Navel Maneuvers

Stripped to a pair of boxer shorts, the obese man leaped to the edge of the plastic tub. With his toes curled around the rim like a treed possum, he howled and beat his chest. Ripples of fat rolled across the expanse of his round belly. The tub beneath him had been filled with lime Jell-O, and as the fat man shook, so did the gelatin.

This was perhaps the most eagerly anticipated event of last Thursday's much ballyhooed one-night Super Bowl cruise. Tickets to board the ship for what was billed as "Hedonism on the High Seas" and a "cruise that would make the Love Boat blush" ran anywhere from $350 to $2000. Among the enticements advertised in the weeks leading up to the great event: "200 naked showgirls and dozens of pro football superstars," "nude massages," "hot coed bubble baths," "nude limbo contests," and, of course, the opportunity to "frolic with girls in the Jell-O filled pool."

Well, here was the Jell-O. But only a Munchkin would have deigned to deem the container a pool. And for the time being, at least, this lone inebriated ape, dubbed "Jabba" by his jolly shipmates, was the sole frolicker. Moments before he'd climbed onto his perch, his buddy, a diminutive, equally intoxicated fellow, had bid $500 for his rotund pal to have the privilege of cavorting with a leggy brunette in the green cauldron of sin. But as Jabba now wobbled on the tub's lip, the brunette returned the $500 and used her long legs to beat a hasty retreat.

While organizers scurried to secure the services of another stripper, the crowd of about 200 gathered around the tub was growing impatient. "Get in the tub, you fat fuck!" screamed one thirtysomething professional clad in a designer suit. With that nudge of encouragement, Jabba cannonballed into the vat, spewing chunks of Jell-O on the first two rows of spectators. Alone in the tub, he proceeded to perform a series of acrobatic exercises that would have made Shamu jealous. Back flips. Belly flops. Even a cartwheel. Then, spotting one of his friends, he reached out, yanked the man into the tub, and the two began to frolic together, to the obvious amusement of the assembled audience.

After several minutes, however, an uneasy silence fell over the spectators, as it dawned on them that they were staring goggle-eyed at a pair of men wrestling in Jell-O. As if struck in unison by the billy-club of homophobic implications, they started to chant, "We want women! We want women!"

A pair of bouncers moved in and dragged Jabba's friend from the tub, quickly replacing the fully clothed, dripping man with a stripper wearing only panties and the pained expression of a person who has come to learn too late that some things aren't worth doing for money -- not even $500. The gropefest that ensued was augmented by whipped cream and ended when a butt-naked Jabba, having lost his underpants in the fray, came up for air long enough for the dancer to spring from the tub and dash like a whippet for safety. Left alone once more, Jabba continued to romp by himself until the man in the designer suit finally provided a sense of closure, shouting, "Get out of the tub, you fat fuck!"

Amid all the local hype that normally accompanies a Super Bowl, the nude cruise clearly caught the media's fancy this year, owing to its novelty and to its source, Michael J. Peter. With a network of nudie bars strung like prurient pearls around the world -- including Solid Gold in North Miami Beach, and Pure Platinum and Thee DollHouse III in Broward -- Peter is one of the undisputed kings of unclad entertainment. With last week's event, he is hoping to achieve in international waters what he has already accomplished on land. "This is what I do," he exclaimed as he stood aboard the Scandinavian Dawn, a SeaEscape ship he'd chartered, with naked women dancing all around him. "I am the modern-age Barnum and Bailey! I produce the greatest shows on Earth and there is nothing illegal about it!"

That last remark was probably directed at the U.S. Justice Department, which evidently disagrees. This past May a grand jury in Broward indicted Peter, charging that he threatened competitors when he believed they were trying to recruit his dancers, and that he skimmed profits and withheld taxes from one of his clubs to pay off members of the Mafia.

Peter's legal troubles, as well as the fact that the Super Bowl cruise featured casino gambling, raised concerns among National Football League officials, who saw names of current and former players being published in ads that promoted the event. Days before the ship left port, the NFL formally banned its players from participating. That didn't stop Peter from declaring during the cruise that 150 current and ex-NFL stars were onboard.

But much as the "Jell-O filled pool" turned out to be a small plastic tub, Peter's claim of scores of NFL superstars seemed somewhat overstated. Indeed, exactly which -- if any -- NFL players were onboard remains a mystery. When asked during the cruise whether any players had partaken of the festivities, a Peter aide replied, "I think I saw a couple of guys here from the Raiders but I have no idea who they were."

What the boat lacked in football players, though, it made up for in young, nimble women. Thirty-six inches of the dancers' collective 6824-inch bustline belonged to Sherry, a blonde from Georgia who stripped her way through college and is now a medical assistant for a group of gynecologists in Atlanta. Sherry, who continues to dance one night a week at one of Peter's clubs, said that when she was offered a chance to join the cruise, it sounded like fun. Like all the women who came from out of town, Sherry had to pay for her own airline ticket and hotel room. As the boat left Port Everglades, she seemed a bit anxious. The night before, she recounted, she had visited Solid Gold -- Peter's strip club in North Miami -- and was startled by what she saw. "They do that thing there, you know, those friction dances," she confided in a hushed Georgia accent. Recoiling back in her chair, she shook her head. "I'm not doing those." At this the rest of the Atlanta contingent shook their heads in agreement.

Because a majority of the women on the cruise were more than willing to friction-dance -- a ritual in which an undressed woman sits on a man's lap, wriggling, gyrating, and bouncing for the duration of one song -- Sherry and her fellow Georgians were worried that they wouldn't earn much money. None of the women onboard had been given any guarantees as to how much they'd make; all their income was to come from tips.

This led to a blatant philosophical/financial clash between the strippers and their male patrons. Many of the men, who had paid large sums of money to board the cruise, strode up the gangplank with certain expectations. Namely, they believed their tickets entitled them to more than mere admission onto the ship.

It didn't.
Though the numerous advertisements for the cruise made it seem as if erotic encounters would be bestowed willy-nilly once the ship left port, the truth was that everything cost extra. No free Jell-O encounters for those who'd ponied up for general admission. No additional nude coed swims for "silver level" ticket holders, and no nude massages for the big-money "platinum" patrons. (Ticket prices were set at $750, $1500, and $2000, but eventually dropped to between $350 and $1150.)

Beyond admission to the ship and a complimentary buffet, a ticket didn't entitle anyone to anything. In fact, it was not at all clear what special treatment was afforded the platinum-level ticket holder, aside from access to a piano bar and a sit-down dinner instead of the more plebian buffet. The cost of a friction dance was $20, as was the minimum tip for a one-on-one strip session. When the oil wrestling began, several men paid $50 to $150 for the privilege of squirting oil on a female wrestler. Those who wished to engage in actual wrestling matches with the dancers had to come up with $200. Everyone -- even the men who spent $2000 on a platinum pass -- were made to pay for drinks (can of coke, $4; can of beer, $5.50; mixed drink, $7.50).

And some promised events never seemed to materialize at all. Far from overflowing with bathing beauties and paying customers, the pool remained empty throughout the cruise A and bone dry. Two men sporting platinum-level tickets were seen wandering around the ship, inquiring of SeaEscape crew members where they should go for their nude massages. When asked, the woman at the information desk merely shrugged, "I have no idea."

The majority of the men who took the cruise were white, in their thirties or forties, and, as a random survey revealed, mostly well-paid professionals: attorneys, stockbrokers, accountants, physicians. A number of undercover cops were more than likely onboard as well, which prompted stern warnings from Peter's staff to all the dancers: no drugs, no prostitution.

"I don't understand any of this," opined Seth, a security-alarm specialist in his mid-thirties. "You really didn't get anything for your $2000. You got to see a lot of tits and ass, but that was about it. I knew I wasn't going to get laid, although I bet some of the guys thought they were. But I did think there was going to be more than just what was here." The only saving grace, said Seth, was that his ticket was a gift. (It appeared that a large number of guests had been given complimentary passes as a way of promoting the cruise and guaranteeing a packed house for the film crews that were shooting a promotional video to advertise future cruises. Organizers would not reveal exactly how many free tickets were given away.)

Free tickets or not, Seth was amazed at the amount of money people spent aboard ship. "I saw one guy give a girl $100 every time she danced for him," he imparted incredulously. "People just have money to throw away. I don't understand why someone would waste so much money here when for $200 you could get an escort service to send a prostitute to your house and you would actually get laid."

But the cruise was less about sex than it was about excess, the illusion of being part of something forbidden and exclusive, which is precisely what Michael J. Peter sells. "We had 50 movie and rock and roll stars onboard!" the promoter exclaimed during a frantic interview. "Howard Stern's people were here! We had Stuttering Dave," he added, misstating the name of occasional Stern cast member Stuttering John -- who wasn't onboard, either.

After nearly seven hours at sea, the Scandinavian Dawn returned to port, the patrons financially drained, the dancers exhausted. Not since World War II had so many men been taken out to sea and left so sexually frustrated. Jabba's pals had long since abandoned him to a deck chair, where he sprawled, passed out and hardening to a high green gloss.

For Sherry the cruise turned out to be a mixed blessing. As she had predicted at the outset, her principled stance against friction dancing proved costly. "I only made $60 dancing," she reported glumly. Then a grin stretched across her face. "But I made $2300 playing blackjack!"

Weary of the debauchery, a SeaEscape crew member squeegeed the Jell-O off the deck, muttering to himself, "This is really disgusting." Another employee of the cruise line took to the ship's loudspeakers, demanding that everyone disembark immediately. But Michael J. Peter, still surrounded by naked women in the Grand Lounge, wasn't quite ready for his party to end. He commanded the band, who call themselves Stark Naked, to continue. Pop singer Jeffrey Osborne, the only real celebrity sighted during the excursion, joined in for a few songs.

"This was the party to end all parties," Peter shouted, then began plugging the next nude cruise, tentatively scheduled for March. "Tell everyone," he exhorted. "Tell the world!"


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