On a Wednesday night in August, Jeannie Bates slipped into a tuxedo jacket and a leather thong with three strands of rhinestones. She finished the outfit with a black bow tie and stepped into a pair of black 5-inch heels. Her husband, Lee, hauled a 6-foot-square mirror from the bedroom dresser and propped it against a chair beside the wall. Together, they rolled up the area rug from the basement floor and stowed it beneath the pool table.
Lee turned on the radio, and as Santana's "Smooth" filled the basement -- Man, it's a hot one, like seven inches from the midday sun -- Jeannie danced seductively around the room. Lee cranked the stereo and settled back into a chair. I hear you whisper and the words melt ever-y-one, but you stay so cool. Jeannie moved closer to Lee, then back, trying not to glance at herself in the mirror too often.
Less is more, they decided, when it comes to dancing provocatively. Jeannie danced for an hour to whatever played on the radio, occasionally tossing off a piece of clothing, letting it drop between the pool table and the wall, where there were two poster-size pictures of her Uncle Fred with his 4-H calf and Fred's horse, Flip.
At 6 feet tall and 43 years old, Jeannie Bates has long been a source of controversy in Burlington, Kansas -- population 2,800 -- a town that doesn't even stretch 3 miles, one end to the other. The city values she learned growing up in Wichita, combined with her outspoken ways, have gained Jeannie a reputation for eccentricity.
Jeannie married her first husband, Michael, when she was 19. Fifteen years ago, Michael, Jeannie, and their two children -- Shenandoah, their 4-year-old daughter, and Shiloh, their 2-year-old son -- moved to Burlington for Michael's new job at the Wolf Creek nuclear power plant. A few years later, though, Jeannie met Lee, and within months, they left their spouses to be together.
"We both decided we'd married the wrong people," says Jeannie, who adds that her and Lee's divorce notices came out on the same day in the Coffey County Republican, Burlington's twice-weekly newspaper. Lee and Jeannie settled with her two children into the house that Lee designed, set on 16 acres just outside of town.
Jeannie owned a successful graphic-design business in town. But that didn't stop the ladies who gathered at a table at Johnson's Pharmacy each afternoon from clucking about her as she walked by. She worked out in spandex and grew her hair longer than any respectable woman her age. Though Jeannie and Lee had been married for 11 years, they still acted like newlyweds.
On Jeannie's 40th birthday, she and Lee took a trip to Topeka. There Jeannie fulfilled a longtime fantasy: She danced on stage with 40 other women at Babydolls, a gentlemen's club. But if Jeannie had any fantasies about keeping her birthday outing a secret, they didn't last long. She ran into a member of the school board and her daughter's basketball coach that night, and soon a rumor circulated that Jeannie was dancing there part time. She just laughed.
"A friend of mine had a Babydolls jacket," Jeannie says. "I told him, 'Get me one too, and I'll wear it when I ride through town.'" Although that rumor eventually died out, Jeannie's and Lee's imaginations remained as active as ever.
While they were flipping through a Penthouse magazine seven years ago, Jeannie and Lee came across a photo layout of a woman wearing cutoffs and a straw hat, posed as if she were stranded with car trouble. "I wasn't very impressed," Jeannie says. "I told Lee, 'I can do better than that.'" So the couple drove her Mustang convertible down the highway out of town until they found a deserted stretch. Their adventure is commemorated in a special photo album.
"Here I am saying, 'Oh, I think my car is dead,'" Jeannie says as she carefully turns the pages of the "Car Trouble" series. "And here I am fixing the car." She slides her fingers over a picture of herself leaning under the hood wearing only a thong and high heels.
As Lee and Jeannie explored their photographic fantasies, they grew more daring. One afternoon, they drove out to the country and came across an abandoned bulldozer in the middle of a pasture. The two exchanged a knowing glance. As a herd of cows looked on, the photo shoot began: Jeannie driving the bulldozer naked. Jeannie bent over, "fixing" the engine. Jeannie nude on the grass, with sunlight glinting off the shiny blade behind.
On a winter night, Jeannie and Lee sneaked into the local fire station. As Lee snapped away, Jeannie indulged herself with the abundance of available props. There's Jeannie wearing only a fireman's coat, boots, and a yellow fire hat. Jeannie posing naked beside a statue of a Dalmatian. Jeannie sitting naked on the side of a fire truck playing with a fire hose. "Isn't that what every fireman's dream is -- for a woman to play with his hose?" she asks.
One weekend Jeannie and Lee drove out to John Redmond Reservoir, a few miles north of town, and waited. When no traffic was coming from either direction, Jeannie flung off her overcoat and climbed atop the stone wall along the road. There she posed in black garters and heels as the waters of the dam rushed behind her. The photographs, Lee and Jeannie insist, are "classic nudes" with a theme.
"We were going to do an entire agricultural series," Lee says. Over the years, the fertile fields of Kansas offered them ample opportunities. Jeannie nude in the shadows of towering cornstalks. Jeannie naked in a bean field, the leaves caressing her legs. Jeannie bare-breasted in an open field, surrounded by wild daisies.
In one of their favorite photographs, Jeannie stands naked in the door of a dilapidated farmhouse.
"In this one, I'm saying, 'I could use some farm hands around the house,'" Jeannie says as she points to the picture. It's all in fun, a bit of adventure in a town where everybody knows who everyone else's grandmother is and whom Jeannie slept with before she got married.
"If anybody here does anything fun, they don't talk about it," Jeannie says. "I'm 6 feet tall and 43 years old, and I refuse to be normal. I won't act 65."
For Lee, the photographs are just a way of showing off his beautiful wife.
"It definitely keeps our relationship nice and spiced up," he says. "We are anything but bored."
Eventually, one or two albums could no longer hold the collection. Lee and Jeannie joined a chat room so they could exchange their photos with other adventurous photographers. Unlike some of the Internet's image-exchange chat rooms, this one did not allow pictures downloaded from the Internet; all the images were personal photographs.
For two years, one of their chat-room friends, Doc Doom (his real name), tried to get Jeannie to come to Indiana to dance in the Miss Nude North America competition. The contest takes place every year at the Ponderosa Sun Club, a nudist camp one hour south of Chicago in tiny Roselawn, Indiana. Ponderosa bills the 29-year-old "Nudes-A-Poppin'" event as the largest and longest-running beauty pageant in the world.
By August, Jeannie was ready to enter the contest. Doc had finally convinced her to come up and dance at a gentlemen's club in North Webster, Indiana, where he worked as operations manager. Two days later she would be on stage at the Ponderosa Sun Club. Jeannie and Lee prepared to embark on their biggest fantasy yet.
The Miss Nude North America competition draws about 250 women who make their living as exotic dancers, and the winner usually spends the next year making thousands of dollars performing at clubs as a featured dancer. Jeannie, however, was no exotic dancer. She was just a cowgirl from Kansas, she says, and entering the competition appealed to her spirit of adventure. She and Lee decided she would dance as "Blondie Cowgirl."
On August 17, she and Lee left at 6 a.m. and headed toward Indiana. Her two nights of dancing in front of Lee in their basement had gone well, but the closer they got to Doc Doom's nightclub, where Jeannie was to dance that night and the next, the more nervous she became.
"Do you still want to do it?" Lee asked her. "Do you want to turn around and go back home?"
They drove on. Blondie Cowgirl was ready to dance.
"What she does with her own life is her own business, but I don't think it needs to be in the paper. I think it's ridiculous. Anybody that's 43 years old and goes running around in the nude that is a mother ... Uh-uh, no. We don't want to be put on the map by that."
-- A member of the Johnson Pharmacy coffee klatch who will identify herself only by her initials, D.V.K.
"There's a lot that people have done in this town that is more newsworthy. We're used to community news, like Mabel took a pie over to Sarah's house. That's why we live here."
-- A clerk in downtown Burlington who wishes to remain anonymous
On a Friday night at the Silver Screen bar in Burlington, while Alan Jackson sings "Gone Country" on the jukebox, Jeannie slides a greeting card across the table. On the front is a picture of a woman in western gear standing with arms outstretched atop a horse that's galloping across an open prairie. "That's called 'Fancy Rider,'" Jeannie says over the clack of pool balls. "Now that's a cowgirl attitude.
"Is there anything more honest than John Wayne?" she asks. "Than Barbara Stanwyck? It's that strong, independent attitude without gray areas. That's what I mean by a cowgirl attitude."
Back in Jeannie's college days at Wichita State University, where she studied art and physical education, she often whipped out a can of Happy Days raspberry snuff as she sat at the bar alongside frat boys who smoked Swisher Sweets. "If you can't dip Skoal like a man, don't do it at all," one would inevitably say.
"I would bet them they couldn't dip the raspberry stuff," says Jeannie. "They couldn't handle it. I won a lot of money that way."
One night when she was 21, a man came into the bar carrying a 5-foot picture of a nude woman lounging on a fainting couch, sunlight falling onto her and gauze curtains billowing over an open window. The portrait reminded Jeannie of those that hung behind the bars of saloons in old westerns -- paintings of buxom women with wise smiles and hearts of gold. Jeannie knew at once that she must have a similar portrait made of herself. She booked an appointment with a photographer and took a girlfriend with her because she was scared to go alone.
The photographer hung a crushed-velvet drape behind Jeannie to create the effect of an elegant stucco wall. She donned only her black cowboy hat, blue rodeo chaps, and black boots. The final product revealed a sexy, photogenic woman with one boot up against the wall, looking down at an open can of Skoal in her hand. The Skoal people were even interested in buying the rights to it at one time, Jeannie says, but that never panned out. Now, she says, "the picture sets on the back of the toilet in my house."
Jeannie's cowgirl days appeared to be over, until she got together with Lee.
Life on the farm offered a freedom that the two found hard to resist. One day while bathing their horses in the nude, Jeannie says, "we got the soap going and the hoses, and were getting in a water fight when around the corner comes Lee's dad. I hid behind a horse and Lee hid behind another horse." Lee's dad had never been skinny-dipping, she says. "There's something wrong with a person from Kansas who's never been skinny-dipping."
Few people are more prepared to bare themselves than Jeannie and Lee. Nine years ago they began working out at the Burlington Recreation center. Thanks to money Burlington's recreation commission receives from Wolf Creek, the two-story facility boasts a weight room, cardiovascular equipment complete with "cardio-theater" (several televisions and stereos, with headphones for each machine), a six-lane, 25-yard indoor pool, an indoor running track, pool tables, and meeting rooms. Jeannie began to buff up, jumping from 116 pounds to 135.
"When I was in high school, I was already 6 feet tall and weighed 115 pounds," she recalls. "I was voted the girl most likely to stand sideways, stick my tongue out, and look like a zipper." But after a year of working out with Lee as her personal trainer, Jeannie began to notice a difference. "I stood in front of a mirror and I had a butt," she says. "I was so excited."
Not everyone in Burlington shared Jeannie's excitement. An anonymous caller complained to the rec center manager that she'd had enough of watching Jeannie and Lee rub all over each other in the weight room. She even called their home and gave Lee a piece of her mind. Lee and Jeannie should build their own gym in their own basement and stop flaunting their stuff for all of Burlington to see, she told him. He and Jeannie were only spotting each other, Lee told her, but soon there was plenty of gossip going around.
"A rumor got back to us about me and Lee having sex in a barn somewhere," says Jeannie. "I looked at him and said, 'Damn, I missed that. Was it good for you?'" The most popular tale centered on the passionate sex they supposedly had after a weight-room workout -- while immersed in the gurgling waters of the rec center's Jacuzzi. The encounter had been messy, people whispered, and the management even demanded that Jeannie come back and clean up any trace.
"Whoever thought that up read it in a book and has never done it in water," Jeannie says. "But at least if they're talking about me, that gives someone else a well-deserved break."
"I've never come across anything in the hot tub," says Steve Friend, director of the Burlington Recreation Center, "but I did ask them to quit kissing in the hallway." He's never witnessed any overt affection between the two, he says, but he has heard the stories. "I got a good laugh out of it. They're just free spirits, and I don't have a problem with it. As long as Jeannie keeps her clothes on, we're all right."
"I think it's a bunch of junk. You can go to any strip joint and see whatever you want to see. She ain't nothin' to look at anyway."
-- Anonymous man in a doughnut shop, downtown Burlington
"I was disgusted that such an event would make front-page news in our local newspaper.... I don't understand your decision to glorify this activity.... Perhaps it is the newspaper's position to publish any article without regard to moral integrity.... In an article submitted to the newspaper about my grandmother's birthday celebration, someone at your office felt free to edit out every reference to my grandmother being a Christian woman.... The only conclusion I can draw is that this type of activity appeals to your newspaper staff."
-- Londa Wallace, letter to the editor, Coffey County Republican
At 9 p.m. on August 17, Jeannie and Lee met with Sam Stimmel, the owner of Stimmelators club ("'Stimmel-ators,' like my last name," Stimmel emphasizes in his interview with the Pitch, "instead of 'stim-u-lators'"), in North Webster, Indiana, a lake resort town of 850 people in the heart of Amish country between South Bend and Fort Wayne.
Stimmel spent an hour going over Indiana's adult entertainment laws to prepare Jeannie for her dancing debut at his club. No straddling the customers, he told her. No physical contact. No touching herself in private places. She could be nude from the waist up but had to wear at least a thong down below. And when it came to nipples, he warned, they needed to be covered.
"They weren't even talking the entire nipple, just the tip," says Jeannie. "So these girls at Stimmelators would wear glow-in-the-dark neon Band-Aids over their nipples, and you'd see these glowing Band-Aids bobbing up and down in the dark when they danced on stage." After the orientation, Jeannie went upstairs to practice.
"I spent about 10 minutes playing with a pole. We didn't have a pole at home. There's a whole lot of difference between knowing about things to do and actually doing them. These girls have some serious-ass talent going on." Blondie Cowgirl danced that night to "Fishin' in the Dark" by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and to "Pink" by Aerosmith.
"We got to pick out our own songs to dance to," Jeannie says. "I told the DJ I wanted 'Fishin' in the Dark,' and he said, 'You want to dance to what?' Strip bars don't usually play country, but that's what we listen to." She danced to a couple of songs on the two small stages upstairs at Stimmelators and on the 25-foot stage downstairs with another woman at the opposite end. All of the walls in the room were mirrored. Each dancer had her own pole.
"She's got a few pole tricks, but I can't remember exactly what they were," says Blaze, who tended bar at Stimmelators the night of Jeannie's debut. The audience liked Blondie Cowgirl, Blaze says. "She's got the real breasts, and they're not small, so they love that."
The Nudes-A-Poppin' competition, however, would be the true test of Jeannie's cowgirl mettle.
On the following Sunday, Jeannie took her place in line with the other contestants at the Ponderosa Sun Club in Roselawn. The nudist camp, which operates on 68 acres and rents out trailers year-round to its guests, opened in 1965; the first Nudes-A-Poppin' competition took place in 1971. Actor Corey Feldman, who hit the pinnacle of his movie career in the '80s with The Lost Boys and Stand by Me, was this year's celebrity emcee.
The contest was to take place around the huge circular swimming pool, surrounded by fountains, a main stage, several platform stages, and a sprawling lawn. The only people allowed in the pool area were the performers and Ponderosa staff; spectators would be separated from the stage by a chain-link fence.
Jeannie received a stack of forms to fill out, including photo-consent forms for eight adult magazines. She began to suspect that word of her participation in the contest might make its way back to Burlington, but she and Lee were planning to use the parallel-universe theory.
"If anyone from Burlington saw the pictures, we were going to tell them it must just be somebody else who looks a lot like her," says Lee. However, when the TV cameras rolled in, Lee and Jeannie scratched that idea. "We were busted," says Lee. "She was going to be on HBO." (An HBO spokesman could not confirm when, or even whether, the Miss Nude North America pageant would air.)
Jeannie hadn't slept at all the night before. As she looked around at her fellow contestants, most of whom were dressed in sweats and wore no makeup for the registration, she realized that only a few were over 30.
"I was getting paranoid. They were all half my age, and they'd done this before," says Jeannie. "They knew what to do, and I didn't. I started seeing these girls clean up, and I thought, 'I'm not going to go out there and look like an old fart.' I put on my rhinestone thong, a black velvet bolero jacket, a black tux tie, my black cowboy hat -- and a cowgirl attitude." In her 5-inch black heels, Jeannie stood 6'5" tall.
"It took me almost three weeks to get the feeling back in two of my toes on each foot," Jeannie says. But it wouldn't take long for Blondie Cowgirl, number 52, to capture the crowd's attention.
Jeannie was one of the first five girls to dance. The Ponderosa staff gave each of the contestants a gold lamé skirt and top and a pair of gold maracas. The first song, she performed while partially clothed. During the second song, she lost the gold lamé. By the end of the third song, Blondie Cowgirl was naked except for her heels and hat. Five thousand people were cheering her on.
"As long as I had that hat on, I was clothed," says Jeannie. "That hat was older than most of the other contestants, and it was my security blanket." As Lee snapped picture after picture of Jeannie, she transformed before his eyes.
"Jeannie is definitely an extrovert, but she was more so at the contest," he remembers. Lee could hear the crowd chanting "Fifty-two, fifty-two!" while Jeannie performed. "I'm positive one of the reasons she won is that she interacted with the crowd."
"I didn't find out I could do it until I stepped on stage," says Jeannie. But soon she embraced the spotlight and danced along with Guns N' Roses' squealing guitars. "There was a railing up above, and I shouted up to the people up there, 'Is anybody here from Kansas? Where you from? Is your wife with you? Well, why isn't she topless? Matter of fact, why aren't you topless? How many of you like older cowgirls?'
"In their minds, I could do things for them that those young girls couldn't do. I turned on my little brassy self -- and I can get very brassy."
Halfway through the evening, Jeannie won the Miss Hot Legs portion of the contest. "When I won Miss Hot Legs, I was probably as ecstatic as I would get because now I had a 2-foot trophy to set on my mantle." Jeannie was amazed that she'd won anything at all. She hadn't cared about winning money or titles. "I was just there to have a kick-ass time."
But even the most kick-ass time must come to an end. Lee had used up all the film in his camera, and he and Jeannie sat down on the grass and began to pack up their belongings. They might have some explaining to do about the Miss Hot Legs trophy, they decided, but it was nothing they couldn't handle.
On stage, Feldman rattled off the names of the nine runners-up. Jeannie started to take off her heels. "I was damn ready to take off those shoes," she says.
"We have a new Miss Nude North America," Feldman declared after a long drum roll. "Number 52!"
"That's a familiar number," Lee told Jeannie. When they looked up, Feldman was staring straight at her.
"They had to have made a mistake," she told Lee.
"Yeah, you in the black cowboy hat, get up here!" Feldman shouted.
"She had enough guts to be 43 years old and dance," says Doc Doom, who was in the audience. "She was personable and congenial, and she had that cowboy-hat thing going for her."
"I've said all along that this floored me because of her age," says Stimmel. "It's a feel-good story for all the baby-boomer girls who would like to think they could do the same." Ten judges choose the winners based largely on audience participation, he says, and when it's whittled down to the finalists, "usually they go for the 10 fake-boob, tall blondes. Silicone implants are big there, blondes are big there, and tall is big too. And most of the winners are between 23 and 25 years old."
When Feldman presented Jeannie with her 7-foot trophy, Blondie Cowgirl basked in the glory. But Jeannie Bates would still have to return to Burlington, Kansas.
"I think it's fabulous. I'm used to being in Europe, and nudity isn't looked on the same way there as it is here. Over here, we're pretty hung up."
-- Dean Kirchner, retired chiropractor and co-owner of the Rocking R Motel, Burlington
"It doesn't bother me a bit to look at a good-looking naked gal."
-- Larry Curtiss, proprietor, Silver Screen bar
"I think it's great. She's forty-something years old and she has a body like that. More power to her. It's just too bad for her it had to happen in Burlington."
-- Jenny Lawrence, 17 years old, clerk in Burlington shop
For the trip back home, Lee had to disassemble the 7-foot trophy to get it to fit in the van, but when they stopped for the night, he put it back together at their motel. Afterward, they leaned back on the bed in disbelief.
"We had a couple of beers and just stared at it," says Jeannie. "Later that night, we both woke up and looked at it several times. We wanted to make sure it wasn't a dream."
The first thing they did when they rolled into town was stop by Lee's mother's house to break the news. "We went into her kitchen and started to tell her we'd gone to Indiana and I'd entered a nude beauty pageant," says Jeannie. "At that point, she stopped me and said, 'You won the damn thing or you wouldn't be telling me.'"
Jeannie's mother-in-law declined to discuss Jeannie's victory with Pitch Weekly.
After a family meeting at their home to let their kids know that Mom was the new Miss Nude North America, Jeannie and Lee decided to tackle the issue head-on. The next day, they phoned Mark Petterson, editor of the Coffee County Republican, and offered him an exclusive interview. "We just put it in the paper and told how it was," says Jeannie. "That way they couldn't get their own rumors started."
Before Petterson printed the story, he and his publisher met to discuss the consequences of running a feature story about a nude beauty queen. "It was a tough decision. We knew it would offend some people, but at the same time, we knew it was newsworthy," Petterson says. The paper ran the story with the headline "Burlington Woman Wins Title" and a 9-inch photograph of Jeannie in a short dress standing in her living room beside her trophy. Petterson got a few calls from disgruntled subscribers, he says, including a woman who was outraged that the Coffey County Republican had "a half-naked lady with her boobs hanging out" on its cover.
"But we also got a lot of calls that said it was pretty interesting," Petterson says. So interesting, in fact, that within a day or two, all the newspaper racks in town were empty. "That doesn't happen very often."
It didn't take long for national news outlets to get ahold of the brief Associated Press story that appeared a short time later. People from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno called her, Jeannie says, and even someone from Inside Edition, but nothing has come of all that yet. However, KMBC Channel 9 in Kansas City showed a two-minute segment profiling Jeannie on its 10 o'clock news one night. Soon after, a woman called the Burlington Recreation Center, appalled that management had broadcast it on the televisions mounted above the cardiovascular machines.
"She hadn't seen it, but she'd heard about it," the rec center's Steve Friend says about the caller. "She's always on a crusade about something. I told her to come to a board meeting."
Jeannie also found that more people than she expected were happy for her success. Women she barely knew came up and hugged her in Thriftway, telling her she was a positive role model for older women. Some residents sent her cards congratulating her.
"Burlington is known for a lot of things, and one of those things is that the people here are friendly," says Dixie Johnson, owner of Johnson's Pharmacy -- where women still meet every afternoon to gossip. "We may not always agree with everything, but we try to accept people for who they are."
Lee has set up a Web site, www.blondiecowgirl.com, where members can view all 307 pictures from the contest. Even the guest section has plenty of "PG pictures," he says, and soon there will be thousands more. This is an international title, says Lee, and it deserves a Web site. "I want to promote it in a health-and-fitness way," Jeannie says. "Life doesn't end at 30 or 50."
Most likely, though, she won't attempt to defend her title at next year's competition.
"At 43, how could I top this?" she asks. She also won't be taking advantage of the opportunity to earn thousands of dollars dancing at clubs for the next year as Miss Nude North America. "I'd miss my son's senior year of wrestling," she says, "and I can't tell my customers to wait a year."
She's proud of her title but says that winning isn't what is important.
"Winning this contest says go ahead and go out on that limb and do something, anything that makes you feel good. The hell with what anyone else thinks," says Jeannie. She tries to live life, she says, by the words of the Lee Ann Womack song "I Hope You Dance."
"I love that song. I didn't let life pass me by. I didn't sit it out. I danced."