In the summer of 1989, I got myself gussied up and stepped onto a gleaming marble sales floor ready to beautify the world, or at least those fortunate enough to pass my counter. A 21-year old small-town girl with retail stars in my eyes, I had confidently parlayed my limited (and decidedly unsophisticated) local-mall sales experience and a few freelance makeovers into credentials for this glamorous new gig, but I was unprepared for the insane, international and immensely delightful cast of characters who would teach me everything they knew about selling and survival—whether they meant to or not.
Why and how I came to be in the cosmetics department at Saks Fifth Avenue in Las Vegas is a story for another time, but suffice to say it had to do with a car breaking down in the desert and someone’s uncle’s girlfriend knowing a manicurist who knew someone in human resources. Long story short, Saks—and later Neiman Marcus—empires of elegance, service and style, served as my first salt mines.
Livelier and more luxurious than any office, the cosmetics floor was a 3-ring circus—as grand and entertaining as any show on the strip, with a cast to match. This assemblage of former showgirls and cocktail waitresses, working mothers and career saleswomen worked incredibly hard, took their jobs seriously and had tremendous pride in their profession. I learned to build a client book, drive sales and manage inventory, and I acquired many skills (I would call them life hacks, but that term didn’t exist then) that have served me well long since.
Here are a few that might help you, too:
The Secret to Everything (It Involves Smiling)
Everyone adored Yoli, a stunning 40-something Grace Kelly blonde with a chic chignon and ridiculous figure who was (as my father would say) a really classy lady. A part-time fragrance demonstrator and full-time paragon of female perfection, she glided from bay to bay with impeccable posture, enchanted customers with her Eva Gabor accent and made wearing heels all day on that very hard and very slippery marble floor look effortless.
Her managerial tactics included snarling highly-motivational catchphrases like: “Your sales suck! And for God’s sake, put on some blush!”
When I learned that she had performed in Nudes on Ice in her younger days and made some naïve comment about the challenges of professional skating, she smiled kindly and replied: “Oh, but it’s easy, dahling–you just hold your tummy in and smile.” Apparently, to be a NOI chorus girl (rather than a soloist) that’s all it takes—just flash your pearly whites and engage those abdominal muscles! Who knew? (Though I suspect that a nice rack may also be a requirement.)
I have found, over the years, that this excellent instruction applies equally well off the ice, especially post-baby. Nervous presenting in front of a group? Getting annoyed waiting for your co-worker to finish making nine million copies? I really can’t think of a time that this advice isn’t a good idea. Thank you, Yoli, and you’re welcome, world–you now know the secret to everything. When in doubt, just hold that tummy in and smile.
Take a Chance (and Wash Your Hands When You Sneeze)
After a year behind the Lancôme counter, I learned that the makeup artists made more money and worked shorter hours than the sales associates. I did not need to be told this twice. An interview or two later, I was installed as the resident makeup artist for Christian Dior, dressed in a chic navy skirt suit and scarf (think 60’s flight attendant) and lots and lots of eye shadow.
One day, while making over middle-aged ladies and helping ultra-rich Asian tourists buy a dozen of each of the newest lipstick colors, I reluctantly paused to answer the department phone. A familiar voice barked, “This is Joan Rivahs. My girl is sick—I need you to do my face for tonight’s show!” Stunned by her authoritative tone (and the fact that she had actually placed the call herself), I asked her to please hold while I checked our availability and rushed over to the Chanel counter to seek advice from kind, stately, unflappable Francine.
Did Saks do this? Was I allowed to leave work in the middle of the day? What should I charge? Francine, who had been there forever, just rolled her eyes, told me to charge $100 and offered to come as my “assistant.” So, make-up kits in hand, off to Caesars’ Palace we went.
With two miniature dogs nipping at our heels, we carefully made up the magnificent Miss Rivers, who chattered non-stop and backseat-drove every stroke of eyeliner and swipe of blush. When—mid-eyelash application—Francine sneezed (off to the side and very discreetly, mind you), Joan went silent. “PLEASE,” she implored, “GO. WASH. YOUR. HANDS.” Francine quickly obeyed, we proceeded with the embellishments and Joan was very, very pleased with the results. She gave us each two tickets to her show that night (which was amazing) and we split the cash. So pick up the phone when it rings–you might get $100 bucks and a good story out of it.
Close the Sale (and Keep Your Friends Close)
Evie, the ageless French vendeuse, was a tiny little thing—maybe 50, maybe 70, who knew? Work had been done, but it was very, very good work. With her jet-black pixie cut, porcelain complexion and flame-red lips, she was the ultimate in post-Parisian chic. Her heavily lined eyes could spot a potential sale with hawk-like precision. And, despite her habiliments (which always consisted of silk blouses, snug, knee-length pencil skirts, and stilettos) she moved like a cheetah—you blinked and she was across the room, helping the man with the $50,000 watch buy gifts for his wife, mistress and housekeeper, all wrapped separately and labeled correctly, s’il vous plaît.
With two miniature dogs nipping at our heels, we made up the magnificent Joan Rivers, who chattered non-stop and backseat-drove every stroke of eyeliner and application of blush.
Not one to stand on ceremony, she’d step right in if you weren’t moving things along. She didn’t consider it stealing your sale—she just didn’t suffer les fous. Working with Evie, I learned to lock it down quickly lest she swoop in. She could be very sweet, but she also had a ferocious temper. Once, when she thought I had taken her sale (I wouldn’t have dared!), she lit into me in the most ferocious French I have ever heard. (And by that I mean both la langue française and the very salty “pardon-my-French” kind.) I vowed not to let that happen again. I stood up to her, politely explained the misunderstanding and eventually she apologized. And from that day on, we closed our sales côte à côte. Years later, watching Glengarry Glen Ross, I smiled at the “always be closing” scene. I think Alec Baldwin learned it from Evie.
Look Busy (and For God’s Sake, Put on Some Blush!)
Shirley, the extremely short, slightly stooped and absolutely ancient cosmetics manager at Neimans, was rarely seen on the floor. We all lived in terror of her unexpected appearances, as her managerial tactics included popping up behind you and muttering cryptic criticisms or sneaking around the corner and shouting one of her highly-motivational catchphrases like: “Your sales suck! And for God’s sake, put on some blush!” In her department, not being (or at least looking) busy was a death sentence.
She did have a point, per the mercantile maxim: If you want to make a sale, change a light bulb. Customers never approach someone who is just standing around–idleness is so off-putting! So when traffic was slow, I organized and cleaned until my fingers bled. My shelves were always impeccably merchandized—like the cupboards in Sleeping with the Enemy–and every inch of my tester unit was scoured daily with alcohol and Q-tips.
When everything under my purview was polished to perfection, I would move on to any adjacent, unmanned areas. (You never tread on someone else’s territory.) One quiet day, nose deep in Fahrenheit, Drakkar Noir and Obsession, a gruff “Excuse me, miss?” roused me from my relentless rearranging. Fifteen minutes later I was ringing up $500 in fine fragrances for Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill—in all their bearded glory. It was one of my only sales that day, but meeting two-thirds of ZZ Top beats making commission. So stay busy kids, and don’t forget that extra blush!
Now, nearly 25 years later, I’m firmly ensconced in an actual office (albeit a very cool one) with a delightful, and incredibly talented crew of highly-creative colleagues. But a day doesn’t go by that I don’t remember those glamorous gals in Vegas. I have yet to find a day where I need to “look busy” (if only!) but every time I close a deal, clean my computer screen or take a chance to do something new, I silently thank them for teaching me not only how to work hard but how to do it effortlessly in high heels. And as I do, I (almost) always hold my tummy in and smile.