Thigh, Eagles, Thigh

The road to being a Birds cheerleader is paved with torturous tryouts, exhausting dance routines and lots of mascara. But could today’s pom-pom girls also be — gulp — the new face of feminism?

“WOULD YOU MIND DOING MY BACK?” Danielle asks ­Lauren shyly. It’s four o’clock in the afternoon, but the Mexican sun still beats down on the beach at Dreams Tulum, the resort where the Eagles cheerleaders are shooting their steamy annual calendar, and all of the girls are hot and sticky. Lauren rubs the suntan lotion on her palms, then slowly smooths it all over Danielle’s back, running her hands across the brunette’s creamy shoulders, along the curve of her waist, down to where the line of her bikini meets the small of her back. The heat is palpable. Slowly, Lauren leans toward Danielle, her hair softly tickling her tan, sand-flecked shoulders, intent in her eyes. Her succulent lips part.

“Did you finish your psychology paper?” she asks, handing back the SPF 30.

CONTRARY TO THE SUGGESTIVE IMAGE on the cover of the new Eagles Cheerleaders 2007/2008 calendar — five barely-clad women entwined in the sand, staring seductively at the camera — there wasn’t much girl-on-girl action at the photo shoot in Mexico this past May. Which doesn’t mean that the upwards of 25,000 teenage boys (and grown men who act like teenage boys) who buy the calendar this year won’t imagine otherwise.

“Did you get to have any fun in Mexico?” WYSP’s Vinnie the Crumb will later leer at the party the Eagles hold for the calendar’s official unveiling, at the NovaCare Complex. “It wasn’t all business, was it?”

“It wasn’t all business,” one of the cover models says, with an embarrassed smile. “We had a lot of fun.”

“There’s a lot of giggling going on up here,” The Crumb winks at the audience. “I think I’ve hit on a touchy subject.”

I was in Mexico with the Eagles cheerleaders, and to the best of my knowledge, there were no hookups. No Girls Gone Wild boob-flashing. Not even any late-night OD’ing on piña coladas (hello, calories!) at the resort bar. This last thing I know for sure, because late at night I was at the resort bar, and I was alone. Indeed, the cheerleaders who weren’t cramming to finish papers — the trip coincided with finals week — were in bed by nine, then in the gym by six a.m., at practice from eight to noon, and by early afternoon either enthusiastically engaged in hotel-sponsored water sports or rotating under the sun in neat, symmetrical rows, like so many Wawa hot dogs.

As it turns out, the Eagles cheerleaders are kind of, well, anal, and not in the Jenna Jameson sense. As I hung around them for several months through the audition process, in Mexico and in Philadelphia, it quickly became clear that they are not — let’s just say it — wanton sluts, but hyper-focused women who are as perfectionist about everything they do as they are about their hair, skin, nail care and workout regimes.

“We’re big nerds,” says Amy, a four-year veteran of the squad. Amy has long brown hair and breasts that make you understand what guys mean when they talk about a “rack.” She’s also an ­operating-room nurse. It might surprise you, as it did me, to know that she is not the only cheerleader in medicine. Jamie studies kinesiology. Stephanie, who has long blond hair and appears, tanned and stretched across a rocky jetty of the March 2008 calendar spread, is pre-med. “People are shocked when I say I’m going to become a doctor,” she says, taking a break from painting a mural at an Eagles playground-building event in June. “It’s like, what, do you think I’m not capable of that?”

Well … it’s more like we never considered it. Why would we? With their calendar and skimpy outfits and “mature content” portion of their website, the cheerleaders are easily dismissible — ­plastic hotties with low self-esteem and lower SAT scores. I mean, they’re adult cheerleaders. “They’re, like, one step up from strippers,” a friend of mine sniffed.

You can see where the stereotype comes from. There is probably no activity that is more archaic, more indicative of The Continued Male Hegemony, than cheerleading. Especially professional cheerleading. NFL cheerleaders were invented to be eye candy, to get splashed across centerfolds of newspapers and magazines, to generate excitement for the guys on the field, the sports equivalent of fluffers on a porn set. Even if you respect cheerleading as a real sport, there aren’t any other sports that value looks over athletic ability, that call for participants to wear midriff-baring tops and short skirts, to wax and get highlights and hair extensions, to use silicone “chicken cutlets” to perk up their boobs on game day, and to be photographed in a bikini or topless once a year. Not to mention to get breathed on by Vinnie the Crumb.

It’s often implied that the women — and let’s not forget that the Eagles cheerleaders are fully grown women, ages 18 to 36 — who become cheerleaders do so because they are tragically lacking in self-esteem, or at the very least that their boobs-to-brains ratio tips in favor of the former. But it hardly stands up that women who wear bikinis and sneakers in front of 69,000 people have confidence issues, and compared to, say, the crotch-­flashing of Britney Spears, the Eagles cheerleaders, with their college educations and five-hour workouts and earnest answers on their online bios (“If I could spend a day with anyone, I’d spend it with William Shakespeare”), seem almost prim.

“I said something during the audition about wanting to be ‘autonomous,’” says Danielle, a 22-year-old rookie. Standing in line at a kiosk at Philadelphia Airport on the way to Cancun, waiting for an egg-and-cheese bagel, she is wearing a dress, high heels and full makeup, as all the cheerleaders are, despite the fact that it’s 4:30 in the morning. The Eagles mandate that cheerleaders look their personal best while representing the team, and as Suzy Zucker, the squad’s choreographer, decreed the night before, “You’re above flip-flops.”

“Everyone was like, ‘Wow, you used a 50-cent word,’” Danielle continues, smiling. With her big hazel eyes and barely noticeable nose ring, she has the whimsical look of a girl who might have doodled fairies in her school notebooks. Danielle studies psychology and art at Philadelphia University, and says she’d like to become a dance therapist. Later I will find out that she was, until recently, a nuclear, chemical and biological defense specialist for the Marines.

A fellow cheerleader, a teacher, joins the line and catches the tail end of our conversation. “You tawk smart,” she says to Danielle, admiringly.

Okay, so they’re not all Rhodes Scholars. There is no protracted discussion of Hélène Cixous or the United States policy toward North Korea on the plane ride to Mexico. (Overheard: “Have you ever heard of, like, an aura? Like, colors that are behind you?”) They’re a second-and-third-tier-college kind of crowd, not Ivy Leaguers. But they all seem to share a kind of intelligence — a combination of discipline, self-assurance and drive to achieve that, while common to most middle-class women of their generation, in them seems to be a little bit more pronounced. They may not have been born smart, just as, if you imagine some of them without the tans and the highlights and the eye makeup, you can see that they may not have been born pretty. But they’ll work to be all that they can be. Which, if you think about it, is exactly what’s expected of an American woman today. In a way, the Eagles cheerleaders seem almost feminist: I can’t pose in a bikini and also be a doctor? What, do you think I’m not capable of that?

But can the fourth wave of feminism really be found … shaking its ass on the football field?

YOU WOULDN’T HAVE THOUGHT SO FROM the auditions that occurred between March and April, in which more than 500 hot-pants-clad women of various colors, sizes and regional accents arrived to be assessed by a panel of judges that included former cheerleaders and a representative from Bally Total Fitness.

The truth is that despite its fluffy job description, an Eagles cheerleader slot is a tough gig to score. This dates back to the 1970s, when the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, the invention of ­marketing-­savvy general manager Tex Schramm, burst into popular culture with their teeny hot pants and go-go boots and unleashed a revolution in NFL cheerleading. Clubs across the league realized the hidden gold they could mine by turning their sideline chorines into money-making marketing machines.

Today, tryouts for the squads in Tampa and San Diego are fodder for multi-week documentaries on the NFL Network; the Dallas squad was the focus of an entire seasonal series on CMT last year, replete with teary, mascara-dripping wannabes who didn’t make the final cut because they just couldn’t master the art of shaking it to Jessica Simpson’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.”

Three decades ago, being pretty and coordinated was probably enough to land you a spot on the Eagles cheerleading squad; today, the Darwinian process to get the job includes three rounds of cuts, a choreography lesson, and a personal-interview round to make sure that in appearances and media interviews you don’t sound like — well, a cheerleader. In other words, NFL cheerleading is about many things, but it is most definitely not about cheering.

The Eagles cheerleaders squad was founded in 1948. Known as the Eaglettes, its members wore sweaters and headbands until 1978, when then-owner Leonard Tose’s lady friend Caroline Cullum took over the squad, sexed members up to match the Dallas gals, and renamed them the Liberty Belles.

When Jeffrey Lurie, the V.I. Warshawski producer who wrote his Ph.D. thesis at Brandeis University on sexism in film, bought the Eagles in 1994, there were rumors that he might disband the squad in deference to his feminist ideals. They vanished, perhaps when Lurie looked at how much it generated in revenue. In addition to the calendar — which has traditionally sold upwards of 25,000 copies at $12.99 or $13.99 a pop, and this year will be available for $14.99 in local retail stores as well as through the Eagles website — the cheerleaders are for rent. They are called on to do up to 500 appearances a year, everything from auto shows to fashion shows to private parties, at up to $250 an hour per cheerleader. (They also do a number of pro bono charity events.) Since the girls themselves only take home about $15.50 an hour for appearances, the bulk of the cash is pocketed by the Eagles.

Despite the changes in ownership and oversight of the cheerleading squad, the audition process to nab a pair of pom-poms has remained basically the same.

“We need blondes!” Suzy Zucker, the squad’s de facto coach, admonishes her cohorts on the judging panel. “We’re low on blondes.” A dancer herself, Suzy is small and compact, bossy in that loving-Jewish-mother kind of way. She takes her job very seriously, although her friends in the dance community must think the cheerleaders are absurd. “Oh, the weight on some of these girls,” she sighs, as a veteran whose thigh circumference has grown in the off-season scurries off the stage. “The weight.”

Of the women who have descended on Lincoln Financial Field for the initial audition on this chilly Saturday morning in March, many have exercised and dieted for months. They have tanned themselves to the color of a soft pretzel, spent thousands on highlights, extensions, and spandex outfits in spirited green, and created a small hole in the ozone layer above Southern New Jersey with their hairspray.

Some are trying out for the second or third time. “I will try out until I die, even after I have babies and am pregnant and old,” says Nicole, a thin 20-year-old from Jersey. Others, like the 40-something mom in a Snoopy t-shirt who performs her audition to Petey Pablo’s “Show Me the Money” with exuberant abandon, seem to be merely fulfilling some kind of you-go-girl personal dream. Some, like a doughy brunette who tries out alongside buoyant-breasted, bleached-blond Lauren, show up their competition with excellent dance skills, but are doomed by genetics.

“She was a great dancer,” says judge Rick Rappaport, who has given the brunette a nine. He seems to be trying to make some kind of point, like about choosing talent over looks, or even about standards of beauty, probably because I’m there. But at this point we’re sort of beyond that.

Suzy, for one, is incredulous. “She looks like a linebacker! Can you picture her in that uniform?”

This settled, the group moves on. “Now, we don’t have any diverse girls. …” someone says.

By the time of the final audition in mid-April, the group has been whittled down to 60 women, all of whom exhibit an ability to pick up a dance routine and act appropriately in a one-on-one interview, and who, regardless of ethnicity, are roughly all the same color (a nice, tawny brown) and size (a nice size two). Members of last year’s squad are trying out again, as they must every year, alongside newer and younger versions of themselves.

Held at Penn’s Zellerbach Theatre, the final audition is like a beauty pageant, with a bathing suit portion, a dance portion — also conducted in bathing suits, but ­whatever — and a question-and-answer portion in which the participants wear cocktail dresses. Bouquets bursting with baby’s breath are presented, Miss USA-style, to those who achieve special honors in fitness, beauty and dance.

The format is thus partly because Eagles director of cheerleading Barbara Zaun used to work in pageants. But it’s fitting for another reason, too.

In many ways, professional cheerleading has taken over where 20th-century pageants left off. This is not only a contest in which beauty and entertaining skills — and, to a much lesser extent, brains — are rewarded, but also an unlikely opportunity for personal growth. Joining an NFL cheerleading squad is a chance for pretty girls from small towns or cities to get a toehold in a more glamorous life, to mingle with VIPs and celebrities, to travel. Last year, the Eagles cheerleaders went to England and Hong Kong. In 2002, they visited troops in Bosnia.

In addition to expanding one’s literal horizons, being a professional cheerleader can open doors to careers well beyond trophy wife or high-school cheerleading coach. Pharmaceutical companies like Merck and GlaxoSmithKline are known for aggressively recruiting cheerleaders for sales positions, a reflection of the fact that professional cheerleading is dominated by intense, ambitious women. “We get a lot of overachiever types,” says Suzy Zucker. This is evident at the finals. Only a few girls are truly, naturally stunning. The rest have taken what they have and manipulated it — toned and waxed themselves into What Beauty In America Looks Like. They’ve willed themselves pretty. It’s kind of impressive.

But most striking is the interview segment:

“I worry about living up to people’s expectations,” says Jamie, the kinesiology student.

“I worry that there’s not enough time for me to accomplish everything I want to,” says Juliet.

“One of the things I won’t tolerate is laziness,” says Katheryn, a Villanova student who wants to work on Wall Street. “You should always be pushing to achieve things.”

“I GOT MADE fun of for that,” Katheryn says ruefully, scraping up the last of a confusing healthy-unhealthy bacon-and-cheese egg-white omelet at Minella’s, a diner in Wayne. It’s 9 a.m. on a Saturday, which is the only time Katheryn can meet, because this summer her schedule is brutal. After she made the squad (she says she just tried out for fun), she had to cancel her summer internship in Spain — she majors in finance, minors in Spanish — but quickly scored another, at Merrill Lynch’s Princeton office. “I get up at 6 a.m., I go to work, I go from work to practice, practice ends whenever Suzy wants it to end. I drive home and do it all over again,” she laughs.

Katheryn’s life is typical of Eagles cheerleaders, who supplement their football duties with jobs or school, and then supplement those with volunteering or a third job. They’re the kind of women who don’t know how to not be busy. “In high school I was that girl who had a million things to do,” said Danielle, the psychology student. “I was always involved with my school, always involved with the community. I mean, I enjoyed doing it, and I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t enjoy it, but it was difficult.”

One of the consequences of the women’s movement, and the you-can-do-anything baby-boomer parents that came out of it, is that it unwittingly put onerous pressure on the young women growing up in its aftermath. Girls like Danielle, born only 20 years after NOW was founded, are grappling with a new set of expectations — Go to college! Achieve professionally! — while all of the old expectations — Have a family! Be pretty! — remain in place. As a telling report in the New York Times put it earlier this year, if you can do everything, then you are expected to do everything.

“I did feel a great amount of pressure,” says Danielle, who grew up one of six children in a Schuylkill Haven family. “I always felt, even when I was 19 years old, like, ‘I’m running out of time! I’m getting old!’ I just had this terrible anxiety that I was going to wake up one day and be middle-aged and dissatisfied. … I just felt this incredible urge to be successful and be good at a lot of things. Sometimes you feel that you have to be perfect.”

If there’s anything these 38 cheerleaders have in common, it’s that they all seem to have this incredible urge. And something about cheerleading, with its emphasis on performing feats of athleticism while smiling, in a full face of makeup, without appearing to break a sweat, satisfies it.

To most of America, cheerleaders are an icon of perfection. “There’s no doubt that for people who went through high school, cheerleaders still represent the elite,” says University of the Arts professor and feminist theorist Camille Paglia. “When I was in school, in the 1960s, the cheerleaders were at the top of the social heap. It was the apex of popularity. They were the most attractive girls, the girls all the girls wanted to be.”

Now as then, cheerleading, contrary to popular belief, is much less about men ogling girls than about girls ogling girls. Over the past 50 years, as it has become more gymnastic and dance-oriented, it’s soared in popularity — become a sport — and along the way developed a large female fan base. The number of teenage cheerleaders is in the millions. According to ESPN, the audience for cheerleading programs is 50 percent female.

This is not to say that all women appreciate cheerleaders, or at least not all of the time. For group activities at Dreams Tulum, the cheerleaders tended to descend, dressed to the nines, all at once and all of a sudden, like a flock of exotic, French-­manicured birds. By day three, some resort guests were openly tiring of them. “Are those the cheerleaders again?” one sunburned woman in a teal one-piece groaned from a chaise lounge. Her husband’s head poked up a like a little pointer as the girls swarmed the pool in matching black bikinis. “Jesus Christ.”

Their smiles remained in place, but the resentment wasn’t lost on the girls. “I feel like we’re, like, the Plastics,” whispered Lora, referring to the clique of hot popular girls in Mean Girls.

It’s hard being perfect, and this is also why the cheerleaders tend to make their primary friendships with one another. “I feel like it’s a sorority for them,” says Suzy Zucker, who has found it heartwarming the way women of similar ages and backgrounds connect on the squad. While this is a sweet idea, the sorority metaphor also carries associations with hazing and group bulimia. Women in groups — especially high-pressure-to-look-good-groups — can be kind of weird. The Eagles cheerleaders deny that they have any problems with eating disorders. “They like us to be healthy,” Allison says, although their contract stipulates that if they go too much over their ideal weight, they can be benched and even fired. There’s also a certain inevitable measure of cattiness, cliques and factions — rumor has it that last year there were a lot of problems, a lot of real-life mean girls. On this year’s squad, it’s early days, and everyone is still on best behavior. Or appears to be. There are strict rules about how NFL cheerleaders conduct themselves in public, even off duty. They’re not allowed to fraternize with players. And two years ago, two Carolina Panthers cheerleaders were fired for allegedly having sex in a bar bathroom. (Yes, Vinnie the Crumb, with each other.)

Which brings us back to the beginning: How do the cheerleaders feel about essentially being masturbatory material for whoever enters the website or buys the calendar? Beneath her tropical tan, Katheryn blushes. “My parents came to the audition, and my mother was a little horrified,” she says. “She was like, ‘You don’t really want to do this. Are you sure you want to do this?’” At that point, it was too late. Katheryn’s competitive streak was in overdrive: She did want to do this. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t worried about walking into Lehman Brothers one day and finding herself as some trader’s screen saver. So when she made the squad, she set a few ground rules for the calendar shoot: no overly sexy poses, no topless.

As anyone can see, others weren’t so demure. “You only have one body,” says Allison. “I’m 28! I’m probably never going to look this good again, so I might as well show it off.”

WHILE THE MARCH auditions had the innocent air of a high-school talent show, July’s reception at the NovaCare Complex to unveil the calendar feels a little seamier. Maybe it’s because in the “swimsuit fashion show” the Eagles have planned, the cheerleaders are wearing “swimsuits of their choice,” which makes it not actually a fashion show at all. Maybe it’s because this time, there are no parents cheering them on as they strut to catcalls. Or maybe it’s just Vinnie the Crumb. “I need a tissue or something,” he oozes after the last cheerleader sashays off the stage.

As I sit in the NovaCare center listening to Vinnie the Crumb’s ejaculation jokes, it gets harder and harder to believe what I’ve been told all these months: that being an Eagles cheerleader is about “so much more than just a pretty face,” it’s about the charity work and the camaraderie and the dancing. It’s a performance, it’s fun! I wonder if it’s fun right now for Katheryn, whose smile as she crosses the stage in a bikini and high heels looks a little forced. Or if it was fun for Juliet when the guys at work started making inappropriate comments after she made the squad. And Danielle, who at 22 is so worried that she’s running out of time. Maybe it’s not just that she’s type A, but that she, like all of the other women I know, has had it relentlessly drummed into her brain that looks are a really important part of who she is, and that women only have a limited amount of time before turning into Elizabeth Taylor (the post-Richard Burton years). That when your looks fade, your life is over.

A male reporter nudges my elbow. “Are they going to do couch dances?” he whispers.

And it is then, under the stage lights, that the biggest of cheerleading’s contradictions seems the most cartoonishly obvious. Women may have come pretty far in the past 50 years, but not far enough. No matter where these women work, or how intelligent and interesting they are, no matter what being a cheerleader means to them, to most people, they’re still just going to be one step up from strippers.