Back in the '70s at auto shows across the country, you could find Anita Mitzel wearing an extravagant gown and reciting scripted monologues in front of a shiny Cadillac that would slowly spin on a turntable. All these years later, she can still recite them.
"'Longer in stride, wider in stance and cat-sure on standard, steel-belted radials," she says. "The other one was, 'Jeep wrote the book on 4-wheel drive.' I probably said that about 18,000 times."
Sometimes her speeches would last for 10 minutes. She didn't have much time to prepare, but she had her whole routine down.
"Get in in the morning. I would put all the literature out, turn on the lights, turn on the sound system, get up, say my three-minute spiel, get back down, re-fill the literature racks — it was kind of a fun time," she says.
And it was all about entertainment.
"I think that's what people expected. And sometimes people said that they came to the show just to talk to or see the models," Mitzel says.
Hedy Popson worked the car-show circuit back in the late '80s. Her instructions were simple:
"We were referred to as ... the spin-and-grin girls. We would be on the turntable, we would spin, smile and enhance the vehicle," Popson says.
The thing is, some of these women knew about the cars. But unless they were narrators like Anita Mitzel, they weren't allowed to talk about them.
That's what Margery Krevsky, author of the book Sirens of Chrome: The Enduring Allure of Auto Show Models, noticed when she first visited an auto show. One of her friends was posing by a car.
"So I said, 'Tell me about this car.' She said, 'I can't tell you about the car — I'm not allowed. But the designer left his notes in the glove compartment. So I'm going to take those and in 20 minutes I have a coffee break. I'll tell you about the car.' And that's where the idea was made."
Krevsky's idea was to give women, like her friend, a bigger role at car shows. And by the '90s, car show models had a new job title: product specialists. And the role of women at auto shows drastically changed.
Hedy Popson now runs an agency with Krevsky called Productions Plus - The Talent Shop, which represents more than 700 product specialists — both women and men. It's like a mini-industry.
"Margery helped develop that, actually, with Nissan Motor Corporation," Popson says. "They were the first corporation to say, 'We want these people to do a little bit more.' "
"The car became the true star," Krevsky says. "And we were the second bananas as product specialists."
Instead of spin-and-grin, it turned into weeks of training on the car's specs. Product specialists, dressed professionally, know their vehicles from top-to-bottom.
Rebekah Skiver, a product specialist for Nissan, is showing off the all-electric Leaf this week in Detroit at the North American International Auto Show. She interacts with consumers and listens for feedback on the cars. Skiver is the eyes and ears of the brand.
"We write an extensive show report after each show that we submit," she says. "So it's all documented."
And unlike dealerships, there's no pressure here. Skiver's not trying to make a direct sale. Hedy Popson says that creates customers.
"Before, it was very much like going to a museum, looking at a car, looking at a pretty girl, moving on." Hedy Popson says. "Now, it's something that brings people in because there's a result. They're actually going to buy a vehicle."
Product specialists are a vital part of the industry. And today, their job is strictly business.