Catwalk Empire

Catwalk Empire 1

My heart sank, as it always did around great beauty. Chloe Hellmann was without doubt the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. For the last 15 years there would have been security guards preventing me from getting within 100 feet of her. Now she was sitting across from me in my new office. At this point I need to tell you I am not an attractive man: I am 50, balding and smell of divorce.

I got my start in recruitment in 1989 with William Russell Staffing, the original and biggest New York employment agency. It was a charnel house, but it taught me the game: how to cold call; spot a vacancy before the client knew they had one; collect a commission; and never pay a refund. Ex-Russell employees went on to create some of the big-name staffing agencies in the city today: Harrison Anderson and Associates, Le Stat and Louis, Girl Tuesday and Roquefort & Labne. But not me, I was the loyal journeyman, a 60 hour a week veteran with a work ethic that put an end to my marriage. I thought I’d see out my career at Russell’s as Vice President of Special Projects, but I should have known that job title has always meant the Kiss of Death. Six months ago I was shown the writing on the wall, and shortly thereafter the door.

You might not know Chloe Hellmann’s name. But you definitely know her face. She was the Ralph Lauren girl-next door in the summer catalogue for each year 2006-2009. Summer was her thing, and tight riding pants. She was hardly the girl-next-door, unless you grew up in some mythic alpine, orthodontic, surfing village. A six foot natural blonde with a trademark lip curl, perfectly gapped incisors and legs famously insured for a million dollars each. She was on the cover of GQ in June 2008 entwined with Svea Sauvarin and Brit Weatherley. And there were also those uplifting glossy shots by Helmut. It’s fair to say I knew of her work. I also knew my mouth was moving but couldn’t begin to tell you what was coming out of it.

I’d placed them all over the years. Sales Representatives became Account Executives and then Customer Acquisition Specialists. But they were all the same to me. There was a stage in the early 90’s where it seemed everyone was some kind of Vice President: Associate, Assistant, Junior, Senior or Executive. In the late ‘90s we threw anyone with a heartbeat at the dot com boom like it was a Hindu funeral pyre, and when it all went pop we charged like wounded bulls for outplacement programs. I saw the dot com bust coming when people started treating HTML coders like they brought back the Sun God each morning. By the time business worked out building a web page was about as easy as PowerPoint it was too late; the 28 year old geniuses behind whatever.com had blown half their venture capital on domain name bidding wars and the rest on cubicle rent and cappuccino machines. Fortunately the commission checks cleared early and we were still making out like bandits. Just recently it’s got particularly weird. It started innocently enough with Web Producers and Customer Care Specialists. But before you could text WTF?, I was placing Software Evangelists, Accounting Ninjas, Chief Moneyballers and Graduate Wranglers. To me if there’s no horse, it isn’t wrangling. The harder business tried to jerk off about how different everything was, the more it looked the same to me: 20% commission based on first year salary, payable in full within 30 days of starting.

Eventually the autopilot on my mouth switched off and I heard Chloe Hellmann speak. My spirits lifted slightly when she said things weren’t going so well for her. God bless the workplace, I thought. Where else would a woman like this breathe the same air as me?
“For most of us the magazine covers dry up when you turn 30,” she said. “The catwalk scene gets younger every year. I even lost my H&M contract to some androgynous boy from Latvia. Before you know it you’re 35 and being put forward for hand modelling on the Shopping Channel.”
“I thought you were all millionaires, with your own lingerie and swimwear brands?” I asked.
“I’m not really the entrepreneurial type,” replied Chloe.
“What about Swiss bankers, rock stars, tennis pros? Don’t you all marry Swiss bankers?”
“Have you ever met a Swiss banker?”
I conceded I had not.
“Well,” I said, “let me run you through some tests and then we’ll chat.”

When I was pink slipped from William Russell I descended into a deep funk. Depression is too strong a word for it. I’d spent 25 years helping other people find work and I didn’t even have a CV. For six weeks I slept late, wore sweatpants and ate breakfast cereal at any time of the day. I grew a beard – I was surprised how much grey was in it. After a month Monty left me. My beloved bachelor cat walked out. He looked at the day-old Cheerios and milk in his food bowl and sauntered away with great dignity toward the cat flap, pausing only to pass wind. It was a turning point. I forced myself up off the futon and called Elliot Chandler, my late-father’s psychiatrist.

“Look I’ve seen worse,” he said as he flicked through his iPad mini. “But I won’t lie to you; we’ll have to hit it with the hard stuff.”
“Prozac? Zoloft?” I offered.
“No. What year were you born?”
“1964.” He examined a chart on his tablet.
“What, are you thinking Xanax?” I suggested.
“No. I’m going to start you off with Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town. If you show some signs of improvement in a week we’ll move you on to Human Touch and then Lucky Town.”
I’d heard about some fringe treatments in my time, but this was quackery. This was New York; I wanted what everyone else was having!
“Are you serious, Springsteen; the folk rock singer from ‘Jersey?”
“Steady George. The Boss is fifteen years older than you and he still tours. He does 30 song concerts. He still has a six-pack for God’s sake – on his stomach. Take a look at yourself. Have you ever bought clothes anywhere other than Brooks Brothers? Your comb over has seen better days. And maybe Brut-33 was never a classic. This is about renovation, manhood, the Marathon of Life. This is a key moment in your life and we need to get it right. If I start you on drugs, well …” He made a face like, “who knows where we’ll end up?”
“You are serious,” I observed.
“It’s the latest thing – GMT – Generational Music Therapy. Haven’t you wondered why everyone is walking around with headphones lately?”
He passed me an iPod music player with ear buds and suggested I pick up some dental floss at the drug store.
“Recruiter, recruit thyself!” he said cheerily as he showed me out.

Three weeks later I registered a business name and put down 6 months’ rent on a serviced office on Broadway. Setting up a staffing agency is actually pretty easy. You just need a phone, a thick skin and a Herculean work ethic. You don’t even need to know that much about recruitment. You start by building a temporary staffing database, use it to build cash flow and then start winning the permanent placement work from your customers. Start small with a receptionist or file clerk and work your way to the corner office, simple. One of the most important things is a strong, trustworthy business name. I’ve noticed it helps if it’s an interchangeable surname/first name thing. My birth name is Georgios Christopoulos so of course I went with George Christopher Staffing. I took out an ad on monster.com for entry-level clerical jobs and Chloe Hellmann was one of about 60 people who responded.

After two hours of aptitude and ability testing it was obvious Chloe Hellmann had almost no workplace skills. The result on her Vorbach PF showed some serious narcissism and entitlement, although she was also surprisingly high on altruism. Her NR-C result showed she could barely add up. On the Hunt-Chapworth verbal reasoning test the synonym she suggested for ‘happy’ was ‘Larry’. And her handwriting included little hearts over the i’s and j’s. This stunning woman was 35 years old and a fifteen year career as a top catwalk model had taught her little more than how to order room service. At least she could use a telephone, I mused. And you must understand at this point I would have done anything to keep seeing her. I promised her I’d put her forward for a Director of First Impressions position (read Receptionist) at Rand Biotech, a permanent placement client I’d just landed. She gave me an air kiss and I watched her walk out. You know the walk.

The Rand Biotech people loved her. She was well presented, charming and they put her on the front desk at their new chrome and old wharf-timber headquarters in Battery Point. When their customers complained their phone calls never seemed to go to the same extension twice it was a minor blip in the client relationship. Even when the bicycle couriers started eating their lunch in the lobby so they could gawk at her it was still recoverable. But when she tried to get one of them to take a temperature-controlled bio package across town it was like a fumbled catch in the NFL, on wheels. The ensuing fight spilled onto the sidewalk via a large pane of architectural glass. I’m told their skin blisters from whatever was in the package will clear up. Rand’s lawyers demanded I pay the damage bill of 15 grand. And they also refused to pay the placement commission, the first time that had ever happened to me. At that point I didn’t have 15 grand. Emotionally I was just hanging in there; I’d slipped back to Human Touch.

I was massaging my temples when Chloe knocked on my office door.
“I’m sorry about the bike thing George,” she began. She used my name! An electric shock ran through my sternum. And other places. How could I stay angry at this Goddess?
“The damage bill is probably going to sink me. And I was also counting on your placement commission.”
“Don’t worry about that,” she purred, “I have a little money set aside. I have a proposition for you. Come with me.”
A dozen scenarios illuminated my imagination. None of them involved me saying ‘no’.

I’d never had a makeover and it did wonders for my outlook. I’d also never considered shaving my head or wearing an oxblood velvet jacket by Burberry with Gant mustard corduroy trousers and Le Coq Sportif off-white canvas tennis shoes. But Chloe knew exactly what she was doing. The Pringle charcoal cashmere turtle neck and Tommy Bahama horn rimmed glasses were also a nice touch. While a guy named Guy completed my facial, Chloe leaned over and whispered in my ear, “we’ll call it George Hellmann Career Renovations.” I thought George Hellmann would look good on a brass plaque outside the office; might even go okay on a passport. I inhaled deeply the scent of rosemary, clary sage and Brazilian rosewood.

Chloe estimated there were a couple of thousand fashion models tossed on the heap by the industry each year. They needed rapid re-skilling and placement in meaningful work. This was to be my contribution to the partnership, and indeed humanity. Chloe would take some of the thousands of late middle-aged men tossed on the heap by business each year, give them a mid-life refit and get them walking and talking like men again. We would work it from both ends. We couldn’t miss!

The next morning I decided to up my dose to Lucky Town and strode to the office dressed in another of Chloe’s outfits: a navy blazer by Ralph Lauren; powder blue Fred Perry polo; white Levis jeans; and adidas pool slides. I was feeling buoyant and smelling of Paco Rabanne, the first day of our new venture. When the lift doors opened there were five very tall women in the lobby. I assumed I had the wrong floor and went to press my number. I froze. I recognised them all: Helmi Jukannen, the former face (and body) of Calvin Klein underwear; Candice Foo, DKNY’s 1990’s poster girl for Greater China; Karin Stromberg, 10 years on top as YSL’s ice queen; Mandi Mitchell every 15 year old boy’s wet dream from the Victoria’s Secret catalogue; and Seku Hara the Japanese-Hawaiian “girl on the motorcycle” from the Guess Jeans ads.

I shuffled through the lobby and into my office, nauseated. I suppose you’re wondering what’s wrong with me. Don’t all men have a fantasy of being surrounded by beautiful women? Once I would have answered yes. After all, I grew up listening to my father sing Tommy Steele’s I’m the Only Man on the Island while he shaved. I was familiar with the goings on at the Playboy Mansion. It’s a compelling notion, until you actually have to stand at the plate with your bat in hand. As I sat at my desk, the full horror of a waiting room of former catwalk models made me vomit generously into my wastepaper basket. The Tic Tacs could only do so much and I made a mental note to duck out to Walgreens. I gargled some water as Chloe struck a pose in my office doorway.
“What the hell is this? Are these friends of yours?”
She nodded, “your first clients.”
Her trademark smile began to curl at the corner of her mouth.
“But I’m not ready for this! Jesus, where’s my Springsteen?” I fumbled around for my iPod.
“It’s time to man up, George” she ordered, and called in Seku Hara.

THE END

17 thoughts on “Catwalk Empire”

  1. Fiona Robertson said:

    I now have a desire to see you in a powder blue polo neck. I enjoyed this one, though I suspect a male audience would appreciate it even more. Good length, storyline just plausible enough to be possible, some oh-so-true observations about the recruitment industry. Very nicely done.

  2. I love it Jeff! I hope for your sake that it is mostly based on the truth? If so, please send photos.

  3. Rebekah Burns said:

    This short story is funny…catwalk empire…I am also certain I have meet a few of these girls in my own town with that same sense of entitlement even though they’re not worked a day in their life…loved it!

  4. Maggie Macdonald said:

    Jeff, I’m such a sucker for a page turner..and this is one of them. The American, hard talking, cigar out of the corner of the mouth character is reminiscent of the storyteller in Nixon, Mao and the Harbin Globetrotters. Perhaps this tough ‘tell it how it is’ approach is becoming something of a style? What drew me in is your very earthy, evocative style..”the smell of divorce” and the half credible, half absurd notion of supermodels and a man with a comb over.
    Looking forward to the next story. This is quite an adventure!!!

    • thank you Maggie, I’ve been wondering if there’s any reason I couldn’t write American Literature? Appreciate you taking the time to read. Yes it is an adventure!

  5. Don of the Desert said:

    Style was a bit too much Raymond Chandler 2014 although the wit is appreciated. I prefer a bit more sardonic Burns myself. ‘Liked the storyline although it ended too suddenly, when I was starting to think about some interesting character and role inversions. For my taste It needed a bigger slap at the end.

  6. Great stuff Jeff. I agree ‘Monty’ works well.

    Can I borrow your oxblood velvet jacket?

  7. Jason Yeoh said:

    Hi Jeff – thanks for sharing. I enjoyed this one the most. Always love a bit of American boardroom fantasy – the “I got the brains, you got the brawn, let’s make lotsa money” to quote the Petshop Boys. I have to say you have excellent knowledge of things in general. Very well researched! Thoroughly enjoyable!

  8. Enjoyed storyline & tone; was smiling through description of recruitment industry & thoroughly enjoyed reading results of the ‘testing’ …very funny.::

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