In 1997, Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a piece for GQ—her first ever—about working at a dive bar in New York that was owned by a woman and hired only women. The feature described it as a grungy hole full of Jack-swigging rednecks who’d tip like hell when their favorite bartender got up on the bar to dance to the jukebox or put her hair in “farm girl” pigtails and milk beer out of a rubber glove.
“The bar was built on how you manipulate men into giving you all of their money,” says Gilbert. “And it was much more Charles Bukowski short story than Disney movie.” But in August 2000 that’s exactly what it became.
“The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon” was sanitized by Hollywood and reborn as a PG-13 sleepover movie about sisterhood, the American dream, and grinding on a bar in a python vest. Coyote Ugly, as it became, was produced by mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by David McNally, who until then was best known as the guy who made that Budweiser commercial with the lobster. And while it was originally written by Gina Wendkos (who went on to do Princess Diaries), the script was ultimately Frankensteined from at least six versions, including one by Carrie Fisher.
The result was a Girl Power movie with a side of lingering shower shots. The rugged Coyote Ugly bar was reimagined as a glossy Christina Aguilera video set, the bartenders a girl-band lineup of beautiful new talent: Piper Perabo (“the Jersey nun”), Bridget Moynahan (“the New York bitch”), Izabella Miko (“the Russian tease”), and Tyra Banks. En Vogue’s choreographer created the dance routines and Madonna’s former stylist designed the outfits. The story follows a sweet girl from the suburbs (Perabo) as she tries to push past stage fright to make it as a songwriter in the big, tough city. She, of course, falls for a fluffy-eye-lashed burger chef who stalks her home (so romantic!) and she’s emboldened by her time bartending in—and on—the Coyote Ugly bar.
Then LeAnn Rimes appears and sings “Can’t Fight the Moonlight.”
Looking back, it’s wild that the film ever got made, and even wilder that it was made for such a young audience. (If you were a preteen girl in the year 2000, the definition of “being sexy” suddenly involved buckets of water and EMF’s “Unbelievable”—I know, I was one.) It was almost a gateway drug for the decade that followed: 10 years filled with thongs, Playboy phone cases, and sex tape scandals, post–Spice Girls but pre-fourth-wave feminism.
Watching the movie as an adult, it’s a problematic mess of an artifact, but it’s still raucous and fun enough to remain a cult hit. In fact, it’s become the ultimate Noughties period film; an ode to prerecession capitalist values, raunch, and low-rise trousers. “I still think somebody was a genius to see what they saw with [my piece],” says Gilbert. “That some 12-year-old would watch it at a sleepover. Like, how did they know?” This is the (somewhat chaotic) story of how Disney cleaned up New York’s Meatpacking District before gentrification ever did.
Part 1: “A Dominatrix Energy”
The real Coyote Ugly was one of a wave of so-called “bra bars” that opened in New York in the ’90s. These were grimey city bars that felt like saloons, with female bartenders who spent as much time dancing on the bar as they did pouring shots. Gilbert worked there for a year after college alongside owner Liliana Lovell.
Elizabeth Gilbert (author and former Coyote): I used to go to this dive bar called the Village Idiot in the East Village. It’s still the skankiest bar I have ever gone to in my life. The bartenders were all women and they used to light the bar on fire when men were getting too close. It had a wild, raucous energy. One night, in January 1993, I decided to go and it had been closed by the city (probably fairly). But there was a new bar across the street. As soon as I went in, I fell in love with it. It had the same energy, but not as skanky. That was Coyote Ugly. I started working there a week after it opened.
Liliana Lovell (owner of Coyote Ugly): At the time, I didn’t realize that I was one of the only women running a bar in New York. I was 25 and had grown up in the city, gone to NYU, done a year on Wall Street. I started bartending because I wasn’t making any money doing that and ended up working at the Village Idiot. By the time I opened Coyote, I was pretty famous as bartenders go and knew the vibe I was aiming for.
Gilbert: You’d come in off a New York City street and feel like you were in southern Texas. At one end of the bar there was a jukebox, and on the other end there was a regular we called Redneck Lou. He was part bear, part motorcycle dude, and such an anomaly in New York City.
Lovell: It was dingy. Bras everywhere.
Gilbert: I’d dance on the bar in leather vests with no shirt on underneath; I’m tall and [the ceiling] was so grimey with tar and cigarettes that I could grip on to it to keep my balance.
Lovell: People would buy shots to drink from my shoes or through my socks.
Gilbert: Without a doubt the whole thing was a scheme to get men’s money. Lil knew that if you show them attention, cleavage, and boss them around, they’re going to work for you forever. She almost had a dominatrix energy to her.
Lovell: It was about feeling sexy and powerful. I think that was alluring to people. By 1997 we were kind of famous in New York. Then Liz wrote the GQ piece.
Gilbert: I hadn’t had anything published at that point. I was at the “collect rejection letters” part of my career. In the GQ article I wanted to show male readers how they were seen by their cute bartender at their local bar. I wanted to be like, just so you know, this is how we perceive you.
Lovell: I don’t think she told me she was writing and submitting it, but she told me when it was picked up. Then Jerry Bruckheimer called.
Gilbert: I got paid enough money for the rights that I could put a down payment on a house. A couple years later I lost that house in a divorce, but anyway …
Lovell: They sent the president of Bruckheimer out before we finished the deal. We met at the bar. It was obvious who he was: He was dressed up nicer than everyone else. I introduced myself and he goes: “Bullshit. When Lil comes, tell me where she is.” And I said “OK” and sat in the corner, just waiting for him to be ready. I guess he imagined an older woman.
Part 2: “I Got Paid $100K for One Stupid Fucking Joke”
Coyote Ugly’s first writer was Gina Wendkos (Princess Diaries)—Lil says Wendkos would sit at the bar every night researching her script—but several more screenwriters contributed drafts throughout the process. The most talked-about? A so-called “racy” script from Chasing Amy’s Kevin Smith.
Kevin Smith (writer): I’ll never forget walking into Bruckheimer’s office and seeing the longest desk I have ever seen in my life. He had projects stacked up along the desk and a rolling chair, and his day was scheduled to move down the table. I was his 2 p.m., so he was more than halfway out of the office at this point. At the time I was a script doctor as well as a writer and he’d called me in because he liked Chasing Amy and he wanted me to look at the script for Coyote Ugly. I remember the director had done the famous Bud commercial with the lobster …
David McNally (director): I was living in Toronto when my ad won the Super Bowl. The next day I got a call from Jerry. I sent my reel and left a note that I was going to L.A. to shoot a commercial the following week, staying in the Mondrian on Sunset Boulevard. Back then it was the place to be seen on the Sunset Strip. I was by the pool doing some work and a young gentleman came up to me dressed all in black and just said, “Are you David McNally?” I said yes. He said, “Special delivery from Jerry Bruckheimer,” and handed me a little black envelope. Every wannabe actor, actress, director, producer around the pool turned around and watched. It was a very Hollywood moment. [Through a representative, Bruckheimer declined to participate in this piece.]
Smith: I’ve never been a bar person. I’d never been to Coyote Ugly. So for that reason I was one of the worst people to ask to doctor the script. But it was Jerry Bruckheimer—I wasn’t going to say no. And he whetted my appetite by dropping in that Carrie Fisher had just done a draft. I remember liking the script and saying I don’t know what I can do for this except dialogue, but that’s what he wanted.
McNally: The script I was given was Kevin’s. The bones of the movie were there, but the version was quite raunchy.
Smith: It’s known as the raunchy script?! Well, I guess I was coming off of Clerks and Chasing Amy. I felt my worth was in being risque. So I guess, we’re in a bar. It was a very open atmosphere, people go to a bar to get laid and shit, I just leaned into that.
McNally: To me it didn’t really have quite the heart that I wanted.
Smith: They kept my names and my version of the dad character. He wasn’t lovable before me. Only one line of my dialogue made it into the movie, though. It’s when Izabella’s character is talking about being bisexual and says, “I’ve played in the minors but never went pro.” That’s the only line I remember writing. I got paid $100K for one stupid fucking joke. Being a script doctor is crazy money.
McNally: I went back and read the GQ article and Gina Wendkos’s version of the script, which was a bit more of a romantic comedy. The idea was to bring those things together. It was meant to be a female-empowerment movie in a sense, but also a romance too. [Wendkos did not respond to a request for comment.]
Gilbert: I think what they saw was girl power, bonding, dancing, singing. From the beginning, their intention was to target this to preteen girls, like Footloose. And I was like: There are no teenagers who should be anywhere near this place.
McNally: I was never told that. Jerry told me you have to make a movie for everybody. If you’re going to have a hit movie it should be aimed at all age groups.
Gilbert: If you look at that movie, I marvel at it. Even though it’s set in a bar, the film isn’t about drinking, and alcohol is not centred in this movie … the girls are.
McNally: Lil made it very clear that her whole thing was to have a bar that was owned by women and run by women. There was a scene that was shot about that, but it didn’t end up in the film.
Smith: I find that fascinating that it was an article by a woman and [then a script written by Gina Wendkos] and then Carrie Fisher, and then the men took over. I don’t know how empowering a film for women written by me (and others) and a male producer and director is. It was a case of Jerry being like, if we get this right for the women who go to films, that’s great. I don’t think you’d do that now.
McNally: Maybe in this day and age it’s possible that you’d have to have a woman tell that story, and I’d love to see that movie. I remember last year I went to a Director’s Guild screening of Hustlers and the director Lorene Scafaria spoke afterward, and I thought as a woman she took some real chances I wouldn’t have as a man.
Part 3: “I Called the Ambassador of Poland 17 Times in One Day”
Bruckheimer recruited legendary casting director Bonnie Timmermann to lead the search for the main character Violet, her love interest, Kevin, and the Coyotes. The hunt involved months of open calls in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, and London—and wasn’t smooth sailing for some cast members.
Bonnie Timmermann (casting director): I remember we saw about 5,000 girls for the movie, maybe more. We gave Christina Aguilera and Jessica Simpson auditions. We saw Vanessa Carlton and some other girls that went on to be big pop stars, who were playing at dive bars in the Village. I’d seen Adam Garcia [Kevin] in the Saturday Night Fever musical on the West End, and we asked him to fly from Australia to L.A. for a casting.
Adam Garcia (actor, Kevin): I went to a local casting but it was on my birthday and my mum had made my favourite lamb roast, so my mind was on getting back for that. I thought I’d be one of millions on tape and wouldn’t get it. But then I got a recall asking if I’d fly over to L.A. for a screen test. I said no—I was in the middle of shooting a film about my [dance] mentor from [dance troop] Tap Dogs and I couldn’t just drop that. Coyote Ugly’s casting team and my agent were like, “What the fuck are you talking about?”
McNally: The main thing was to find the Violet character. At the time we felt she should both be a great actor and musician who could play and sing. We saw so many people. I remember distinctly that Piper read a scene and it sounded really authentic and it turned out that, like the character, she’d moved from southern New Jersey to New York to try and make it as an actor. [Perabo was not available to participate in this piece.]
Timmermann: Piper is a natural. She’s beautiful, emotional, she was physically and emotionally right for the part.
Garcia: She had gone through the absolute ringer of auditions, really jumping through hoops, going back and back and back. But they ultimately cast me by asking her to pick up a picture of my headshot and put it next to her face and then they looked at it for a while and were like, “Yep, that’s our guy.” She was like, “What the fuck, this is what this guy’s got to do?’ I’ve just picked up this picture?”
Timmermann: All the [Coyote auditionees] had to dance to Prince’s “Kiss.” We would put the music on and we had a little table/bar platform and they would get up. We did the same with Dirty Dancing.
Bridget Moynahan (actor, Rachel): I was stressed about the audition. It was one of my first. I wasn’t a trained dancer, but I did go to a lot of clubs in New York at the time—the Limelight, Area—so I was confident with just dancing. I remember a producer in the show gave me a tip. They said Piper Perabo is a really strong, independent, confident young woman and the character you’re going up for is the badass, so you have to match her strength and be stronger.
Izabella Miko (actor, Cammie): This was pretty much my first audition, and my first movie. I was born and raised in Poland. I moved to New York at 15 and managed to get a scholarship to the School of American Ballet, so I danced there for two and a half years. I couldn’t even speak English. I heard you had to go to L.A. to get an agent (which isn’t true), but I went for a couple of weeks. I was on a tourist visa, basically, from Poland. I ended up meeting a big agent and I was told he wasn’t going to take me on but that he would send me on three auditions. The first was Coyote Ugly, the second was Save the Last Dance and the third was Center Stage.
Timmermann: We went through a box of résumés and we’d just bring in people we liked the look of. Even Tyra Banks had to earn her part. At the time she was a model, and wanted to act. When she came in we thought, “Well, obviously she’s beautiful and a wonderful person, but [she still had to read].” [Through a representative, Banks declined to participate in this piece.]
Miko: I had a call from my agent being like, “You need to fly to L.A. tonight,” and I guess because it was really late notice they sent a stretch limo. Now we’d be like “how embarrassing,” but back then it was amazing. I found out I got the part on the flight back and I then had to tell him I didn’t have working papers or a visa, and he was so angry. The next month was one of the most stressful of my life. I was already doing rehearsals for the movie and doing fittings. We had like 40 or 50 hours of fittings—it was insane. I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to do the movie.
Marlene Stewart (costume designer): We made so many of the clothes for the girls in Coyote Ugly. We made leather pants, skirts and rhinestone T-shirts. We wanted the Coyotes to wear the kind of silhouettes or embellishment we’ve seen on musicians and men before. And my background was doing costumes for music videos in the early days of MTV. I’d worked with Madonna for eight years. I knew how to make clothes work for dancing on a bar, how to make leather pants stretchy. Everything had gussets and was waterproof.
Moynahan: I was wearing my lace-up leather pants for years afterward. I still have them in storage.
Miko: I remember passing the production office and hearing girls read for my part in case I couldn’t do it anymore. We were trying to get me an 0-1 visa, which was only given to people who were really famous in their own country. I wasn’t famous in Poland, but I was up all night trying to get famous people to say I was. The U.S. government said no to me at first, which is crazy because it was with Disney and Bruckheimer, but we appealed and then I called the ambassador of Poland like 17 times in one day. When they finally put me through he said he’d help me. I still have no idea why. The next day I was on set.
Part 4: “I Had to Get a Fake ID”
The bar scenes were brought to life via shoots in New York’s Meatpacking District and in L.A. The Coyotes underwent intense dance training and were taken on research trips to the original bar. Getting good takes involved falls, injuries, and scary moments. But the payoff? Scenes so iconic that Liliana Lovell incorporated them into the real-life Coyote Ugly.
McNally: By the time we were shooting I had multiple binders of multiple scripts and it became a case of putting pages together and trying to figure out what from each draft could be salvaged. Finally Jeff Nathanson came in and read every single draft and my binder full of notes. He was then kept on as (what they call) run of the picture. I’d say to Jerry, “What if I throw this in?” and he’d say, “Great, tell Jeff,” and I’d call Jeff and tell him we’re doing it tomorrow—and low and behold, 6 a.m. the next day he’d have pages ready.
Garcia: When I auditioned the film had a bit more of an edge. You know the scene where Kevin makes the comic book deal and it looks like a drug deal? From my memory he was originally in that world: sitting at the edge of dangerous and living hand-to-mouth. But New York really was like that if you go back to the ’80s and ’90s.
McNally: Shooting in the Meatpacking District in 1999 was a challenge. It’s pretty high-end now but back then it really was a meat-packing district. They’d be literally unloading beef carcasses off the truck and the cobblestones had congealed fat and blood on them and it stank. So we’d have to sanitize the streets with bleach or whatever to make it palatable for the actors and crew.
Garcia: There was still a slick of fat on the cobblestones. And giant rats running under the lit light of New York sanitation.
Lori A. Balton (location scout): At the time it was hip to go there because it was such a dangerous, dark, and edgy place. And now it’s the South Street Seaport, run-of-the-mill tourism. I think that’s pretty reflective of the whole movie. It’s so of its time. There’s a bunch of women that were asserting themselves at this club. It’s that whole complicated thing where yes, the men wanted to see them jiggle their bodies, but they were in control of their bodies. At the time it was wild and unusual. And now clubs like that are all over, you know, and it’s nothing new.
McNally: We took the cast to the bars so they could see what it was like. What I learned from being there was getting up on that bar for a lot of women was a really interesting, kind of liberating experience in some way. Girls would get egged on by the Coyote girls to get on the bar and you’d see them completely change and start going all out and taking their bra off. That’s why I realized the bar was so much the catalyst for Violet to come out of her shell. And it’s what she needed in her life to be able to overcome her fear.
Miko: I was 18 at the time and couldn’t do lots of research like the other girls. I’d never been to a bar! I had to get a fake ID so I could get into one to see what it was like. The hardest thing was learning to do the bartending. I’d never had a drink at this point and I have tiny hands.
McNally: We began shooting in New York, using a bar called Hogs and Heifers. Just as we started we got hit with two back-to-back hurricanes—Dennis and Floyd, I think. Our schedule was thrown off from rain and there was flooding. I remember shooting the scene where Violet meets Lil in the basement of the bar and that the basement was knee-deep in water. We shot as much as we could but just went back to better weather in L.A.
Balton: We have a lot of great old theaters on Broadway here in L.A. and they just have such great scope and great character, great patina. And I’m pretty sure we shot the Coyote Ugly scenes in one of the old theaters on Broadway at the bar.
Delila Vallot (Tyra Banks’s dance double): That bar, to dance on it, you know how it looks thin and everything? It is as scary as it looks. It really is. When you do turns, the fluid in your ears gets a bit wonky, and just a little bit of that with lights in your eyes and all of that is disorientating. It was super high-stakes, too, because the movement was so fast and you’re dancing in cowboy boots so you didn’t have a lot of grip.
McNally: I remember, when Piper sings “One Way or Another,” I think at one point she walked off the end of the bar. We’d always have spotters in the crowd to make sure nobody got hurt. We also doused the bar in Coca-Cola to make it sticky so they didn’t fall.
Travis Payne (choreographer): There were crash pads behind the bar but, because we were on location, there were glasses and bottles everywhere. Often the bar itself would be wet because of shots being poured and then setting the bar on fire. It was a risky shoot. We did grueling hours and in that bar it was blistering hot. It was uncomfortable, but it looked great.
Vallot: At the time I had a dance agent, who’d get me TV and film auditions. But this job didn’t happen that way—somebody called me, maybe even the same day, because they needed a dance double for Tyra Banks and were desperate because she’s so tall that they couldn’t find anyone. They were even thinking about hiring a guy. Of course I was super insulted because I was like How did this happen that you looked over me? I was so mad.
Moynahan: One funny memory of the dancing was that when we had the first rehearsal they didn’t make the ceiling high enough for me and Tyra to be able to stand on the bar. We had to sit that one out.
Payne: We did a bootcamp with the ladies to find the strengths and weaknesses. We had to rehearse everywhere. I think one of the scenes where we meet Tyra is at a café, and we got a full dance rehearsal in the parking lot.
McNally: It was very tough on the women. We’d be shooting and then they’d have dance rehearsals sometimes on the same day.
Moynahan: One of my biggest challenges was learning the steps. Honestly you can’t even put me in an aerobics class! I have two left feet until I get it down. It takes a little bit of time for me.
Payne: I had to do the most work with Bridget. We just had to find it. We had to realize she wasn’t a girly girl—it wasn’t her thing. She’s a warrior. It was a lot more aggressive. She might spit at you and kick you. With my choreography I wanted the girls to take control of the situation as opposed to being objectified in the situation—“Yes, I’m hanging from a pole upside down, and I’m not doing it for you, it’s for me to reign over you, it’s my house.”
Moynahan: I remember I hurt my neck from doing so many somersaults on the bar, which never actually made it into the movie.
Gilbert: Before the movie there was no choreography [at the real Coyote Ugly] to the dancing on the bar, we were just clodhopping up there.
Lovell: After the movie we had to start having choreographers on staff because that’s what the public expected. The Coyotes do a dance every 40 minutes now. People have fallen, but we’ve remedied a lot of that—we make the bars wide so there’s more space.
Part 5: “Everyone Loves a Striptease to Dead Silence!”
There are two types of people in this world: those who associate INXS’s “Need You Tonight” with “classic ’80s anthem,” and those who immediately see Adam Garcia knee-sliding along a bar topless. This section is for you, latter camp.
McNally: This scene wasn’t actually in the original movie at all. Jerry saw Adam doing the Grover dance from Sesame Street and said he was great and should get up on the bar. I remember thinking it seemed weird and that nobody was going to think this kid could just get up and dance, but sure enough we called Jeff and said we need a reason for Adam to get up on the bar and dance. So he wrote [a scene where Violet is auctioning Kevin off to make money to save her job]. We shot that scene and we had to get Bonnie to cast comedians to be [bidders in the audience].
Garcia: When the girls were learning the boot-scoot stuff, I was like “Yeah, I can do that,” and was showing off. David was like, “So, you can dance?” and I was like, “Yeah, that’s how I’ve made a living for the past 10 years.” That’s how they got the idea. They wanted to turn what could be construed as a “girls dancing on a bar” type of thing—which Kevin calls it at one point—on its head and make him an objectified money-spinner. It ended up being one of those moments in the film that people really recognize. I’m now known as the “guy on the bar in that film.”
Kaitlin Olson (actor, bidder): People who know me from Always Sunny are like: “OMG, Kaitlin Olson is in Coyote Ugly!” And I’m like, “Yup, my best work, screaming in a bar.” That movie holds a special place in my heart because it was the film that got me into the union. I had one line on paper. Back then you really didn’t talk unless you had a line written on the page. But I was like “screw it,” and just started yelling things out like “Come to mama,” and it was so much fun.
JJ Snyder (actor, bidder): There were four of us going to play off each other. Three of us from the Groundlings. We all took turns filming one at a time, improvising. I motioned over to Adam to ask if I could pull him down off the bar and give him a kiss because I thought it’d be a really funny bit. He was totally OK with that, and that’s how that bit actually ended up in the film.
Olson: I felt bad for Adam because it looks like everyone is loud and raucous, but it was actually silent in there and he had to get up and dance. Everyone loves a striptease to dead silence!
Garcia: I only had a couple of goes at doing it with all the extras, so I was really pumped up beforehand and was like, “This is going to blow their fucking minds.” I did the whole dance and the crowd went wild, and I was like, “Yeah, I nailed it.” And then David was like, “Cut, let’s go back,” and they all immediately went back to talking amongst themselves. Of course they’re all extras, they’re all paid to cheer. They couldn’t care less. I’m just standing there sweating, panting, and they were all empty vessels.
McNally: I had to keep telling Adam his dance was too good, so he made it rougher.
Garcia: I saw that scene with my wife at a charity screening last year and she was like, “Why do you rub your nipples?” I took it too far.
Snyder: It’s the only chance I got in my 20s to be in a scene with three other girls and they said just be yourself. This was a huge opportunity. When you’re a young actress in L.A., the most important thing is how pretty you are, and they were saying, “We like your skill and ability, show us that.”
Olson: This is so vain but honestly my main memory is that they just kept flattening my hair. I was like, “Can it not be flat against my head?”
Part 6: “Lenny Kravitz Wanted His Song in the Movie Because the Girls Were Hot”
“Can’t Fight the Moonlight” might be forever associated with Coyote Ugly, but it was actually written weeks before the film hit screens. This was just one of many challenges music supervisor Kathy Nelson had to overcome while making the film.
Kathy Nelson (music supervisor): Making the movie was a harrowing experience for me.
McNally: Most of the music had to be chosen beforehand so they could choreograph the dances.
Nelson: Ultimately Jerry is the decider, and he has a great instinct in music, but it can be frustrating because you can play him 50 songs and maybe he’ll like one. Then we had to pick Violet’s songs. I wanted one songwriter. I’ve worked with Diane Warren on tons of movies and I thought it was almost like her life story. She used to go to happy hour in a bar near a record label and would hand people her cassettes when they came out of the office.
Diane Warren (songwriter): I met with the director earlier on so that he could get some stuff from my life that would become Violet’s character, the rejection you have to go through. One of the things they added was when she has stage fright, and that kinda came from me because I fucking hate being anywhere near a stage. And, yeah, they asked me to write the songs for it: “Please Remember,” “The Right Kind of Wrong,” “But I Do Love You …”
Nelson: Piper really wanted to sing, but it was just such a big job.
McNally: She did a lot of work for the film. She learned how to play guitar and keyboard, she practiced every single day and, as far as I remember, she took vocal lessons.
Nelson: I hired producer Trevor Horn, who I’d worked with before. I hired him because he’s one of those producers where anyone could go into the studio and he’d make it a hit record. He’s a genius when it comes to vocals. We tried using Piper in the studio, but it would have taken too much work. It was such a big job. So with Jerry we did a casting call for vocalists, and I told Jerry to decide on the vocalist Piper would lip-synch to. So he picked one.
McNally: I don’t know how Piper took it. She recorded some of the tracks and she was really good.
Nelson: She recorded one track. The craziest thing is that when the shoot was over and Piper was done lip-synching to the singer, I got a call from Jerry and he said he didn’t like the voice anymore, so I had to find someone else. I freaked out. I mean, the movie was done! I was in a panic. But I remembered that Diane had played one of the songs for LeAnn Rimes, and at the time—she was a teenager, she was young, and she had made it known to her label, Curb Records, that she wanted to do a pop record. They didn’t want her to, as they were establishing her as a big country artist.
Warren: I’d already written her biggest hit so far, “How Do I Live,” which is also in a Bruckheimer film.
Nelson: My argument was that maybe this would be a way where she could make a pop record without abandoning her country thing. But it wasn’t easy. I told Mike Curb [from the label] what the movie was about, and that there’d be four songs on camera that the actor is going to lip-synch to, that I knew LeAnn liked one of the songs, so perhaps we could convince her to do all of them. She said yes.
McNally: LeAnn sang Piper’s versions in a different voice to her own.
Nelson: The movie was done, so it meant that LeAnn had to loop—watching the footage and, effectively, lip-synching in reverse. It’s so hard.
McNally: Originally the end song wasn’t “Can’t Fight the Moonlight,” but we did test screenings and a comment we consistently got back was “Something doesn’t quite work at the end.” Jerry deciphered that they were telling us we need a new song, a bigger hit. It had to be the most uplifting song in the movie by far.
Warren: I remember watching the rough cut with the original song in there and thinking to myself that the song I’d written didn’t work, but I didn’t want to say anything and knock my own song out. Then they let me know just before the movie was coming out they didn’t like it anymore and they needed me to write a new one. I was like, Fuck, what do I do?!
McNally: I think Diane had maybe a week to write it?
Warren: I felt confident as soon as I wrote “Can’t Fight the Moonlight.” I just loved it. There’s so many key changes, so I’m not sure how that song makes sense. But the melody really holds it all together, and it just felt right for the movie and of course it became a huge hit.
McNally: I can’t remember if Diane used a cassette or whatever, but she put on a raw version of “Can’t Fight the Moonlight” for me, and I was humming it on my way out to the car so I knew that was it. So we went back and reshot [Piper’s gig scene], which precipitated shooting the bar scene at the end.
Nelson: One of the ways we convinced LeAnn to be in the movie was to have her in the bar for the last scene, so her and Piper can do a duet, but she’d basically be duetting with herself. Jerry said we couldn’t afford to reshoot that last scene, but I said, “If you want her to do the songs, we have to.” So we ended up reshooting the end and putting her in the film.
Warren: “Can’t Fight the Moonlight” was going to be the single from the movie, and I remember someone at Curb saying it wasn’t a hit and they wouldn’t promote it. They said something like, “Kids don’t know what moonlight is,” and I was like, “Are you fucking kidding me?” So they released it to the adult contemporary chart and it did well, but I was like, “This is a fucking pop hit, just promote it.” Then it became a number-one record in most of the world—it’s one of the biggest songs of all time in Australia. I went back to him, and I said this was proof it was a hit and he agreed, so they rereleased it here and it became a huge hit here as well. It was nuts, man.
Nelson: Most people focus on “Can’t Fight the Moonlight,” but there were actually a lot of great pop songs in the movie. The way we put the jukebox together for them to dance to, I think it turned out to be a great collection of songs—EMF; “All She Wants to Do Is Dance,” Don Henley; “I Love”; INXS, “Need You Tonight”—and I think that’s part of why the movie has held up.
Warren: It’s one of my favorite movies I’ve worked on. I think they should do a musical of it. I think this movie is the Saturday Night Fever for women that grew up at that time. It’s that gritty story of someone doing well. Coyote Ugly for young girls growing up at that time was an important movie. It’s a cultural thing.
Garcia: Although when you watch Saturday Night Fever it is really dark. There’s rape, murder, interfamily beatings, and it’s all about poverty and escaping it in the ’70s, but it’s anchored with one of the most memorable soundtracks in movie history. Coyote Ugly is the same. You can’t see one without the other.
Nelson: I remember I wanted a Lenny Kravitz song to be in the movie and his management wouldn’t let us because it didn’t look like a very serious movie. Apparently he then saw a billboard and said he wanted his song in the movie because the girls were hot, so we did get it. [Kravitz’s representatives did not respond to a request for comment.] There was so much good music in the film.
Part 7: “FRANCHISE?! THIS PLACE?! You Gotta Be Kidding Me.”
The movie was released on August 4, 2000, and grossed $114 million worldwide. Lovell used its commercial success as an opportunity to turn Coyote Ugly into a chain. Before the pandemic there were 29 franchises, based all over the world, from Cardiff to Singapore. Now Coyote Ugly even has its own line of merch, featuring branded racing gloves and thongs.
Gilbert: All of us went to the premier: Lil, all the regulars, Redneck Lou. The lights went up and everybody left and all of us were still sitting in one row like, What just happened?!
Lovell: My first thought was that I would slit my own wrists before I bought the whole bar a round like Lil does when the health inspectors come in.
Gilbert: It was so surreal. It’s the strangest reflection of this story. The main thing was no discussion of alcohol really. I thought: How are you going to make a movie about a bar and not have it be about alcohol? They made a fantasy world that was polished and shining. The Coyote Ugly bar had no polish—that was the point! I remember just laughing and looking down the row at these grimey, hard-drinking rednecks who were all also just like … what just happened? What they got right was Lil—her intelligence, savviness. They got the sisterhood.
Lovell: I’m still in touch with girls who worked there 28 years ago. I just did a Zoom call with one of my original regulars for his birthday yesterday.
McCally: It didn’t open number one, but the numbers were very good—it was two or three. On the day after it came out I was reading reviews. Some of the higher-end critics were less kind. I knew it wasn’t The Godfather, you know, I knew what kind of movie we were making, but my phone rang and it was Jerry. He said: “What’s the matter?” And I said, “I don’t know,” and he said, “You’re reading the reviews, aren’t you? Forget about it! Many people will reevaluate this movie in years to come and they’ll see it for the great movie that it is.” I wouldn’t say it’s a great movie, but it’s probably the ultimate guilty-pleasure movie, so there you go.
Gilbert: My dad loves the fact that her dad was played by John Goodman. He loves John Goodman. So every single time we’ve watched a movie with John Goodman in since, he’ll shout, “That’s me!” And I interviewed Piper Perabo once for GQ and asked her if she thought anyone would ever see a resemblance between us.
Lovell: I remember, a week after the movie came out, there was a knock on the door of the bar at 1:30 p.m., when we weren’t open. There’s this old woman who looks like she’s in her 70s, who took a train from Connecticut and wanted to see the “crazy girls.” I explained we weren’t open yet and she just bullied me and I let her in. She was so upset that I had the day girl do dances and some fire breathing for her. She got up on the bar with no one in there.
Gilbert: From what I understand, Lil was insistent on holding the rights to the name for her franchise. I was like “FRANCHISE?! THIS PLACE?! You gotta be kidding me. This little hole in the wall?!” But 10 years later I’m traveling the world and there’s a Coyote Ugly in Bangkok. I remember feeling like “Holy shit, how?!”
Lovell: The New York bar ended up on one of those tourist bus routes where they go around the city with drop-off points. It did change the vibe of the bar. I’m sure we lost some people, but for the most part regulars would just come on the weekday nights and not the weekends when they knew it would be too crazy. I opened Las Vegas and New Orleans straight after. As it got bigger, the bars got less divey. We also did a reality show.
Garcia: I was a guest at the opening of the Coyote Ugly bar in Manchester in the U.K. a couple of years ago. I had to get up on the bar and say, “Welcome to the opening of this bar,” and a couple of women in the audience were like, “Do the strip dance, take it off!” And I was like, “You know how much you love that scene in the movie, don’t ruin that memory!” It was wild.
Lovell: I think what was unusual about Coyote Ugly when I started—the combination of power and sexiness—is now more common. I think the feminists of old age would suggest I’m not a feminist and that this isn’t a feminist movement, but I think things have changed. I think social media shows that women want to post and showcase themselves now. In fact, I realized a few years back that I’m a women’s libber, just not in the classic form.
Stewart: What I took from the movie was that the women at Coyote Ugly were in control. They weren’t sex objects. They decided what they wanted to do. That was key to the story. That said, with the movie, we still had people approving things, it was still PG-13, and there was an arena in which you could work and we had to stay within that. That’s the corporate reality: It’s about what you’re selling. And I think they were selling a good time, not trying to break barriers [of sexual empowerment].
Garcia: I’m sure Bruckheimer was like, “I want to market this [film] to a younger audience so make it sweeter: no shattering of innocence for Violet, no inherent danger, no salacious risk.” I think that’s why it has the reach it does. It’s a fairy tale. Disney bought Times Square and they cleaned up the Square and they cleaned up Coyote Ugly too.
Moynahan: Everyone can relate to it in some way. I think it’s because it’s about growing up: having the courage to follow your dreams, meeting new people, having that first love.
Smith: Today, rather than a romance, wouldn’t the more interesting story be that the owner is a woman, and she made this world? That’s the empowerment story.
Lovell: When I look back I can’t believe I had the guts to open my own business at 25. It was empowering: financial independence, networking, having a family around through that staff. I remember going from girl to woman in those first few years at Coyote.
Kate Lloyd is an award-winning journalist from London who writes about both pop culture and real life—often at the same time.