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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 November 2005, 11:57 GMT
Fur flies after Florida ball game
By Juliet Hindell
BBC News, Charlotte, North Carolina

In the US, cheerleaders are seen as role models for young girls with their clean-living image and responsible code of conduct. But, as Juliet Hindell explains, a public confrontation after a recent football game has tarnished the image of the cheerleaders involved and brought shame on their team's home town of Charlotte, North Carolina.

A catfight involving two Topcats: this is not an American reality show, it's real America, some would have us believe.

Angela Keathley (L) and Renee Thomas (R)
Angela Keathley and Renee Thomas photographed on arrest

Angela Keathley and Renee Thomas are being depicted as good girls gone bad.

They were cheerleaders, icons of American female beauty, wholesomeness and desirability.

With their 33 team mates, they had waved tinsel pom-poms and high-kicked in formation before crowds of 72,000 people in the Carolina Panthers' stadium.

Their costumes were so tiny that, if they held their pompoms in the right position, they appeared naked.

They had dazzling white teeth, perfect hair, full cleavages, lissom legs and the ability to turn cartwheels.

And all for the meagre salary of about $40 a game.

High-flying careers

But the Topcats are not in it for the money. If their official biographies are anything to go by, they have high-flying careers and noble ambitions.

The Topcats are required to sign a code of conduct which clearly rules out brawling in public, not to mention licentious acts
There is a Topcat engineer, a court reporter, a teacher and a financial analyst.

Renee was studying dance at university and wanted to be a dentist, and Angela was a registered nurse.

They were, in fact, somebodies in a land obsessed with celebrity, however fleeting.

And now they are really famous, but for all the wrong reasons.

It all started when Renee and Angela went to Tampa in Florida to watch the Panthers in a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Late at night a commotion started in the ladies' lavatories of a nightclub called Banana Joe's.

Queue rage

The two Topcats were allegedly in a stall together engaged in what some other customers at the bar said was sexual activity although the Topcats say that is not true.

Carolina Panthers v Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Some people have joked that the Panthers will now be able to charge more for seats with a better view of the Topcats at games

Whatever they were really doing, the time they took to do it enraged other women queuing to use the toilets.

They started shouting at Angela and Renee who are then said to have come out fighting.

The alleged victim was Melissa Holden, who later appeared on TV sporting a large black eye.

She says that after the punch she grabbed Renee's wrists to restrain her.

Renee was apparently screaming: "I'm a Panthers cheerleader, you need to let me go. I'm a Panthers cheerleader".

Well, she is not a cheerleader any more and neither is Angela, who has also been suspended from her day job as a nurse.

While Angela has been charged with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, Renee is in bigger trouble because she faces charges of causing harm to another person and of giving a false name.

It could mean five years in jail.

Local shame

The event has caused some serious shame in Charlotte which is a medium-sized "all-American" city with aspirations to greatness, a big financial industry and several massive churches almost as big as the football stadium.

Map showing North Carolina and Florida

Entire neighbourhoods are enveloped in the Panthers' colours of turquoise and black when a game is on.

The Panthers' public relations office is not returning calls and Renee and Angela's pictures have already disappeared from the official website.

A mother at my son's school had nothing but contempt for the cheerleaders.

"Cheerleading is ridiculous from the ground up," she said.

Her six-year-old daughter had tried cheerleading but soon gave up.

"I'm so relieved it wasn't for her," she said. "Imagine if she was a cheerleader with all this happening. It's so embarrassing for this town."

At the latest Panthers game in Charlotte, fans were eager to move on from the scandal.

"The good news is that the Panthers are winning so we can forget about the other stuff," said Greg, a student. "If we were losing, it would be worse."

Elsewhere, however, the story has been greeted with prurient hilarity.

There have been reams of comment in newspapers and on the internet.

Some have asked whether, if the football players themselves had been accused of similar misbehaviour, would they have been instantly sacked?

Squeaky clean

In the past, several famous football players have been forgiven by their teams for minor crimes or lapses of chivalry.

But standards may be higher for cheerleaders. They are meant to be squeaky clean.

The Topcats are required to sign a code of conduct which clearly rules out brawling in public not to mention licentious acts.

Each cheerleader lists her favourite charities on the Panthers' website and many Topcats cite their faith in God as their guiding principle.

In a country where prudishness is close to godliness, pouting cheerleaders in flesh-revealing outfits are held up as role models for young girls.

This is the same country where women's equality is fiercely protected and a glimpse of a nipple on television can cause an outcry.

But cheerleaders - especially caterwauling Topcats - clearly appeal to the American male imagination.

Penthouse, the adult magazine, is believed to have offered the two women an undisclosed sum to pose in the nude.

Others have joked that the Panthers will now be able to charge more for seats with a better view of the Topcats at games.

All in all, Topcat or wild cat, cheerleading is a sure way for a woman to make a name for herself in America.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 19 November, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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