Inside Netflix’s Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Docuseries: What ‘Cheer’ and ‘Last Chance U’ Director Greg Whiteley Learned From Following ‘America’s Sweethearts’ for a Season (2024)

SPOILER WARNING: This interview discusses plot points from “America’s Sweethearts: Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders,” now streaming on Netflix.

Last Thanksgiving, Greg Whiteley was on the sidelines at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas as the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders put on an electrifying halftime show with special guest, country music icon Dolly Parton.

The Emmy-winning documentarian, best known for “Cheer” and “Last Chance U,” and his crew had been filming into the wee hours the night before, as workers put the finishing touches on Parton’s stage (which had to be assembled in a way that it could be torn down in a matter of minutes for the game to resume) and the cheerleaders made last-minute tweaks to their formations.

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“The cheerleaders get 15 minutes of uninterrupted prime-time coverage. It’s a huge deal. No other cheerleading squad gets this, and they get it every year, so they take it seriously,” Whiteley tells Variety. “They spend so much time rehearsing and preparing for that day, which has become this American tradition — Thanksgiving with the Cowboys.”

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Whiteley compares the production — that year, a showstopping medley of Parton’s work capped off with a rendition of “9 to 5” — to riding a bull. “Watching Kelli [Finglass, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders’ longtime director] and the team try and stay on top was breathtaking,” he says, still visibly awestruck by what he witnessed. “I’d sit at home and watch it and go, ‘Oh, cool. That’s neat,’ and it’s only when you saw just how freaking hard it is, you start to go, ‘Oh! These are pros!’”

When the third quarter began, Whiteley was in the locker room interviewing Finglass and DCC’s head choreographer Judy Trammell to capture the comedown after the rush of the performance. As the women (both Cowboys cheerleaders in the 1980s) giddily discuss the reaction to Parton rocking the trademark blue and white, star-spangled uniform and cowboy boots, an assistant bursts in with bad news, all of which plays out on screen. Sophy, one of the rookie cheerleaders — a bubbly blonde, who at 19 years old is one of the youngest on the squad — is talking to the police. She alleges that, after halftime, a photographer touched her inappropriately. Finglass’ face falls. The bubble has burst and reality hits — sometimes there’s a downside to all this sparkle.

It’s a sobering moment, one of many that make up the seven-episode series, which made its debut June 20 on Netflix and launched into the top 10 worldwide, with 2.3 million views in its first four days on the platform.

Whiteley and his crew set out to capture the human element behind the squad, filming the cheerleaders on and off the field, from the time of their auditions in May 2023 through the end of the football season in January 2024. The blood, sweat and tears that these professionals put in day after day — performing through physical and emotional pain while maintaining a certain body type — for the honor of wearing the uniform. But they also captured the indignities these women smile through, as they aim to protect themselves from overzealous fans and stalkers — one cheerleader, Kelcey, describes her terror after an AirTag was put on her car to track her — as well as the incident with Sophy.

On game days, Whiteley would shoot with three or four camera crews: a long lens, a handheld camera and two verité crews. “That may sound like a lot, but it’s a huge field and the girls are [dancing] in four different quadrants,” he notes. “You need 200 or 300 of them, so you just do your best.”

The crew’s cameras did not capture what happened to Sophy in that moment, nor did security footage at AT&T Stadium (the results of the investigation are discussed more in-depth in the series). “It’s unfortunate,” he says. “But it was our obligation to tell that part of the story.”

Whiteley and his crew never hoped to capture anything that disturbing, but his whole purpose with this series was to get underneath the façade.

“On any given day, there is a cheerleader that is going through something: They’re planning a wedding and they’re stressed out about it, or another girl is about to lose her job and she’s kind of freaking out about it,” he says. “All of them have to sort of set aside their troubles and try and put on this game face to go perform.”

There’s a “heartbreaking authenticity” to these performances when you see them up close, and for the deeper truths they represent about each of these women, Whiteley says. But the perfection they portray is a double-edged sword.

“The problem is, they spend so much time concealing how hard it is. They take something that is extremely difficult and make it look graceful and effortless, so you dismiss it. I witnessed people searching for their seats and buying concessions while they’re performing ‘Thunderstruck,’” he says, referencing the troupe’s signature pre-game performance, which concludes with a kick line before the women fly into a jump split.

“I remember thinking, ‘If you knew how hard it was to do what these girls are doing! They’re running several hundred yards, in boots, in two-and-a-half minutes, with a smile, and they’re somehow not sweating!” Whiteley says. “It’s beautiful and edgy and cool. And people think they just wake up and roll out of bed and do it.”

He quips: “You could give me a million years. I could never perform a jump split.”

Read on as Whiteley shares what he learned after following DCC for a season.

What was your perception of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders before you started this project?

I came to it as a blank slate.

I assumed that if you spent five years being a cheerleader for the Dallas Cowboys, given that global brand and their reach, how world-famous they are, they would be doing very well financially. Maybe not set for life, but doing well, and that it would be this launching pad to endorsem*nt deals. Almost like I would imagine an Olympic athlete who wins gold.

In defense of the Cowboys organization, they pay commensurate with how dancers are typically paid in the industry. I did not realize that dancers were just not paid, given their level of talent and even their level of exposure. It’s probably part and parcel to the number of people who want to do it versus the number of jobs that there are. So the marketplace, as a result, is not rewarding them in the way that I think they deserve to be rewarded.

That is part of the discourse around this series — that being an NFL cheerleader is the ultimate pink-collar job. Kat, one of the DCC alumni, says that they’re paid like full-time Chick-fil-A employees. Once you had that information about the pay scale, what did you want this series to say about that reality?

My job as a filmmaker is to simply document what is true, so I don’t know that I had a particular agenda, even after I was armed with that knowledge. Other than I wanted to film what life is like when you are at the top of your class — if you have aspired to be a professional cheerleader and you’re a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader, you’re at Harvard or MIT.

The demands of that are severe. To perform “Thunderstruck” at the level that people have expected requires a lot of practice. You are putting in a lot of time into the studio. Not only that, but you’re watching what you eat every day; you’re working out. There is a physical regiment that is expected. And you also have to pay rent. You’ve got to pay bills, so you got to hold down this other job. So how do you juggle all of that?

How much of the CMT show “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team” did you watch in prep? Were there elements of that show you took inspiration from, or things you wanted to get away from?

I’ve never seen the CMT show. I know that the show dealt exclusively with making the team, and that is a sort of pre-packaged, ready-made story with a beginning, middle and end. People are coming to audition, they’re going to go through a process, and they either make it or they don’t. So, to that end, I’m sure that the two shows probably have some similarities.

There was a certain way that we, as a filmmaking team, had to be patient and sort of wait out an expectation of how certain scenes would be staged. There was a lot of turning to us and saying “Would it be better if we did this? Would you like us to do this?” And we weren’t used to that. We’re used to just showing up and just waiting for people to kind of be comfortable, to go back to their daily lives. These girls and this team were ready to give us what they want, and it took a long time to persuade them that we didn’t want them to give us anything. We want you to be who you are.

How then did these seven episodes start to reveal themselves?

Much to the frustration of Netflix executives, for our process, we’re constantly trying to find what these episodes should be. And they’re changing radically — to the last week of delivery. If you were to give us another month, a month and a half, on this show, it would be a much different show, and would, in my estimation, be way better.

The one thing you can’t possibly buy your way out of is just the time that it takes to look at this footage and feel what is it telling you. Finding a way to be honest and authentic as well as entertaining.

What was the final theme that locked in? What was the thing that made you say, “This is what ‘America’s Sweethearts’ is”?

I was watching a documentary, and there was a close-up of an eyeball. Something about that that stuck with me. I thought, “I’d like to use that. I want to steal that.”

There was a cheerleader that we were following — Kelcey, she was the point of the triangle, and has beautiful eyes. I asked her, “Would you mind just sitting here?” and Jonathan Nichols, who is our genius cinematographer, rented a special snorkel lens and a lighting rig to get the shot that I was hoping to get.

It occurred to me, as we were looking at it, that there is a certain beauty standard, not just for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, that all women everywhere have to adhere to or strive for. I noticed that, as you went into that eyeball, it’s really the one part of the human face that you can’t adjust with makeup, and yet, it is breathtakingly beautiful.

Almost to say that, “Yes, here is this beautiful woman, but when you get closer, she becomes more beautiful, not less.” That was what we had found: There’s this organization, it gleams, and there’s this sisterhood that, yeah, these cheerleaders are beautiful, they dance great — but when you get closer to them, and to who they really are, and to their history, it’s not perfect. It isn’t without its flaws or its cracks. But it’s also more beautiful than I think people accounted for.

The next evolution of that shot was the cheerleaders removing their makeup, and that became the closing montage.

I saw it as a metaphor for how vulnerable they’ve been throughout this process.

That’s great. I wish that would have occurred to me. I didn’t know why I liked it, but now it occurs to me that what you just said is right. There was a certain level of vulnerability, a certain façade that we had to get rid of, to do the kind of show that I wanted to do. It took a while to get there, but we got there with some of them.

Inside Netflix’s Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Docuseries: What ‘Cheer’ and ‘Last Chance U’ Director Greg Whiteley Learned From Following ‘America’s Sweethearts’ for a Season (3)

To clarify, the Cowboys gave y’all a ton of access, but did they want editorial input?

Kelli gave us notes which we always appreciated and which we always ignored. She was very good about it. She even would say, “I know you’re probably going to ignore these, but I think it would be better.” Kelli’s really bright and great, but you cannot have the subject of a documentary telling you how to make it.

Well, what did Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, his daughter Charlotte, the organization’s chief brand officer, and the family think? Did you get a chance to show it to them before we watched it at home?

Charlotte and her staff all received cuts before the launch, and she was very complimentary. She said, “You got us,” which was high praise.

Charlotte Jones is the reason why I did the show. I didn’t think that we’d be able to do it, because we required total editorial control, and we needed all access. I just assumed we weren’t going to get it, and she said, “I’m open to that, but I just need to meet you first.” In the hour and a half that we were together, I just found myself in the presence of this incredibly intelligent, insightful woman who cared very deeply about this organization, and of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and their place in that organization.

I was so impressed by that. I just thought, “Well, I think there’s something here, and it’s worth taking a run at it.”

People who’ve watched the CMT show know Kelcey and Victoria, but there are more individual stories told throughout the episodes. How did you zero in on the women to follow?

It happens pretty fast. But if there’s somebody who presents themselves as a potential candidate to be what we would term a “main character” — where we dive a little bit deeper into who they are — we remained open to that up until the last week of shooting. But it helps to find your people early.

Doing this type of verité filmmaking over the last 12 years, for the most part, we’ve pretty much had our pick of anybody we wanted to film. Here, it was interesting. After 16 years of doing the reality TV show, they were used to performing in a certain way that wasn’t congruent with the type of filmmaking we do, and it took a long time to get past that. And with some of the girls, we never got there. It was just a bridge too far. When they started to sense what we wanted, it was too scary. “I don’t want my makeup off. I like how I look with my makeup on,” which is totally understandable. That probably should be the normal human reaction.

But there were a few that were willing to go, “I’m ready to have my story told, and I trust you guys. Let’s go do this.” And that’s who we focused on — the brave few who were willing to be honest and vulnerable with us.

When did you realize that Reece was a main character?

The very second we met her.

Our first day of filming was the day they did their solo auditions, and her solo blew everybody away. But it’s one thing to be a great dancer. It’s after you start talking with her, that realize, “I’m not sure I’ve met anybody purer in my life.” That became interesting because, if you’re a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, you are sexy, and you don’t necessarily associate that with being uber-religious or pure-minded. And yet, she is.

Victoria opens up throughout the series — even revealing, somewhat nonspecifically, that she struggles with an eating disorder. How did her story unfold?

She’s somebody who has been somewhat scarred strangely by the media. She was on the old show, which caught an extremely vulnerable moment with her and there was something about it that was very, very difficult for her to move past. Having your most embarrassing moment broadcast is tough. It’s hard. But given the relationship with Kelli and how that all played out, Victoria was trying to process it in real time, trying to grow up as a person, and trying to move past that very difficult moment when she was cut as a young 18-year-old.

To her credit, she was somebody who never backed away from a question. As I was trying to understand her story better, I would just ask personal questions, and she was right there with an honest and vulnerable answer. As a documentarian, you can’t ask for anything more than that.

I’ve seen this happen over and over again, where people choose to make that leap of faith and be vulnerable, and that is when they are at their most beautiful, their most empathetic. Audiences will see it and immediately see themselves in that person. When all you see is perfection, it’s difficult to penetrate that, to see something in common. And that’s deadly to a storyteller because if you’re not empathizing with the people that you’re watching, you don’t care whether they get what they want. That’s the death of an audience’s interest.

Conversely, if you can get somebody to love somebody, that story can go in a million directions, but the audience will be with them. That’s what’s happening with Victoria.

Inside Netflix’s Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Docuseries: What ‘Cheer’ and ‘Last Chance U’ Director Greg Whiteley Learned From Following ‘America’s Sweethearts’ for a Season (4)

One of the critiques of “Making the Team” was that women of color were rarely a focal point. The same could be said of “America’s Sweethearts.” What happened?

[The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders] have a proud history, and if you were to compare them to other performance dance groups, in the late ’60s, Dee Brock made the decision that she was going to integrate her squad. She was way ahead of her time, and that tradition has continued.

There were a couple of women of color that we were immediately interested in, and they were not interested in us. They had incredible stories — and I’m not going to tell you those stories, because I hope I’m going to get another crack at it someday — but they were just not ready to tell them.

Would you do another season?

Our last two or three weeks of filming, we were just starting to hit our stride. Part of it is the stakes are higher when you’re at a place like The Star, where it is the most financially lucrative, valuable sports franchise in all the world. They have plenty at stake and that breeds a certain culture that’s very buttoned down and can sometimes bump up against a documentary film crew trying to pierce that.

I felt like we were just starting to get there as we were wrapping up, and I’d love to have more time to see if we can get deeper and deeper with more and more of the team.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Inside Netflix’s Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Docuseries: What ‘Cheer’ and ‘Last Chance U’ Director Greg Whiteley Learned From Following ‘America’s Sweethearts’ for a Season (2024)
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