When my tradeshow agent unexpectedly calls to say, "Hey, I've got some fun news!", being stuffed into a skimpy racecar driver costume isn't exactly what I have in mind. It's 7:30 a.m. on the second day of E3, the biggest gaming expo in the country, and I'm still reeling from a curling iron burn when the phone rings. Most mornings, I roll out of bed and start working on copywriting assignments in my pajamas, or tinker with my TV pilot script over oatmeal and coffee. Today is a little different.
"Make sure your hair is big," she says. "Like, as big as you can. Make your makeup more dramatic. Red lipstick. False eyelashes."
"Does this mean I can't wear flats today?"
"Black knee-high boots or high heels."
Despite the fact that it's my fourth year staffing at E3, this is the first time I've been asked to don a costume. Up until now, the tradeshow gods have mostly been kind, putting me in polos and modest black skirts or company t-shirts and pants. Though once, I was literally locked and tethered to a Nintendo 3DS for the duration of the show, presumably so no one could sneak off with the recently unveiled handheld console (bathroom breaks were a pain that year). This year, I'm hawking a gaming tournament whose first prize is a souped-up car.
Such are the workplace hazards of being a "booth babe."
Booth babes, generally, get a bad rap. We're allegedly vacuous airheads, pretty faces who don't know anything about anything. I understand the criticism surrounding the job – I'm well aware that to some extent, we are willing participants in the commodification of the female body. We're using physical attractiveness to shill a product in an overt way. Many of us have only a passing interest in gaming and geekery.
But what I don't get is the vitriol. No one rips on Sofia Vergara for starring in Pepsi commercials (what does she know about quality caffeinated soft drinks?!) or complains that the Old Spice Guy is unnecessarily naked (how dare he pander to women with his shirtlessness?!). That companies use sex to reel in eyeballs is a marketing tactic as old as time, ranging from the fashion industry to pharmaceuticals.
My husband has to drive me to the LA Convention Center because I've missed my bus, due to total ineptitude applying false eyelashes for the first time that results in me being covered in tiny lash fragments. When I arrive at the West Hall, the before-hours buzz is already high, a cacophony of competing lights and sounds that could give Vegas a run for its money. My agent hands me the costume, a standard Halloween racecar driver number that isn't particularly scandalous after all, and I meet my booth partner, an Asian American model/actress with a surprising droll streak. Behind us sit a few game demos and a swanky black-and-white Scion.
Regardless of what some folks like to think, this kind of work does not "satisfy [our] hollow egos." Trust me. Murdering my feet in five-inch heels while handing out flyers or shepherding demo lines isn't a Tony Robbins seminar, it's a job. Being subject to lewd come-ons and the occasional groping isn't an ego boost, it's offensive. The depressing truth is that standing around in a costume at a convention pays far better than writing ever has. For many of us, it supplements other career goals.
While the bulk of booth babes may be actors and models, some of them are also budding video game developers, graphic designers, and gamers who leap at the chance to attend this media- and trade-only event – and get paid, no less. Seriously, who wouldn't want to get paid to attend awesome cons like E3 or Comic-Con? (Snoozefest medical conventions are another story.) Almost none of them are "beauty-obsessed, frustrated wannabe models who can't get work."
My own gaming credentials are pretty weak. I spent grade school summers playing MUDs and Pokémon, and several high school summers cooped up with Tekken and Final Fantasy. These days it's nothing more than a bit of DDR and Wii Mario Kart on game nights. And my geek streak runs fairly mellow – when I worked at Comic-Con, I cosplayed during my lunch hour, but it's not a regular thing. (I just have particular love for Boomer and Katniss.) By no means do I pretend to be a dedicated nerd of any kind.
Some attendees, however, love to play Stump The Booth Babe. It's an exquisite little game designed to expose the pretty posers who dare to take a job working at a gaming expo, and to test their knowledge beyond release dates and console compatibility. These guys would first like to assess your entire history with gaming before deeming whether you're fit to stand outside of a booth in short shorts. They're in the minority, but they're a bunch of jackholes.
My little racecar outfit elicits more photo-ops than quizzes, though. Any apprehension I have about playing the part of traditional booth babe, stilettos and all, is quickly dissipated. Most people just want a picture, not public humiliation. Interestingly, many of the women are more enthusiastic than the guys about taking a picture with us, like we're dotty Captain Jack Sparrow or SpongeBob impersonators on Hollywood Boulevard.
I like to think that most con attendees are in on the joke, so to speak. I like to think that they see booth babes more as sideshow entertainment than "an unnecessary anachronism," and realize that we take the whole enterprise about as seriously as they do (which is to say, not at all). Much like racing mascots at a baseball game, it's all a bit of fun and entertainment, but it's not actual sport. Just because I'm dressed like a giant hotdog doesn't mean I think I really am a giant hotdog.
And though I once would've hated to admit it, I've learned a lot from my time as a booth babe. I've learned a lot about gaming. I've set aside my own condescending misconceptions about models and tradeshow modeling. I'm ever-so-slightly better at public speaking and being put on the spot – my first media interview a few years ago was mortifyingly deer-in-the-headlights and therefore immortalized on the interwebs forever; this time around I managed to utter a few words of college-French to a European media outlet. And it's proven to be great writing fodder – I recently finished a Rizzoli & Isles spec script that centers on a booth babe who is found dead at a video game convention.
That we have recurring conversations about the necessity or frivolity of booth babes is a silly attempt at misdirection. Maybe those who frown upon slutty-looking costumes should petition game developers to stop designing slutty-looking video game characters. Maybe cons should feature more booth beefcakes, to round out the crowd. And then maybe we could enjoy booth babes as much as we enjoy a good pierogi-and-hotdog mascot race.
Elaine Low is an aspiring TV writer in Los Angeles. When not writing, she teaches English at a video game company, auditions for commercials, and tries to stop her puppy from eating her socks.
Image via Franco Pop Culture Geek/Flickr.