How My Vacation Turned Into an NFL Cheerleader Bikini Shoot

There I was minding my own business at a resort in the Dominican Republic when the entire New England Patriots cheerleading squad showed up to shoot their annual bikini calendar

The sunburned bro was beaming like he’d just won the lottery. He’d traveled all the way to the Dominican Republic for vacation, only to find out the New England Patriots cheerleaders were staying in the same hotel. “As a Patriots fan this is awesome,” he said. I knew exactly how he felt. The only way it could’ve been better was if we got to see Julian Edelman in a bikini.

His girlfriend asked if he could have his picture taken with members of the team, who were holding an autograph session near the beach-front bar. “Did you plan this?” he asked her. It’s hard to imagine anyone’s girlfriend being that selfless. One of the team’s camera crew nudged me, gesturing to a nearby photo backdrop of a Patriots team logo and a couple of footballs that were jutting out of the sand in an unfortunately phallic configuration.

His reaction was a common one, as I came to learn over the weekend, having found myself somewhat unexpectedly embedded in the photo shoot for the Patriots Cheerleaders 2016 bikini calendar taking place during my trip to the Paradisus Palma Real resort in Punta Cana. The resort was the ideal setting, thematically speaking: Much like the cheerleaders themselves, a blend of picture-perfect scenery and multi-purpose functionality. 

“I don’t want to bother them if they’re talking to someone else,” a middle-aged man confused about how to comport himself said to his wife. Nearby, a young girl was ecstatic talking to two other cheerleaders. What’s your favorite song, they asked her, before joining her in a chorus of “Shake It Off.” “I get embarrassed singing in front of people!” the girl admitted. Cheerleaders are one of the rare groups with an uncanny ability to make both 3rd grade girls and adult men do somersaults in the brain.

“Is this fun or what?” I asked one of them in a down moment, mingling with a couple dozen onlookers. “Oh, yeah,” she said, a rare twinge of exasperation coloring her voice. “It’s all part of the job.”

The job, to be fair, is actually pretty demanding. Over the past few years there has been ample controversy—and a couple of recently settled lawsuits—over how cheerleaders in the NFL are compensated, which is often under minimum wage. Still, despite the schedule of photo and video shoots, performances, and meet and greets, this trip was considered something of a perk for the team of 17 veterans and 11 rookies who came along.

“We always say you take off as teammates and come back as sisters,” Heather Santoro, one of the team’s handlers, and a former cheerleader herself, explained to me of the annual trip.

The cheerleaders would be shooting photos every day for the rest of the week. Many of the squad come from dancing and performance backgrounds, or from the beauty pageant circuit — they’d bait each other over whether Miss America or Miss USA was the true crown — but I wondered whether any of that actually translates into modeling.

“I think cheerleading requires you to have a certain type of personality,” Santoro said. “But I think their personalities show, because they’re all confident they can get in front of the camera. They don’t need that modeling training.”

For some, turning on the switch seemed to come more naturally than others.

“Come on guys, lets fake dance for the video,” one of them joked, as the video crew took footage of them at a BBQ celebration that was underway. The DJ played OMI’s “Cheerleader” for the second time in a row, a song treacly enough to make even a professional enthusiasm enthusiast lose her damn mind. Nearby, a massive buffet of eggplant lasagna, coconut grouper and ratatouille sweated in the early evening heat.

“You’re having fun! You guys are cheerleaders on the beach!” Gareth Hughes, the producer of the video portion of the calendar shoot instructed.

“It’s funny, I’ve been doing this for long enough, I have a list about a page long of people who have volunteered to, like, hold a bounce card or spray the girls,” he laughed. “One thing I’ll say, it’s a fun week, with the same crew every year, so we kind of know what we’re doing. But from a production standpoint it is not fun. It’s early call times to late hours for night shoots. 90 degrees, 100% humidity… Nobody is going to send you a sympathy card for the work you’re doing down here, but at the same time I remember getting in an elevator with my cameraman a couple years ago after a 15-hour day in the Dominican, and we looked at ourselves in the mirror, and we just looked haggard” 

No such leeway is provided to the cheerleaders themselves, who seem compelled, either personality-wise, or contractually speaking, to wield their smile like a suit of armor.

Lauren Scheider, a phys-ed teacher, and Alyssa Merkle, a recent UCONN graduate in biomedical engineering who’ll be starting her masters in chemical engineering this year, explained the mix of work and fun that goes into what they do. Both are in their second year with the team, which caps membership at four years. “After four years, they don’t really kick you out, but you retire. It’s like a celebration of your experience on the team,” Schneider said, which sounded like a euphemism for being taken out back and having a bullet put in your head. 

Each of the team dancers will do about 33 promos or appearances throughout the year. This year members will travel to Iraq, Bahrain and Kuwait to entertain the U.S. military. Some of those are charity events, like the recent Best Buddies events in Massachusetts. For others they’ll be hired out for business events, brand promotions, or the opening of car dealerships or restaurants.

Later that week they’d take part in a STEM clinic, where the members with math and science backgrounds and careers— and there are a lot more of them throughout NFL cheerleading squads than you might think — would teach kids about how to apply math and science in careers later on in life.

“I think they forget we’re just as much a part of the organization as the players and Mr Kraft, and we want to give back as much as we can, too. We love that stuff. That’s a big part of being on this team,” Schneider said.

Being on the field while the Patriots won the Super Bowl this past February wasn’t so bad either.

“It was the craziest thing. I looked over at about 20 seconds left, and they started filling the confetti machine with our colors, and I was like, in my head, ‘It’s over, it’s us. It’s done,’” Merkle said, giving me, a Patriots fan, the chills.

A few minutes later, a clattering extravaganza of dancers would appear out of nowhere, bringing our interview to a halt. Is this some sort of traditional Dominican cultural thing I asked one of the hotel staff. “It’s…how do you say? Stomp,” she explained. A Cirque du Soleil-style ribbon acrobat performed amidst the palm trees to the booming music of a DJ set up in the sand on the beach. About 100 yards away, another DJ played inside one of the more party-driven bars where dancers guzzled Presidente.

Later that night, while the cheerleaders were off to an early bedtime, one of the staff smuggled me out of the resort on the back of a motorbike to experience a locals disco. I drank Brugal like it was water while dancing to bachata and floundering in my attempts to say anything meaningful in my child-like Spanish. Everyone here was smiling, but there were no cameras to document it.

The next morning the team gathered on the beach to work out with their personal trainer while I lurked on the side, looking like a homeless, sunburned Christopher Lloyd and feeling only half as good as that sounds. It’s curious how a group of beautiful women like this can become just part of the background, almost commonplace, I thought. But something about that changes once they get into uniform.

“It’s pretty cool to see when they get all glammed up and go into a room and take over,” Sam Patton, a member of the film crew told me. “They can dance, and they’re good at it. It’s impressive.”

He’s right. At a performance that night in the hotel’s theater, it was like seeing a superhero transform once they put on their costume. A pretty, fit woman is one thing, but a cheerleader is another altogether. A crowd of a few hundred—young girls with stars in their eyes and men grinding down the battery on their camera phones—watched the team run through their choreographed routines, a tornado of hair and teeth and legs and precision. “Free Brady!” someone shouted in the crowd.

Later on at the bar, the uniforms doffed for the night, the team shared a few cocktails. None were particularly interested in my espousing the benefits of a properly made rum Negroni for some reason. One talked about her time interning for Wes Anderson. “I don’t think many Patriots fans know who Wes Anderson is though,” she laughed.

Sweating like a stuck pig, I mentioned the superhero analogy, and a few of them nodded. It carries over in their interactions with kids, they said, most of whom are excited to meet them up to a certain age, at which point they might become a little self conscious.

Lasondra Green, who works at a financial firm by day, was one of those young girls fascinated by the idea of being a cheerleader, she told me.

She didn’t make the team until her second year of trying out. Each year, hundreds of women are similarly disappointed. For her, it’s all been worth it, despite the commitment required.

“This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” she said.

Photos by Laszlo Tarko