pantyhose, and the shorts are so tight they stay in place.
Podcasts continue to be such an engaging medium. How has the Pocket collection you’ve created for America’s Girls support your growing listenership and allow fans to go deeper into these stories?
Every episode we do feels like it could have been five times longer. There’s so much history packed into this. And the rabbit holes are endless! In episode four, we devote probably five minutes to the tale of Bubbles Cash, a burlesque dancer in Dallas who famously riveted the crowd at Texas Stadium during a 1967 Cowboys game, a story that often gets told as the origin tale of the cheerleaders. But setting aside that moment, Bubbles is fascinating: Married at 15, she went into stripping because she idolized Candy Barr, a famous stripper from Dallas she’d seen at the Texas Prison Rodeo. She became a B-movie actress and ran for governor. Don’t you want to know more?
How do the Pocket collections support the storytelling in your podcast? Is the content in your collection different somehow?
I think of the Pocket collection as hyperlinks for the podcast. It’s like: This is all really complicated, and we could go on for days, but we have to keep the narrative moving. However, if you want to delve later, please do. It’s deeply gratifying.
What articles and videos are in your Pocket waiting to be read/watched right now?
At Pocket, we’re all about helping people carve out time and space to dig into the stories that matter. Where and when do you catch up on the long reads and podcast episodes you’re excited for?
I put on podcasts when I’m cleaning or gardening or walking or driving. And I like to curl up in bed on Sunday and read the stories that I’ve put aside. It’s such a lovely way to end/start the week. I feel prepared.