The Full Bernie

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

Barker's days begin typically at 7 a.m., when he makes his first sojourn to Bally Total Fitness, in North Miami Beach. Wearing a T-shirt, athletic shorts, and tennis shoes with his gold chain and dress watch, Barker pulls into the Bally parking lot in his champagne-colored Cadillac with a "For Sale" sign taped to the rear driver's-side window. Glitter glints in the morning light off most of the interior surfaces: the steering wheel, the gear shift, the stereo dials. It's as if the stripper fairy has paid a visit. Some days, he attends an aerobics class where an obnoxious and very fey man barks "grapevine!" and "hamstring curl!" to a set of plump women in their 50s. Barker, in the front row of the class, is oblivious to the commands. Instead, he uses this opportunity to fine-tune his own performance style. On other days, he sticks to weights and machines. Barker is particularly proud of his legs, which look as if they could belong to a man of 35. He pumps out 450-pound leg presses and 200-pound quad extensions before turning his attention to his abs, crunching and jackknifing mercilessly. He studied karate years ago and likes to practice his crescent kicks when space allows; sometimes this means an impromptu hee-yaa in the tight area between the weight machines. He spends about four hours in the gym each day, making as many as three trips.

Barker hasn't worked a conventional job since he moved here from Orlando three years ago. For a while, he rode high day-trading on the bull market, but when the market turned, Barker's luck turned with it. "He lost a lot of money," says Barker's friend Hechler. "I tried to tell him not to do the day trading. You can't do that, predict the market on a day-to-day basis. I hope he gets a break with this dancing, though. He needs a break or else he'll have to get a regular job."

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

Fully clothed on a Thursday night, Barker is perfecting his moves on the dance floor of the Havana Cigar Emporium and Lounge, a trendy bar and dance club in an Aventura strip mall. He watches as a young woman seductively waves a glow stick down one side of her body, arcing over one breast, ducking in at her waist, and curving across her projected hip. He seems mesmerized by light tracers the color of powdered lemonade. Helicoptering the glow stick around her head, then spinning it like a baton between her index and middle fingers, the woman is rave chic and boasts an arrogance born of naiveté. She looks to be about 22 years old; her motions imply that only her friend is as cool as she is. Channeling tribal dance rhythms, the friend stays low to the ground, squatting and rising, palpitating with each booming beat. Every so often, when their moves coalesce, the two women toss the glow stick back and forth, like children playing keep-away.

Standing purposeless, confused, bored, and nearly motionless is Barker, the only other person on the dance floor. He wears a patterned and brightly colored, loose, long-sleeved, silk shirt that is unbuttoned nearly to his navel and tucked into creased and crisp white slacks that pool slightly over white dress shoes polished to a high sheen. His frosted platinum comb-over and salt-and-pepper Burt Reynolds mustache set off his deep caramel tan, which in turn calls attention to a thick gold chain bearing an even thicker nugget charm. The smooth side of the nugget is engraved with the astrological symbol for Leo, a fire sign, symbolized by a lion and oft heralded by those who crave the attention of others.

Just a few songs earlier, Barker had been the one with the glow stick, his glow stick, and he had owned the dance floor. He gyrated his hips and snaked his arms, mesmerizing onlookers while he danced by himself. Strains of electronica music and heady wafts of cigar smoke filled the air as Barker performed his own seductive solo. Hips thrusting and pulsing so as to make Elvis blush, a smirky grin stretching across his lined face, feet steadily shuffling with the beat, and the glow stick lovingly gliding around the curves of his own proud physique, Barker starred in this cabaret. He couldn't have been happier, especially as the two attractive young women approached and surrounded him with a technique commonly referred to as "the sandwich." Caught between their writhing bodies, Barker was defenseless. These newcomers, looking for a place to party on a Thursday night, stumbled into this cigar bar not knowing they were entering Barker's show. So when they asked to borrow his glow stick, the consummate Connecticut gentleman complied.

Two songs later, a full seven minutes, he's still waiting for them to return it. Trapped in an intergenerational conundrum, the soft-spoken Barker waits, saddled with the manners of a 62-year-old in a 20-year-old's world.

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