I Was the Pillsbury Doughboy

by Kelsey Rexroat

I was a graduate student in Chicago when I lied about my height and became the Pillsbury Doughboy.

I was new to the city and still adjusting to rent prices that were triple what I paid in Texas, as well as the existence of heating bills. My waitressing shifts at an Irish hole-in-the-wall covered most of my expenses, but left money tight and my afternoons free. That was how I found myself responding to Craigslist ads recruiting event staffers, promotional models, and brand ambassadors — positions with different names, but all referring to the people who stand at event booths and hand out swag.

This particular gig was to hand out Pillsbury brownie samples at the Taste of Chicago food festival for $20 an hour. The job required that women be 5’4″ or taller. I was just shy of 5’2″, but justified filling 5’4″ in the application’s height field by telling myself I’d wear taller shoes that day. Besides, what did height have to do with handing out brownies?

A harried-sounding man from the staffing company called to confirm my hours, and then asked if I was interested in being a costume character for an extra $10 per hour. He assured me that I only had to be in the costume for 20 minutes each hour. I quickly accepted, since the long shifts meant I’d be earning nearly $100 extra each day. Before hanging up, the man said, “Oh, by the way — you’re supposed to be 5’6” to fit the costume. You’re only two inches away, so I’m just going to list 5’6″ on your form so we can have this event squared away.” In the course of a few hours, I had miraculously grown four inches.

On my first day at the festival, I stepped into the inflatable Pillsbury Doughboy costume. Putting on the costume was a twenty-minute process involving two other people titled “handlers.” I strapped on a black vest padded with fans and speakers and connected by a cord to a large red button I held in my hand. When the button was pressed, the speakers emitted the signature Doughboy “Hoo hoo!” I looked like a suicide bomber threatening to go out in a blaze of giggles.

Once inflated, the Doughboy’s bandana was tightened around his wide neck to keep his head resting on my shoulders. The demerits of my small stature became clear — to fit my narrow shoulders, the handlers had to tighten the bandana until the Doughboy’s face started bunching.

“No, no, no!” said my manager when he saw the result. “We are not strangling the Doughboy!” He loosened the bandana as I peered out through the one-way see-through material of the Doughboy’s smile.

The handlers guided me by the arms like a nine-foot toddler to interact with the crowd waiting for brownie samples. People rushed forward to take photos, give hugs, and, of course, poke me in the belly while I dutifully pressed the red button in response.

Some people assumed I was a balloon and were shocked when I moved around. “That’s a robot,” one woman decided with conviction, even after seeing me walk and wave. I hopped on one foot as proof of my humanity, but she remained unconvinced.

Her friend rushed forward and gripped one of the inflatable arms until she felt my real arm inside like the Doughboy’s skeleton. “There’s a little man in there!” she shrieked, reeling back in horror. It didn’t occur to anyone that a woman would be cast in the role of Doughboy.

After only 10 minutes, my shoulders ached from the weight of the costume resting on them while I pushed the stiff inflatable arms forward for hugs. I pulled my real arms inside the costume, its tent-like shape too large to reflect my movements inside. While the Doughboy posed with a plastered smile, I stood unseen inside, supporting the weight of the head with one hand and wiping back my sweat-drenched hair with the other.

Despite this exhausting initiation into the world of event staffing, I stuck with it. The ensuing gigs were slightly more glamorous than that of an anthropomorphic ball of dough. For a Dos Equis campaign, we wore short business skirts, heels, and our hair in buns under the guise of recruiters canvassing bars in search of an assistant for “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” At a Heineken audition, my high-school Spanish skills were tested as I proved I could entice people to sample brews in multiple languages.

Alcohol promotions are the most competitive and tend to be more selective. The more you are required to fit a specific look, the higher the pay. GC Marketing Service’s website reassures potential brands that “If a client wants a young woman to fit a certain brand image, that’s what we give them! Whether it’s tall and stunning brunettes or girl-next-door blondes, GC will find the right person for the event.”

For men, the opportunities are slimmer but follow the same rules — one of my friends put his beard to work making $50 an hour portraying Captain Morgan’s swashbuckling mascot at bars and liquor stores.

Even those who don’t fit a specific look can find gigs. Wherever there are large numbers of people in one place, there are brands eager to evangelize their products. Many brands have a skeleton road crew that travels by bus or trailer to expos, festivals, and events around the country. An agency hires the temporary workers to round out the staff in each city. Through agencies with names like Attack Marketing, Convention Models and Talent, and On the Rocks, I represented everything from Crocs to car insurance at festivals, expos, and sporting events, always making at least $20 an hour.

The jobs filled the holes in my budget during my two years of grad school and allowed me to set my own schedule. However, I was not tempted to commit to it full-time like some of my colleagues. The work was repetitive (echoing one or two canned lines endlessly) and exhausting (often 10-plus-hour shifts on your feet), and when it was done, it wasn’t uncommon to wait months for the paycheck to arrive. Once I graduated, I was glad to trade in the transitory world of event staffing for the stability of an office job.

I deleted my profiles on the agencies’ website, but I knew there would be plenty of young, broke recruits in the mercenary army of brand ambassadors ready step into the role of smiling — and sometimes hoo-hoo-ing — on demand.

Kelsey Rexroat is a copy editor and freelance writer in New York.

Photo: Bradley P. Johnson

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