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Playboy meets country Add to ...

Paul Vickers stands on a stage in a 100,000-square-foot tent and talks to 1,000 employees - up from the usual complement of 300 - who will work at his five city bars and restaurants during the Calgary Stampede.

Veterans call this his poor-boy speech.

Mr. Vickers, who, with stylishly messy hair and a crisp suit, looks 40 but denies it, grew up poor in Frankford, Ont., and was bounced to Alberta when he was 18.

"My parents shipped me out here to straighten me out," he says, "Too much partying."

He eventually landed in Edmonton, where he was a doorman, DJ, bartender and manager before building a private empire of 40 businesses, mostly clubs, pubs and restaurants, across the country.

During this city's 10-day hoedown, the five Calgary businesses will pull in 20 per cent of their annual revenue, but sales and profit figures he leaves to the accountants.

His most recognized establishment, Cowboys Dance Hall, attracts 20,000 people a day during Stampede and thousands of "pretty girls" and "pretty boys" from across the country clamour to work here.

The group in the tent in the Cowboys parking lot is overwhelmingly good-looking, but he says it was their attitude that grabbed them jobs. They can make serious cash, he promises. He mentions the rumour about earning $10,000 during Stampede, but never says whether it's true.

"I come back because I can make more money in a week than in a month teaching," said Amber Cushman, 29, who is from small-town Saskatchewan but teaches in California. She now has four Stampedes at Cowboys under her belt.

Last year, the attractive brunette figures she earned $4,500, much of it in tips. This year, she's already pocketed a $250 tip, in part, she recalls, because the customer wanted to linger at her beer tub, a tin bin usually used for watering livestock.

"I do have a brain," Ms. Cushman says, "People sometimes treat me like a ditz."

I took a Monday night shift at Cowboys, which, during Stampede, is like a Saturday anywhere else.

As U.S. country rocker David Lee Murphy plays to a full dance floor, a fit twentysomething in a cowboy hat and striped shirt sidles up to a beer tub for a drink.

"You look smart," he says as he hands me cash for a beer.

What about the women working around me?

"They look like bimbos," he says.

His is the usual view. The women who work here are, for the most part, blond and buxom. Things I am not. Men flock here to eyeball these real-life Barbies in skimpy duds to see if there's truth to the Cowboys legends about subsidized breast implants and nude models.

Privately, Mr. Vickers doesn't do much to dispel other rumours.

But all that is part of the illusion he has cultivated since he introduced Cowboys to Cowtown just three weeks before the 1996 Stampede. A sign above the entrance reads: "Through these doors walk the most beautiful women in Alberta." Competitors wrote off his pretty girls concept as fly-by-night.

"There's a sex element," says Mr. Vickers, "We're not running a church."

He doesn't take long to mention the alleged two-year contracts in exchange for breast implants. Prod him for clarification and you get, fittingly, a pair of jokes followed by a vague denial.

"I'm going to keep my mouth shut," he says. "We don't want to ruin that legend."

Stories about wannabe workers are true.

"'Here's me in a recent Playboy; I'd like to come work for you this summer,'" Mr. Vickers says of some resumes he receives. "Oh, yeah, that's happened for sure."

There are brains behind the success of this country bar in a city of one million that is desperate to shake its hokey image. Mr. Vickers spends millions on advertising, and his staff knows how to leverage their assets.

Ms. Cushman is one of the gals Mr. Striped Shirt derided. The others include Natalie Holroyd, a psychology student who wants to work with disabled children, and Jennifer Guillemaud, a chemistry whiz headed to medical school this fall.

Some of the women are here to have a good time. Some are here to pay the bills.

Ms. Holroyd looks like a pinup girl. The 22-year-old well-endowed blonde describes Cowboys as "Playboy meets country." She once got a $1,000 tip from an American after she stood over him to pour a shooter from the bottle into his mouth while his head was tilted back between her legs.

"We're there to look good," she says. "They think you're a blond bimbo who doesn't have a clue what you're doing and not going anywhere." After three years here, she ignores the comments, but the questions about whether she has breast implants do bother her.

"What really bugs me," she says, "[is]my boobs are real."

Ms. Guillemaud is wearing a skirt so short it could almost pass for a belt and tiny bra top positioned to avoid a Janet Jackson incident. Men stop talking, stare and move out of her way as she walks by.

The 22-year-old says she chalks up being ogled as part of the job as a customer taps her arm to ask for a picture. It's not an unusual request.

"Doug, our manager, calls me a tourist attraction," she says after posing for the camera.

"I'm not a feminist," Ms. Guillemaud says. ". . . I don't think working in Cowboys is making a statement about who I am. It's something I'm using to get where I want to be in life."

During my seven-hour shift as a beer tub girl, I stand on a straw bale in a checkered Daisy Duke-style shirt and low-slung jeans, wearing pigtails under a straw hat. I learn that $1,000 a day is a fantasy. The two tubs I helped work pull in about $500 in tips. I learn from a customer that I'm "kind of a hottie for a reporter."

I blush at the compliment and pause to shrug off the backhanded part. It's all part of the illusion.

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