Significant controversy and hype about the film's gratuitous amounts of sex and nudity preceded its release. In the United States, the movie was rated NC-17 for "nudity and erotic sexuality throughout, some graphic language and sexual violence." Showgirls was the first NC-17 rated film to be given a wide release in mainstream theaters.
After bombing at the box office, Showgirls enjoyed huge success on the home video market: it generated more than $100 million from video rentals and it also became one of MGM's top 20 all-time bestsellers. For its video premiere, Verhoeven prepared an R-rated cut for rental outlets which refused to carry films with an NC-17 rating; this edited version runs 128 minutes and deletes some of the more graphic footage.
When Nomi is too upset to go to work that night, Molly takes her dancing at The Crave Club, where James Smith (Glenn Plummer) works as a bouncer. James asks Nomi to dance with him, and when he criticizes her dancing, she kicks him in the groin. James falls into the crowd, starting a brawl on the dance floor with several male patrons. After Nomi is arrested for causing the melee, James bails her out of jail, but she still pays him little notice.
Shortly, Cristal and her boyfriend Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan), the entertainment director at the Stardust, visit Cheetah's and request a lap dance from Nomi. Although the bisexual Cristal is attracted to Nomi, her request is also informed by her desire to humiliate Nomi by proving she is little more than a hooker. Nomi reluctantly performs the lap dance after Cristal offers to pay $500 for it within earshot of Nomi's boss, Al Torres (Robert Davi), who pressures her to perform. After giving Zack an explicit nude lap dance which brings him to orgasm while Cristal watches, Nomi takes the money from Cristal, who gloats that she has made Nomi feel cheap.
Cristal arranges for Nomi to audition for the chorus line of Goddess. Tony Moss (Alan Rachins), the show's director, humiliates Nomi by asking her to put ice on her nipples to make them hard. Furious, Nomi leaves the audition and again runs into James, who says he has written a dance number for her and contends that Nomi is too talented to be a stripper or showgirl. Despite her outburst at the audition, Nomi gets the job and quits the Cheetah. Cristal further humiliates Nomi by suggesting she make a "goodwill appearance" at a boat trade show which turns out to be a thinly disguised form of prostitution.
Undeterred, Nomi sets out to destroy Cristal and claim her mantle. She seduces Cristal's boyfriend, Zack, who secures an audition for her to be Cristal's understudy. Nomi wins the role, but when Cristal threatens legal action against the Stardust, the offer is rescinded. After Cristal gloats and taunts Nomi at a performance, Nomi pushes her down a flight of stairs, breaking her hip. Unable to perform, Cristal finds herself replaced by Nomi as the show's lead.
Although Nomi has finally secured the fame and fortune she sought, she alienates Molly, who saw her push Cristal down the stairs. Later Molly relents and attends Nomi's opening night celebration at a local hotel, where she meets her idol, musician Andrew Carver (William Shockley). In a bizarre twist, Carver lures Molly to his room, where he and two of his security guards brutally beat and rape her.
Molly is hospitalized after the assault. Nomi wants to prosecute Carver, but Zack tells her the Stardust will give Molly hush money instead; their primary interest is to protect their high-profile celebrity client, not to seek justice. Zack then confronts Nomi with the details of her past: she is a runaway and former prostitute named Polly, her father murdered her mother and then killed himself, and she has been arrested several times for drug possession, prostitution, and assault with a deadly weapon. Zack blackmails Nomi by vowing to keep her past quiet if she will play along.
Unable to obtain justice for Molly without exposing her past, Nomi resorts to vengeance: she gets Carver alone in his hotel room and violently assaults him by kicking him repeatedly with her boots until he is bloodied and unconscious. Nomi then pays two hospital visits — one to Molly to deliver news of the assault, and another to Cristal to apologize for injuring her. Cristal admits she pulled a similar stunt to get cast in the lead of a show years before. Because of her world-weariness — and the fact that her lawyers managed to secure her a large cash settlement — Cristal forgives Nomi. Before she leaves, Nomi grants Cristal one passionate kiss.
The movie comes full circle when Nomi, leaving Las Vegas, hitches a ride to Los Angeles with Jeff (Dewey Weber), the same man who gave her a ride in the opening scene. The film's last shot juxtaposes a billboard advertising Nomi's starring role in Goddess with a road sign indicating the distance to Los Angeles.
Roger Ebert wrote that Showgirls received "some bad reviews, but it wasn't completely terrible. Despite Ebert's views, the movie was heralded as one of the worst ever made, winning seven 1995 Golden Raspberry Awards or "Razzies" (from a record thirteen nominations). Paul Verhoeven gamely appeared in person at the Razzies ceremony to accept his award for Worst Director; Showgirls would later win a record-setting eighth Razzie Award for Worst Picture of the Last Decade in 2000.
Due to Showgirls' poor reception, Striptease, a 1996 film about nude dancers starring Demi Moore, had to be distanced from Showgirls in advertisements; Striptease nonetheless won the next year's Razzie Award for Worst Picture. Rena Riffel, who played Penny/Hope in Showgirls, also was cast in Striptease as Tiffany Glass. Riffel is the only actress to claim back-to-back Razzie Award-winning roles.
Showgirls got a rotten rating of 14% on rottentomatoes.com
The term "Showgirls-bad" has been adopted by film critics and fans to refer to films considered guilty pleasures, or "so-bad-they're-good.
The film's reviews and poor theatrical showing damaged Berkley's career; she had difficulty finding work, but did land small parts in movies such as The First Wives Club, The Real Blonde and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. Her career has rebounded in recent years, largely on television. Gershon managed to survive the scourge of the movie, going on to moderate acting success.
Showgirls is shown at midnight movies alongside films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It is heralded as one of the best "bad movies" of all time, somewhat of a camp classic in the vein of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Although the film was not successful when first released theatrically, over the years it has become increasingly popular; it was among the hottest video rental titles of 1996 and has since become one of MGM's top 20 all-time bestsellers.
The rights to show the movie on TV were eventually purchased by the VH1 network. However, because of the film's rampant, gratuitous nudity, a peculiar moment in cinema history occurred: a censored version was created with black bras and panties digitally rendered to hide all exposed breasts and genitals. Also, several scenes were removed entirely. Berkley refused to redub her lines, so a noticeably different actress' voice can be heard on the soundtrack.
As revealed on the DVD release, a sign showing the distance to Los Angeles in the last shot of the film hinted at a sequel in which Nomi takes on Hollywood. Any such plans were scrapped upon the film's massive critical failure.
Recent years have seen a reevaluation of the movie's merits. Critics such as Jonathan Rosenbaum and Charles Taylor, as well as filmmaker Jacques Rivette, have gone on the record defending Showgirls as a serious satire. Actor Patrick Bristow, who plays choreographer Marty, defended the movie as "not that bad" except "that horrible rape scene." Quentin Tarantino has stated that he enjoyed Showgirls, referring to it as the "only [...] other time in the last twenty years [that] a major studio made a full-on, gigantic, big-budget exploitation movie", comparing it to Mandingo.
The DVD itself includes several bonus features, including a "how-to" tutorial for giving a lap dance hosted by real strippers, and a special "trivia track" feature that can be turned on or off. When left on, it adds humorous comments and factoids in the vein of VH1's Pop Up Video that relate to the scenes as they play out. It also includes "The Greatest Movie Ever Made: a commentary by David Schmader."
In 2007, MGM re-released the V.I.P. edition DVD without the physical extras.