I Made $3,400 As An NFL Cheerleader — & Spent It ALL On Looking The Part

Photo: Daniel Kucin Jr./Icon Sportswire/Getty Images.
After Bailey Davis, a former cheerleader for the New Orleans Saints, filed a discrimination case with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in March of this year, NFL cheerleaders across the country started speaking out about the organization's outdated and unfair policies, the sexual harassment they face on the job, and the pressure placed on physical appearance.
Natalie* is a former cheerleader for the Baltimore Ravens. Here, she describes the tryout process that destroyed her self-esteem and the cost of maintaining her look. Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I was a gymnast my whole life, but stopped after my senior year of high school because my body was in a lot of pain — it was so physically demanding. When I got to college, though, I realized how much I missed being involved in a sport, so I reached out to the cheerleading coach. I'd never cheered, but it was an easy transition given my strong gymnastics background, and within a few months, I was the center basket group during our performances.
During my first season on the collegiate squad, I met some NFL cheerleaders who tried convincing me to audition for the Baltimore Ravens. I was far too intimidated then, but after a few more years of experience, I decided to go for it.
The month-long tryout process was the most terrifying experience of my life because I was still relatively new to the sport, and also because I was being judged on my physical appearance. In gymnastics competitions, it was only about my ability and skill. This time around, I had to have tan skin, do my hair, nails, and makeup a certain way, and push up my boobs. A huge part of the actual tryout was standing silently in a room and smiling until I couldn’t feel my face at a panel of 12 judges as they scribbled things down, rated my physical appearance on a number scale, and whispered amongst themselves about the way I look. My actual talent would only account for about half of my total score.

Is your hair the right color? Are you tan enough? Are you wearing fake eyelashes? Are you pretending to have enough confidence?

The first weekend of tryouts was extremely long and mentally exhausting. The first day was to weed out the girls who don’t have "the look" and/or the ability. They taught us the dance quickly in a cramped room and the coaches and judges watched as we practiced for a few hours. Then they began to call three or four of us into a room at a time, which meant hours of waiting around. Finally, we walked into the judging room and stood on an X with a big smile as the judges decided what they liked and disliked about our appearance. Do you have a funny way of standing? Is your hair the right color? Are you tan enough? Are you wearing fake eyelashes? Are you pretending to have enough confidence?
Then it was time to do the dance. If someone in your group messed up, you had to hope you could ignore it and keep going because they're looking for your ability to push through moments like that. They called us up one at a time to show off our stunt, jumps, and running and standing tumbling abilities before sending us back out into the holding room for another few hours.
Once everyone was done, they started calling numbers. If yours was called, congratulations, you’d made it to the next day's round, which was exactly the same layout. Still standing after day two? Then, you came back a couple weeks later to do an official interview in business attire with your resume — and full hair and makeup and a smile, of course. This is where they judged your character. Are you friendly? Do you look pretty when you talk? Do you sound smart? Can you hold a conversation? They made their cuts, and sent the rest on to finals round, where the judging started to feel really personal.
The finals are held at the NFL team’s practice facility, and it's basically a mock practice in hair and makeup. It's a two to three hour test of stamina, where you're expected to perform stunt after stunt perfectly, even the ones unique to the program you've never seen before. When it was over, we all sat and watched as the judges deliberated and pulled headshots and compared us. When they'd made their decisions, they posted the numbers on a door down a hallway. If your number was there, you could turn around and enter the field as an NFL cheerleader. If not, you had to walk out the door.
The first time I tried out, I was cut at the final round. I was devastated. It destroyed my self-confidence. For months after, I had a hard time believing I was pretty or desirable. My poor boyfriend was stuck picking up the pieces of a girl whose heart was broken by disappointment and crippled by insecurity, brought on by a decision that she wasn’t good enough, or good-looking enough. Bless his heart for sticking it out and helping me feel beautiful again.

I was cut at the final round and I was devastated. It destroyed my self-confidence. For months after, I had a hard time believing I was pretty or desirable.

I wasn’t going to audition again because I couldn’t bear going through the emotional pain — it wouldn’t be fair to myself or the person I share my life with — but with a lot of convincing from friendly faces on the team, I eventually caved. The second time, though, I went in with the mentality that whether I made it or not, their decision wouldn't define who I am as a person. That confidence must have been apparent because I made the team.
The seasonal contract began immediately after that. We made minimum wage and were paid by the hour for practices, games, and appearances, but not for travel or getting ready time. There's no overtime pay if things run late and no health insurance, although we did get workers' comp. I have a full-time job, but once the pre-season actually started, I dedicated about 25 to 30 hours per week to cheer, taking into account practices and professional appearances (they don't give a minimum, but you get called out if you don't do "enough"), as well as time spent doing makeup, going to the gym, getting spray tans, hair, and nails, and traveling.
For the entire 2017 season (March - December), my W-2 statement claimed $3,400. All of that money went right back into beauty maintenance and gas to and from cheerleading events. I have dark hair naturally, but they wanted me to be a blonde, so I had to get my hair done every month and a half. In total, that ended up being about $1,100 and I had to pay for it myself. I also had to have nudish-pink nails, so I'd get a gel manicure every two to three weeks, which came out to about $700 by the end of the season.
The NFL provides a gym and tanning membership, which you're expected to use. I have very fair skin, so I'd be there twice a week on average getting a spray tan, but even the darkest one wouldn't be dark enough, so I was forced to pay extra for a bronzer add-on and had to buy my own self-tanning supplies. Sweating with layers of makeup on made my skin look brutal, so building an appropriate skin-care routine was crucial and I got myself a membership to Massage Envy for regular massages and facials. I put way more into cheerleading than it paid me.
After one season, I decided not to go back. Being on the field and cheering in front of the fans is my happy place, but the time and fiscal commitments are not worth it. It came to a point where I had to decide between moving on with my career or continuing the cheerleading hobby while funneling money I don’t have into it. There was an obvious choice, I went with it, and I'm very happy with my decision.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

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