It’s the 11th hour (literally) of my double shift at the Javits Center for the New York Auto Show. I’m standing on the floor, surrounded by cars, pamphlets and the same three videos on the larger than life LED screens that have been blaring in my ear for the past seven months. I’m trying to smile through the pain of a full week standing in two inch heels while I feel my feet actively doubling in size.
I find myself fantasizing about my bath of epsom salts as I repeat the same three lines I’ve been saying since 9AM, “Good morning. How can I help you? No, we don't have any more free bags."
No one seems to hear me or even acknowledge my presence except to make comments about how great my ass looks in these impossibly tight pants. And I wonder, how did I get here?
I’ve never been a girly girl. My mother bribed me to wear dresses. I rode 100XR dirt bikes and the only reason I know how to apply makeup is because a gay man at Sephora taught me. So it was a surprise to all who knew me when I took a job as a car show girl.
Here I was, a girl who poked fun at women that spent more than 10 minutes on their appearance, working in a culture of JUST appearance. I knew nothing about the auto show world before I stepped into it and I am not the only one.
For an industry that puts on events that sell more tickets than professional football games, the business of auto shows has maintained a surprisingly low profile. Part of the reason the car show subculture has flown under most people’s radars is probably because, at its core, it’s very practical: Provide a place where consumers can see, touch, test drive and smell the new cars on the market without the pressure of a cheaply cologned salesman looming over their shoulders. But from the perspective of someone on the inside there really seemed to be a dual purpose and that was selling fantasy.
Casting for auto shows is a very dehumanizing experience. It’s all numbers, demographics, and levels of hotness. If you are blessed genetically, fit into one of the four categories of people they are looking for, and can construct a sentence with both nouns and adjectives, you have the job. It doesn’t matter whether you know the difference between a radiator and a radio. The actual car knowledge will come later. Maybe. I saw many a woman with encyclopedic knowledge of V8 engines passed over because they ‘weren’t the right fit’, meaning their ass couldn’t fit into a size 2 and their face scared small children.
This information was, of course, never disclosed to the applicant. In fact, the staffing agency made it a point to tell all potential new talent that we were “more than just a pretty face." We were not to be the bikini-clad set pieces of car shows of decades past, draped over the hood of a sports car. We were hired ‘product specialists’ (that’s the professional term for car show girl/guy) that were responsible for answering every possible question a consumer could have. (They scouted these specialists at beauty pageants; because that’s where all the female auto enthusiasts like to hang on the weekends.)
My first note as a product specialist was "you need to put on more lipstick." I guess the customers couldn’t hear my explanation of a flat four engine through such impossibly pale lips.
Each manufacturer has a different range of people they are trying to appeal to and their Product Specialists reflect that. That’s why Porsche always recruits models who would look as comfortable at New York Fashion Week as they do at the New York Auto Show. Mini Cooper uses skinny, long-haired hipsters who wear Converse sneakers and Toyota stocks its booths with very sensible looking mature ladies.
(Mature is auto show speak for old. When product specialists aged out of a ‘younger’ brand they were put to pasture with Toyota, Lincoln, or Subaru. If you got the transfer call, you knew you were past your prime.)
From day one I knew I was hired to be the "approachable one." I knew that because they told me.
Being the "approachable one" means you are the girl that men talk to when they’re trying to determine the relationship status of the other, hotter girls on the floor.
“What’s the deal with that redhead over there?”
“You friends with that girl? The one with all the legs? I could see those wrapped around me, right?”
“Hey, does that chick with the great tits, I mean personality, have a boyfriend?”
The "approachable one" is not as intimidating to men because they look as if they could be, say, someone’s sister or the classic girl next door, and not someone out of their league.
The auto show is like a petting zoo. In real life situations, if you began talking to a woman you’ve never met before, you wouldn’t ask her to pose for a picture with you as if you were on your way to Junior prom or spend the next hour following her around and asking her follow up questions. But at the auto show, all of the finest specimens are on display within the display and they can’t leave the boundaries of the booth no matter how much of a creeper you are. And these men know that. They troll for dates knowing that if a woman rejects them, they can just move on to another car company and try all over again. There are at least 30 different automotive brands and at least a dozen other local auto-adjacent companies for them to get through.
Not all men were at the auto show to get close enough to touch the female models though, some were there to belittle them on their knowledge about cars. Men assume that men know more about cars than women, a fact that I was reminded of countless times a day every day I was on the road. Older gentlemen, would come up to me asking me to bring them a male employee who could answer their questions about cars and refuse to ask me the questions or even continue speaking to me when I told them I could help them. Younger men who upon failing to figure out how to open the hood of the car would ridicule their friend when A GIRL was able to open it for them. And middle-aged men who would say ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about missy’ when I explained that the vehicle I specialized in did not have enough room under the hood for a supercharger, but horsepower could be boosted with a new cold air intake. The truth is, that out of a team of about 30 men and women exactly zero of the men knew how to operate a stick shift vehicle while three of the women did.
The overt sexism isn’t just apparent on the floor but behind the scenes as well.
When you look at any automotive brand’s display, you will see clumps of men surrounding the prettiest female product specialists. These girls are high-value employees because they bring people into the booth. They are offered higher wages and obvious favoring from the supervisors. Favoritism manifests in many ways, sometimes even as sexual harassment. Except, in the auto show world, it’s not "harassment," it’s "flattery." Supervisors and male co-workers told girls they have "great tits" or "DSLs (dick-sucking lips)" and the women respond with a giggle-blush-hair-flip-thank-you. My response to these comments was the complete opposite and met with shock and disdain. I was a buzzkill. “I thought you would think that’s funny because you’re a comic,” was a line thrown at me often. I only laugh at well-written jokes and puppies who can’t, not comments that objectify my female co-workers.
Later, the women would tell me that they hated the men making comments about their bodies and they were glad I said something. When I eventually took the complaint to our account managers the higher ups did not take the issue seriously. Questioned in private, every girl affected by the harassment seemed to forget about the incident entirely when it came to keeping their jobs. Maybe it’s job security that makes these women willing to do or say anything to not disrupt the status quo.
Or maybe it’s just insecurity.
The staffing company had us watch an introductory video when we were first hired, where the owner states, “We’ve come a long way from ‘spin and grin,’” and I can’t help but think, have we?