ShowgirlsIn all honesty, do you really need a young woman wrapped in two square centimeters of nylon to point you toward a new brand of toilet bowl cleaner?
Do you truly require a girl with legs that start at her shoulders to turn your attention to a sliver of crustacean on a cracker?
Was your final decision to fork out $25,600 on that spiffy Grandeur based solely on the girl in snow-white boots you saw spread-eagled on the car's hood?
Yes! Yes! Yes! Of course, you need these these people! Each one of them and more!
They assist, they usher in, they decorate the commercial panorama, these females. They do away with such dreary shopping tasks as price comparing and reading labels. Life's tough questions? These girls have every answer. Should I try that dry cleaners that just opened? You bet. Should I accept one more handbill that plugs Chinese noodles? Definitely!
They're everywhere, these girls, thank God. They're like the air we breathe the good air.
"Ohhh, my feet hurt so much," says Kim Ji-hee. "Toes, ankles, the pain goes all the way up here."
"Here" is a thigh the color of a winter rose, glowing beneath blue jean shorts cut so brief they might, just might, make half a placemat.
Ms. Kim, 20, has on a powder-blue and white sweatshirt and a yellow baseball cap. Hanging across her chest is a pink purse bearing the logo "Tempo."
Tempo is a tampon, and Kim Ji-hee is handing out Tempos this Saturday afternoon on a busy street corner in Gangnam, southern Seoul. She is smiling brightly but deep inside she is groaning because her toes are pinched, her Achilles' tendons torqued, her calves strained, her thighs sore as a sunburn.
But as a doumi, or "helper," she endures.
Shoulders square, back straight, face flush with cheer, she greets passers-by with a gracious hello and a flash of Tempo. Who wouldn't take a complimentary sanitary napkin from such a person?
This is Marketing 101: freebies from fetching fillies.
A doumi is about many things, but above all she's about footwear. They're called "road shoes," those alabaster-colored items on Ms. Kim's feet that are causing a tiny frown line to appear now and then between her lovely brown eyes. From a distance, the shoes look like something a nurse might wear: thick-soled, rubbery, antiseptic. On close inspection and Ms. Kim raises her foot to show off a shoe they have heels that give the wearer a lift of approximately 10 centimeters.
"Like wearing very high heels," she says.
In a way, a doumi calls to mind Nancy Sinatra, the tartish singer of the late '60s hit "These Boots Are Made for Walking." Unlike her father Frank, Nancy Sinatra had zero talent. But she wore these white boots plastic, Kmart numbers that reached mid-shin, and a polyester miniskirt above. When she promised that one day her boots would "walk all over you," no listener needed liner notes. With her monotone voice, pizza waitress features and trailer park pout, Nancy Sinatra was inexplicably hot. U.S. military troops in South Vietnam named her their favorite pinup. White boots walking all over you in the jungle! Oh, the dreams some men have!
Years later those white boots serve as the foundation for all doumi. But they aren't boots, really, an investigation reveals; they're shoes. The white tops are attached, but are actually made of thin cloth: stylish surgical stockings. "Loose socks," in doumi parlance. Whatever they're called, the accessory conjures up Nancy Sinatra or an early, sex-kittenish Ann-Margret and all those vixeny Vegas lounge chicks hullabalooing inside birdcages. Go-go girls.
Doumi are go-go girls.
"Go-go girl?" says Ms. Kim.
She started as a doumi six months ago after finding the job on the Internet, and most days she enjoys the work, even with the uncomfortable shoes. Unlike Nancy Sinatra, a doumi can't be sullen. She's chipper, an Asian Vanna White. A doumi is eye candy, but she also must have great gams, and that means:
No chicken calves
No piano ankles
No doorknob knees
No thunder thighs
More height means more good leg, so a doumi should also be tall. At least 160 centimeters, no less. Ms. Kim stands 170. With the extra height the road shoes give her, she's a skyscraper, the Star Tower on pins, an extra-long drink of sparkling Jeju Island water.
"The shoes, I think, are a psychological thing," she theorizes. "They want us to look tall because they want people to look up to us, in respect."
All right, no more yakking; Ms. Kim must get back to work. She must dish out the tampons. We can wait. A while later when she returns, her face aching from the nonstop smiling, we ask her why she doesn't just toss all the Tempos in the trash? Earlier this day she was given 3,300 Tempos to dispense, one at a time over six hours. Who really cares what happens to them? Is she being watched?
A furtive look, then this admission: "I sometimes give out two Tempos at a time. But never any more than that."
Surprise: Not every woman wants a complimentary tampon. In fact, many women ignore doumi, even doumi bearing gifts. Doumi are trouble. On the other hand, for doumi, men can be trouble.
"The worst are middle-aged guys," says Ms. Kim. "Guys who have been drinking. They stand right in front of you and stare at you head to toe. 'Give me your phone number,' they say. Give me a break. 'Will you be my date?' To what, your funeral?"
Weekends, she's at Gangnam with the Tempos. Weekdays, she usually works Sincheon, handing out eyeliner, or in Myeong-dong, pushing soju.
"It's not so bad," Ms. Kim says. "I can earn 60,000 won a day. That's pretty good, isn't it? I mean, when it's great weather and you're outdoors and people are nice. On days like that, my feet hardly hurt at all."
Where did they come from, these tottering, ornamental Have-a-nice-day damsels? They started, most people believe, in the late 1980s, when Korea's finances began to rise from the deep sinkholes of oppression. Overnight, businesses boomed. Every hour, it seemed, new shops and new products were launched across the peninsula. Television helped with the instant need for publicity. The tube was good for infomercials, but after a while who really needed pitchmen in Perma-press short-sleeve dress shirts and shiny neckties? The new shops and the new products needed a face, and even better, a body.
Finally, some PR genius crowed, Hey, let's get babes to do the promoting!
A doumi wore dresses in those early days, but in time the dresses gave way to skirts, then short-shorts and tank tops and bare midriffs and streams and streams of thigh. In the early '90s came the road shoes. Some say the shoes arrived from Japan, after stomping up from Southeast Asia and the foot fetishes there inspired by Nancy Sinatra's Marquis de Sade pre-disco shtick.
Wherever her roots, when the doumi was born in Korea, she was a keeper. Over the years, other props have been added to her act: 300-amp speakers on the sidewalks blasting thumping, repetitive, numbing beats, with lyrics that make no sense. Balloons arching across the doorway of a just-completed Buy the Way or a home-appliance outlet. Wreaths and buckets and buckets of sprays. Did someone die? No, silly, the flowers are to celebrate that new beer hof that opened up the block next door to that other hof that is above, you know, that big hof.
With the accoutrements came advanced skills, and three levels of doumi emerged. The A-level doumi is a Motor Show Girl. She earns the great green as much as 100,000 won a day by opening the doors of Daewoos and selling the sizzle of dashboard clocks. The B-level doumi is a Dance Girl. Close your eyes and shake it honey, right there on the concrete. Sometimes, she even sings. A C-level doumi, like Ji-hee, is a Sample Girl. Hi, please take one, thank you. No, I'm sorry, I won't get into your Jeep.
Down the street from where Kim Ji-hee doles out one, maybe two Tempo at a time, the Fresco, a family restaurant, is holding its grand opening in a neighborhood where restaurants can be found behind every third door. The Fresco stands on the third floor of a high-rise, which won't help its cause. To get to the Fresco, a customer must walk down a hall, wait for an elevator, wait some more, get on that elevator, stop at the second floor, wait, get off at the third, hunt down the restaurant, wait for a table and then, if death by starvation hasn't occurred, order a plate of spaghetti.
To embark on a long journey like that requires some special tour guides. When the owner of the Fresco called Doumi World, one of Seoul's biggest "narrator model" agencies, they hustled over three girls dressed in gold satin. From 3 p.m. until 9 p.m. this day the trio will be parked out front of the Fresco, or where the Fresco would be if it wasn't on the third floor. On the sidewalk alongside the girls is an arch of balloons, speakers that are thumping a repetitive, numbing beat. The doumi are lurching and twisting their torsos, kicking their road shoes this way and that, flipping their hair to and fro, smiling, smiling, smiling.
All this to peddle some pasta.
As clumps of humanity stroll by, some people stop to look at the three girls for a moment, but most march past without pause. In a way, doumi have become like lampposts. Good-looking lampposts, to be sure, but still a normal, predictable part of the Korean landscape.
Nonetheless, gawkers turn up, outdoors or in, and they're always men. Some of those men, on the pretext of doing something else, anything else, stop in front of the three girls this day and pull out cell phones and pretend to answer a call, meanwhile giving the landscape a good, long look.
For a woman moving along the sidewalk and holding, say, a Giordano shopping bag, the eyes remain fixed ahead, the nose high in the air. If the woman with the Giordano bag does happen to glance at the doumi, the woman's expression is typically this: Damn. I think I just stepped in some doggie doo.
During a break, the three doumi dancers go inside and begin the trek to the third floor, to a bar in the Fresco. There they take seats, sip orange drinks and rest their feet and smile muscles. Down on the street the three looked hard-edged, older. In the bar, they appear almost innocent, and far younger. And they are young.
Though only 21, Jung Sun-young leads off. "I love dancing," she announces. "To get paid for dancing all day, well, that's incredible." Ms. Jung has been a doumi for three years. Signed on right after high school, in fact. In a jif, she moved up from Sample Girl to Dancer. A little more experience and she'll be a Motor Show Girl. That's her goal; she's gonna go for it and ride with it. In fact, she can see herself rubbing up against fenders when she is well into her 30s.
The other two dancers Lee Eun-mi, 21, and Kim Se-ri, 26 nod at Sun-young's ambitious attitude. But they're different, these two. They're more reflective.
Eun-mi: "My boyfriend is in the army. We want to get married when he gets out and this a chance for me to save some money. I won't do it after I'm married. He won't let me."
Se-ri: "My parents hate what I'm doing. They just hate it."
Eun-mi: "I won't do this work in my neighborhood. I don't really want anyone who knows me to see me."
Se-ri: "The guys, the ajeossi, who come by late at night, I can't stand them. You can smell they've been drinking. They'll put a hand on your butt, they'll touch your breast."
Eun-mi: "People stereotype us. They think we're whores."
Se-ri: "Nobody's childhood dream is to be a doumi."
Back on the street, the girls pump up the volume on the speakers. Sun-young and Eun-mi form a mini-chorus line, while Se-ri works the crowd by proffering Fresco fliers. It's an organized, team effort, and the choreographer stands close by, observing the presentation.
A short, stocky man in a green T-shirt, his arms folded, Park Chul-hee, 29, is the "team leader" of Doumi World. (It's a tough job, but hey, somebody's gotta keep watch on all those thighs.)
Doumi World employs 10,000 full-time professionals in Seoul, 3,000 part-time. It's estimated there are 30,000 doumi at work in Korea. "March to October," Park says. "That's when business is good. A girl can work 25 days a month during that period." From November to February, things slow way down. Nobody really wants to stand outside when it's 5 degrees centigrade and all you have on would not warm a field mouse.
"Some people say it's a low-class job," Park admits. "They look down on doumi. But we have a lot of college students who want to earn extra money. Some of these girls have to be fluent in English, for when a foreign business opens. Some of them have studied abroad. Some have master's degrees, Ph.Ds."
A Ph.D.? A Dr. Doumi? We'd love to interview someone like that. Can you give us a name?
Park mumbles that he'd have to check his files.
We make a note: doumi not dummies.
What about that pesky sexual harassment problem?
Park sniffs and says he tells his girls to turn a deaf ear to the nasty remarks, ignore the touching, and just keep smiling. Some girls think about talking back to the men, but the team leader doesn't like that. Listen up, girls: The potential customer is always right.
Has he ever had to fire a doumi? Park thinks a moment. "When they're late for work, you know, again and again." Graduate school, we've heard, can be very demanding.
A few wanna-be doumi don't get hired at all. Some girls, it seems, have digitally enhanced photographs made of themselves and then attach the doctored photos to their applications. Other aspirants try to camouflage their legs by showing up at the personal interview in pants.
For a job that gets looked down on, the line is long with fervent candidates.
by Toby Smith