The Sick Reality Of Selling Lingerie

CallingOutofContext_slide1Illustrated by Jenny Kraemer.
For a brief moment in time, years ago, I was a part of the Victoria’s Secret family. I answered the phone when you called; I took your nervous, low-spoken orders. I recommended thongs in lilac and lace garters, and I told men what women wanted. I had just turned eighteen.
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Working at Victoria’s Secret Catalogue is nothing like working at the namesake store in the mall. The VS shops are tawdry explosions of pink satin and taffeta curtains. Near the cash registers, they sell cinnamon mints in the shape of tiny, pursed lips. They are full of buxom young women, confused, hopeful men, and overly made-up saleswomen.
The Victoria’s Secret Catalogue headquarters, on the other hand, is sophisticated and proper; specifically, it's operated out of a remote, sprawling complex on the outskirts of an Ohio suburb. Like all of Les Wexner’s buildings that I’d driven by — he, the faceless owner and multimillionaire behind Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch, The Limited, Bath & Body Works, half of Ohio, probably your car — it is a monolith of steel and black modernistic construction. Even though Victoria’s Secret spells catalogue the British way — which always made me believe that a puffy, British fifty-something woman of great means and greater sexual proclivity was behind the empire — it is made, manufactured, and headquartered in Ohio.
It was Lisa Bevilaqua’s idea that we work there over the summer. I was flattered when she asked me to join her. Popular, with a beautiful albino streak through her honey-blond curls, Lisa was one of the few non-Catholics at our sainted high school. She also had a car and had exhibited the perfect amount of sex appeal. (In my experience, the stereotypes are absolutely true: All Catholic schoolgirls are either easy or are desperately trying to become easy.) She tried to prepare me for giving blow jobs: “It’s like eating vanilla ice cream with pickles.”
It was our first job that didn’t involve selling orthopedic shoes or carving turkeys at a buffet for the elderly. There were security guards and a gleaming reception desk. We were issued laminated ID badges and our own giant black folders with every recent incarnation of the catalogue, triple-hole punched inside, which we’d scour for the fabled transsexual model, though we never once found an Adam’s apple. If you didn’t want to eat in the spacious employee cafeteria (complete with a fro-yo machine and multigrain breadsticks), you could have your packed lunch at one of the metal tables in the upstairs lounge beneath billboard-sized photos of Stephanie Seymour lounging on satin pillows.
Before I worked there, I imagined that the customers were wealthy college graduates, professionals with expensive hair and teeth and pinstriped suits taking a few minutes out of their busy days to call the toll-free line and order teddies and satin chemises to pack for their weekends in Tahiti. I had no ideas that so many housewives would call in — or that so many housewives would work the phones. But, working moms made up the majority of the staff that summer, with teens like Lisa and me making up the minority presence.
It didn't take long before I discovered that these mothers knew what women wanted. Unfazed no matter what questions they fielded, they could consult with clients on which bra best fit a double-D or which negligee would be best for a romantic weekend away. They never suggested a customer buy a white suit to wear to a wedding, and so were never reprimanded by said customer.
Despite my nerves and inexperience, I tried to answer every call with a low, sultry purr: “Thank you for calling Victoria’s Secret Catalogue. My name is Nicole, how can I assist you?” I hoped I sounded like a mature, confident woman who knew what she wanted and how to get it.
I wanted my voice to be everything I wasn’t, but I'm afraid it ultimately betrayed me. By the end of each call — after finding the catalogue the customer had, the page number, discussing sizing, getting the credit card number, and desperately trying to sell five panties for twenty dollars (twenty-five cents commission for every panty sold!) — my nerves would be frayed and my voice so high it sounded more like Minnie Mouse than Marilyn Monroe. “Goodbye!” I’d squeak.
I don't remember the first customer call I ever answered (they're mostly a blur now), but I do remember my first perv call, and the slow, blood-in-your-ears shock when you realize the person on the other end is masturbating. How incredibly, weirdly, intimate. What did they think I looked like? Did they imagine my voice coming out of the girl in the point d’esprit teddy’s lips, the way I once thought the Virgin Mary statue’s lips moved in chapel? Were their bedroom curtains drawn, or were they hunched down on the living room floor, with Jeopardy! muted in front of them?
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You could hang up on perv callers (in the same way you could hang up on people who refused to give you a credit card number up front), but sometimes I’d stay on the line. There was an old man who liked to rap about panties and pussy; I’d compliment him on his rhymes (what else did he have?), and just when I had gotten used to the random prank callers, something new would throw me. Like the time I couldn’t understand what the male customer was asking and put him on hold to ask my manager: “Which thong do we recommend for ‘tucking’?”
Or my first female perv call. Sure, it was odd that she just murmured, “Mmm, huh,” as I enthusiastically described my favorite push-up bras and teddies. But, it made it easier to read the special features I always forgot to mention (“And, the best thing about the see-through lace bodysuit? It’s crotchless!”). Then she asked me what I was wearing, and I could feel my heart pound in my ears anew.
What was I wearing? Certainly not the same things as this beautiful family of women who cavorted in these glossy pages — though I longed to. “You need to get in touch with your sexuality,” said Lisa. “You need to be an animal.” We were in high school. We idolized Sharon Stone, though we weren’t old enough to see Basic Instinct. I wanted the catalogue model’s bodies, smiles, and hair. If only I could be one of those bronzed girls, lounging against a white-washed wall in a blue-sky utopia that represented either Greece, Bali, or Baja — anywhere but Ohio. Maybe my life would look more like that in college. For now, as a quick fix, I used my employee discount to order a nightie, but when it arrived, it didn't fit right. The cotton was rough against my breasts, which poked out embarrassingly against the material like science-class volcanoes. No bras I ordered ever inspired wonder.
At parties though, Lisa and I were popular. And, my job that summer made me appear interesting to others. Flocks of boys would crowd around us while we to pretended to answer the VSC phone. I can’t say I learned about love or sex from the catalogue, but I learned to mimic some of the postures. I could bite my lip just so, lower my voice just right. I could close my eyes and imagine myself on a beach in Tahiti, as warm as Ohio nights.
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Even today, men and women who are intelligent, politically astute, and proud to call Ira Glass a sex symbol melt when I say I used to work at the Victoria’s Secret Catalogue. They beg me to “answer the phone.” (Hell yes, I’ve gotten laid using my old phone voice.) And, now I can work the underwires, easily recreate the catalogue poses: a finger against the lips, a tilt of the hips. It’s easy and fake and fun and horrible, and sometimes it’s hard to let go. I wonder if the real models face this dilemma: When they actually fall in love and someone sees them up close and in person, what do they do? First moves: open your eyes, take off the bra.
This post was authored by Nicole Ankowski.