The Full Bernie
"Ladies, we've got a special treat for you tonight," the DJ's voice bounds over the crowd. "He's won our Sunday-night amateur strip contest more times than any other contestant. Please welcome... Bernie!" As the first bars of Jerry Lee Lewis's "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" trumpet through LaBare's sound system, Bernie Barker struts on-stage at the male-revue strip club wearing nothing more than a hot-pink G-string and blinding white tube socks. The all-female, North Miami Beach crowd erupts in shrieks and cheers. Holding two glow sticks out as an extended phallus, Barker strokes the sticks suggestively, pulsing and swiveling his hips. "He has charisma," remarks Belkis Carpintero, a 30-ish woman out with several friends. "He seems to be having a good time, unlike the other dancers, who just stand up there. I think it's great that he's up there."
A pretty blond woman, who looks to be about 25, rushes the stage, her hands cupping and pushing up her breasts, where a dollar bill has been wedged into her cleavage. Barker removes the dollar with his mouth. Then, to the squealing delight of the half-dozen women surrounding him at the foot of the stage, he tosses a glow stick into the audience and suggestively lowers one side of his thong, momentarily revealing a bright white flash of tan line. The song has changed. As a sultry female voice purrs "the way I feel is sexual" from the speakers, Barker launches into a rapid-fire shuffle step. Meanwhile, on the satellite stages, four buff young dudes with tiny briefs wedged halfway up their asses thrust their hips furiously, causing their packed and padded penises to wag like speed bags. Framed on two sides by men bouncing like pistons, Barker's own act begins to wilt. After the third song, a hip-hop tune that commands, "Move, bitch, get out the way, get out the way, bitch, get out the way," Barker acquiesces. The enthusiasm of the crowd has passed, the novelty has worn off, and Barker's time is up.
Despite his obvious lack of modesty, Barker is a man not entirely comfortable in his own skin. This is unfortunate considering that he spends much of his time wearing little else. Barker says he is the World's Oldest Male Stripper. He also says he has won more male strip contests than anyone. He asserts that tally to be 36 and has submitted a claim to the folks at Guinness so that he might be included in their famous book. His boasts are particularly compelling as Barker, who is 62 years old, began taking off his clothes for money only two years ago, after recovering from surgery to remove his prostate gland, where a cancerous tumor had formed. Now, on some Friday and Sunday nights, he can be found at LaBare, the strip club for ladies attached to standard T&A strip club Solid Gold at Federal Highway and NE 163rd Street.
"The money I make stripping doesn't even pay for my glow sticks and G-strings," Barker says. "But I really enjoy it. I do it to stay in shape and because I enjoy it." In a life jammed with stories, this is only his latest adventure. It's not even his first attempt at being listed in Guinness World Records. He's traveled the world over in search of love and attention, sometimes finding success, sometimes finding failure; like so many other such seekers, he's ended up in South Florida. He's held a kaleidoscope of jobs, none of which interests him now, and has entertained himself throughout by staying on life's edge. Barker strives to be what Tom Wolfe described as "a man in full": strong, competent, and overwhelmingly sexual. He hasn't been successful on all counts, but he's definitely enjoyed the ride.
"Some of these guys here wear elaborate costumes that they take off after they get on-stage," Barker says. "Not me. I just put on my G-string and dance." And that he does. Barker poses and preens, without the self-conscious posturing of the other dancers. It's as if looking cool hasn't crossed his mind. He jiggles and shakes, rattles his rolls, all the while convinced -- despite skeptical glances from spectators -- that he is one damn sexy man.
"He's flabby," says Beth Davis, another 30-ish female at LaBare that Friday night. "He's too old to be up there. He should leave the dancing to the young, good-looking guys. I didn't come here to see my grandfather naked."
Barker is aware that not all the women in the room are happy to see him. He knows he's older and will never have the six-pack abs and gladiator chests the other dancers display. So he tries to win the women over with seductive stares and slow gyrations while he slithers across the stage on his belly. In the contests, this strategy works well for him. "I can't imagine how I've won so many of these contests," he says. "Some of the guys I compete against are 25 years old. Can you imagine how it must feel for these guys to lose to a 62-year-old man? It can't be good for the ego."
But insecurity lurks behind the bravado. He is obsessed with his own virility, volunteering sometimes-excruciating examples of his potency, even explaining the intricacies of sexual function -- and how he is still able to function -- after prostate surgery. He talks about women in misty tones, as if conjuring scenes from a Barbara Cartland novel. "Bernie has always cared about and been sensitive to how he is perceived by women," explains Arthur House, a Hartford, Connecticut, public-affairs consultant who has known Barker for 55 years. "Women are one of his motivations. The other is that he's just a free spirit and fun-loving guy."
House tells a story of how, on Barker's 16th birthday, they were tooling around Long Island Sound in a speedboat. House was dozing in the back while Barker was at the helm. "He got a birthday card from a girl who was important to him, and he wanted to read it," House relates. Barker had told House he wanted to read the card somewhere romantic and waited until they were out on the water to open it. "He put the boat on autopilot while he was reading the card," continues House, "but he wasn't paying attention to where he was going. We ran right into a breakwater in Long Island Sound. The boat was totaled, but no one was hurt. When you think about it, Bernie's actually a really lucky guy."
Born into a "comfortable, but I wouldn't call us wealthy" family in Terryville, Connecticut, Barker spent his childhood divided between his father's home in Terryville and his grandparents' house at Giants Neck, Connecticut. His father, a licensed pharmacist, worked for Barker's maternal grandfather, Clarence Chapman, managing Chapman Machine Co. Though Barker's parents divorced when he was six years old and his mother moved to Florida, Barker stayed in Connecticut and was raised by his stepmother and father, who continued to work for Chapman.
At age 19, in 1959, Barker enlisted in the Navy, sailing to Europe and earning certification as a communications specialist. He claims that while stationed near Cannes, France, he became involved with a famous French actress (whose name he can't recall) and had lunch with Jack Lemmon. He also tells a funny story about going AWOL while his ship was in port in Norfolk, Virginia. He and a buddy had plans to meet up with two young ladies in Virginia Beach, but when their superiors forbade them to leave the ship, they sneaked out. Hiding their clothes under a rock, the two took to the water, planning to swim about six miles across a naval yard and up to the beach to meet the girls. Only Barker's buddy didn't make it. Assuming his friend had drowned, Barker swam on, had a "fantastic time" with both girls, and bummed a ride back to the ship on a speedboat. When he went to retrieve his clothes and saw that his were there but his friend's were gone, Barker realized his friend hadn't drowned after all but had simply become tired and turned back.
With communications training from the Navy, Barker gained an entry-level position at a missile tracking station on San Salvador Island in 1963, a claim several of his friends confirm. After that, he worked a variety of office-management jobs through the 1970s, eventually settling into a career as a real estate broker in Kissimmee and Orlando. It was then that Barker's affair with strip clubs began. He started dating strippers and strip-club waitresses instead of "normal" women, whom he says he finds fussy and overbearing. Barker lavished flowers, candy, gifts, and expensive meals on the girls in the clubs. He says he visited the strip clubs every day and counts a former Orlando strip-club waitress among his closest lifelong friends.
"I guess strip clubs are a comfortable place for him," explains Donna Luzzi, who met Barker in 1977 when she was waiting tables at the Dollhouse in Orlando. "I guess he just likes to be around women. In a regular club, you have to try to pick someone up to talk to them. In a strip club, he can just talk to the girls, and they trust him."
But by the time Luzzi met Barker, the 37-year-old real estate broker was getting bored and desperately needed a challenge. So, an accomplished swimmer since his teens, he set out to beat the world record for the longest swim. Barker wanted to swim from Key West to Miami, 130 miles, in a cage made from PVC pipe and chicken wire, designed to keep out mako sharks and Portuguese men-of-war. But one week before he was to try, a ski-boat propeller lacerated his foot, causing him to need 30 stitches. Still, he tried to make the swim on schedule but failed. The Orlando Sentinel and the Key West Citizen printed articles about Barker's attempt. The Citizen quoted Barker as saying, "I've always thought I could do something like this, and I'd just like to try. Everybody's got some kind of fantasy.... I want to try to set the world record."
After that disappointment, he gave up his swimming dreams and settled into the late-'70s disco scene. "He loved discos," recalls Luzzi, noting that his love carried over to include disco fashions. One day while window-shopping, Barker recalls, he saw a pair of platform shoes with goldfish swimming in the heels and bought the shoes on the spot. But on the first night out in his new shoes, he learned a grisly lesson: Goldfish die in the bustle of the Hustle. He was talking to a pretty lady at the bar when he noticed she was staring, horrified, at his feet. Dead goldfish were floating around in his shoes. He had to empty the fish out in the bathroom and dance the rest of the night, sans poissons. That experience didn't cause Barker to stop wearing the fish shoes, though. He just started making pit stops at the pet shop. "I'd buy a few extra goldfish before I went out at night and leave them in a bag in my car," Barker recalls. "Every two or three songs, I'd go out to the car to change out the water and the fish."
It wasn't long, however, until Barker was restless and looking for another career change. In 1981, his ex-brother-in-law, who worked for a nuclear power plant in Indian Creek, New York, helped Barker get an entry-level job as a guard there. Barker quickly advanced in the industry, eventually becoming a nondegreed nuclear engineer working jobs in nuclear power plants in a host of cities until retiring in 1996. "He's a crazy guy," says his old friend House, "but on the other hand, he's done things that required concentration and discipline. He ran a nuclear power plant for a while. That's a lot of responsibility."
When he was living in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, in the early 1980s, Barker realized that he missed Florida's water and sunshine. "I had a sun lamp hanging over my waterbed and 55-gallon aquariums on both sides and behind the bed, just to make me feel like I was in Florida," Barker says. It was during this period that he decided American girls were bad news. After two marriages had ended in divorce and a long-term, live-in girlfriend turned obsessive, Barker decided on a new tactic.
"His last wife came out of a catalog," Luzzi says. "I don't know why he even bothers getting married. He's not anyone I could be married to." Barker wouldn't elaborate on how he met his last wife, an Indonesian woman whom Florida divorce records show to be named Ifa, but did allow that if he had got her from a catalog, that would be proof of his frustration with American women.
Though they stayed married for 14 years, his longest union by far, marrying her wasn't easy. He had to go to Indonesia for the wedding; when he arrived, her family arranged for him to be examined by their doctor before the ceremony. During the examination, the doctor noticed that Barker was not circumcised; being strict Muslims, her family insisted that he undergo that procedure first and that he convert to Islam -- at age 45. So the Connecticut Protestant/Catholic did -- and suffered a nasty infection that he says ruined the honeymoon. House laughs at this story. "I never met any of his wives, but I seriously doubt he was ever a devout Muslim." Barker's divorce from Ifa became final in August 2001, and he stopped attending mosque, even for his previous twice-a-year holiday visits. These days, Barker doesn't really associate with any religion. "I have religious beliefs," he affirms. "I definitely believe in God. I'm definitely not an atheist, but I don't go to church."
Barker moved to South Florida three years ago from Orlando to be close to his nephew, a doctor, while being treated for prostate cancer. Lonely in a new town, he began visiting Miami Gold nightclub several times a week, eventually, he says, dating several of the girls who worked there. Barker's friends and the manager of Miami Gold confirm that Barker has dated several of the strippers there. But when pressed for the names or numbers of girls he claims to have dated, Barker becomes reticent. "In that club [Miami Gold], it's all an illusion," Barker explains. "Nobody gives out any true information on anyone, and they've let me into their inner circle. A lot of these girls are married. There's a code I have to live by. I'm kind of like one of them. I can't violate that code."
As Barker became a fixture at Miami Gold, he began to loosen up and show his personality, among other things. One night when business was slow, he climbed up on-stage, took off his shirt, and danced. "It was a slow night, so we let him up there," recalls Arnold Quijada, Miami Gold's manager for the past seven years. "People liked it; it was different. After that, it became regular for him to dance."
From the first night, the girls loved it. Accustomed to being the entertainers rather than the entertained, the dancers shrieked and giggled as a man near the age of some of their grandfathers bumped and ground for their approval. In time, the girls would give Barker pointers on seductive dancing: how to make eye contact, effective gestures, and the type of moves that turn women on. Barker bought his first G-string, a Day-Glo orange, pink, and yellow bathing suit, and fleshed out his act, so to speak. "If you have a drink, the right music, the right mood, then it really can be something," says Barker, who describes his own routine as "erotic" and "sensual." "Women are dreamers, and I'm a dreamer too. Sometimes I try to figure out what they're thinking, and I try to become that. I'm an illusion." When customers were scarce, management at Miami Gold would let Barker take one of the girls to the VIP room and perform a couch dance for her, a privilege for which he pays $20. "I don't think he's doing this for the money," Quijada says. "He likes to be in the show."
Guiding one of the dancers, a chesty woman in her mid-20s who goes by the stage name "Brianna," to the couch early on a slow Monday night, Barker explains that he is going to dance for her. Brianna has never met Barker before and is nervous that she will get fired for letting a man take off his clothes in the club. As he awkwardly drops his pants to the ground and gingerly lays his unbuttoned shirt across the arm of the black leather couch, he begins an erotic, upright version of breakdancing's Worm. The blacklights cause Barker's teeth, eyeballs, hair, and tube socks to glow incandescent, perfectly matching Brianna's glowing blond hair and white micro-mini and bra top. He locks eyes with her. She is not sure if Barker is joking or serious. She giggles nervously. With the two pen-sized strobe lights attached to his G-string on either side of his penis blinking wildly, Barker begins to pulse faster. He parts Brianna's legs and, standing between her knees, strokes the sides of her body, beginning at her jaw and trailing down to her hips. She squeals and playfully spanks his bare buttocks several times. Grinning and easing into a serpentine, slow-thrust dance, Barker maintains eye contact for the rest of the song. When he is finished and getting dressed, Brianna, without being asked or encouraged to, proudly displays her new clitoral piercing.
"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.
"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.
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."
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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.