Sex or service
Casino appearance policies are stricter than those at the Bunny Ranch
Working at a brothel may be more physically invasive than working as a Harrah’s cocktail waitress or female bartender. But at Dennis Hof’s Moonlite Bunny Ranch, the dress code is certainly easier to live with. That’s what former Harrah’s bartender Darlene Jespersen found out during a recent visit to the Bunny Ranch in Dayton.
“Everybody [at the brothel] pretty much had their own free will,” Jespersen said. “It was humane, and [Hof] was very respectful in his interactions with women.”
Why visit a brothel?
Jespersen, a veteran Harrah’s bartender fired in August for refusing to wear makeup, and her compadres wanted to know exactly what the sex industry demands of its employees in the way of makeup, hairstyle and footwear. The visit was the latest spin by the Alliance for Workers’ Rights in its Kiss My Foot campaign. Protesters plan to hand out fliers in front of Harrah’s on Friday, comparing dress requirements for casino employment with that of the Bunny Ranch.
Guess who comes out on top?
“I think Harrah’s bit off more than they can chew on this one,” said Bunny Ranch owner Hof. “It’s interesting that Harrah’s is not selling sex but requiring their employees to look as if they do.”
Hof said that his prostitutes have the freedom to dress in pretty much whatever they please, from G-strings to evening gowns to Levi cut-offs. Any footwear is OK except house slippers. Hair and fingernail requirements are summed up in a word: Clean.
“That’s all I’m selling is sex, and if a woman doesn’t want to wear makeup, she doesn’t have to,” Hof said. “One of my biggest earners wears no makeup at all.”
Harrah’s, on the other hand, requires employees—especially female employees—to follow strict appearance guidelines as part of the casino’s new, corporate-wide Personal Best program.
Female cocktail servers and bartenders must apply makeup, including foundation, concealer, blush and mascara, daily. For footwear, black pumps or dance shoes with at least a one-inch heel are a must. Hair must be “teased, curled or styled” and worn down everyday. No “ponytails, multiple ponytails, regular braids, buns [or] hair worn half-up, half-down.”
But wait. Doesn’t working at a brothel come with its own hassles, completely unrelated to grooming and appearance standards?
“I don’t know. I’ve never done it,” Jespersen said. “But there’s a choice. If you apply for a job as a prostitute, you know what you’re getting.”
Casino workers, on the other hand, didn’t agree to a job description that included selling sex, or even being a sex object. Bartenders and cocktail waitresses serve drinks, not sexual satisfaction, said Tom Stoneburner, director of the Alliance for Workers’ Rights.
“The industry insists that these women are entertainers,” Stoneburner said. “But women are saying to us, ‘We’re in the service industry. We serve drinks, run Keno. We’re not in the business to sell sex.’ “
Harrah’s spokesperson Kerri Garcia said the casino doesn’t have a lot to say about the fliers.
“It’s unfortunate to see this type of literature distributed that compares Harrah’s to the Bunny Ranch,” Garcia said. “But—free speech—they can distribute anything they want.”
The red high-heeled pumps perched at the back of Stoneburner’s desk serve as the reminder of how the Kiss My Foot campaign started a year ago. The shoes belong to campaign chair Kricket Martinez, a cocktail waitress, mom, PTA member and leader of both Boy and Girl Scout troops.
“I tell my Scouts, ‘You are who you are, and that’s good enough,’ to build their self-esteem,” Martinez said. “But they’ll all get out into the workplace and find out that who you are isn’t good enough.”
On Tuesday, Nevada state senators heard tearful testimonies of working and former cocktail waitresses. The reason for the waterworks? The introduction of SB 23, a bill that would forbid discrimination against workers injured by an employer’s mandatory job requirements, like wearing high-heeled shoes for an 8- to 10-hour cocktail waitress shift.
“Who could possibly be against this?” Stoneburner said. “It just makes me furious.”
Stoneburner said he’s especially mad that the casino work environment makes such a bill necessary. A survey conducted by the Kiss My Footers in May showed that more than 50 percent of the 80 cocktail servers who responded to the survey were required to wear heels at least 1 1/2 inches high. (To their credit, Harrah’s is one of several casinos that allow shoes with shorter, one-inch heels.)
“Why injure this employee in the first place?” Stoneburner asked. “In the name of what? You put this person in pain, so that she has a good chance of injuring herself. Then you march her until she is injured. Then you say, ‘Let’s see what we can do for her?’ You’re hurting someone over a shoe style.”
“And not just hurting them, you’re crippling them,” Martinez added. “Some of the damage done can’t be fixed.”
Sen. Maggie Carlton, a Las Vegas waitress, is sponsoring SB 23. The Alliance for Workers’ Rights, the ACLU, the AFL-CIO and the Nevada Women’s Lobby are among the groups backing the Democrat’s bill.
Who could stand out against such a boisterous group and emerge from the fray unscathed?
The Nevada Resort Association, of course.
NRA lobbyist Robert Ostrovsky testified that the bill’s language is overbroad with regard to dress code standards. Shoes, in particular, Ostrovsky said, should be negotiated between employees and employers through union representatives, not legislated by state lawmakers (unless, of course, you work at a non-union casino in Reno).
“The bill [seems to apply] to all uniforms and all of what we believe are grooming standards,” Ostrovsky said. “If there are problems, they’re best resolved one-on-one with employees.”
A poll of the NRA’s member casinos, Ostrovsky said, showed that all comply with reasonable requests for shoe changes. But the new legislation could end up requiring casinos to make “unreasonable” accommodations, he said.
On the bright side, the NRA seemed to agree with Stoneburner that the bill doesn’t address the root issue: women suffering from required footwear.
Though it’s unlikely the NRA would ever sponsor any kind of footwear mandate, Ostrovsky said that many casinos are voluntarily making changes in policy.
“The world has changed, and I think we’ve gotten more liberal in our views,” Ostrovksy said. “It used to be that heels were the ‘in’ look. … Now we try to balance the look we want [in the casinos] and the comfort of the people who spend eight hours on their feet.”
Martinez once frequently used a razor blade to scrape the calluses off of her feet. Then she could put her heels back on and get back to work. Now, working at Circus Circus, she called the casino’s footwear requirements realistic.
“I work at a place that gives you a break,” she said. “They just want you to do your job and not be some Stepford wife cut-out.”
Martinez and the Kiss My Foot campaign—and the firing of Jespersen for her refusal to wear makeup—captured the attention of the international media. The women have been interviewed by People, Time, the BBC, Mother Jones, the Utne Reader and a German magazine, as well as by countless newspaper reporters and radio talk show hosts.
Sometimes women, often complete strangers, will walk up to Martinez and want to take off their shoes and show her their feet.
“They say things like, ‘Let me show you what a real hammertoe looks like,’ “ she said. On the wall of Stoneburner’s Reno office is a photo of a woman’s foot. The bone fragments in the small toe have been removed and the toe is permanently sewn to the fourth digit to hold it in place.
“And that’s sexy,” Martinez said. “That’s the result of wearing high heels. That’s what [casino executives] call sexy.”
The hypocrisy of male executives critiquing her appearance makes Martinez furious.
“Once a big, fat guy behind a desk called me in and said, ‘I know you were pregnant, but you really need to lose a few pounds,’ “ she said. “You don’t see managers going around to guys saying, ‘Joe, your hair is receding. Get a hair transplant or a toupee.’ “
And it’s old news that some casinos refuse to alter uniforms, expecting women to keep their youthful, trim figures year after year. But Martinez noted wryly that new exceptions have been made in the uniform arena: A worker can get an alteration if she receives a breast enhancement.
“It makes you wonder what kind of idiots come up with this stuff,” Stoneburner said.
“When you get hired, you’re a size six,” Martinez said. “You put years and years into the company, get married, have kids. You’re not a size six anymore. Not everyone is a Barbie doll. Not everyone wants that.”
It was during the recording of one radio talk show out of Los Angeles that Martinez became inspired to compare the lot of cocktail waitresses and prostitutes. A rude caller wanted to know: “Aren’t cocktail waitresses just wannabe prostitutes?”
Martinez was outraged.
“I couldn’t believe he said that,” she said. “If I were a man, I’d feel really insulted by the casinos’ insinuation that all I am is a walking hormone with no sense of conscience.”
In August, managers at Harrah’s fired bartender Jespersen for refusing to wear makeup. Jespersen tended bar successfully without makeup for 20 years. After Harrah’s new Personal Best appearance policies kicked in last year, Jespersen suddenly found herself not in compliance with company policy.
“What does makeup have to do with mixing drinks?” Jespersen asked. “Not once in more than 20 years has a customer said, ‘Gee, this drink is lousy because you don’t have on lipstick.'”
Now, Jespersen’s unemployment compensation is about to run out. Hof, at the Bunny Ranch, offered her a job. No, not that kind of job. He offered her a position as head bartender. Still, she turned him down because of the 40-mile commute from Reno to Dayton.
But her impressions of the brothel were positive.
“If I were going to be a prostitute, that’s where I’d do it,” she said. “When you walk in, you wouldn’t know [it’s a brothel].”
The Bunny Ranch seemed to bend over backwards to create a pleasant environment for workers and clients. Though smoking is allowed in the brothel, air purifiers are “all over the place,” Jespersen said.
“It’s kind of nice that they look out for your comfort like that,” she said.
Jespersen said brothel owner Hof seemed surprised that the casino industry would hold their female employees to a much different standard. Hof agreed that he found it amusing.
“Harrah’s needs to stand up and say, ‘We’re in the sex business,' or change their requirements," Hof said.