I got a chance to hang out with a Product Specialist (colloquially known as a"booth babe" or "booth professional") off-duty at the Chicago Auto Show, and learned why a good sense of humor is as key to her job as a great smile and a whole lotta vehicle knowledge.
Gender inequality in the auto industry isn't as complete as it used to be, but women still face the unique challenges of sexism and objectification around cars — especially those who stand next to vehicles for a living.
The woman I talked to requested that she and her employer remained anonymous. So while the following quotes are real, the proper nouns have been omitted.
On her job title, and what she actually does:
"I'm a Product Specialist. We know everything about the cars of our brand, and we're there to tell people about them. For a lot of different brands we're 'narrators,' so we get on the mic, introduce the cars, and tell people who come to the booth pretty much everything about them."
"Our main job is to answer questions. A lot of people think we're sales people, but we're not. People will see us coming by and they'll walk away, because they think we're trying to sell them a car. We actually can't do that, we're just there to talk to them and engage them."
"What's funny is, people will be looking at the [information placard] and I'll ask 'do you have any questions?' and they'll look up and say 'no,' and continue to keep looking for the answer on the display. You know, we know the answers, we know everything they'd ask. It's usually the men [who decline our help.]"
On how she got started:
"I initially wanted to do promo work for side money. I went to a talent agency, and because I speak Mandarin the agent was like 'Oh, do you wanna do auto shows?'.. I didn't know what auto shows were back then, and I had full-time job."
"I got an email that night asking if I could send in an audition video — I'd never done one before, so it was like this scripted thing I recorded in my basement. I sent it in then she asked if I could make another one with better lighting, so I did."
"Then maybe two weeks later she called and was like 'Hey, you got a job!' So I said, 'Job? I have a job...' I originally thought I was only working Detroit so I thought 'yeah, I can take ten days off and do that,' but it turned out to be almost a whole year, from September to April. They send you to different shows depending on demographics of different places."
"So I left my old job and figured this would be more fun... and it is! You get to meet all kinds of people and do a lot of traveling."
On the lifestyle:
"I work as an independent contractor for something like a talent agency. We're hired on as a team for a whole year. We work for a specific manufacturer, and usually people continue on for several years with one company."
"We travel a lot but we don't really get to see the cities we're in, because we're working all the time, but it's a lot of fun... you get to make a lot of friends on the road."
On pervs and creepy dudes:
"How many [men] are creepy? Um... I would say... a majority of them. Well, at least, a lot of them. I get hit on pretty regularly, it comes with the job I guess... we're all used to the question 'do you come with the car?'"
Her husband, sitting across from me, was chuckling to himself as he shook his head and popped open a Pepsi.
"You get some weirder comments too, and you just have to be like 'ooo-kay' and smile because you can't really say anything."
"What scares me the most is when guys ask you to take photos and they grab you really hard. Especially older men, I don't know if it doesn't matter to them or what, but they'll ask you 'can I take a photo?' and if I say 'yes' they pretty much feel like they have the right to grab you on the waist really hard and really close. And, you know, I don't think any girl would be comfortable with that."
"The selfies, especially, get really close up."
"Younger guys, teenagers and guys in their 20's, don't do that. Just... older. It's weird to me."
"Some girls have to take photos posing with their cars, but we don't have to. If we don't feel comfortable taking a photo, we don't have to. We learned a trick to pose with our backs to camera that some girls like."
"But the guys who work the show, on our team, they really look out for us. If we feel uncomfortable about something they'll take care of it. Or if some guy is talking to us for too long and we can't get away, they'll come and distract them to help us 'escape.' Some people try to tell us their life story."
On her most memorable moments:
"We were at a State Fair in Dallas, aftermarket shows and events like that are a little different than big shows like this, and this four hundred pound dude comes up to us with a half-eaten turkey leg in hand, wearing nothing but denim overalls, and yells 'WHERE THE BIKINIS AT?' I wasn't sure how to answer that one."
"Because I'm Asian, I get some interesting encounters. The uniform one year had a brown circle on a necklace and someone in Texas asked me if I 'gonged it.' Because I'm Asian. At least, I think that's why."
"Then at some shows I'm called 'Oriental,' and people ask me if 'my people made these cars.'"
"One time I'm working at a mall, for an Asian car company, and we're giving away a free car. This lady rolls by on a Rascal, and I asked her 'ma'am, would you like to win a free car?' She looks at me, as she's Rascal-ing away, and says 'you're taking away American jobs.' So I respond; 'If you're talking about this manufacturer, most of them are made here,' then she says 'No, you are!' I didn't really know what to say after that. But nobody was around, so I couldn't really make anyone laugh!
On her favorite cars:
"Before we started, I didn't really know much about cars... my favorite car was a Chevy Cobalt. Now, I have a lot of favorites. If I had a lot of money, I'd want a Ford Raptor, A Maserati Quattroporte, and a Lincoln Mark LT. And I like Porsches. And I like Jags."
So the next time you see a Product Specialist posing at an auto show, don't be afraid to ask questions... they know their stuff. Just remember to keep your hands to yourself.
Images: AP, and Brian Williams. The women in these pictures are indeed Product Specialists, but they were not part of this interview.