Calling Out of Context

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CBS has replayed The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show twice this month. Thanks to the writer’s strike, we again get to see Seal in silver glitter pants, Heidi Klum singing, and Brazilian model upon Brazilian model proclaiming how perfect their lives have become since joining the Victoria’s Secret family. Oh, yes, and a few shots of Jeremy Piven and Mystery seated side by side, presumably giddy with excitement for the imminent Spice Girl reunion.

For a brief moment in time, years ago, I was a part of the Victoria’s Secret family. I answered the phone when you called, I took your nervous, low-spoken orders. I recommended thongs in lilac, and lace garters, and told men what women wanted. I had just turned eighteen.


Working at Victoria’s Secret Catalogue is nothing like working at the stores in the mall. The stores are tawdry explosions of pink satin and taffeta curtains. Near the cash registers, they sell cinnamon mints in the shape of tiny, pursed lips. They are full of buxom young women and confused, hopeful men and too much clotted mascara in the corners of saleswomen’s eyes.

No, Victoria’s Secret Catalogue is adult, sophisticated, operated out of a remote, sprawling complex on the outskirts of an Ohio suburb. Like all of Les Wexner’s buildings that I’d driven by — he, the faceless owner and multimillionaire behind Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch, The Limited, Bath & Bodyworks, half of Ohio, probably your car — it is a monolith of steel and black modernistic construction. Even though Victoria’s Secret spells "catalogue" the British way — which always made me believe that a puffy, British fifty-something woman of great means and great sexual proclivity was behind the empire — it is made, manufactured, and headquartered in Ohio. Like so many things you don’t expect — Katie Holmes, Sarah Jessica Parker, the invention of flight, Jeffrey Dahmer’s childhood — it actually comes from Ohio.

It was Lisa Bevilaqua’s idea that we work there over the summer. I was flattered to be invited. Popular, with a beautiful albino streak through her honey-blond curls, Lisa was one of the few non-Catholics at our sainted

You could hang up on perv callers, but sometimes I’d stay on the line.

high school (oh, the freedom!), had a car, and had achieved the perfect amount of sluttiness. (The stereotypes are absolutely true: all Catholic schoolgirls are either sluts, or desperately trying to become sluts.) She prepared me for giving blowjobs: "It’s like eating vanilla ice cream with pickles."

It was our first job that didn’t involve selling orthopedic shoes or carving turkeys at a buffet for the elderly. There were security guards and a gleaming reception desk. We were issued laminated ID badges and our own giant black folders with every recent incarnation of the catalogue, triple-hole punched inside, which we’d scour for the fabled transsexual model, though we never found an Adam’s apple and they all had big feet. If you didn’t want to eat in the spacious employee cafeteria (complete with fro-yo machine and glamorous, multigrain breadsticks), you could have your packed lunch in one of the upstairs lounges, sitting at small metal tables beneath billboard-sized photos of Stephanie Seymour lounging on satin pillows. So much Stephanie Seymour, the size of a Tyrannosaurus, looking down on your carrot sticks and dreams.

Before I worked there, I imagined the customers would be wealthy college graduates, professionals with expensive hair and teeth and pinstriped suits taking a few minutes out of their busy days to call the toll-free line and order teddies and satin chemises to pack for their weekends in Tahiti. I didn’t think so many housewives would call in, or that so many housewives would work the phones: acres of housewives wearing mom jeans, as far as the eye could see, with a few of us teens scattered in, and — on the night shift — the goth couple whose matching nose piercings jingled when they walked by. But soon, I discovered that these mothers knew what women wanted. Unrattled, they could consult with clients on which bra best fit a double-D. They never suggested a customer buy a white suit to wear to a wedding, and so were never reprimanded by said customer.

Despite my nerves and inexperience, I tried to answer every call with a low, sultry purr: "Thank you for calling Victoria’s Secret Catalogue. My name is Nicole, how can I assist you?" I wanted my voice to convey, "I am a mature, confidant woman who knows what she wants, and how to get it."







I wanted my voice to be everything I wasn’t, but it was a traitor. By the end of each call — after finding the catalogue the customer had, the page number, discussing sizing, getting the credit card number, and desperately trying to sell five panties for twenty dollars (twenty-five cents commission for every panty sold!) — my nerves would be frayed, and my voice so high it was closer to Minnie Mouse than Marilyn Monroe. "Goodbye!" I’d squeak.

I don’t remember my first caller, but I do remember my first perv call, and the slow, blood-in-your-ears shock when you realize this person is masturbating. This was a time in our lives when we couldn’t even talk about sex with our boyfriends — whom we were having sex with. I couldn’t even tell Lisa I thought she was insane (blowjobs do not taste like any flavor ice cream and pickles). How incredibly, weirdly, intimate. What did they think I looked like? Did they imagine my voice coming out of the girl in the point d’esprit teddy’s lips, the way I once thought the Virgin Mary statue’s lips moved in chapel? Were their bedroom curtains drawn, or did they hunch down in the living room, with Jeopardy! muted in front of them?

You could hang up on perv callers (or worse yet, when someone wouldn’t provide a credit card number up

At parties, boys crowded around while we pretended to answer the phone.

front), but sometimes I’d stay on the line. There was an old man who liked to rap about panties and pussy; I’d compliment him on his rhymes (what else did he have?) Just when I had gotten used to the pervs, the heavy breathers, the grade-school prank calls, something new would throw me. The time I couldn’t understand what the male customer was asking, and a put him on hold to ask my manager: "Which thong do we recommend for ‘tucking’?"

Or my first female perv call. Sure, it was odd that she just murmured, "Mmm, huh," as I enthusiastically described my favorite push-up bras and teddies. But it made it easier to read the special features I always forgot to mention ("And the best thing about the see-through lace bodysuit? It’s crotchless!"). Then she asked me what I was wearing, and I could feel my heart pound in my ears anew.

What was I wearing? Not the same things as this beautiful family of women who cavorted in these glossy pages. I wanted that model’s body, smile, hair. The painful joy of the summer catalogues! If only I could be that bronzed girl, lounging against a white-washed wall in a blue-sky utopia that could only be Greece, or Bali, or Baja — anywhere but Ohio. That freedom! Was this what college would feel like? But when I used my employee discount and ordered a nightie, it arrived oversized. The cotton was rough against my young breasts, which poked out embarrassingly against the material like science-class volcanoes. No bras I ordered inspired wonder.

Men and women proud to call Ira Glass a sex symbol melt when I say I used to work at Victoria’s Secret Catalogue.

At parties, flocks of boys crowded around us while we to pretended to answer the VSC phone. I can’t say I learned about love or sex from the catalogue, but I learned postures that looked a lot like them. I could bite my lip just so, lower my voice just right. I could close my eyes and imagine myself on a beach in Tahiti, as warm as Ohio nights. I could keep my eyes closed with boys, in basements, at parties, in warm corners with their dry, rough hands. But it wasn’t right yet. It wasn’t perfect.

"You need to get in touch with your sexuality," said Lisa. "You need to be an animal." We were in high school. We idolized Sharon Stone, though we weren’t old enough to see Basic Instinct. We could say things like this and believe them. She handed me a Hershey’s Kiss, even though snacks were forbidden on the work floor. "Making love is like eating chocolate," she intoned, sucking on the Kiss, her thighs pressed together, her eyes shut. She’d left the cavernous call center, flown up and away from her body and found some greater high, her own angelic vision.

To this day I can see her pursed lips. But now I wonder, could she really have been so transported by Hershey’s? Watching the Fashion Show on TV, I’m in awe of the spectacle Victoria’s Secret has created for itself. Even today, men and women who are intelligent, politically astute and proud to call Ira Glass a sex symbol melt when I say I used to work at the Victoria’s Secret Catalogue. They beg me to "answer the phone." (Hell yes, I’ve gotten laid using my old phone voice.) And now I can work the underwires, easily recreate the catalogue poses: a finger against the lips, a tilt of the hips. It’s so easy and fake and fun and horrible, that sometimes it’s hard to let go. I wonder if the real models face this dilemma: when they actually fall in love and someone sees through them, what do they do when the poses grow old? A first step: open your eyes, take off the bra.  



Picking Up On The Picket Line by Duncan Birmingham
A single guy’s view from inside the writers’ strike.
Personal Inventory by James Stegall
Remembrance of things past, via the Lands’ End catalog.
Strange Currencies by Lisa Carver
I dated a rich man; we both paid the price.
Crying in Restaurants With Sarah Hepola by Sarah Hepola
Part four: falling in love, sobbing into Greek salad.
Dealbreaker: The Wine Bar by Will Doig
The drink that sank my date.

Nicole Ankowski has lived in Ohio, Oakland, and on the high plains of South Dakota, but is now proud to call Brooklyn home. She wrote for alternative weekly papers in the first two states, and tried to learn Lakota in the last. (The vowels can be tricky.) She just earned her MFA in Creative Writing and has been published in Beeswax literary journal. She is unable to resist good writing or bad TV.
©2007 Nicole Ankowski and Nerve.com



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The recent opening of a lingerie outlet sparked outrage in quaint Westfield, New Jersey.

Below, two actual letters to the editor published in the Westfield Leader.

The expression in commercial real estate is “location, location, location,” and the executives at Victoria’s Secret seem to know it well. They have leased what is probably one of the most visible locations in Westfield.

Everyone traveling north on Central Avenue must stop at East Broad Street and look to the left while waiting for a break in the traffic. As they turn, they will see the two large, brightly lit display windows of Victoria’s Secret (the view is similar to the one shown in the Downtown Westfield Corporation Website).

As I drove up Central Avenue this past Sunday morning with my wife and children, we all saw both windows filled with what seemed like two dozen highly polished silver mannequins, as yet undressed, positioned near the glass in the windows. I can only imagine what this will do to the flow of traffic at this already troubled intersection once these mannequins are clothed in what I assume will be the standard window dressing for Victoria’s Secret that one sees in their mall stores.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not a prude, and Victoria’s Secret has the legal right to open a store wherever they want to, but can’t they tone things down a bit? After all, they are surrounded by child-friendly stores — Kay Bee Toys and Barron’s Drug Store on either side, and Gap Kids and the Rialto Theater across the street.

How will this storefront fit in with the Colonial style that Westfield is known for? The Downtown Westfield Corporation has proposed many enhancements to the downtown area, including period lighting and “Colonial-style telephone booths” (The Westfield Leader, Sept. 2, 1999). The new Union County Police Headquarters “would be constructed in keeping with the character of the town” (The Westfield Leader, May 10, 2001).

So tell me, how does Victoria’s Secret fit into the Colonial scheme of things? Are they going to have a display of whale-bone corsets?

Additionally, with Westfield’s increasing popularity as a TV location, both for programs and commercials, this storefront cuts down on the sightlines for filming. After all, who would want a picture of bras and panties in family-friendly Westfield?

Again, Victoria’s Secret has the legal right to be there and sell what they want, but can’t they be asked to please keep their display windows toned down? After all, everybody knows what they sell.

Thank you for your attention on this matter.

Jeffrey Messing


Having now heard and read so much about the imminent decline of our moral fiber and colonial character (not to mention property values!), I felt I’d better do a little research on the allegedly lewd and lascivious purveyor of pornographic pantaloons known as Victoria’s Secret.

As a responsible citizen and the father of an impressionable ten-year-old daughter, I asked myself, “Who is this Victoria and what does she have to be so secretive about?” Here are the shocking facts I discovered.

First, a little background. Victoria’s Secret is the largest retailer of women’s undergarments in the world, with over 850 stores nationwide and a couple hundred more elsewhere around the globe. It seems that many of their lurid little shops are located in, dare I say it, malls! And others are in such seedy locales as Palm Beach, Fifth Avenue and Beverly Hills! Who’d have thought that there were so many lingerie fetishists out there? I mean, I knew that their catalog had pretty much replaced National Geographic as the preferred reading of adolescent boys, but apparently somebody actually buys this stuff as well! In fact, they apparently buy about $8 billion worth per year.

Having discovered these troubling facts, I felt that a little field research was in order. So I braced myself for the shocking sights I might encounter and headed off for the Short Hills Mall. But no amount of moral fortification could have prepared me for the horrors that met my eyes. Slips, nightgowns and other unmentionables too awful to mention! I thought we had rid our fair town of such ghastly sights when the store known as “Milady’s” closed a few years back. At least they had chosen a properly colonial name.

This experience has left me quite shaken. I only hope that, in time, I can heed the precocious words of my innocent and darling daughter and “Get Over It!”

Marty Silverman


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© 2001 Grant Stoddard and Nerve.com, Inc.