Baby, You Can Drive My Car - New York Times, March 27, 2005
Early on Monday evening, arriving for work outside a party in Beverly Hills, Kimberly Bowie got down to business by dabbing blush across the cheek of a coworker. She added sparkly pink eye shadow and a dollop of hair-grooming cream. Then she did the makeup of four other women. Adjusting her own sequined scarf, Ms. Bowie, a professional makeup artist by day, was ready for her night job - parking cars.
If the typical valet in Los Angeles is a man in a windbreaker or red vest, Ms. Bowie and the other employees of Valet of the Dolls, an all-woman parking service, aim to turn heads. That is why the company has a makeup artist on its staff, and why its valets show up for work, depending on the job, in tank tops and Capri pants, lacey camisoles, mini-skirts or costumes: naughty Santas, ski bunnies and burlesque dancers are all in their repertory.
Besides the fashion show, the service offers tongue-in-cheek attitude. Instead of grabbing a guest's ticket and sprinting to get the car - known as "rip and run" in some quarters of the valet business - the 142 women of Valet of the Dolls are encouraged to be playful and make conversation with the waiting guests. On rare occasions they are invited inside parties.
"They have a sense of humor," said Alicia Brockwell, a publicist who hired the service for this party, a reopening of the Lush Beauty Boutique, a salon and grooming-products store. It was a couple of days before the official start of Los Angeles Fashion Week, March 14, and the beauty shop was expecting the usual demi-celebrities from the entertainment world: actresses from television shows like "Summerland" and "House" and a contestant from "The Apprentice 2".
"Everybody in L.A. who is industry - and everyone is - is so jaded, they've seen it all before, the valet in the tuxedo," Ms. Brockwell said. "What sets Valet of the Dolls apart is that you experience something different. Even with the name, you think of fun, sexy, wild women, because that was what the movie was about."
Which is not to say that the parking dolls aren't adept with a clutch. "Buckle up!" Ms. Bowie called as she was handed the keys to a Mercedes and jumped behind the wheel. She was reared by a stepfather who was a truck driver and taught her to handle a big rig, she explained. "Once you've driven an 18-wheeler you can pretty much drive whatever," she said.
It is probably no surprise that in Los Angeles, a city in love with the automobile and the body beautiful, the two would meet in the guise of an all-girl valet service.
Here where parking valets at private parties and restaurants are ubiquitous - considered a necessity, not a luxury - and where the phone book lists two pages of Parking Attendant Services, there are at least three all-female valet companies. One, Valettes, is 27 years old. But Valet of the Dolls, founded in 2003, has grown to be the largest, primarily by selling - with little subtlety - its sex appeal. Its website features three women draped on the book of a Jaguar and promises pictures of "dolls in lingerie!!"
It had worked private parties at the homes of Jamie Foxx, the Oscar-winning actor; the director Bill Condon; and the producer John Peters, according to the company's owner and founder, Gillian Harris. "The valet plays a critical role." said another client, Roland Emmerich, the director of films like "The Day After Tomorrow". "At a party it's the first impression that people get who come to your house. Valet of the Dolls are like hosts."
Ms. Harris, a former R&B radio D.J., is not subtle about marketing what she believes to be her service's chief appeal. Her voice mail boasts that the company has "the most gorgeous valets".
"Ninety-nine percent of it is aesthetic, liking to look at pretty things," she explained. "Pretty cars, pretty women."
The rival Valettes dress in conservative tuxedos with plain vests, said its founder, Maureen Sullivan. Valet Girls, another service, often dresses in demure pink and white suits. "I go for a very sweet look," said Dana Hartley, the founder of Valet Girls, adding pointedly: "Gillian's more sexual. I don't like a girl that looks like they might pick up on the clients pulling up."
Chuck Pick, the founder of Chuck's Parking, the biggest valet parking company in Los Angeles, whose drivers are men, dismissed the all-female services. "When people say that it's cute, I tell them to buy a puppy," he said. "When you are dealing with people's cars, it's about your professional standards."
But Ms. Harris counters that although she likes to hire a pretty face, a far bigger concern is her valets' driving skills. "Once we've put our makeup on, it's all about sprinting up hills, jumping the fence, and getting the stick," she said. She advertises that her valets are the city's "most extensively trained", the only valets required to take a $40 precision driving course called Doll Shop. Chuck's Parking, for example, only requires that its valets have California drivers' licenses and fairly clean driving records.
Fans of the all-female services also say that women make more reliable drivers. According to the Federal Transportation Department, men are twice as likely to get in a car wreck than women and are considered a greater risk by insurance companies. "We're not going to hot rod, the whole male chauvanist car thing," Ms. Hartley of Valet Girls said.
The women of Valet of the Dolls tend to have other careers, often in the entertainment industry: many are aspiring actresses, models, writers, or stuntwomen. They start at $7.25 and hou, and if a valet works a "costume" event, she gets an extra $10 to $40 a night. Tips are not as plentiful as for waitressing and bartending, but the hours are more flexible. Besides, said Mary Pat Farrell, a comedy writer & supervisor at Valet of the Dolls, "to get a good bartending job in L.A., you have to be so hot it's not even funny."
At the Lush Beauty Boutique party, the valets were dressed, per their client's wish, in a relatively tame uniform of tuxedo jackets and bow ties . But they gussied up the look with jewelery, scarves, and, in Ms. Bowie's case, a fake-fur-trimmed leather blazer. Waiting the arrival of guests, they discussed the merits of the new Ford Mustang and lighted cigarettes for partygoers smoking on the sidewalk.
"How long do I have to wait?" groused Donald Simrock, a guest, cooling his heels before his red Jaguar convertible was returned by a valet as the party wound down. How long had he been waiting? "Four minutes," he said. "It's too long. I'm from New York. You know how it is."
He tipped $5, which was, the valets agreed, not bad. Most customers tip a few dollars or nothing at all. A good night means $50 to $100 in tips, although on a great night, when high-rollers are shelling out $20's, a valet can make $125 to $200 in tips on top of her hourly pay. But this was not a great night: 200 cars had been expected, but the final number was closer to 60. The flow of cars slowed to a trickle. Ms. Bowie returned one of the last cars to its owner. She held the door open, smiled and thanked the woman for coming. At the curb, she tucked a dirty bill into a pick plastic box.
"She gave me a dollar," she said. We're going to be lucky if we make $10 in tips tonight. Oh well. Ten bucks in the tank."