The Full Bernie

Three failed marriages, his family's scorn, an ongoing battle with cancer: Bernie Barker just grins and bares it

"I've only seen him dance once," says Joe Hechler, a retired stockbroker and part-time North Miami Beach resident who befriended Barker two years ago. "The one dance I did see was for this little-girlish-looking stripper at Miami Gold. I'd seen her dance, even had her dance for me a few times, and she never seemed to be into anyone really. But she was turned on by what Bernie was doing. She was screaming. I couldn't believe it. I was really surprised by that. She was definitely turned on by him."

Not everyone is impressed with Barker's lifestyle. He has little contact with most of his family, including his two children and teenage grandson. He and his mother reconciled just before her death in 1998, but he rarely talks to his sister in Connecticut or his brother in Sarasota, though he says that when his brother visited a couple of years ago, they went to Miami Gold together. He refused to give the names of his ex-wife, children, or family members and agreed to be interviewed for this article only on the condition that they not be contacted if their names were learned.

Colby Katz
Barker shakes his moneymaker at 
LaBare en route to winning his  36th male-stripper 
Colby Katz
Barker shakes his moneymaker at LaBare en route to winning his 36th male-stripper contest

"My sister is very ashamed of what I'm doing," Barker explains before hushing up on the subject. Friends of Barker's confirm that his children, likewise, are none too pleased with their father's current endeavors. Barker says he hasn't told his children that the surgery to remove the cancerous tumor was not successful and that, other than diet and exercise, he has exhausted his medical options. Nor has he told them that, since his most recent ex-wife terminated his coverage, he no longer has health insurance.

His sister's son, Christopher Hanner, an emergency-room doctor who lives in a Williams Island high-rise near North Miami Beach, says that to some of the family, Barker's current activities are embarrassing. Hanner says the image of a male stripper three years shy of Medicaid and Social Security does not jibe with the image of Connecticut privilege they prefer. "I think my mother is a bit shocked by what he's doing now," Hanner says. "She's very protective of her reputation and of his, and people would be shocked if they knew what he was doing."

As for Barker's battle with cancer, Hanner says the plan is for his uncle to stay on COBRA temporary insurance for a year, then cross his fingers for two years until Medicaid kicks in. "He's in good health," Hanner says. "The only things he has to worry about are the unpredictable things, like car accidents and slip-and-falls." Medically speaking, Hanner says that as long as Barker can keep the cancer from spreading into his bones, his prognosis is good. "He's got probably 10 to 15 years, or more, if he stays in good health," Hanner says. "Every day, I see people who are dying, who are unhappy, who are miserable. So when somebody goes through something like what he went through and comes out happy, I don't have a problem with that."

Considering his environs, Barker lives a relatively monastic life that includes little alcohol and a vegetarian diet he believes will help him beat cancer. Mostly, though, he just takes life day by day. He's hoping to do some modeling and acting and would like to find a venue that would allow him to perform nightly. Perhaps in Las Vegas. Or maybe he'll settle down and write his memoirs: Several people have told him they think his life story would sell well, maybe even as a movie. Or maybe he'll open his own nightclub, maybe a male strip club. He's got lots of ideas. "If you live a decent life," Barker says, "then you just roll the dice. Maybe you'll get rewarded in the end. I don't think too deeply about it."

Barker turns down the volume on the stereo in his Hollywood South Ocean Drive condo. Enrique Iglesias now croons at a whisper. The condo is decorated beach-rental style, in pastel colors, with white lacquered furniture and muted watercolor prints. But a black light in the corner causes the collection of G-strings on his bedside table to glow like pegs in a Lite-Brite. He says the other inhabitants of Trafalgar Towers are predominantly elderly, Jewish, and ex-New Yorkers -- adding that they have grown more accepting of his habit of tanning by the community pool in his thong. At Parker Plaza, his last building, he says they weren't so understanding. "It was mostly older people there, and they'd make comments," Barker says. "It's not like I would walk around wearing just the G. I'd just stay in one corner and tan. I can't have tan lines, not with what I do." John Bedrosian, who also lives in Trafalgar Towers and acts as Barker's unofficial manager, recalls the first time they met at the pool. "It was extremely unique seeing an older gentleman in a thong and looking good," Bedrosian says. To look good, Barker adheres to a strict appearance regimen: He tans, he works out, and he shaves his legs, butt, and chest regularly so that he will appear sleek and toned on stage. "Ugh. I couldn't go out there if I didn't shave," he says. A generous sprinkling of glitter on his chest completes the look.

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