She’s the Very Model of a Modern Academic
The life of a scholar used to be simpler, with success or failure whittled down to an easy dictum: “Publish or perish.”
Today it’s more like publish and podcast or perish.
“The definition of ‘public intellectual’ has really changed, and I’m proud to be a part of that,” Natalia Mehlman Petrzela said, moments after delivering a lecture to a class of undergraduates.
Dr. Petrzela, an associate professor of history at the New School in New York, belongs to a group of scholars who are fluent in pop culture. In addition to publishing her work in peer-reviewed publications, she often presents her research through podcasts and other media outlets. And in a nod to her embrace of the new media economy, she has a side hustle: fitness instructor.
But her decision to mix it up beyond the halls of academe has also landed her in the middle of a nasty social media drama and a Hollywood dispute. “This is the price of participation in a public sphere that is enormously different than academia,” she said.
Estelle Freedman, a history professor at Stanford University who advised Dr. Petrzela on her Ph.D. thesis, described her as “a very serious scholar and a public intellectual who is quite unique in imagining, ‘How do we get scholarship out into the world and affect social change?’”
Dr. Petrzela said she aims to be a “history communicator,” someone who’s able to reach large numbers of people with deeply researched works on the subjects that interest her. “I’ve got to meet the established standards of publishing in journals and being peer-reviewed,” she said, “but I’m also doing this other stuff and fighting for the legitimacy of topics that venture outside of politics and policy.”
In her book “Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession,” Dr. Petrzela describes the cultural significance of fitness celebrities including Jack LaLanne and Richard Simmons and traces the rise of jogging, Jazzercise, yoga and Peloton. The book was published last month by the University of Chicago Press.
Fitness is a topic that can easily be denigrated as an expression of trendy vanity, Dr. Petrzela said. “For that reason, I thought it was important that it was peer-reviewed and released by an esteemed press,” she said. “I don’t want to give fodder to skeptics who would say, ‘This is not serious.’”
Cultural history is not a new discipline, but the academics who have ventured into that territory have tended to focus on eminent men, according to Nicole Hemmer, an associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University.
“Historians have studied popular culture throughout the 20th century and beyond, but the topics that have been taken seriously are those like Bob Dylan, his songs and political change,” Dr. Hemmer said. “Taking a serious look at the socioeconomic genesis and impact of Orangetheory and Peloton is pretty novel, and Natalia has put herself on the cutting edge of a realm of scholarship.”
Dr. Petrzela’s wanderings from traditional paths of academia have also led her to podcasting. Along with Dr. Hemmer and another historian, Neil J. Young, she is the host of “Past Present,” a weekly show that analyzes cultural trends. In recent episodes, the three have taken a historical lens to “nepo-babies” — that is, the role of family relationships in Hollywood — and Ozempic, a diabetes medication that has gained popularity as a weight-loss drug.
She has also found herself in the middle of the furious debates that are a daily part of social media.
Late last year, Time magazine published an interview with Dr. Petrzela that included a mention of her research indicating that, in the early 1900s, amid an influx of immigrants into the United States, some exercise proponents encouraged white women to work out so that they could be strong enough to populate the country with white babies. Time’s headline seized on that point: “The White Supremacist Origins of Exercise, and 6 Other Surprising Facts About the History of U.S. Physical Fitness.”
In a post on Instagram, Donald J. Trump Jr. reacted to the article, saying, “Remember folks if it’s not climate change it’s white supremacy.” Amid the criticism that followed, Dr. Petrzela said she received death threats. “It escalated into a Twitter storm about ‘the woke professor’ who says exercise is racist, which was not the way I dreamed of introducing my book to the public,” she said.
Dr. Petrzela was raised in Newton, Mass., the child of two professors of comparative literature at Boston University. Growing up, she hated sports and earned P.E. credits by taking a step-aerobics class at a Jewish Community Center. It was love at first v-step. “I couldn’t believe how much joy I felt doing something I previously thought I hated,” she said.
After graduating from Columbia University, she completed stints as an analyst at an investment bank and a public-school teacher before earning a Ph.D. in history at Stanford University. Around the time she was defending her doctoral thesis, she became a Lululemon ambassador. The thesis became the basis of her first book, “Classroom Wars: Language, Sex and the Making of Modern Political Culture,” published by Oxford University Press in 2015.
While working on “Classroom Wars,” she moved back to New York, where her boyfriend (now husband) lived. They joined an Equinox gym, where she encountered Patricia Moreno, a well known instructor in the New York fitness world who had created a program called intenSati, which blends roundhouse kicks and grapevines with shouted affirmations — think Jane Fonda at a self-help tent-revival.
After studying under Ms. Moreno, Dr. Petrzela became a certified intenSati instructor. “She is the only fitness instructor of mine that I can securely say has a Ph.D. from Stanford,” said Tara Abrahams, an executive at The Meteor, a feminist media company, who has been attending Dr. Petrzela’s classes for about 10 years.
As she built her career at the New School, publishing papers and essays in academic journals (History of Education Quarterly, The Peabody Journal of Education, Pacific Historical Review) and mainstream publications (The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate), she continued teaching intenSati. She also began to consider the role of physical fitness in American history and cultural life.
And she dug deeper into podcasting. Along with Dr. Hemmer and Dr. Young, she created a limited podcast series, “Welcome to Your Fantasy,” that told the story of Steve Banerjee, the impresario behind the male dance club Chippendales, and the murder-for-hire charge that preceded his 1994 suicide. Dr. Petrzela was the host.
Billed as a Spotify Original, and co-produced by Gimlet Media and Pineapple Street Studios, “Welcome to Your Fantasy” was a seamy, steamy true-crime drama that took place against a backdrop of the sexual, feminist and fitness revolutions of the 1970s and 1980s. Upon its release in 2021, it was a hit with listeners and earned glowing reviews from The Times, The New Yorker and The Financial Times.
But Dr. Petrzela was not prepared for the sharp-elbowed culture of show business.
Nearly a year before the “Welcome to Your Fantasy” podcast dropped on Spotify, a producer working with Pineapple Street Studios shared early episodes with Hollywood writers and producers to gauge their interest in a screen adaptation. As part of this effort, a producer sent episodes to the actor, screenwriter and stand-up comic Kumail Nanjiani and his wife and frequent writing partner, Emily V. Gordon. Ms. Gordon wrote in an email that she and her husband were not interested in optioning “Welcome to Your Fantasy.”
“Kumail and I listened to the podcast and it’s such a fun story, but unfortunately I don’t think it’s the right project for us to write,” Ms. Gordon wrote in an email that Dr. Petrzela shared with The Times. “As much as we love watching crime stories, I don’t know if that’s a strength that we have as a writing duo. It didn’t spark an immediate take in our brains.”
Pineapple Street Studios, Dr. Petrzela and the other producers involved with the podcast ended up signing a production deal with Netflix.
A few months after the podcast became available, there was a plot twist: Hulu announced that Mr. Nanjiani would play the lead in a dramatic series based on the story of Mr. Banerjee, the Chippendales founder.
He would also serve as an executive producer, as would Ms. Gordon. According to the show’s closing credits, it was “inspired by” “Deadly Dance: The Chippendales Murders,” a 2014 book written by K. Scot Macdonald and Patrick MontesDeOca and published by Kerrera House Press, a small independent publisher in Los Angeles.
Netflix canceled its plans for a series based on “Welcome to Your Fantasy.” Hulu began streaming its series, called “Welcome to Chippendales,” in November 2022. The show was created by Robert Siegel, a writer and director who headed another Hulu series, “Pam & Tommy.”Dr. Petrzela, Dr. Hemmer and Dr. Young said they were struck by the similarities between the Hulu show and their podcast. They also said that the series included details that did not become public knowledge until listeners had heard “Welcome to Your Fantasy,” which included interviews with key players in the saga.
“You don’t own history, and the lines of intellectual property can be really blurry,” Dr. Hemmer said. “But it raised big questions about what we do as scholars and what happens when that work becomes part of the entertainment field.”
A spokesman for Hulu declined to comment. Mr. Siegel, the show’s creator, also declined to comment. Representatives for Mr. Nanjiani and Ms. Gordon said in a statement that, though the two were executive producers for the series, they were not creatively involved in the production. They added that their involvement “was limited to casting consultation, communication with the studio/network, marketing and editing.”
Eleanor Kagan, the senior producer of “Welcome to Your Fantasy,” created a spreadsheet that laid out more than a dozen similarities between the podcast and the Hulu show. She and her fellow producers said they suspected that the Hulu series made use of their original reporting and narrative focus. In addition, they said, at least two key characters in the Hulu show were based on people who were interviewed extensively for “Welcome to Your Fantasy” and not mentioned in “Deadly Dance.”
One of those people was Candace Mayeron, who once worked as a producer for Chippendales. She appears to provide the basis for “Denise” in the Hulu series, a character played by Juliette Lewis. Ms. Mayeron said that she tried to contact the writers and producers of “Welcome to Chippendales” (as well as representatives of Ms. Lewis) by email and phone to offer her consulting services free of charge, but no one replied to her.
“There is no doubt that they relied on the podcast,” Ms. Mayeron said of the Hulu production.
Hodari Sababu, the first Black Chippendales dancer, seems to be the basis of the character named Otis in the Hulu show, portrayed by Quentin Phair. Over the years Mr. Sababu has given interviews about his Chippendales experience, but said he never went in-depth, as he did when he spoke with Dr. Petrzela for “Welcome to Your Fantasy.” Mr. Sababu also does not appear by name in “Deadly Dance.”
Among the stories that he shared in the podcast was one in which Mr. Banerjee called a church to warn of the godlessness of Chippendales, resulting in a protest of the club that drew media attention. That incident is portrayed in “Welcome to Chippendales” as well. “I only watched part of the TV show,” Mr. Sababu told The Times, “but I thought, ‘How do they know that?’ The only way that they could know that is if they heard that podcast interview I did.”
Dr. Petrzela is now focused on the classroom. This semester, she is teaching a class based on the research that went into her book on fitness, as well as a course called historical sources and methods. But she won’t forget her scrape with Hollywood.
“I found myself really flabbergasted by this whole situation,” she said. “But then again, I come from a world of footnotes and source citations.”
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