The sequined headband is killing me. The feathers on the black boa are stuck in my mouth. My legs, ache, my feet are sore and my smiler is broken.
For three hours I stand here, welcoming businessmen clad in colors and fabrics not found in nature to Eastman Chemicals' Hospitality suite at the 36th Annual Reinforced Plastics Convention.
Hello. (BIG SMILE). Welcome to Eastman Chemicals. (pause for effect) May I have one of your business cards so I can enter your name in the drawing for our door prize? (Customer fumbles through plastic card case holder) Thank You. There are drinks to the left and food to the right, and our presentation will begin shorlty.
I always wondered what it would be like to be a model. From Twiggy to Lauren Hutton to Cheryl Tiegs, they all made it look so easy. A few smiles, a few poses and suddenly there was Big Money, Fame, and the Cover-Girl contract. So here I am at the plasitcs convention, still wondering what it's like.
"Just smile," says Dick Doll, the Eastman exhibits czar who travels to about 40 conventions a year setting up hospitality suites for the company.
At 4 p.m., the suite at the Sheraton-Washington Hotel is officially open.
The other models, Terri Moller and Maureen Kerrigan-Sheehy, are still going over their lines for a naration on NPG Glycol and reinforced Fiberglass panels. Maureen is nervous. She can't pronounce "224- Trimethyl-1,3 Pentanediol." Terri is perky and confident. Her lines are easier. We are wearing short flapper dresses. We look, as my mother would say, like tarts.
Two men in plaid suits and plastic badges stand in the hallway, looking for suite 1056. Our suite is 156. Whoever scheduled the convention events got the wrong suite number I assure them this is, in fact, Eastman Chemicals.
"Welcome to Eastman Kodak." Wrongo ."I mean Eastman Chemical."
They fumble for their business cards.
"Are you the door prize, honey?" one of them says.
"No sir. It's a book of Norman Rockwell drawings."
"Well at least it's not one of their damn cameras," the other man says. "They gave one away last year in New Orleans. Damn thing broke."
They turn and head for the bar. at the door. Same spiel. Fumble for card. Door prize joke. What line of business is he in? "I make polyester," he says.
A crush of men hit all at once.
"Hoooeeee." . says the first. "I liiike that dress."
"Well it wouldn't look as good on you as it does on her, " one of his friends chimes in.
I purse my bee-stung lips. Business cards please. More door prize jokes, and most of them concerning the models and two weeks in Philadelphia.
"Well, I like this book," one of the men says. "Why can't I have it?"
"Because it's the door prize."
"Well, get another one."
Does he want a drink? V.O. on the rocks.
Dick Doll takes my arm again. "Listen, honey, we got a lot of big customers coming in here. If any of them say they want the book, give , it to them."
Terri and Maureen start the narration. There is flapper music playing in the background. They move from panel to panel. Maureen flubs her lines. She freezes. The customers mumble into their highballs. The Eastman bigwigs roll their eyes.
Suddenly, a bear of a man with bourbon breath sidles up to me.
"Whattsa matter, honey, aren't you smart enough to be up there speaking lines?"
Models are divided into two categories, high fashion and commercial. In Washington, there is more demand for commercial. They work the conventions, pass out fliers at supermarket openings and do occasional radio and television spots.
"Only a handful of models in Washington make it," says Ann Schwab, director of The Model Store, who also coordinates conventions and special events. "The rest are just out ther strugglig."
We are in a bedroom above the hospitality suite at the Seraton-Washington hotel, changing into our costumes.It is one hour to show time. Schwab is darting about the room, picking up and putting down nail polish, eyeliner and flaming red-lipstick.
She is a 36-year-old former model, actress (One-A-Day vitamin commercials), talent scout and one tough cookie.
"Look, all these guys want is a pretty girl," she says, dabbing blusher on my drab cheeks. "You can flirt with them a little bit, but you can't go out to dinner with them if they ask. Also, no drinking. If they offer, take a ginger ale."
Schwab's services were hired by Eastman Chemicals for the convention, which began Tuesday and ends today. She writes the scripts for the narration, hires the models and takes a 15 percent commission. Terri and Maureen will make $300 a day. I would have made $150, but my chintzy editor said I was being paid enough already. Speaking parts get more money.
"It's really tough in this town because of the competition," says Schwab, dribbling eyeliner down my cheeks. "There just aren't enough jobs. But I'll tell you, it's come a long way since we first started three years ago. Then the idea of a Washington Model was a joke."
People go into modeling, she says, for two reasons: the money and the adulation. Far from being self-assured sirens, many of the women are insecure about their looks.
"That's why we try to build up their egos," Schwab says. The models "don't have a lot of organization in their lives. It makes them seem scatterbrained."
Sometimes they cut their hair and don't tell the agency. Sometimes they gain weight. ("Oh God, one showed up for a job recently. I hadn't seen her in a while. She was a complete buliimpo !") Besides handling about 300 men, women and child models, Schwab scouts for shooting locations and talent. She also books animal acts.
"We'll do just about anything," she laughs.
I slip into my fire-engine red, polyester-fringed flapper dress and pull on my $13 black rhinstone-studded panty hose. Schwab pins the sequined headband on the fluffs up the feather boa. I look in the mirror. It's a Miracle.
The gangly, freckled-faced reporter has been transformed -- through the wonders of chemistry and strategic shading -- into a cover girl. The nose is straight, the cheekbones high, the eyes seductive, and the mouth deliciously sensual.
I look like Barry Manilow in drag.
"No you don't," says Schwab. "You look gorgeous . Doesn't she look gorgeous, girls?"
I look like a tomato on stilts.
"Don't feel bad," says Terry, adjusting her headband. "I had to dress up as a bumblebee once."
Back at the hospitality suite, the 5 o'clock crowd has arrived. There are 2,200 reinforced-plastic conventioneers, representing 1,200 companies. They drop their business cards in the bucket: Ashland Chemical Co. (polyester division); Interplastic Corp.; Monsanto; Owens-Corning; Premix, Inc.; Union Carbide; USS Chemicals; Shell Chemical Co.
(The taking of business cards is really not so much for a door prize, says Doll. It's for the IRS so the company can write off the whole shebang as a business expense.)
The conventioneers start at the top floor of the hotel, and work their way down, shuffling in and out of the suites, drinks in hand.
We're on the first floor. We're also the only one with models.
Eastman Chemicals, based in Kingsport, Tenn., will shell out $4,000 to $5,000 for the suite, stocking it with cases of liquor and trays of stuffed cherry tomatoes.
"It's fun says Doll. "We have a little drink, a little food . . ."
They do it, salesmen and marketing reps say, to conduct business. But it is, in the words of one executive, "extravagant, perhaps."
In one corner, Terri has started her narration for a new group of visitors.
These FRP panels offer great damage resistance and economy over glass . . . Now, if you will step over to Maureen and more of the Eastman Story.
Maureen has run through the program 10 times. She keeps flubbing the same lines. The Eastman executives suggest she use index cards. She does.
One of our chief products for marine and sanitary ware is Eastman's 2,2,4 -Trimethyl-1,3-Pentanediol or TMPD Glycol.
SHE DID IT! The men cheer. Maureen blushes.
TMPD is more than a mouthful! It's an important intermediate of a backup resin . . .
John Davis, an Eastman Chemicals executive, says the company always takes a hospitality suite at conventions. Sometimes they use flip charts to sell their corrosion-resistant TMPD resins and NPG Glycol, sometimes they use magicians, and sometimes they use models.
Davis grins and takes another gulp of his drink. "I like the girls better."
A customer turns to leave. He stops at the front door.
"Is this the only show?" he asks.
What did he have in mind?
"How about you doing the shimmy later on in that dress?"
Terri Moller is a 33-year-old actress and Washington mother of two who has been working conventions for the past 12 years.At 5-foot-4, the blue-eyed blond is aggressively perky.
"I do them all the time," she says. "I work for Honeywell, Pitney Bowes. I always have a script and I always read up on what the company does so I'll be able to carry on a conversation," she says.
She works usually three days a week, part-time, and earns $12,000 a year. She also keeps an answering service in Manhattan because, well, that's where the action is. ("A lot of girls down here do it," she says.)
With her wholesome, Ivory-soap good looks, Terri Moller says she doesn't get hassled at conventions.
"I always make it clear from the beginning that I'm married," she says. But then, I usually don't have as a much trouble as the model who handles the door. "I'm not one of those pretty models. I know they have problems."
Does she feel the job is demeaning?
"Hell no," she says. "I memorize a script. There aren't a whole lot of women who make $300 for three hours' work."
But she would find it demeaning to handle the door. "I would never say that to the model I was working with," she says. "I just have more to offer than to sit at the door and smile."
Maureen Kerrigan-Sheehey is a 30-year-old, 5-foot-2, brown-haired pixie who has been doing commercial modeling for the past 11 years.
She moved to Washington three years ago from New York when she got married. Doing conventions, she said, is "pretty rare. It doesn't come up that often. Primarily I'm a stage actress."
She's done the Hayloft Dinner Theater (as Sally Bowles in "Cabaret"), a T.H. Mandy radio spot and a flotilla of other theater parts. Last week, she went up to New York to audition for the understudy in "Peter Pan."
She didn't get it.
"You get used to the rejection," she says. "I like to think of it philosophically. Some days you walk in and they're looking for oranges and you're an apple."
Working as a flapper for the plastics convention is fun, she says. "I take it as a study of characters. Besides, you can't take it seriously."
This is her first job this month, she says. If she hustles, she can make $5,000 a year.
"It's incredibly hard. But it's a calling," she says. "It's something in your gut. You become a dreamer and a hoper. Something hot might be right around the corner."
She adjusts the feather in her hair, smooths her blue taffeta skirt and heads back to the hospitality suite.
"I've worked the door before," she says. "I've heard it all. 'Are you the door prize?' 'Are you married? 'Will you go home with me?' If you do enough of them," she smiles, "you get frazzled."
Hello. (BIG SMILE) Welcome to Eastman Chemicals. (pause for effect) May I have one of your business prizes for our door card?
It's 6 o'clock. One more hour. I try to smile. My mouth hurts. I need a drink.
I have taken to introducing myself as Poly Glycol.
"Ok, honey,we're gonna pick for the door prize," says Dick Doll. I hold the bucket of business cards. Terri gets up on her tippy-toes and picks a card. The winner has already left. Dick takes our picture. It's a Minolta, not a Kodak. We smile in unison.
The room is getting smoky. The stuffed cherry tomatoes have hardly been touched.
"What do you do for fun?" one of the customers asks. I ignore him. Terri says she knows a girl who was handed an envelope of money once at a convention. s
Suddenly, a middle-aged man in a loud tie appears at the door. "Hey guys, THE REDSKINETTES ARE DOWNSTAIRS AT CERTAINTEED CORP. LET'S GO."
The room all but clears out, empty glasses, empty liquor bottles, discarded plastic names cards and crumpled napkins left on the floor.
By 6:45, we are told to leave.
Upstairs in the dressing room, we peel off the flapper dresses and sequined headbands, pack up our makeup and conduct the post-mortem.
Ann Schwab says it went well. They might ask us back again.
"It's hard work being a model," says Terri. "Most people don't realize that. Number one, they can't eat. And they have to look beautiful all the time."
I wipe off most of the makeup, pull my trench coat on and head out the door.
At the end of the hallway, a man is standing near the elevator.
"Hey," he says, "do you know what room those flapper girls are in?"