Confessions Of A Party Waitress

Photo: New Line/REX/Shutterstock.
I was 18 when I made three big decisions – not to continue with university, to move back in with my parents in London, and to intern my arse off until I could actually get my dream job. No longer able to fall back on a student loan, I had to get out of the house and start earning. So I signed up to an event service company as fast as I possibly could.

Being an event waitress seemed like the perfect solution; I could work around my internships, be with people my own age, and see inside fabulous parties. Snappily dressed in my finest Primark polyester and a borrowed pair of work shoes, I began my career in the event service industry. During that time I worked with wonderful and less-than-wonderful people, built up my back muscles carrying crates of booze, and had the most educational job of my life. Quite a few of these lessons I learned the hard way...

You will be judged instantly on how attractive you are
To work as an event waitress you first have to sign up with an agency. They then book you in for jobs, tell you what to do when you’re there, and (eventually) pay you. They also choose who has pick of the easiest, best-paid jobs – and those are generally the most attractive people. At my own agency I found out that the pictures they took at our training day were used to tier us, secretly, into As, Bs & Cs.

The As got the highest-paid, easiest jobs, like working as hosts, and were given extra training to be bartenders. The Bs were the waiters and waitresses who got picked for the fanciest events, such as celebrity birthday parties. The Cs received the fewest offers and were given the hardest jobs. There was no pay transparency, so you could be doing exactly the same job as someone else but, because you were deemed less attractive, you would be paid less. The managers from these agencies were generally kind and supportive but at the events themselves we were as decorative as the place settings.

You will continue to be judged by everyone
On the whole, both the guests and teams I came into contact with were – at the very least – pleasant. But at almost every job there were, well... others. There was the man who sat at the bar, facing me, picking his nose and eating it while I cleaned glasses. There were the dozen or so guests who shoved me, or stood on my toes, and expected me to apologise. There was the manager who scolded us for sweating in 30 degree heat as it made us look “messy”.
Then there were the guests who looked down my shirt, or made comments about my appearance to my face, and expected me to laugh. Trying to ward off the advances of an octogenarian while holding a platter of prawns requires every last communicative skill. It didn’t always stop at the guests, either; we knew we had been hired because at least some of the managers found us attractive – and not all of them kept it to themselves. Cloaked as "banter" when, really, it was sexual harassment, at almost every job female event staff had to deal with older male managers asking about our love lives, commenting on how well our uniforms fit, and doling out “posture advice” (read: stick out your chest).

You will see places you have never seen before
So why did we put up with it? For all its drawbacks, this job meant seeing the inside of events I would never make it to otherwise. My working days were long and backbreaking but sometimes they were inside a giant tent lit by lanterns in real trees. In quiet moments I got to sneak out to join the guests and cheer on racehorses from the best seats at Ascot or watch a polo match (for the first and last time). Once I was flown out to Spain for three days to work at a wedding and they put us up at a luxurious hotel for the whole stay. I even thought all my childhood dreams had come true when we entered one job through a secret entrance at the Natural History Museum and found ourselves serving champagne next to a giant diplodocus.

Some things I saw, though, were not so magical. The bride at one opulent wedding had failed to provide a vegetarian meal option, despite the fact she was vegetarian and had planned the entire wedding herself. The chefs had to cobble together a meal while her groom cheerfully tucked into a steak. I discovered that the trees used to decorate that fairytale tent cost £9,000 each, which was difficult to stomach when we were being paid minimum wage. We also found out halfway through our shift at the Natural History Museum that some of the guests were arms dealers. That took the shine off my childhood dreams pretty quickly.
You will work long, backbreaking shifts
Though the settings may sometimes have been glamorous, the work definitely was not. Working as a server included the setting up and breaking down of everything at the party. A typical six- to eight-hour shift would begin with assembling and setting a six-foot-wide table, fighting through a crowd with trays of canapés for hours, then dashing across a busy London street carrying crates of un-drunk alcohol to a waiting van. Or, if you were chosen to be a hostess, you'd be put into a tight dress and heels and have to stand and smile for the entire night. This meant being consistently leered over by guests, body-shamed by your manager if your dress didn’t fit, and permanently damaging your feet.

The upside was that if you were well-liked by your agency you were almost always employed. When I needed shifts, my managers would help me find work, and when I was busy with internships, I could turn them down. When everything else in my life was chaotic, being able to make a few calls and know that I could earn enough cash to get me through was a lifesaver.

You will find perks almost everywhere
I soon worked out that most of the people I was working with – managers, servers, chefs, bartenders – were getting through their shifts the same way: alcohol. This shouldn’t have surprised me; most of the staff were under 25, broke, and surrounded by food and drinks that they didn’t have to pay for. Shifts would generally start with the chefs sneaking us bites of food on our way back to the kitchen, and would end with us ducking under the bar for a sneaky shot of leftover liquor with the bartenders. This was expressly forbidden, so we had to make sure we never got too tipsy.

We still managed some very drunken times, however – usually when the guests decided we should join in with their revelry. One wedding saw me in the middle of a dance circle with two other waitresses, having vodka poured down our throats. At another event, some of the female guests basically set up a bar in the ladies' loo and invited the handsome waiters (A-tier, remember) in for whisky. The most famous incident, though, was the night a colleague of mine had to clear a table on which every glass of wine had been left untouched. He decided to drink them all himself; eight glasses, down in one. He then carried the tray of empties back to the kitchen, passing a manager on his way, and dropped the tray on the floor, smashing every single glass. He simply looked down, laughed, and walked off. Unsurprisingly, he was fired as soon as he'd sobered up.

You will find it hard to walk away
I got the offer of my dream job just before I was supposed to work an event. I was so overjoyed that I cried in the middle of a café. Then I pulled on my work shoes and went off to serve canapés for six hours. I wasn’t obliged to do that final shift. Most of my colleagues – even my manager, who knew how long I had waited to stop working in events – asked me why I was there.

I was there because, despite all the drawbacks, I genuinely enjoyed being an event waitress. I loved being part of the team, sharing all the good and bad things about the job. I loved the thanks we would get when the job went well and every guest had a good time. I loved exploring each new venue, and feeling like a seasoned professional when I had already worked there. It wasn’t the best-paid or most satisfying job I’ve ever had, but I’ve used the lessons I learned in every job since. If, one day, my dream job falls through, I still have my work shoes in my cupboard. Just in case.

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