The weird, lonely life of an auto-show model
There’s a lot of eye candy on display at the New York International Auto Show at the Javits Center: fierce-looking Corvettes and Vipers, sleek Jags and Maybachs, even a Range Rover convertible.
And then there’s Elizabeth and Brittany.
In her black mini-dress and fire-engine-red pumps, Elizabeth Smith — Miss Hawaiian Tropic Beauty 2014 — has spent a week smiling in front of NASCAR champ Kyle Busch’s Toyota. The show wraps up tonight.
“[People] say, ‘Are you just a model?’ ” huffs the Megan Fox look-alike. “I say, ‘I am a model, but I also know a lot about the vehicle.’ ”
It’s not easy to shed sexist stereotypes while posed on a spinning turntable and behind glass, as if in a zoo. So go the long days of the auto show’s “product specialists,” formerly known as models.
Back when Smith, 26, was a finance-data analyst in Orlando, she dreamed of a job that would allow her to travel. On the auto-show circuit, she got her wish; before New York, she was in Dallas, Atlanta and Chicago. Toyota, like most car makers, throws a lavish opening-night party in each city. But Smith isn’t invited — she admits to spending many a dinner eating cookies in her hotel room.
“There are hard, lonely days,” she says.
Angela Fong — a 31-year-old former pro wrestler who’s been a Nissan specialist for three years — has attended brand parties before: “Sometimes we have to work them.”
The New York show marks the end of a season that began last September. Most product specialists work 10 to 15 shows a year — five to 24 days at a time — and can average 200 days on the road.
Ken Paul, a 20-year Nissan veteran and the rare male product specialist, says that in cities like Cleveland, the highlight is blowing off steam after work by going bowling with fellow reps. “The less exciting the city, the more activities you do together,” Paul says. The night The Post caught up with him in Manhattan, he was on the hunt for a bodega that stocked his favorite Heineken.
With per diems of anywhere from $225 to $1,000, Paul is proud that “I’ll have a couple of bucks when I retire.” At 50, the former aspiring actor confesses to concerns about his auto-show shelf life. But he has a plan for now: “There’s always Touch of Gray [hair dye] and the gym to keep us going.”
The one thing that doesn’t help? Getting a pedicure.
“Don’t get one before a big show because they take off your calluses — and you need your calluses,” as they help prevent blisters, says Jaguar specialist Lorraine McKiniry.
Hedy Popson started her car-show modeling career at age 19, in 1989, when the outfits were “very ‘Dynasty’-looking. We’d call ourselves ‘the spin-and-grin girls.’ ”
Today she’s president of Productions Plus, an agency that staffs product specialists for 19 car manufacturers. Popson says some 1,000 people apply every season for about 80 slots. When casting, she keeps in mind the personality of each brand.
For Lexus: “They’re trying to go [for] sporty luxury and appeal to younger buyers.”
Toyota is more age-friendly, with product specialists ranging from 20 to 55.
Models tend to spend two weeks learning the specs of “their” cars. Jaguar’s McKiniry, 45, says it’s as important to understand the buyer as the cars. “Our customers ask if the leather is hand-stitched,” says the Easton, Pa., resident. “Chevy customers ask about cup holders for their kids.”
Laura Voss, a 44-year-old former Miss Wisconsin-turned-Nissan model, recalls her favorite inquiry: “‘I have eight cats — can I fit all these crates in [the backseat]?’”
Still, it’s better than what Brittany Berndt, 29, got asked while working for Porsche during this, her first New York Auto Show.
“One guy actually said, ‘Are you just a pretty face or do you have a brain?’ Sighs the Atlanta massage therapist, “Some people are just rude.”