‘The Office’: Phyllis’ Secret Past As an NFL Cheerleader and Burlesque Dancer

Viewers can get very attached to their images of stars who portray particular roles. This can be especially true for television actors who end up performing as the same character for years on end. It can be hard to see those stars go on to new roles without forever associating them with their past characterization. Sometimes, however, it’s the past that viewers don’t know about. 

That’s the case with Phyllis Smith, the actor who portrayed Phyllis Lapin-Vance on The Office. Many fans see her as the sweet and quick-witted Dunder Mifflin sales rep but don’t know that she had a fairly adventurous past in the entertainment world. 

Fans are torn about Phyllis’ character

Phyllis may not have liked all of her co-workers in the fictional space of The Office, and fans definitely have strong emotions about watching Phyllis in the show. Some found her to be a hilarious addition to the cast, and others found her character to be insufferable.

In a Reddit thread on her best lines, the two sides of the debate show up in full force. Some fans pointed to her biting honesty and called her an “underrated character.” Others disagreed, seeing Phyllis as more of a throwaway character and admitted that they “tuned her out” most of the time.

Still, fans and critics alike have to admit that Phyllis delivered some hilarious and biting one-liners in a show that’s full of quotable quips. One fan favorite is a line that hints a little at Phyllis’ past entertainment experiences: “I wonder what people like about me? Probably my jugs . . .”

Phyllis Smith had a racy and sexy career

Phyllis Smith as Phyllis on 'The Office.'
Phyllis Smith | Colleen Hayes/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

RELATED: ‘The Office’: The Best Michael Scott Episodes and Where to Watch Them

Long before she joined the cast of The Office, Smith had a long career in entertainment. She was born in Missouri in 1949, but her acting career didn’t start until 2005.

She appeared in an episode of Arrested Development and had an uncredited part in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Without a doubt, The Office was a breakthrough role for Smith, and she went on to parts in films like Bad Teacher and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked.

Since the 2013 conclusion of The Office, Smith has had voice roles in films like Inside Out and a recurring role in the series The OA

Just what was Smith doing all those years before her late-in-life acting gig? Well, it turns out that she spent time as both an NFL cheerleader and a burlesque dancer. 

In the 1970s, Smith was a cheerleader for the St. Louis Cardinals. She recounts memories of being among some of the first cheerleaders in the league and describes her outfit: “midriff blouses tied up in the front, hot pants, and white boots up to our knees.”

Smith’s talent was in dancing, and when a burlesque/vaudeville troupe made its way through St. Louis, she was intrigued. She spent seven years traveling with the show and performing burlesque. 

Phyllis Smith’s dancing past makes it into the show

In a subtle detail that many viewers may not have noticed, there’s a hint about Phyllis’ real-life dancing past embedded on the set of The Office. A photograph on Phyllis’ desk is a real picture of Smith in a full burlesque outfit. The actors were asked to bring in actual personal items to fill out their characters’ desks, and this was one of the items that Smith chose. 

Of course, Phyllis’ character is also full of innuendos and body confidence, so perhaps her history with the body positive and empowering world of burlesque should come as no surprise. Still, Smith makes it clear that there was never any nudity. She was definitely dancing alluringly, but she had strategically placed feathers keeping things on the up-and-up.