After spending a year at a small college in West Virginia on a football scholarship, he returned to Tampa, with no idea what he wanted to do. He bunked with his sister and worked a series of crap jobs: mortgage broker, telemarketer, house framer, record-store clerk, perfume spritzer in a department store. Hump it all day, then slap on the hair gel, guzzle a few, and cruise for trouble in the evenings. One afternoon, he heard a radio spot for a nightclub seeking dancers. Tatum liked to dance, so he turned up at the club to learn more.

"I remember meeting Chan that day," says Adam Martingano, who also answered the ad. "We were standing upstairs there, trying to figure out if this was something we wanted to do." Tatum and Martingano, now a software executive, have been best friends ever since that audition 10 years ago; Martingano was Tatum's best man at his wedding last July, the two are partners in a production company, and they work out together daily at Tatum's gym. Once you've done the bump 'n' grind in a thong next to another bethonged guy as part of a stripper revue called Male Encounter, your bond as BFFs is sealed.

"I've been wanting to talk about this forever!" swears Tatum. "You have publicists and managers saying no, and I'm like, Mmm-mmm, it's gonna come out. I never wanted to hide it." Last September, Usmagazine.com, under the banner CHANNING TATUM'S SECRET STRIPPER PAST, posted a 1999 video of Tatum—billed as "Chan Crawford"—front and center on a Tampa stage, hoofing like a Backstreet Boy in heat, snogging some bachelorette in the front row, then peeling off his shirt, and finally, like an NBA sixth man yanking off his warm-ups, discarding his pants. "Thaaaat's right, ladies," barked the club's announcer. "Chan Crawford is here to pleeeease you!" Only a bulging jockstrap and a thin wall of dead presidents stood between the Sun Coast's horniest housewives and Chan's fantastic penis.

I think it's hil-larious," Tatum says convincingly. "I met some of the most insane characters." He hopes to do for male stripping what Boogie Nights did for the golden age of Valley porn. "I'm gonna make a movie about it. I've talked to a couple of directors." I ask Tatum if his handlers are happy about the prospect of his strapping on the ol' banana hammock again. "I don't care what they think," he answers quickly. "I'm happy I did it. I'm not proud, because it's not something to be proud of, but I had an experience that only one out of a thousand—a million—people can say they've ever had. I've been through this crazy sort of life, and I came out the other side fairly unscathed."

TATUM'S WIFE IS CURLED UP on the living-rooom sofa, studying lines for a film she begins shooting tomorrow. Jenna Dewan is teacup petite, pretty and pie-sweet, a former Texas high-school cheerleader who, like Tatum, started in showbiz as a dancer, touring with Janet Jackson and Christina Aguilera. "I didn't even hear you come home, babe," he purrs. "I didn't want to bother you guys," she purrs back.

After dinner options are discussed and takeout menus unsuccessfully searched for, Tatum phones in for Italian. (They've memorized the menu.) While we wait for the food, Dewan has Tatum show me pictures of the two of them playing Band Hero in their living room. Asked to describe a typical evening for one of young Hollywood's hottest couples, the Dewan-Tatums look at each other, nuzzle their dogs, point up to their flat-screen and launch into an impassioned and nuanced disquisition on the genius of Animal Planet's Meerkat Manor.