It's Monday night and at 8:00 p.m., and I am sitting at a table at the Tilted Kilt in Mission Valley. With the exception of a few guys on barstools, a group of British tourists, and an inebriated man nursing a gin and tonic, it’s dead.
The drunk guy is beginning to nod off when Molly, a server, addresses him.
“You okay, hon?” she asks. “Want another one?”
He bobs his tipsy head, indicating that he’s fine. Molly shrugs and smiles. He grins, revealing a row of coffee-stained teeth.
Molly O’Dell is 19. She is tan and thin. She wears the Tilted Skirt uniform — knee-high socks, a micro-mini plaid skirt, and a white blouse unbuttoned to reveal a black push-up bra. Like the other servers, she ties her shirt above her waist to show off her midriff, which is pierced. She wears glasses. She resembles Britney Spears in the music video “...Baby One More Time.”
Molly has been paid to wear next to nothing since she was 16.
“I started as a hostess at Hooters when I was 16. I had an older friend that worked there. She told me I could be a hostess and make $50 a night and have a bunch of boys pay attention to me. What 16-year-old doesn’t want guys telling her constantly how pretty she is?”
In high school, Molly’s job was unique. Most of the kids had normal waitressing gigs, mall jobs, or worked at grocery stores.
“On the first day of school, when the teachers would ask the kids in the class where they worked, I always had to say, ‘I’m 16 and work at Hooters.’” Molly laughs at the memory. “Some of my classmates thought it was the coolest thing ever.”
Molly admits that her choice to become a Hooters employee was awkward at first. Her dad and grandmother weren’t really onboard with the idea.
“My grandmother was very, very offended. She said I was a cute girl that should be working somewhere else. She came into Hooters one day and saw that I was acting my age. I was being cute and giggly. I wasn’t sitting behind a desk acting like a stuffy woman. My dad cared at first, too, but then he came in. He saw me at work and was cool with it. He saw that I was using what I have to make a buck. He understood. He comes into the Tilted Kilt sometimes.”
In order for Molly to maintain her job at the Tilted Kilt, she spends $200 a month on a personal trainer, $10 on a gym membership, $25 at the tanning bed, $50–$100 on make-up, $50 to get her nails done, and another $40 to get her hair trimmed every six weeks.
“When I was working at Hooters,” she says, “I spent way more money on maintenance. They wanted me to be perfect. My hair was bleach-blond back then. This is a lifestyle choice. I don’t get to sit on the couch and eat chips all day. I work hard for this body. I am only young once. I’ll only have this body for so long, might as well live it up.”
Amy and Kirjah interview at Miller's Field in Pacific Beach
Molly says that customers can get a little handsy sometimes, but it’s part of her job. She sticks up for herself and knows how to politely remove herself from an uncomfortable situation.
“I have to deal with inappropriate behavior 24/7. Guys are gross. I had some drunk guy stick his face in my boobs. He dove face-first into my boobs. I wanted to hit him. A lot of the girls are passive-aggressive. They say, ‘Please don’t do that, please don’t touch me.’ I stand up for myself. Guys will say whatever is on their mind. Like, ‘Can I get your number? Can I take you out tonight? How much do you weigh? What size bra do you wear?’ I doubt they would ask a normal girl that. Customers think we are strippers or playmates.” Molly sighs. “It’s sad, but you kind of get used to it after a while.”
Molly says that, with a job like hers, it can be difficult dating. Her boyfriends don’t always understand her career choice, and neither do their parents.
“I’ve had guys ask me to quit my job for them. I tell them no, never. Sometimes their parents find out where I work and are, like, ‘You work where? Why?’ They don’t understand. People are judgmental. It’s not like this is my lifetime career. My day job is at a financial advisor’s office. I’m a personal assistant. I’m also in school to become an elementary-school teacher.” Molly laughs. “I don’t know how my students’ parents are going to feel when they see internet photos of me dressed like this.”
Molly has dated customers on occasion.
“It doesn’t work out. They want you to be in costume 24/7. They want your hair done and full make-up all the time. There are a lot of girls that work here that get offended by customers. There are other girls that love the attention and hearing guys tell them that they are pretty and have a nice body. There is a fine line. There are some girls that go to guys’ houses and pool parties. They are doing God only knows what. There is a line you can’t pass.”
The British tourists at the table behind us are getting boisterous. Molly gets up to check on them.
“Hey,” one shouts. “How about a photo?”
Molly wedges in between the four men. They drape their arms around her. She smiles sweetly for the camera.
“I never pay for my drinks,” says Amy (far left). “Guys pay for all that.” But Kirjah (far right) warns, “Guys become stalkers.”
Image by Howie Rosen
It’s a Friday night and Katie, Kirjah, and Amy are getting ready to go to Miller’s Field In Pacific Beach.
They are in Clairemont, at Kirjah Trailer’s parents’ house, where Kirjah still lives.
“I guess you could say that we are bar girls, that’s what we do,” 23-year-old Kirjah says. She motions for me to sit on the bed beside her overweight chocolate Labrador retriever. Clouds are painted on her walls. On her dresser, a row of nail polishes and perfumes are neatly arranged.
“Don’t turn around,” she says. “I’m completely nude!” A few minutes later, she emerges from a closet wearing tight black pants rolled at the ankle, platform shoes, and a push-up bra.
“Do you think I should wear these?” she asks, holding up a pair of silicone breast cutlets. Without waiting for a response, she slides them in her bra. She throws on a see-through button-down black-and-white striped top, tucks her nearly waist-length perfectly curled blonde hair behind her ears, and sprays on so much perfume I go into a sneezing fit.
Meanwhile, Katie sits in front of the mirror, running a curling iron through her hair to create long, cascading curls.
“It smells gross,” Kirjah announces, scrunching up her nose. “Like burnt fake hair.”
“Don’t be jealous that I have sicker extensions than you,” Katie says. She bends down and straps on green stilettos with a plaid print on the heel. They go with her short green shorts and sheer white blouse. “I can go in the ocean tomorrow with this hair and whatever new boyfriend I’ll meet tonight, so shut up, bitch.”
All three of the young women crack up.
“We go to clubs every weekend and during the week,” Amy says. “I usually go to the Gaslamp on Fridays and PB on Saturdays. For a while, I was going all the time. For three weeks straight, I went to a club every night of the week.” Amy wears black pants and a low-cut red tank with black spots. Her long brown hair is stick-straight.
“That’s when we all had good jobs,” Katie says. “We were skinnier back then, because we worked so much we hardly ate. God, we were hot.”
Twenty-five-year-old Amy worked primarily as a promo girl before landing a job doing the books for Thirst and Taste, a downtown sports bar. Kirjah organized party buses before becoming a full-time nanny to two neighbor boys. Katie — well, Katie doesn’t seem to like answering questions.
“I worked for a company called Sinsational Events,” she finally says. “They outsource different companies for you to do promo work for. Through them, I worked for Hornitos and Jim Beam. On Cinco de Mayo, I worked for Hornitos, handing out T-shirts and shots. You have to take pictures with customers. Sometimes, it’s creepy taking pictures with all the drunk guys. I worked a golf event once where they had bars set up at every hole. It was a big party on the golf course. I got paid 150 dollars, and another $200 to pour beer for a bunch of guys. It was really fun.”
All three admit they don’t pay for their drinks when they go out to clubs.
“We never have to pay covers,” Amy says. “Everyone knows us. They just let us in. Guys pay for all that.”
Kirjah nods. “Guys become stalkers. They follow you around all night, just for buying you a drink.”
“Even when I say I need to go to the bathroom,” Amy says, “they wait for me outside the door.”
“We don’t date those guys,” Kirjah explains. “When we go to the clubs, we know everyone there. When we see guys down there, I can name at least three people they have already slept with. No, thanks.”
Katie says, “If you wanted a relationship, you aren’t going to meet those guys in a club. Everyone has hooked up with everyone. I started internet dating last summer. I did that for a little bit. The guys are creepy.”
“They’re way worse than club guys,” Kirjah says. “They’re just looking for sex.”
Kirjah, Katie, and Amy all agree that San Diego has a great nightlife.
“San Diego has one of the biggest scenes,” Kirjah says. “It’s the next one from Vegas. I know people in Vegas that get nervous when large groups of San Diegans come for the weekend. L.A. is mostly stuck-up people going out to look good. They’re either hipsters or gay. San Diego people like to party.”
In the Gaslamp, Amy, Kirjah, and Katie frequent the Side Bar, Fluxx, and Taste and Thirst. In Pacific Beach, they go to Miller’s, the Tavern, Beachwood, and Bar West.
“I’m already getting tired of going to bars,” Amy admits. “When I turned 21, my boyfriend and I broke up. That was four years ago. I’ve been regularly going to bars since then.”
I ask the three of them if their parents have an opinion on all the partying they do.
Amy says, “Growing up, Mission Bay High School was definitely a party school.”
“We all went to Mission Bay High School,” Kirjah says. “My house was the party house. My mom would say, ‘Why do you have so many boys over here?’ But she would party with us in the Jacuzzi.”
“I think my parents are oblivious,” Katie says. “They had property in Palm Springs. When I was in high school, they would go there for a week. They would leave me and my sister all by ourselves. They used to buy us alcohol to have our parties with while they were gone.”
Recently, Amy moved in with her mom to save money. It only lasted three months. “She would make comments about what I was wearing or about me going out too much. She would say she could tell when I wasn’t drinking as much anymore, because my skin looked healthier.” Amy rolls her eyes.
I ask if the guys at bars make them feel like sex objects. “Don’t you feel used?”
Katie laughs loudly. “Why would we feel used? We are using them. We don’t pay for shit. We’ve grown up in the bar scene. We don’t give a flying fuck.”
Kirjah pulls up a recent text message and hands the phone to me.
“You’re not showing her the penis text, are you?” Katie asks.
I see a text stream from a guy named Mike (not his real name). There are several shirtless photos and messages that say things like, “You are gorgeous. Call me. I can’t stop thinking about you.”
“Pathetic,” Kirjah says with disgust. “The last time I texted him was April 4, and he still won’t let it go. I get a message from him twice a day. These guys become stalkers.”
“I used to give my number out to anyone that asked for it,” Amy says. “I’ve learned my lesson, because guys will nonstop persistently call me. I never respond to them, and they will text me for months at a time. I’ve never been the kind of girl to chase after a guy like that.”
Katie interrupts, turning to Kirjah. “The last time we hung out together was in Mexico!”
“You left me there,” Kirjah says.
“Yeah, right!” Katie says. “You were in good hands with some Mexican guy you met that day.”
“I showed up in La Jolla the next morning,” Kirjah says. “Everyone was, like, ‘Wow, we definitely thought you were dead, Kirjah!’”
The girls erupt in laughter.
The Double Deuce Bar in the Gaslamp has a mechanical bull and a stripper pole.
On a Friday night at 11:00 p.m., three waitresses dance on the bartop to a country song. They wear short denim cut-offs, low-cut wife-beaters that reveal lacy push-up bras, and cowboy boots. They all have perfectly styled, long, flowing hair. Two are brunettes; the one in the middle is a blonde.
The men in the room gawk. Most have short military-style haircuts and appear to be in their late 20s.
Morgan, the bartender, says she doesn’t dance anymore. She’s the only woman working at Double Deuce that evening whose bra isn’t visible. She wears short-shorts, a midriff-baring tank, large hoop earrings, and knee-highs under her cowboy boots. Her hair is in a long braid.
“I’m 32. I’m too old to dance on the bar. Those girls are in their early 20s.” She gestures at the dancers. They look cute. They’re having fun. “When I first started working here, they made all of us dance, but not anymore.” When she says this last, there is relief in her tone.
Morgan admits that there’s pressure to work out and stay fit, to appear flawless.
“I work out,” she says. “I have to be presentable for this job.”
Morgan takes orders as she chats with me. Her customers, mostly men, stare and smile at her.
I ask if her job makes her feel like a sex object.
“Yeah, of course,” she says. “I get paid well because of my sexuality. But I make more money than half the people in San Diego, so I’m okay with it.” According to Morgan, she makes about $4500 a month. Her largest tip while bartending was from a male customer — $500.
“My parents don’t think it’s a big deal that I work here,” she says. “My dad came in once and was playing on the stripper pole. He definitely doesn’t mind.” She laughs. “Because of working here, I was able to invest in my own property. I know I can’t work here forever.”
Before leaving, I spot a woman riding the mechanical bull. She is all legs and cleavage. A group of men enthusiastically cheer her on.
Julia Grey waits behind a red rope that guards the entrance to Andaz, a posh club and hotel in the Gaslamp, on the corner of Sixth Avenue and F Street. Two other young women stand with her. All three are bottle girls, dressed in skin-tight black dresses and stilettoes. Three security guards hover nearby, while a bouncer checks customer IDs and collects the club’s $20 cover charge.
“I’m a bottle-service girl,” Julia tells me proudly. “I’ve worked here for three months.”
At 21, Julia looks no older than 17. Her hair is brown with blond streaks. Freckles spot her small nose.
Julia’s job entails serving high-end bottles of alcohol to customers, mostly in private rooms. Sometimes, she presents the bottles while holding sparklers. She also has the task of standing at the front door to lure customers inside. Basically, she needs to be pretty.
“What do your parents think about you working here?” I ask.
“They’re fine with it,” Julia says. “I get a lot of perks because this is a Hyatt hotel. They like that. I’m treated really well.”
Before I can ask another question, I am ushered past the red velvet rope by Andaz’s frazzled manager.
“We’re swamped tonight!” the petite woman says.
She speaks into a walkie-talkie-style headpiece visible through her long hair, and with urgency leads me through a bar with a dance floor. A woman in a lavender bikini is up on a stage. Three photographers snap photos.
We share an elevator with a group of women attending a bachelorette party. The bride-to-be wears a pink sash over her skin-tight floral dress. All five ladies are tan and wasted. “This place is so cool,” one slurs.
I’m shown to the rooftop bar, which features a large circular fire pit. Most of the men are dressed in designer jeans and button-down shirts. Nearly all the women wear tight dresses. The servers are in turquoise bikinis and high heels. Some have on white terry-cloth hoodies zipped down to reveal cleavage.
A stunning brunette — a server named Zena — chats with me.
“We get a lot of VIP parties up here,” she says. “Junior Seau came in, and so did Tony Gwynn. We got a lot of celebrities from Comic-Con, too. I have to stay in shape. I spend about $400–$500 a month on beauty maintenance for this job.”
Within minutes, a different manager with a headpiece pulls Zena away and whispers in her ear.
Politely, Zena says, “Sorry, I gotta go.”
A security guard stands near the pool. He tells me that Sunday is his busiest workday. “Every Sunday at 2:00 p.m., we have a bikini contest up here. You should come back for that.”
I take the elevator down to the street. Julia, the bottle-service girl, still stands in front of the club. She smiles brightly at a group of guys waiting to get in.
A barrel-chested security guard is stationed at another entrance. I ask him, “Have you ever had to kick some ass, due to guys groping the women that work here?”
His answer is matter-of-fact. “Yep. More than once.”
At an Irish pub on Fifth Avenue, a petite Filipino girl stands outside, trying to lure customers in. She wears short-shorts, a tight tank paired with shamrock suspenders, and knee-high socks.
“My parents know I work here, but they really don’t know the extent of it,” Lacy (not her real name) grins. “I’m the ‘gets-them-in-the-door’ girl.”
A drunken guy stumbles up and says to Lacy, “Nice shamrocks, will you be my lucky charm?”
She smiles but doesn’t answer. She stamps his hand. Now the drunk guy has free access to the bar.
“I deal with gross guys all the time,” Lacy says. “I kill them with kindness.”
Twenty-four-year-old Lacy tutors during daytime hours, a job, she admits, that’s lower key than this one. “On Saint Patrick’s Day,” she says, “I was groped by a disgusting old man. He grabbed my ass. I screamed and ran away.”
Lacy says that her work clothes, which attract so much attention from men on the street, are no different from what she normally wears. “This kind of thing is what I wear. So it’s no big deal. This job is fun. I might as well just do it.”
Guys constantly ask for her phone number.
“I usually don’t give my number out, unless the guy is really hot,” she says.
Two other girls join her in front of the bar. One wears a bodysuit with the sides cut out, a tight black skirt, and furry black boots. Around her waist, handcuffs act as a belt. The other girl wears a neon-yellow bra paired with a black spandex skirt. She has glitter all over her chest. The glasses she wears have no lenses.
The girl in the yellow bra says, “I never, under any circumstances, give my number out to these guys. I don’t even tell them my real name.”
“They’re dancers,” Lacy tells me.
When I ask if they feel like sex objects, the young women look at me as if I’m stupid.
“Of course,” Lacy says. “That’s kind of the point.”
The dancer in the yellow bra, Dixie (not her real name), tells me she’s worked at the pub for two months. She dances and does promos twice a week.
“I’m just doing what I love,” she says. “I’ve been doing ballet since I was a kid.”
A guy on the street interrupts us. “Oh, my God! Holy shit!” He looks Dixie up and down. “You are hot!”
“You should go in,” she tells him, and points at the bar. He agrees. Dixie stamps the inside of his arm. “This will get you in for free.”
She turns to me and says, “My parents know I work here. They’re fine with it. This job is helping me get my master’s degree.” She shrugs. “If I can look like this forever, I’ll rock it.”
“You’re so tan,” I say. “How much do you spend a month to tan?”
“I don’t pay to tan,” Dixie says. “I have a company that sponsors me to do that.”
Behind us, two guys are talking to the other dancer. “How often do you use those handcuffs?” one asks, grabbing at the cuffs around her waist.