On Monday night, Dennis Rodman celebrated his 52nd birthday at Cheetahs, a gentleman’s club in Times Square. One press release advertised the event, part of an extended birthday tour, as “a no-holds barred birthday with topless dancers, thongs, and naked sushi.” Another cheekily teased that the NBA Hall of Famer might bring along a certain famously despotic guest, one Kim Jong-un, so that "maybe the Cheetah Strippers and Rodman can secure what our government has failed to do."
This was only kind of a joke. Ever since Rodman partied with the 29-year-old North Korean dictator in February, as part of a reckless international stunt negotiated and documented by Vice, the rebound clown became an accidental expert on notorious death-camp counselor Kim Jong-un. To his sadly evident surprise, Rodman was suddenly asked to assume the role of vigilante diplomat, an assignment he partly humored, relaying phone messages to President Obama, announcing plans to revisit North Korea on August 1, and later asking his buddy Kim to "do me a solid" by releasing imprisoned American Kenneth Bae, a Christian missionary and tour operator sentenced to 15 years hard labor for committing "hostile acts" against the country.
This is how the Worm ended up here at Cheetahs. "I was never really a fan," owner Sam Zherka told me Monday, in a heavily monitored VIP room of his West 43rd club. "I became a fan when I saw that he went out to North Korea, and even a bigger fan when he asked for the release of Kenneth Bae. I said to myself, ‘This guy, he’s a true American.'" Earlier in the day, Cheetahs's largely inactive Twitter account posted a photo of men holding signs outside the club, urging Rodman to mediate Bae's freedom.
Zherka is no stranger to publicity, from christening a Cheetahs VIP lounge in honor of Charlie Sheen to waging a five-year legal battle over personally defamatory remarks made by the former Mayor of Yonkers. Widely known to be a polarizing figure who takes actions into his own hands, Zherka is a politically active real-estate magnate who owns the Westchester Guardian. His parents emigrated from Albania and his father was held in a Communist camp for a decade, so he's sympathetic to Bae's situation, he said. "If [Rodman] goes out there on August 1 and comes back on August 2 or 3 with the American prisoner, he'll be an American hero." So while hosting Rodman was a nice way for his business to reappear on Page Six, Zherka was also swayed by far broader possibilities.
Mark DePalma, a suited man who identified himself as Zherka’s business partner, elaborated further on Zherka's motivations. “He was trying to figure out a way to get to Kim Jong-un,” DePalma confessed, admitting that he didn’t know if he’d get in trouble for confiding his friend's fantastical plot to parlay boobs and Dennis Rodman into a diplomatic visit. “Even if you have to use dancing girls to get to the guy, it’s worth it.”
But North Korea was not something the Worm wanted to discuss Monday night. Or any night in the near future, according to Rodman's representative, Steve Simon. “We’re not gonna talk about North Korea, we’re gonna move on,” the talent agency VP said. That's what Rodman wanted and what Simon had told Cheetahs.
Meanwhile, the Worm sat less than two feet away in a VIP sushi-bar corner, flat-brimmed baseball hat over dyed yellow hair, eye contact prevented by sunglasses. The previous evening, he'd walked the red carpet of an All-Star Celebrity Apprentice gala costumed in a blonde rooster-comb mohawk, purple eyeshadow, and a print blazer of surfing Santas. Tonight, he'd dressed far more casually, in jeans and a white shirt unbuttoned to show off the map of his chest. A stunning woman in a backless dress remained by his side. The atmosphere was not the sort of chaotic frenzy of bottle-popping debauchery the event’s "no-holds-barred" copy suggested. The sushi arrived on plates, not vaginas.
But Simon said the more subdued scene was perfect. "They’re letting him do his thing."
Dennis doing his thing meant pulling money out of a sock (for no evident reason), giving politely enthusiastic thumbs-up to strangers he didn’t feel like engaging with words, and asking for more soda water—"Please"—though a bottle of vodka and an orange juice carafe sat nearby. Doing his thing also meant graciously accepting a birthday cake lit with towering sparklers, posing for photos, and bonding with a guy who pulled up his shirt to show off his gunshot wounds.
Dennis doing his thing meant not talking about foreign affairs. But did Simon really think his client could move beyond North Korea? "I don’t think people want to move beyond it because how many people have met him?" he admitted. "But there’s so much more to him than just North Korea," he said, as if North Korea was an actress Rodman had recently dumped. "He’s already moving onto the next thing."
This is sort of like saying, Sure, I just went and visited Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the hospital last week, but what about my new single? Or, Yes, I fucked Osama bin Laden, but can we focus on my limited-edition culottes?
Simon, who's also worked with Magic Johnson and Mickey Rourke, acknowledged this might seem preposterous, but tried to characterize the prerogative of his world famous client. “He’s always reinventing himself. Like last night, he had Celebrity Apprentice and you saw what he wore? He’s always onto the next thing." In other words, for Dennis Rodman's purposes, today's mohawk was yesterday's Pyongyang.
“He really can’t understand why there wouldn’t be peace,” Simon said. “What he sees is, ‘Why can’t we get together and settle things.’ It may be a little simplistic, but his message is peace and love. That’s the way he lives his life.”
What about Rodman's plan to return to North Korea? Simon rolled his eyes. “Well, we’ll see.” The plans did not sound very solid. “There’s so many panels you have to navigate. How [VICE] did it, I have no idea. But he would have to do that again.”
It had just turned 11, so security started clearing out the back room. Rodman slipped through a side exit, making his way to the main stage, where he would briefly gyrate with a topless stripper on the main stage and then give her a fist-bump.
Somewhere Kenneth Bae was starving.
[photos by Victor G. Jeffreys II]
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