More Jobs That Weren't Acting.
By Alisha Giampola (Actor/Doer of other things)
You know how you'll be walking through a nice department store, minding your own business, possibly looking for the shoe department, when your throat suddenly closes up and it seems like what you're smelling is the graveyard of a thousand Victorian whores? You have stumbled into the perfume section. Flanked on every side by glass counters covered in artisanal bottles shaped like flowers and jewels and Justin Beiber's head, you cannot escape unless you run the gauntlet of the Perfume Girls. Mostly girls, but not always, these people are paid (rather handsomely, I might add) to offer you little pieces of paper (usually paper, sometimes feathers, or ribbons, or some other obnoxious thing you will have to then hold until you can find a trash can). You cannot escape them, they will thrust their wares under your nose, bottle in hand, scented card proffered, they will murmur questions with no answer: "Guess Gold?" "Gucci Envy?" "Britney Spears' Fantasy?" If you take the scented card, pretend to smell it, and are nice enough to offer some pat response ("Oh, lovely." "Thanks!" or my favorite: "Mmmmm, interesting.") you will then be subjected to the Perfume Girls trying to spray you with their bottle. "You must try it on!" "Let it dry down on your skin and see how you like it- it smells amazing on most everyone." "You think it smells great on the card? Wait till you smell it on!"
This job is brutal for so many reasons. Everyone hates the perfume girls. No one wants to smell something they don't want to smell. I was so excited to be hired to "model" perfume for my first holiday season. Great money! Free samples! Wearing heels to work! Go shopping on your lunch break! Soon I came to dread all of those things, and so much more. Just walking through a perfume department makes you reek of 57 different scents- imagine working in one. When you walk away, you carry a small hovery cloud of fragrance a la Pig Pen, but fancier. You are fancy Pig Pen.
I do not use the word "hate" lightly. I have rarely experienced more misdirected fury than when fragrance modeling. I had customers glance up, realize they were in the fragrance department, and then begin speedwalking angrily, practically elbow checking me on their way past, shaking their heads at me as and sometimes even announcing loudly "I am horribly allergic! Do NOT get that near me!" One woman even came up to me once as I was spraying a handful of cards to pass out during a busy Saturday rush around Christmas time and said: "I don't want a card, I just came over her to tell you that I think what you're doing shouldn't even be allowed in this store! It's just awful!" Her reaction surprised me. Had I been stripping, or trying to touch people's genitals as they passed by, I suppose she would have had a right to be so indignant. But I was just doing a job. A perfectly legal seasonal holiday sales job, like so many other people in the department store that December. And a lot of people were actually delighted to see me, snatching up cards and exclaiming: "Oooo is this the new P. Diddy one?!" or "Ugh, I hate Britney Spears. I can't believe this smells so good." I didn't want to be there any more than that angry lady did. I wanted to be at home, watching Christmas Vacation and eating egg nog flavored ice cream.
Instead, I stood inside the Belk department store at the mall (for those of you who have no idea what Belk is, I'm pretty sure they only exist in the South), passing out cards and saying: "Guess Gold?" Mostly no one would take the cards, and then I could say "Guess not", which was even funnier after huffing perfume vapors for a couple hours.
My job coincided with the beginning of the pop culture perfume phenomenon that really got going around 2004 with the introduction of the Britney Spears perfume, Curious. A corresponding television commercial that aired for the fragrance implied that things a user of Curious might be curious about included the name of her possible baby daddy, where the key to the adjoining door of that hotel room was located, and where the hell the bellhop had gotten to with the luggage. At least at the time most people still vaguely liked Britney Spears. Trying to hawk Paris Hilton's aptly named Heiress meant spending the day being treated as if I myself was a socialite succubus with too much money and not quite enough self-respect. I spent a good deal of my time jealously eyeing the ancient woman who passed out cards for Chanel No. 5 at a leisurely pace, sometimes appearing to be asleep standing up. There was no rush for her to sell Chanel No. 5. Chanel No. 5 would sell itself. To other ancient ladies, or more often, their ancient husbands, who frequently wanted to pay with a check.
I was there, then, for the launch of the newest Britney Spears fragrance (scent? smell? odor?), Fantasy. It was released just in time for Christmas and smelled like a combination of cocoa butter, chocolate and cotton candy. The minute the stores opened for the day after Thanksgiving bacchanal known as Black Friday, I was all but stampeded by 14 year old girls who wanted to show their mothers what was top priority on their holiday lists. One of the older Perfume Ladies who worked across the glass cases from me was sampling Calvin Klein's Euphoria; a word for which her genteel Southern accent only allotted three syllables. Gloria was a real saleslady, elegantly spraying the fragrance onto silk ribbons she carried around on a silver tray which she would take big dramatic whiffs of anytime a customer would walk by. Each time, she reacted as if she had never smelled it before. "Oh maaayyyy." She would intone, orgasmically, as the customer tried to look engrossed in something else, anything else. "Do you smell that? It just trails after you. That's a scent people will remember. It's the crushed sea pearls that does it. You don't get that in any other fragrance today." Gloria would tell people anything to get them to buy a gift set of Euphoria. I heard her tell people with a completely straight face that Euphoria contained any number of preposterous ingredients, including diamonds and velvet.
Besides Gloria, there were hundreds of other entertaining characters to observe while I stood idly earning my twenty-odd dollars an hour in the lowest high heels I owned and trying not to lean too much on the counter. There was the hearing-impared, obsessive compulsive Evangelical Christian manager of the department store who frequently paused to scowl at his female employees' décolletage until they tugged their neckline up higher or buttoned up their cardigans. There was the closeted coin-collecting Reganite sales associate who followed the Dow religiously and shopped for Versace china on Ebay. There was the Hispanic grandma who only spritzed perfume to earn extra holiday shopping money for her brood of grandbabies and would bring tres leches to the break room on weekends. There were the fellow bored college students home on break and trying to pay back handfuls of university-issued parking tickets. There were the worn-out retail ladies who had done this for the past twenty holiday seasons and carried clear plastic purses reveailing that they were carrying nothing but their own cigarettes, Midol and Estée Lauder lipglosses out of the store with them. I got to know these people in a hodgepodge of conversation as we thrust cards and samples forth into the surging holiday throng. Charlene dreamed of someday taking a month-long cruise. Rhonda hoped to eventually pay off her gastric bypass surgery. Jessie prayed that her husband wouldn't discover her Yuletide affair with the sample boy at Panda Express. And me? I just wanted to make enough money to move to New York and to replace the items in my wardrobe that now permanently smelled like freesias.
I haven't trod the floors of a department store, jewel-encrusted bottle in tow, for years now. And apparently, of late, my old job is less and less in demand. But especially during the holidays, when I find myself in the cosmetics section of a department store, I am always pleasant to those well-dressed, maniacally smiling people desperate to be rid of their last ten or fifteen scented cards. Sometimes I'll even take one. And very often, I'll say: "Mmmmm, interesting."