TV: So You Want to Be a Cowboys' Cheerleader

Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders director Kelli Finglass is flat-out frightening on television. She's unequivocally the main attraction of CMT's reality series "Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team," despite sharing screen time with costume-busting 19-year-olds. Sample snippet from season three, to debut Saturday: A jiggly girl gyrates awkwardly to thumping club music; cut to close-up of Finglass's perfectly arched brows, and then to her sharpened pencil, scrawling a big fat "N" on her clipboard. (Article continued below...)

The real Finglass is a hard-driving Texas mom with as keen a knack for marketing as she has radar for muffin top. In 17 years as the Cheerleaders' queen bee, she has overseen the squad's transformation from big-haired emblem of the '80s to a lucrative franchise independent of the Cowboys' on-field success. Aside from the show, the girls have their own Barbie, an expansive blog, a swimsuit calendar, a TV special on the swimsuit shoot, dozens of sponsorships and a pending MTV fitness-video series. She's also a good Jewish wife—sort of. She was with her husband at temple for Rosh Hashanah before her NEWSWEEK interview—"I just snuck out in the middle," she says, giggling. Excerpts from her chat with NEWSWEEK's Sarah Ball:

NEWSWEEK: Did you invent these girls?
Kelli Finglass: The cheerleaders were the right entertainment idea in the '70s, when the Cowboys were on top of the world winning Super Bowls, and everything about Dallas, Texas, was larger than life. This new view of adding beautiful, dancing women as a component of the NFL football game was a brilliant, innovative idea—and has become a phenomenon now. So that's where the credit starts.

And how did you leverage that into a 21st-century business?
When I took over in '91, I did look at all the branches of things that the cheerleaders did well—their personal appearances, teaching dance, interacting with youth in our community and also just being beautiful. I made every one of those branches a business-development area that made sense—not overly commercializing them or compromising their integrity, but taking advantage of what we do well. Now, with the CMT show and by no plan of mine, we've become influential and interactive with women around the country. That's kind of fun. That's a natural evolution of my passion and life. I've gone from a single department manager to a wife to a mom, so me and the cheerleaders are just like the women who watch the show. We're trying to multitask and survive.

It ' s interesting that your success is coming at a time when the Miss America pageant devolved into a reality show, scrambling to find a network.
It's funny how you mention that. There's a fine line between protecting a tradition and embracing the history, and making it contemporary enough to where people are still interested. With Miss America, it's really unfortunate, because it is a very recognizable, important brand that trains and promotes a lot of women. And their ideas seem to have just gotten lost.

Speaking of dying traditions, there ' s a manners segment on every season of the show where you teach the girls to eat and drink like ladies usually to mixed success. Have our manners gotten worse over the years?
Oh, a-a-absolutely. I have definitely seen it get worse. There was a time where people had home-economics and debutante training and so on and so forth, and today [manners have] absolutely diminished in young people's lives.

My mother loves that you train them to use the right forks.
Good, I'm so glad. Etiquette is a hobby of mine, which I acquired from my own mother, and I enjoy teaching the girls and watching them learn. And they need it—they're put in situations where they have dinner with dignitaries and ambassadors, and they need to gain the confidence to do so.

Are you just swamped with people at tryouts who are looking to be big stars, now that auditions are televised?
The quality of dancers has improved over the years. Before there were a lot of people who would try out just to say they tried out. The TV show has just exposed how competitive, physically and mentally, it really is, certainly from a dance and choreography standpoint. Having said that, we still always have people show up and it's like, 'Have you seen this uniform?! Are you serious?' But my hat goes off. They're doing it for the experience.

How does it feel to see that uniform on a Barbie?
Oh, the Barbie was personally and professionally one of the moments that I was most proud of. It had been a career-long mission of mine.

And what ' s next your own country?
We're working with MTV on some fitness videos. I'm real excited because we're doing them based on our style of fitness—the boot-camp fitness, with yoga fitness and kind of a youth-cheer follow-along video for kids. We still get a lot of television requests, and I don't see that slowing down anytime soon. And I think this Internet stuff—the blogging, the message boards—is the equivalent of all the fan mail we used to get. It's just electronic now. That whole world is a new platform and a new stage for us. We just relaunched and, since all the girls are roughly 18 to 30, they're more the experts on that than I am.

Are you used to dismissing girls on camera by now?
I'm used to cameras around us, to being the subject, but it's the part of our year that's being focused on—the elimination and evaluation process—that's uncomfortable every year. It's hard to disappoint people, it's hard to be honest with them, and it's a hard part of my job that I take very seriously. Having a camera in the room during those kinds of moments is not easy and is not a cakewalk.

How about the first time you cheered at Texas Stadium in 1984. Were you nervous?
Yes, absolutely! There are lots of firsts being a cheerleader. I was nervous then, and I'm nervous now. Every time the cheerleaders come out of the tunnel, I'm nervous. It's a very high-anxiety moment.