Women Still Rule the Coyote Ugly Saloon, 25 Years Later

Posted March 14, 2018 3:44 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — The Coyote Ugly Saloon, the East Village bar that became an early 2000s cult film, proved it takes work to keep a wild reputation alive. On a Sunday in January, about 350 guests celebrated the bar’s 25th anniversary at a party that included appearances from a contortionist, Times Square’s Naked Cowboy and a performance from the rapper Justina Valentine.

“It’s the year of the woman,” Valentine declared from atop the bar to the crowd of former bartenders, regulars, some who have been patrons since the 1990s,and fans of the film. “It’s the decade of the woman.”

The owner, Liliana Lovell, was there catching up with the customers who frequented her saloon 25 years ago, when she was the one dancing on the bar. “It’s like getting into an old shoe,” she said about being back. After Valentine and two backup dancers performed a few songs from on top of the bar, a bartender slipped her a note to “roast the crowd,” something she’s used to doing to her castmates on MTV’s “Wild ‘N Out,” a hip-hop comedy improv show.

Valentine took aim at the men in the room. She said one guest looked like Bill Nye the Science Guy and called another one Mr. Clean. After technical difficulties with the music, she joked that the man in charge of the audio system at the bar couldn’t do his job.

Men were the butt of the jokes, but women were the stars of the show. “Women are on the stage dancing, having fun, living their best life,” Valentine said before her performance. “They’re embracing their sexuality, their womanhood. I’m so looking forward to getting on the bar and experiencing this.”

The night-life industry is notoriously male-dominated, and female bartenders are often harassed on the job by bosses and patrons. Lovell is no stranger to that. At one restaurant where she worked before opening Coyote Ugly,she suspected that one of the owners was sexist and did not want a woman bartending. After he accused her of stealing from the register, she quit.

“I don’t know if it was just in my mind, or how I was raised, but it never occurred to me that I was a woman in a man’s world,” Lovell said. “I was kind of a powerhouse. Nobody was going to put me down.”

In 1993, after a year on Wall Street and three years of bartending full-time, Lovell had saved up enough money to rent a vacant space on First Avenue in the East Village, across the street from the now-closed Village Idiot where she worked. With the help of funding from an investor, the Coyote Ugly Saloon was born. Lovell didn’t have to follow anyone else’s rules anymore.

Coyote Ugly became famous for women dancing on the bar,which is how Lovell bartended. But the bar she opened should not be confused for a strip club or even a boys’ club, as one bartender pointed out. Nor is it a bar where the customer is always right. At Coyote Ugly, customers are wrong if a Coyote thinks they are wrong.

The bar doesn’t have a lot of rules, but there are a few. One being men aren’t allowed on the bar, because “dudes look stupid on a bar dancing,” Lovell wrote in an email.

That rule also allowed women more freedom.

“We want women to feel comfortable getting on the bar, letting their hair down,” said Paula Dinoris, Coyote Ugly’s general manager of two years. “We love women. We take care of them. We are women.”

Safety is still a priority. Dinoris said the bartenders are walked to a car at the end of the night and they have a strict no-touch policy. It would be naive to think that men don’t come to the bar to watch women dance, but the bouncers are quick to enforce boundaries and help create a safe space for both the employees and the guests before something happens, not after the fact. These preventive measures are part of what helps Coyote Ugly attract female guests from around the globe.

Lisa O’Hanlon and Shen Salvage from Brighton, England, were at the bar in January with a group of friends celebrating their birthdays. The movie brought them there, but the atmosphere hooked them. “They’re super-confident,” O’Hanlon said of both the bartenders and the customers who get up on the bar. “We feel comfortable here.”

Elizabeth Gilbert, who was a Coyote in her early 20s, chronicled her experience in a 1996 article for GQ. She described an environment where the women ruled and were worshipped by customers, usually regulars who were on a first-name basis with the staff. Their favorite bartenders were the ones who not only made stiff drinks and handled the antics of the customers, but those who could insult patrons up and down.

“I made the mistake of saying to a customer, ‘Here’s your beer, sir,'” Gilbert wrote. “Lil overheard and shouted, ‘Don’t even [sic] call anyone in this place ‘sir’!'”

Soon after the article came out,Jerry Bruckheimer bought the film rights to Gilbert’s story. The film tells the love story between the struggling songwriter Violet (Piper Perabo), who gets a job at Coyote Ugly when she moves to New York, and the Australian transplant Kevin (Adam Garcia). Some details from Gilbert’s article made it into the movie, like secretly spitting a shot back into another drink. The writers would also call Lovell for details or hang out at the bar themselves. Eighteen years later, the cult film’s legacy still draws in customers yearning to dance on the famous bar. The why is clear: “It’s about a girl who takes charge of her life and makes it happen,” the Coyote Ugly bartender Dawn Slocum said.

“Coyote Ugly does flip the script and gives the power to the women,” said Lynnette Marrero, a co-founder of Speed Rack, an all-female speed bartending competition. Ivy Mix, her co-founder, said that while there might be more female bartenders than males, sexism remains a problem in the industry.

In 1970, women made up only about 21 percent of bartenders. By 1990, that number rose to 52 percent. Today, almost 60 percent of bartenders in the United States are women, according to the Current Population Survey.

“After ‘Coyote Ugly’ came out, there was a shift in the entire industry,” said Lee Killingsworth, chief media and retail officer of Coyote Ugly, in an email. In 2000, Killingsworth was a bartender in Las Vegas, where he said it was common to see only one or two women working in a bar. Lovell, he said, “helped shatter a glass ceiling in a profession dominated by men since the birth of bars and saloons.” The bar still stands in its original location on First Avenue, though Lovell lamented that the rent has been raised five times since its opening. Its atmosphere has relaxed somewhat. There’s no more lighting bar tops on fire, and as the former bartender Shirer Burkett said, “I wore polyester leisure suits and made people drink out of my platform shoes. It’s more Disneyland now.” But women still rule, and on any given day, you’ll find female guests living out their Coyote Ugly dreams.

Ty Dunaway who has bartended at Coyote Ugly for four years, said one of the best parts is watching women come in who are shy or reserved eventually let themselves get up and dance. The song that usually does the trick? The movie’s “Can’t Fight the Moonlight,” by LeAnn Rimes.