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A model stands next to a Buick Riviera at the Auto China 2008 auto show in Beijing in 2008. (Oded Balilty/AP Photo)
A model stands next to a Buick Riviera at the Auto China 2008 auto show in Beijing in 2008. (Oded Balilty/AP Photo)

Road Rush

Car show models: Does sex still sell? Add to ...

When they built their first car together back in 1889, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach had no way of knowing that they were also creating an alternative future for Hooters waitress Amanda Lee.

But history moves in strange ways. The creation of the automobile led to the rise of the modern suburb, the politics of oil, and Lee's reinvention: from Hooters girl to car show model. I met her this week at the Canadian International Auto show in Toronto and asked her how she felt about a career that's based on wearing short skirts and standing next to cars.

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"I bring excitement," she said. "I'm using my very best asset. What's wrong with that?"

In Pictures: Does sex still sell cars?

2011 Porsche Cayman R makes its world debut at the LA Auto Show
Pairing sexy girls with hot cars has long been a popular sales tool for auto makers. But are they empowering - or exploiting - the women who present their cars?

I wasn't sure, to tell you the truth. The world is changing fast, jobs are scarce, and top car show models can make more than $1,500 a day. Their trade prompts far-reaching questions about gender roles, corporate messaging and the semiotics of selling a car.

The world of car modelling is complex, with widely varying standards. Mass-market North American car shows (such as the CIAS in Toronto) tend to use a minimal number of models and dress standards are generally conservative.

Most Asian and European shows tend to be much more risque, with teams of young women in revealing outfits and legions of avid male fans who go to several shows per year. (The creep factor can be high.) Then there are the import tuner shows.

Car show models force car companies to think hard about the image they want to project. Porsche USA, for example, employs a team of models, but puts them through monthly training courses to ensure that they can speak knowledgeably about the company's cars and technologies.

"These days, you can't get away with just putting pretty girls up on the stand," says Porsche spokesman Laurance Yap. "There has to be more to it. The game has changed."

Some companies take an ironic approach. Subaru has produced a series of commercials where male sumo wrestlers take the place of attractive women. For many years, Mini Canada presented its cars with no models on the podium at all, a decision that was partly based on its demographics - about half of all Mini buyers are women. But when it presented its new Beachcomber concept car last year, it used both male and female models, and the male models wore shark masks. When it launched the Countryman model, the models wore ski outfits.

"What we do is fun," said Mini Canada director John Capella. "We want to make people laugh, and we don't want to turn off women, or men, either. It can't be sexist. A lot of couples buy cars together. It's not a male decision, and it's not a female decision. They have to agree."

Car show modelling can be traced back to the early 20th century. In 1927, Packard advertised its 343 Series Eight with women in flimsy bathing suits who were referred to as the Damsels of the Dance. By the 1960s, women and cars were inextricably linked, and countless companies used women as mascots. Plymouth showed its Barracuda muscle car with a model in a mermaid suit. I still remember Miss Hurst Golden Shifter, and the gracious country-club models that peopled Detroit ads of the late Mad Men era.

The history of car models is documented in Chrome Sirens - The Enduring Allure of Auto Show Models, a book by Kathleen DuRoss, a widowed mother of two who supported her family while going to night school by working as a Ford auto show model. DuRoss once described her approach to sexual politics as follows: "My basic rule of thumb is, if it works against you to be a woman, ignore it. If it works for you, take it." (DuRoss is credited with upgrading the standards of car show modelling by introducing product training and grooming lessons, and later married Ford scion Henry Ford II.)

I called up Varda Burstyn, an author and cultural critic (and a woman who uses her mind to make her living). I assumed she'd dismiss car show models as Barbie dolls that get used as sexual sales tools by a male-dominated industry. But Burstyn had a more nuanced view.

"The corporate world is still largely a masculine culture," she says 'People learn to manipulate symbols of success and prowess. The car is the masculine symbol par excellence. But neither men nor women are homogeneous in their means, or their aspirations. There is no single viewpoint."

In Burstyn's view, female car models can make a car more attractive not only to men, but to a certain category of female buyer:

"Many women see cars as strictly utilitarian," Burstyn says. "But for some of them, there is definitely a symbolic value. It's like women executives who learn to play golf, whether they like it or not. These women buy cars that advertise successfully to men. So the model next to the car is not a negative. It tells them that the car appeals to men. They take the place of the model. These women think they love cars, but what these women really love is the symbol that it projects to men."

Car show model and A-Channel interviewer Amanda Lee at the Canadian International Auto Show. Behind her is the HTT Plethore, a Quebec-built supercar.
To the right is Sebastien Forest, CEO and co-owner of HTT. Car show model and A-Channel interviewer Amanda Lee at the Canadian International Auto Show. Behind her is the HTT Plethore, a Quebec-built supercar.
To the right is Sebastien Forest, CEO and co-owner of HTT.
Amanda Lee interviews the president of Street Smart Television (No login required!)



I then ran into Amanda Lee at the Toronto car show. She's 22, with long blonde hair, a black pencil skirt and tall leather boots that gave her the look of a musketeer crossed with a Baywatch actress.

Lee's career as a car show model is the latest step in a journey that has been defined by youth and appearance. After landing a job at Hooters a few years ago, she segued into work as a fight-night ring girl and event model, appearing at private events like company parties, where she and other girls were paid to hand out gifts and serve chicken wings. Her resume also includes work with Playboy TV and a video commercial for a product called the Spinner, a revolving hydroponic chamber popular with home marijuana farmers.

Car modelling was a natural fit, and she was soon landing jobs at car shows through a network of agents. The work pays about $25 an hour. She supplies her own clothing for most jobs, and makes a point of gathering information about the cars, including price and engine size. Her audience is almost exclusively male. The most common question: "Can I get a picture?"

Now she's using car show modelling as a stepping-stone into the next phase of her career: on-air interviews. When I met her, she was doing an interview with the president of HTT, a Quebec firm that has built a 392-km/h supercar called the Plethore. Overseeing the action was Rick Walker, host of an A-Channel production called Street Smart Television. Although the show is his, Walker routinely hands over the interviewing duties to a stable of attractive young women, including Lee.

"We believe that by including women we are empowering them," he said. "We are showing them in a very modern way. ... And the show does better with them. Our viewers like to see beautiful women. That's the reality."

Lee is fine with that. "They'd rather see me than some guy," she said. "More people will watch."

Lee is hoping that her interviews will help her land a job on a television show. "A host," she says. "Not a reporter."

But she's happy to take modelling assignments, too. "It's all good," she says. Asked whether she has ever been propositioned at a car show, Lee rolls her eyes. "A thousand times," she replies. "It just goes in one ear, and out the other."

2011 Ford Edge
READ MORE: Click here for full coverage of the Canadian International Auto Show

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In Pictures: Does sex still sell cars?

2011 Porsche Cayman R makes its world debut at the LA Auto Show
Pairing sexy girls with hot cars has long been a popular sales tool for auto makers. But are they empowering - or exploiting - the women who present their cars?

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