This article titled “‘Bikini baristas’ in Washington are told to cover up – is it an issue of free speech?” was written by Lucy Rock, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 7th February 2018 16.30 Asia/Kolkata
Student Amelia Powell is starting her shift at a drive-through coffee stand on a rain-lashed parking lot in Everett, Washington. A black SUV pulls up. Whipping off her long cardigan to reveal a red lace Victoria’s Secret bodysuit, Powell slides back the window, leans out and says: “What can I get you today, darlin’?”
A middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap asks for a 12oz hot chocolate with whipped cream. “When do you get out of here?” he asks, watching her as she prepares his drink. “7pm,” Powell replies. “That’s almost bedtime,” he says. “Yeah, almost bye-byes time for sure,” she agrees as she takes his money and slides the window shut.
“A $10 tip,” she grins, waving the bill.
Powell is a bikini barista, one of hundreds across the state hired to serve coffee at premium prices from roadside huts around 8ft square while wearing lingerie, thongs, nipple pasties or skimpy swimwear.
It’s the 24-year-old’s sixth year in the job. She used to juggle college classes with two retail positions.
“I was really spent. I couldn’t keep up with it all,” she says. “A friend who was a bikini barista said I should try it because I could earn more money, work less and focus on school.”
Powell, who is studying international relations and political science at college in Seattle, a few miles south of Everett, was apprehensive. “I felt it wasn’t in my character. I realize now there’s no specific character to bikini baristas. Everyone has their own reasons for doing it. A lot are young single mothers and they’re able to spend more time with their families and provide a better life for their kids.”
The drivers for Powell are the money, the hours and the fact that she feels empowered by the job. “I work 25 hours a week usually and make more than a lot of my friends who work full time,” she says.
It’s certainly more lucrative than working at Starbucks – headquartered in Seattle – or any of the city’s hundreds of independent coffee shops. She can make up to $100 a day in tips, on top of the hourly Washington state minimum wage of $11.50.
Once a concept unique to Washington, there are now a smattering of bikini barista businesses elsewhere in the US, including Oregon, Idaho and North Carolina. The idea is said to date back to a hot summer in the early 1990s when a roadside outlet started a Bikini Wednesday promotion and sales jumped, causing others to quickly follow suit.
But bikini baristas are not universally loved.
Last year Everett tried to ban them. The city council introduced a dress code that required baristas to cover “minimum body areas”, including the breasts, torso and the top three inches of legs below the buttocks.
It claimed the stands had a history of prostitution, sexual assault, public masturbation and exploitation.
There have been incidents. Four years ago, Carmela Panico, who owned several stands in the area, pleaded guilty to running a multimillion-dollar prostitution ring and a police officer was jailed for tipping her off about undercover police stings in exchange for sex.
But the owner of a chain called Hillbilly Hotties and seven of its staff, including Powell, sued the city, arguing that the ban violated their first amendment free speech and expression rights.
In December, a federal judge granted an injunction, preventing Everett from enforcing the dress code while the case makes its way through the courts.
Far from feeling exploited, Powell says she finds the job empowering: “None of us are here because we’re being forced. I love my job. I don’t have to do this. I’m qualified for other positions. I should be able to choose to work here as I please.”
Powell, who describes herself as a feminist, adds: “I’ve always had a lot of issues with my self-confidence. I struggled with eating disorders and went through years of therapy trying to fix my issues. Working here for six years has done more for me mentally and emotionally than years of therapy ever did.
“There’s something about going to work and putting on a different personality and being that more outgoing person. I started to adapt that into my life.”
She laughs. “When people tell you how great you look all day long, you eventually start to believe it yourself.”
She does not deny there are negative aspects of the job. It has affected her relationships with some of her extended family – although her parents are supportive – and she finds it difficult to date.
“I’m single and it’s hard to find guys that take me seriously. Once people find out what I do, they look at me differently a lot of the time. That sucks.
“I feel they automatically get this idea about what kind of person I am. And I don’t feel I’m anything close to that person.
“As much as guys say they’re OK with it, they end up not being and resenting you for it quietly. I’ve had guys trying to tell me to quit my job. I’m not willing to do that. I don’t want to depend on anyone.”
Powell says most of her customers are “normal, everyday guys” who work at the local Boeing plant, or are teachers or construction workers.
“I have customers who’ve been coming to see me for six years. I could tell you where they work, their wives, their kids. They just like getting a cup of coffee from a pretty girl and a nice conversation.”
But there are sometimes not-so-nice guys. Powell recounts a couple of alarming incidents. “It was 4am and I was opening up. This guy was pounding on the glass door saying that he was going to kill me. I called the cops, I’m bawling. They say they’re going to send someone out. Ten minutes go by and this guy is circling the cabin. I call the cops again, no one comes. I ended up having a customer chase him off.”
When she was 18, a customer followed her home from work. “He ended up stalking me and he was leaving me notes on my parents’ door in the middle of the night signed ‘your special friend’. The cops arrested him sitting down the street from my house. It stopped. I became a lot more cautious after that.”
Pepper spray and Tasers are kept in the stands, although she’s never resorted to using them. The huts are also fitted with security cameras. The stand has a sign saying: “Do not show us your weiner, we have cameras and will call the police.”
“There is that 2% who do not understand there’s a line they can’t cross,” Powell says. “There are people who get aggressive when you won’t show them your boobs or give them your phone number or agree to hang out with them.”
Powell was telling someone recently that this rarely happened. “The very next morning, I opened the stand and the first person that comes through at four in the morning had his dick out. I said: ‘Get the fuck out of here before I call the cops.’
Another customer drives up and she takes off her cardigan.
“I’ll be nice to everyone until they cross that line, then I’ll be very firm about it,” she says, leaning out of the window and fixing a large smile on her face.
“What can I get you today, darlin’?”
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