High-Octane Auto Shows : Exhibitions' 'Glitter' Still Relies on Sex Appeal to Add Flash

Times Staff Writer

Just inside the doors at the Long Beach International Auto Show, the crowd murmurs about classic beauty and sleek lines as a platform revolves slowly in front of them.

Displayed on the stage are a racy 1989 Ford Thunderbird and an actress named Bridget Hoffman. Compliments are divided between the car and Hoffman, who is describing the car.

Women may be buying more cars these days. But auto shows still smack of boys' night out.

Auto makers can't stop trying to add sizzle to the exhibits with attractive women, some of whom would look more at home in a Las Vegas chorus line than describing a turbocharger.

Chevrolet offers a gaudily clad "Heartbeat of America" dance team. Toyota's models--the female ones--are known for revealing costumes.

At the Dodge exhibit in Long Beach, Carrie Hall wears a spangled silver gown to promote a car named for a soap opera. A few feet away, Rene Lovern of Van Nuys sits behind the wheel of a four-door Dodge Shadow. She barely notices Hall.

"That's just the glitter that comes along with any show," she says. "I'm a single parent looking for a car. I don't really even see that other stuff."

Lovern reflects a trend at auto shows. More women are going, not as adjuncts to a husband or boyfriend, but to buy. Show organizers estimate thatwomen make up a third of the audience.

"Women are buying their own cars and having a say in what the family car will be," said Barry Greenberg, an organizer of the Long Beach show.

Auto makers have been slow to respond, but some efforts are afoot to reflect the times.

"I make a conscious effort to be available to women for questions and comments," said Hoffman, who has worked at auto shows for four years. "Women are paying more attention and asking more serious questions."

Some car makers have toned down the women's outfits. Hoffman's Ford-supplied "uniform" is a black suit that could double as business attire--if the sequins were taken off the lapels.

Since Carrie Hall started working car shows 10 years ago to pay for college, the role has evolved into more than glitter. "We're no longer just hood ornaments," said Hall.

The women, called "narrators," are usually models or actresses. They sign a contract with an auto maker for a season and earn up to $3,500 a show, depending on experience and show length.

Their spiel comes from a script written by the auto company and approved by its lawyers. The women memorize five or six scripts a season, so they can move from car to car at different shows.

Hoffman lives in Los Angeles and mixes three or four auto shows a year with an acting career. She may soon break out of the narrator ranks, however; she has a lead role opposite Ned Beatty in an upcoming film, "The Time Trackers."

The women are paid to be pleasant for six-hour shifts. They soon discover that smiling so long makes their faces ache, especially when some men have more in mind than kicking the tires.

"They bring you stuffed animals or hang around all day," said Hoffman. "You learn to be persistently polite. And you throw away a lot of business cards at the end of the day."

As might be expected, the narrators have heard every line imaginable. Hall and Hoffman are contemplating a book about their experiences. The tentative title is the most oft-asked question on the auto show circuit, "Do you come with the car?"

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