On a sweltering summer afternoon at a Fort Lauderdale waterfront bar, DJ Crash blasts testosterone-driven rock 'n' roll through the PA system, in particular an old Styx song, "Too Much Time on My Hands." With a beer in his hand, a shirtless fat man in a porkpie hat dances along the catwalk that bisects the bar's outdoor swimming pool. Waitresses in short shorts navigate the crowd, carrying draft beers to the musclemen lolling in the pool, the bikers at poolside tables, the tourists, and the young hipsters shouting into cell phones above the noise of the crowd. A brawny man in his twenties, wearing sunglasses and an unbuttoned shirt that reveals a thick, gold chain, mouths the words of the chorus: "I've got too much time on my hands. Too much time on my hands."
Beneath an awning on the other side of the pool, about 100 feet from the crowd, Cynthia Harper, a sculpted, deeply tanned 28-year-old with bobbed blond hair, freshly applied makeup, and manicured nails, fiddles with the string that keeps her peach-colored bikini bottom on. Standing next to her is Renee Jaquith, who yawns.
Behind the women yachts cruise the Intracoastal. A captain toots his foghorn as he catches a glimpse of Harper, Jaquith, and three other women, most of them wearing nothing but string bikinis, in the shade. Two skinny guys wearing dirty jeans and sneakers approach one of the women.
"I just wanted to let you know that you have the prettiest smile of all the girls," one says. He's pimply-faced and in need of a shave.
Linda Zamora, who's wearing a lightweight black sundress over her bikini, smiles, thanks the man, then turns away. The men retreat to their barstools.
A moment later Gilda Perez, whose blond-streaked hair dips below her shoulders, approaches Zamora. Perez is 26 years old and a few inches taller than the five-foot-seven-inch Zamora. She's wearing a skimpy one-piece swimsuit designed to resemble the American flag.
"Remember me?" Perez asks.
Zamora nods vaguely.
Perez, it turns out, met Zamora two weeks earlier, right here at Shooters. She'd asked Zamora for the name of the doctor who performed her breast-implant surgery. Although Zamora thought the request was unusual, she gave Perez the doctor's name anyway. Within the next week, Perez made an appointment and got the implants. Today she's returned to Shooters to thank Zamora. And to join her as a contestant in this week's bikini contest.
As Crash lowers the volume, emcee Jack Scelsi grabs the mic and invites contestants for the Sunday-afternoon bikini contest to sign up at the DJ booth. Puffing away on a cigarette, the 48-year-old Scelsi is wearing shorts and a T-shirt that says "Rehab is for quitters."
"Get these kids outta here," he says to those adults who've brought their kids along. "Especially the little boys. They'll be spanking their monkeys before you know it. And look at all these perverts with cameras. Get those outta here."
Suddenly the contest begins, and Harper is first in line. After Scelsi introduces her, she pulls off her white T-shirt to reveal a peach bikini top bursting with flesh and silicone. She drops the T-shirt by her feet, which, thanks to a pair of stiletto heels, are the most covered parts of her body. Harper steps onto the catwalk, leaving the other women behind. From the back the sliver of peach spandex of her bikini bottom leaves virtually nothing to the imagination.
Three hundred men scream and whistle poolside. Harper looks a few of them in the eye, a technique that wins her some fans. "I'll take you anywhere you want to go, baby," barks one man. "Anywhere you want to go." Another man, wearing a red bandanna, announces: "I'm going to have a heart attack right here." Harper slowly makes her way around the pool, and when she returns to the awning, Scelsi introduces Zamora, a leggy, dark-skinned native of New York City who's also wearing a skimpy bikini and stiletto heels.
But next in line is Cary, a 22-year-old brunette who, compared to today's other contestants, is absolutely buttoned up. She's wearing rubber sandals and a blue two-piece that covers her entire backside.
"She'll win because she's from the crowd," Harper sneers. "She doesn't look like the others, and she's the underdog. These days suck, because you get someone who doesn't work out that hard and she wins because she's the underdog."
Harper's scorn, if you're familiar with her world, makes sense. She and most of the other women under the awning are "professionals" who earn all or part of their annual income by competing in -- and usually winning -- bikini contests. Every day of the week, these self-described "circuit girls" use their good looks and self-promotional savvy to strut around catwalks, stages, or parquet dance floors to compete for cash and prizes, which, on average, amount to $30,000 a year per contestant.
But, once in a while, an amateur steps in, appeals to the mostly male crowd's sense of fair play, and, after garnering the loudest applause, takes the prize. Today, as Harper predicted, the "new girl," Cary, wins. Plucked from the crowd and offering no particular skill, she gets to walk away with first prize: $250.
This sort of thing used to happen all the time. Ten to twenty years ago, when spring break in Fort Lauderdale was at its raucous best, when the male mantra at beachside bars was "skin to win," female coeds, giving in to peer pressure and a few mugs of beer, would bare all for quick cash and an ego boost. But that tradition ended in the mid to late '80s, when residents and elected representatives sought to transform Fort Lauderdale from one big frat house into a world-class tourist destination. In place of the wet T-shirt and banana-eating contests, bar owners began to sponsor year-round bikini contests, which, ostensibly at least, appeared to be much more conservative than their predecessors. The contests were so financially successful, they demanded a steady supply of participants. And so a new profession, one that helps perpetuate South Florida's fun-in-the-sun beach culture, was born: the circuit girl.
But the job does have its share of occupational hazards.
Aside from having to compete with the occasional amateur, today's circuit girls have to deal with bigger problems. In some cases they've been stalked, in others promised fame and fortune by men claiming to be in show business. In fact the common belief that bikini contests will lead to modeling and acting jobs is an illusion. Most circuit girls, including those who start out with the intention of funding their way through school, end up relying heavily on the easy money and the perpetual praise provided by the contests. Eventually they get lazy, and dreams of careers are either forgotten or put on hold indefinitely.
Stephanie Smith, who teaches a course on popular culture and gender at the University of Florida, claims that even those who go on to become stars continue to pay a price for their dependence on looks. "Marilyn Monroe used to say, 'This is what I get attention for,'" Smith observes. "'They wouldn't give me any attention before I was a woman. Before I had breasts and ass, everyone ignored me. Now I get attention. And I get paid. It's the cheapest, fastest way to get attention, if you have it.'"
On a recent afternoon in her parents' Coral Springs home, a barefoot Harper curls up on a black leather couch to talk about her ten years as a circuit girl. She wears gray leggings and a white sports bra, and from time to time her Lhasa apso, Gizmo, yelps over the din of the television tuned to MTV. Her 25-year-old brother, Michael, heads through the living room on his way back to his job at his parents' electronics manufacturing firm. Harper has been offered a full-time sales job at the firm, but she chooses instead to work an afternoon or two a week for a couple hours at a time. Today she doesn't feel like going in.
Besides, she already has a full-time job. As a circuit girl, her daily routine consists of sleeping until noon before rolling out of bed and heading to the gym, the beach, or the tanning salon. This lifestyle is fairly typical of the circuit girls, although some are students or have low-paying modeling gigs or part-time day jobs as bartenders or waitresses, which allow them to compete in the mostly late-night contests.
"I prefer the day contests [on weekends]," Harper remarks, "because I don't have any flaws. During the night everyone has a good body."
At the age of 28, the five-foot-four-inch Harper weighs in at 115 pounds. Like the other "older" circuit girls, she works out a lot and looks athletic as a result. But most of the women, who are at least a couple years younger than Harper, claim they barely exercise at all -- hard to believe, considering all of them have flat stomachs and well-defined legs.
Harper started competing in 1988, after a friend convinced her to enter a contest at Heat, a now-defunct Fort Lauderdale dance club. Although she was nervous, she walked on stage, waved at the crowd, and, using her girlish figure to Lolita-like advantage, won $100. A first-year student at Broward Community College, she was only 18 years old and weighed less than 100 pounds. Two years later Harper got breast implants, boosting her B cup to a C cup. With bigger breasts she banked on her body to win contests. And, like the many other circuit girls with implants, she has.
In Harper's case especially, the implants were a solid long-term investment. In 1993 she graduated from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor's degree in liberal studies. This year she earned her real-estate license, and she bought a $1000 sewing machine with the aim of starting her own line of swimwear. But she remains on the circuit.
So the question is: Why would any woman want to?
"Number one, to get attention," offers Barry Schneider, a psychology professor at Nova Southeastern University. "They get an awful lot of it. Unfortunately for some people, who they are is defined by what they look like."
Harper offers a more pragmatic explanation: It's easy money. "I wish I could quit the contests," she confesses, "but the money is so good."
Like any other professional, the circuit girl goes through winning and losing streaks. But a typical week -- which amounts to five shows, or more than 15 hours of bikini-wearing and waving -- brings in between $400 and $800. "Unfortunately you get addicted to it," says Christine Marais, who worked the circuit for five years before moving to Los Angeles last year, where she hosts a local Fox Sports motocross show. "When you should have quit long ago, you keep on doing it because you get addicted to the money."
The money is also good for bar owners. Reg Moreau, co-owner of Shooters, declined to state exactly how much money the twice-weekly contests bring in. He noted, however, that they account for about 25 percent of the bar's overall annual revenue.
Like other Fort Lauderdale bars, Sloppy Joe's, a beachfront establishment named after the Key West saloon frequented by Ernest Hemingway, usually sees its revenues go down significantly during the off-season summer months. But four months ago, Sloppy Joe's started hosting Tuesday-night bikini contests, and this year's summer revenues were up, according to Todd Cassidy, the bar's general manager. He wouldn't divulge numbers, but he said, "Obviously we're making decent money on [the weekly contest], or else we wouldn't be doing it."
The narrow, perennially smoke-filled Sloppy Joe's is decorated with old photographs of Hemingway and Key West and neon signs shaped like a palm tree, a lighthouse, and a fish. At 11 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, the bar is filled with about 100 men -- businessmen, tourists, locals. Tonight's bikini contest is set to begin soon, and Dan Monroe is pacing the otherwise empty dance floor. Monroe is a bikini-contest promoter of sorts. At Shooters he gets paid $100 to organize and emcee the contest. Because it's his job to make sure the women arrive on time, he calls the circuit girls -- about 15 of them -- before each show, to see who's coming. Monroe organizes shows at four bars in Palm Beach and Broward counties, including Sloppy Joe's. Tonight it appears as if none of the contestants is going to show.
Finally at about 11:30 p.m., four circuit girls arrive, each carrying a gym bag filled with water bottles, makeup, high-heeled shoes, and three or four swimsuits. They head for the ladies' room, where, for the next half-hour, they get ready.
As Monroe begins the contest, the men ring the cordoned-off dance floor. Hanging from a wall behind the floor is a gigantic black tapestry of a bearded, dour-looking Ernest Hemingway. Six women -- two of them newcomers -- stand in a dark hallway between the restroom and the dance floor while they wait for Monroe to introduce them. When he calls for Zamora, she steps onto the floor wearing a white T-shirt over her bikini. With Papa Hemingway looking on, she pulls off her shirt, throws it toward the flailing, outstretched hands behind the rope, and struts across the floor. When its her turn, each woman does the same thing, and, at the end of the show, Monroe calls them to the floor to announce the winners.
Typically an emcee judges contests based on the volume of audience applause for each contestant. But at Sloppy Joe's, Monroe prefers to pick judges from the crowd. Using a scale of one to ten, they score for looks and personality. But final scores don't mean a whole lot to the circuit girls. In most cases a bar sets aside a pool of prize money ahead of time. If the contestants are all circuit girls, they tend to negotiate -- before or during a contest -- ways to split the money.
Many times the money is spread thinly among the contestants. That way, the circuit girls are encouraged to return every week. What they and the bar owners realize is that without circuit girls there aren't enough women for a contest. And if that's the case, the men stop coming, the bars lose money, and the circuit girls are out of jobs.
Tonight at Sloppy Joe's, the pot amounts to $300, and before the judges' results are announced, Harper suggests the money should be split three ways. "No," pleads Jaquith, a would-be model who competes in virtually every contest. "Split it four ways."
"Are you all willing to do that?" Monroe asks, puffing away on a stogy. The women say they are, and when Monroe announces the final results, the top four women walk away with $75 each.
Zamora, who came in fifth place, is not one of them. After changing her clothes, she's greeted at the restroom door by her fiance, Alex Ulitsky, a burly car salesman from Pembroke Pines. Ulitsky approves of Zamora's career choice and attends some of the shows to cheer her on. He says he sometimes overhears men in the audience shouting lewd comments about his fiancee's body. When that happens he usually identifies himself and tells them to shut up.
"As long as she don't strip, I don't care," Ulitsky says. "They want something I have. I take it as a compliment. She has a nice body. She should show it off."
Three kinds of women win bikini contests in South Florida: first-timers, sleazeballs, and professionals. The men in the crowd appreciate the first-timers. Regular bar patrons see the same women week after week; a fresh face is always welcome. But some crowds really appreciate the sleazeballs, the ones who stagger onto the stage, flash their breasts, and jump into the crowd. But while anyone can win a contest or two, only the professionals know the four unwritten rules that allow them to survive in the bikini-contest business.
Rule Number One: Exploit everything you have -- and some things you don't.
Contestants don't tap-dance or answer questions about world hunger. So each woman needs to do a little something special that will provide a bit of insight into personality. Some prefer the sultry smile, the coy glance, or the seductive stare. When Harper walks the catwalk, she's as nonchalant as if she were walking down the driveway to pick up the morning paper -- only she's wearing next to nothing. Renee Jaquith plays the role of the Girl Next Door. Sometimes she wears a baseball cap, with her hair in a ponytail. She claims she has not had plastic surgery and instructs the emcees to call her "All Naturale."
Rule Number Two: Be Nice.
Women who flash the crowd or wear slingshot suits (which cover only the nipples and genitalia) may receive cheers or even win a couple of contests, but they're considered bad for business among the circuit girls. And bar owners, who don't want to be saddled with a sleazy reputation, usually have emcees disqualify these kinds of contestants. Overly flamboyant women don't make friends among the circuit girls either. One day several weeks ago, according to Harper, a woman who claimed she worked for a financial investment firm in Miami flashed the crowd at a poolside contest, then jumped in the pool and urinated. Though the emcee made a joke about the incident, the circuit girls were not amused.
"We're up there," says Jaquith, "and we're looking hot, and we're looking good and we're looking bam! But when we're done, we go back and put on our sweats, and we're normal. But she goes around and sluts herself. And then the guys see us and think we're going to be like that."
Rule Number Three: Make the most of the truth. And if that doesn't work, lie.
Before each contest a contestant fills out an entry card, which lists hometown, hobbies, and occupation. Whenever Zamora signs up at Shooters, she states she's from Queens, New York, where she grew up. When the emcee reads this bit of information off the card, the crowd, largely tourists and Florida transplants from the Northeast, cheers. But when she competes at a locals' bar called Danny's West, she claims she's from Pembroke Pines, where she's lived for only a year. Circuit girls also play to a particular crowd's tastes. If the contest takes place in a bar with pool tables, the contestant is suddenly the next Minnesota Fats. If the crowd is mostly beachgoers, well, get out your surfboards, because your surfer girl is here.
"We'll lie about anything," Zamora says.
Rule Number Four: Don't be too nice.
Circuit girls know they're considered easy prey. Virtually every one of them has been approached by a man who a) is in love or b) will make her rich.
In 1989, a year after Harper began competing, a scraggly, bearded, middle-aged man approached her at Shooters and handed her a hand-written, 100-page love letter. He wrote that he'd noticed how Harper gazed into his eyes whenever she took the stage, how her smile was meant only for him. He showed up at most of Harper's contests and, after discovering her address, sent her jewelry and a giant stuffed elephant. One day while sunbathing at Deerfield Beach, she stood up and saw him sitting nearby, staring at her. Another evening he called Harper's mother at home. "Just tell her I love her," he said. Harper says that, because antistalking laws didn't even exist in Florida until 1992, there wasn't much she could do about the man, who never threatened her physically. But one day in 1994, after security at Shooters asked the man to leave, he suddenly disappeared. She hasn't heard from him since.
While Harper had to deal with a stalker, Jaquith fell for the old "I'll-make-you-a-star" routine. Since the age of 14, she's been doing some modeling and plans to make it a full-time career. So when a well-dressed stranger told her he could get her a job at ESPN, the cable sports network, she thought it was a dream come true. First, though, he needed to take photographs of her to send to headquarters. Although skeptical, she knew photos were often part of the application process. But when the man brought her to a remote spot in the Florida Keys for the photos, she knew something was wrong. Then he asked her to take her top off.
"I'm thinking, 'What's going to happen if I don't do this?'" she recalls. So she pulled her top off and covered herself as best she could as the man clicked away. A few weeks later, Jaquith went to the man's Fort Lauderdale home to see the pictures. "Seriously," she laughs, "my mom could have taken better pictures."
Jaquith admits that she should have known better than to trust a stranger who'd made vague promises. What she did, she explains, was pin her hopes on the remote chance of a big career break. Jaquith is not alone. For example, many of the circuit girls, who put themselves in similar positions, claim they can't hear the men who yell at them, calling them rude names, and talking about their bodies as they walk across the bikini-contest stages.
Whether or not they can hear the comments, the circuit girls are well aware that their bodies, not their personalities, are what most of the men have come to see. With that in mind, they've set some guidelines for themselves, which, relative to the rest of South Florida's skin industry, make them appear clean-cut. They would never, for instance, resort to the kind of sleazy behavior seen in strip clubs.
Professor Schneider believes the women are trying to draw a strong distinction between themselves and something that is overtly sexual. "In this particular context certain rules apply," he says. "Here [in the contests] the purpose is to gain recognition. There is obviously a real emphasis on not being blatantly sexual, but to be in control."
But control is just an illusion, which doesn't detract from the fact that, when the circuit girls go on stage, they become objects of desire. Not every circuit girl can handle the pressure. Marais, who worked on the circuit for five years, acknowledges that she noticed the leering eyes and the abrasive comments at every contest. Last year she finally quit. "I had no tolerance for any of it," she says.
Since the day the first drunken coed climbed atop a makeshift stage at a Fort Lauderdale beachfront bar and exposed her breasts to a crowd of cheering frat boys, the city has been considered a place where alcohol, sex, and good clean fun in the sun all come together. The birth of the culture dates back to 1960, when the film Where the Boys Are, which chronicled the spring break adventures of four young women, solidified Fort Lauderdale's party reputation. Beginning that year college kids flocked to the city, where, in bars and nightclubs along the beach, they drank and caroused.
To attract business generated by this annual pilgrimage, Fort Lauderdale bar owners offered cheap drinks and promotional gimmicks. Daily fare on Ocean Boulevard (State Road A1A) included bikini, beer-chugging, and belly flop contests. And one winter day in 1978, Paul Lorenzo, co-owner of one of the most popular spring break bars, the World Famous Candy Store, brought the contests to a whole new level. The then 32-year-old Lorenzo was strolling down A1A when he noticed an advertisement for Jamaica in a storefront window. The ad featured a partially submerged woman wearing a white T-shirt as she stepped from the Caribbean Sea onto the beach.
A few days later, the Candy Store sponsored what Lorenzo claims was the world's first wet T-shirt contest. The Fort Lauderdale Historical Society can't back up his claim, but Lorenzo does offer "evidence," including several scrapbooks of newspaper clippings that describe the contests, four episodes of the '80s TV show Real People, which featured glimpses of the Candy Store contests, and a 1986 video, The Girls of Spring Break, which was filmed at the bar and sold by Penthouse magazine. The contests, replicated in bars along the beach, were wildly popular. And so was Fort Lauderdale. By 1985 a reported 350,000 students traveled to the beach every year for spring break.
From the beginning Lorenzo realized just why the contests were so popular. "It's not just the fact that sex sells," he observes. "You can go to a strip club for that. It's that this is the girl next door, the girl you've been looking at all day long, and suddenly she's up there and she's taking her clothes off. That's the fantasy. It was the idea that they weren't professionals."
But, by the mid-'80s, Fort Lauderdale residents were complaining about spring break excesses, including drunken college kids clogging the streets with traffic and getting sick on locals' lawns. Residents and city commissioners wanted Fort Lauderdale's future to include upscale shopping, dining, and entertainment. Not banana-eating contests.
So the city began enforcing open-container laws, which hurt the beachfront bars, and arresting underage drinkers. The Fort Lauderdale City Commission also created several new zoning and code regulations, which in some cases forced bar owners to spend thousands of dollars on renovations. By 1988, when all the new laws were in place, only 140,000 students were traveling to Fort Lauderdale for spring break each year. And bars that couldn't afford to comply with strict new codes, such as the Candy Store, were going out of business.
"They just wanted us out of there completely," Lorenzo grumbles, as he sifts through the pages of his spring break scrapbooks. "It was terrible. We put our heart and soul into it, and it was terrific. But the city killed it."
Not everyone saw it that way. Other bar owners -- perhaps taking heed of Lorenzo's observations about spring break contests in general -- were already coming up with what they considered family-oriented events. Shooters, for example, began sponsoring "hot bod" contests as early as 1984.
The goal, says emcee Scelsi, was to have a daytime show, during which both men and women could have lunch or a few drinks by the water and enjoy a full afternoon of entertainment. "We never targeted the spring break crowd," he claims.
By the early '90s, the circuit-girl profession was providing local women with a way to earn easy money. Others planned to use the circuit to catapult fledgling modeling or acting careers into big-time opportunities. A handful succeeded; others faded into obscurity. Out of the hundreds of women who have entered Fort Lauderdale bikini contests since the heyday of spring break, perhaps five have hit it big, according to Luis Alicea, an agent with Famous Faces Entertainment, who represents three former circuit girls, including Christine Marais.
Marais, who was on the circuit for five years, says that, unlike many of her colleagues, she spent her days working hard, taking acting lessons and going to auditions to further her career. When she quit the circuit and moved to Los Angeles, her hard work paid off. She just completed filming for her role as the female villain in a B movie, and an audition landed her a job at a local Fox Sports TV program. She claims that most circuit girls are simply waiting to be discovered.
"There's no potential for modeling," Marais says. "We're too short. There's no $10,000 a day in any of us. There's no supermodel in any of them. There's a hundred million beautiful people, and you have to put in the time. Some of the girls are lazy."
That's precisely what worries circuit-girl parents.
"I think the whole thing is keeping her from getting a job," complained one mother, who didn't want to be identified. "My friends all have daughters with careers. They can be anything -- doctors, lawyers, anything in life.... [My daughter has] capabilities, but she really hasn't gotten into anything she can put on a resume."
Marais couldn't agree more. While she was on the circuit, she says, people assumed she was a bimbo; worse yet, they treated her that way. For five years she struggled to maintain self-respect.
"I don't think it's a good experience," she concludes. "A lot of people do it very young, and I think some people are disrespectful of women. And if you don't have the tolerance or you're not balanced enough, I think it can leave a bad mark with you."
But for every Marais, who leaves the circuit in disgust, there's another woman in South Florida willing to give the circuit a shot. It's 11 p.m. on a Wednesday night, and Christine Hauser, age 26, has just walked into Danny's West with two male friends to compete in her first bikini contest. While she waits for the contest to begin, she sits in a booth by the door with her friends, sipping soft drinks.
It's already been a long day for Hauser. She says she woke up early this morning to get to her job as a preschool teacher. She likes the job, she says, and would like to continue teaching and return to school for her bachelor's degree. But right now she can't afford it. The circuit, she believes, could be the answer. She doesn't plan to do it for long, she says, just long enough to pay the bills.
"I just want to get through school, get married, and have kids," she says. "Very boring. Very wholesome."
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Tonight's crowd is small, consisting of the two dozen or so regulars who come every night of the week, whether there's a contest or not. The contest at Danny's is only a month old and has not quite taken off yet. That's a good thing for Hauser, who is nervous about being scrutinized by a bunch of strangers.
Hauser knows she'll win something tonight. She's one of only four contestants, and they've already agreed to split the $300 pot by giving the first- and second-place winners $100 each, the remaining two $50 each.
When the emcee introduces Hauser, she steps carefully onto the dance floor, wearing the requisite high heels and a pink-and-white-striped bikini. She has straight brown hair that flows behind her shoulders to the small of her back. Her long, fair-skinned legs tremble. The other three contestants -- all of them circuit girls -- have their acts down pat: the confident wave, the flip of the hair, the sultry smile. Hauser forces a smile of her own.
Within 15 minutes the contest is over, and because the crowd is so small, it doesn't take long to gauge audience approval. With the help of her two friends, who applaud and give shouts of approval, Hauser wins second place. The emcee lights up a cigarette, the patrons resume drinking, and Hauser is relieved as she scurries off to the restroom to change clothes. "Gosh," she exclaims when she returns. "That was the easiest $100 I ever made.