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Putting Their Feet Down

After years of discomfort and injuries caused by high heels, Vegas cocktail waitresses are rebelling against the shoes they say harm their bodies.

September 12, 2000|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — This was the end of Martina Bauhaus' job interview for one of the most sought-after positions in town:

She put on black velvet high-cut briefs and a tight, low-cut bustier. When her name was called, she walked out of the fitting room to pose in front of a mirror--and half a dozen silent, staring men who measured her up like cattlemen at a livestock auction.

She didn't get the job. "Maybe," said the slender 28-year-old, "they didn't like my body in their outfit."

Bauhaus, a law student with a master's degree in public administration, wasn't seeking a job as a model, but as a cocktail waitress at the new Suncoast Casino. Nobody asked her the difference between a screwdriver and a rusty nail. She just had to have the right look.

Indeed, despite the supposed "Disneyfication" of Las Vegas, widespread unionization and the arrival of politically correct corporate casino owners, the image of the sexy cocktail waitress remains as vital here as a one-armed bandit.

But while young drink servers are still willing to don revealing outfits, there's something of a rebellion afoot--literally: growing discontent over the use of high heels.

Led by a cocktail waitress named Kricket Martinez, members of an impromptu labor organization dubbed the Kiss My Foot Coalition are campaigning against shoes that they say can rack their bodies. After a rally in May, several casinos in Reno agreed to allow lower heels, and the loose-knit group now hopes to apply pressure on casinos in Las Vegas.

"Men waiters don't have to wear high heels--just women," said Martinez, 39. "We're trying to tell casinos where women are walking around in bustiers and thongs that they don't have to endanger the safety of their employees just because someone says sex sells and high heels are sexy."

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Many casinos are reluctant to talk about their cocktail waitresses--how they're hired and what they wear--or to allow them to speak to reporters. Suncoast, for example, did not return phone calls seeking comment. But some in Sin City acknowledge unabashedly the importance casinos place on the image of their drink servers.

"Let's not be naive," said Alan Feldman, a vice president and spokesman for MGM Mirage, which owns a handful of the Strip's larger casinos. "From chewing gum to milk to cars to travel, sex sells everywhere."

The casinos are blunt in advertising for cocktail waitresses. "The Imperial Palace is seeking Glamorous and Sexy Palace Princesses for the enhancement of our casino guests' entertainment experience," reads one recent newspaper ad. "This position requires height in proportion to weight attributes and the ability to heighten our adult players' gaming experience through the use of alluring costumes and service of complimentary cocktails."

At the Rio, there are Ipanema Girls, casino "characters" not unlike Minnie Mouse at Disneyland--but emphasizing something other than large ears.

"We don't even consider them cocktail servers," said Rio spokeswoman Tyri Squyres.

The Ipanema Girls wear heels of at least 2 1/2 inches. "The higher the better," Squyres said. "It makes your leg."

Alicia Appleman, a cocktail waitress at another casino, the Reserve, wears 2 1/2-inch heels by choice because they are flattering, she said. "If you can't do it," she said, "then find another job."

Many waitresses say they assume they will be gawked at and hope they will be rewarded with good tips. But there are downsides: men who are rude or grope them, women who make nasty remarks about how they are dressed--and those high heels. "The glamour of the job is over in a week," said MGM Grand server Rachelle Arganbright, 40, who has been working in Las Vegas since she was 21.

Arganbright says years of wearing high heels have taken a toll, from bunions to the scars of knee surgery. Armed with a doctor's note, she now wears flats on the job--and says it has no bearing on her tip income. In fact, many waitresses contend that serious gamblers care far more about prompt service than about the women's appearance.

Some waitresses complain about ingrown toenails, or worse, hammertoes, because high heels force the foot to shift forward into tight toe boxes. Some have undergone foot, hip and back surgeries to correct the ravages of a career in high heels, despite the use of orthopedic inserts and other devices. And some casinos are not as obliging as others when servers present notes from their doctors.

"I see cocktail waitresses all the time with foot problems," said Dr. Loren Hansen, a local podiatrist. Though a short heel--as much as 1 1/2 inches--might provide beneficial arch support, he said, wearing a heel any higher than that "has only disadvantages."

Indeed, the only beneficiaries of high heels, he said, "are men, because when women wear high heels, their foot wobbles, their leg wobbles and then their hip wobbles."

Many waitresses say they regularly take pain medication; some say they are now addicted.

So why stay in the business?

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