By Alexandra King 
“What do you mean, cancelled,?” I say.
I am staring at a tangerine skinned, smiling blonde woman wearing a tight white vest and tiny shorts. A name-tag attached to her hip reads, shoutily, “DEBBIE.” Debbie thinks I am a nutter and is beginning to tire of me. I called up especially I say. I really made a lot of effort to be here. It was advertised, on your billboard. “I understand,” she says, talking slowly, and protractedly, through closed teeth-
You’ve got to give the girl some credit- she’s dealing with a hot, frustrated British accented journalist, who is clearly not your average Hooters client, and all the while the grin doesn’t move. The key to a Hooters girl, they say, is in the personality. A fine pair of personalities and you’ll do just fine.
It’s a sweltering May Sunday, 1pm, and I am standing outside the only Hooters restaurant in the whole of New York City. It sits in an anonymous and unloved corner of 56th street between 8th Avenue and Broadway. Nobody knows it’s there. I asked the hot dog stand guy on the corner if he’d heard of it. He said no. I asked a doorman two doors down. He said no. Poor Hooters, breasts just aren’t fashionable in New York anymore, particularly not in this non-entity part of midtown, on the hottest day of the year so far, when thousands of people, just ten minutes walk away, are sitting in Sheep Meadow drinking beer and laying their white winter bodies down to rest in the humid air.
The restaurant itself sits adjacent to a concrete courtyard, slightly off the roadside, next to two ugly office buildings, and opposite a suspicious looking pizza joint that out-of-towners wonder into, once a week, by mistake. At the front door, a large air conditioning unit is clunking furiously, spewing out hot oil-scented air directly onto a patch of freshly planted pink geraniums, conspicuous in the tarmac, whose petals are blowing, falling off and frying limply in the heat.
Sitting on the wall are two grossly obese and carbuncular women in chefs uniforms, sucking on cigarettes in the sun. These are the backstage Hooters girls- the ones that peel the potatoes and rev up the microwave. As they finish up their smokes, they share a spray of hand sanitizer from an almost empty bottle and head back inside.
It’s about now that I first see Clive from Oregon. I know he is from Oregon because his T-shirt says so, in big capital letters. I know his name is Clive because he has a name-tag attached to his bag. It literally reads, NAME: Clive ADDRESS: Oregon.
He is carrying an enormous rucksack, with, inexplicably, a ropey-looking sleeping bag attached to it. He is also short, round and has eyes that are a little bit too close together. Nonetheless, he strolls up to the doorway with all the pizzazz of George Clooney on a good hair day. “Hey there gorgeous,” he says to me. I ignore him. “Hey there gorgeous,” he repeats again, this time to Debbie, whose grin has not left her face, not even for one millisecond. I am cross with Debbie. In my head I have spent at least 4 minutes planning out inappropriate situations for her to smile in- Debbie grinning in the jaws of a velociraptor, Debbie looking cheery as she plummets prettily to her death in the head of a smoking volcano, Debbie being stampeded by a hoarde of angry chihuahas.
Then Clive says – Is the wing eatin’ competition startin’ yet?
Finally. An ally.
It’s at this point that I make the bold move to enter Hooters, chicken wing eating competition or not. Clearly, I determine, Clive from Oregon and I are the only people who arrived for it and I was only ever going to be a spectator. This means, I realise, with my journalistic optimism glinting brightly, I have essentially secured exclusive access to the winner of this sporting event, even though it hasn’t actually happened. I follow him in.
I’ve always been marginally fascinated by Hooters, mainly because I hail from a crap and gritty town in Northern England called Nottingham, whose lowly tourism industry was turned around in early 2000 by the opening of the first and only European Hooters restaurant, located on a charmless highway near the even more charmless city centre. Why they chose Nottingham I have no idea. It must have been cheap, that’s for sure. Perhaps they saw a humanitarian need for cheesy smiles and bouncing breasts in a place where the highlight of the average citizen’s life is appendicitis.
Either way, the restaurant’s recruitment process sparked an out and out war between the city’s comeliest ladies, who all immediately wanted the badge of honour of being a Hooters girl. Rumours circulated at school. Morgan in Upper Sixth had got a job there. She showed her uniform to fit Jake on the rugby team and now he was her boyfriend. We were wildly jealous. I remember always marvelling at a big sign attached to the front of the restaurant as we drove by on our way to the supermarket- it read “KIDS EAT FREE ON SUNDAYS.” It was all terribly exciting. Previously our biggest attraction for visitors, who otherwise marvelled at the towns unbelievably ugly children and very cheap alcohol, had been a paltry exhibit called “The Tales of Robin Hood” which involved wearing a felt green archers cap and riding a mini train around a dark cramped room. The train would occasionally break down in the middle of a medieval street scene full of wax work peasants and pumped with a chemically manufactured manure smell, giving families of German tourists panic attacks, and providing the locals, who were all earning 5 quid an hour shepherding them into the train dressed up as Merry Men, with stories they could tell down the pub for years to come.
Now we started to get hoardes of bachelor parties and curious Euro-perves, who arrived in buses to eat what we thought of as terribly exotic American style diner food. The best was when you saw an over-zealous tourist who’d clearly tried to fit it all in, wondering around the city square, blind drunk with burger breath, wearing a Hooters T-shirt and brandishing a plastic bow and arrow. If, with not a lot of luck, he managed to get his face kicked in outside Bar Riva at 11pm on a Sunday night, the authentic Nottingham experience was complete.
Hooters NYC is huge. Except that it’s almost entirely empty. Empty of course, apart from a multitude of girls, all wearing identical outfits and looking bored, their faces flashing red and blue and green next to the hundreds of blaring TVs, all showing different sports games complete with low level commentary that merges into one steady hum. Next to them, even in my summer shorts, I feel conspicuously clothed. I count at least ten, and I’m sure many evaded my tally due to the fact that they all look, apart from variations of colour in their long flowing manes, extremely similar. In a restaurant that could maybe fit 300 people, only 4 tables are eating, and at three of these the solitary customer is male and alone.
I accost Clive by the merchandise. He is digging through the T-shirts, throwing different ones enthusiastically over the arm of an attentive Hooters girl, who can clearly spot a gold mine when she sees one. They are already on first name terms “Way to go Clive, ” says the waitress. “You bet Cheryl,” replies Clive. He’s buying one in every colour.
The range of merchandise is astonishing. Hooters mugs, Hooters umbrellas, Hooters stationary, as well as clothing ranges for adults, kids and dogs. You can even buy a hooters babygro, which, I suppose, makes sense, in a Freudian sort of way. Those marketing guys are sly dogs. Get ‘em young, while the oral fixation stage is still in full flow, and they’ll be coming to Hooters to gawp at tits for life.
“I don’t care about the wings, I love this place, whatever,” I hear Clive saying.
He has bought his T-shirts now, and he’s now pulling one over his head and beckoning for a waitress to pose for a picture. He eventually stands between two of them, who smile dutifully and jut their hips out for the camera.
I am suddenly overcome with a bizarre affection for Clive from Oregon. He doesn’t look even slightly embarrassed, just utterly overjoyed, which I imagine is due to the fact that he never ever has been, or will ever be again, so close to such a large and round and totally exposed pair of breasts in his life. “Get ready spaghetti!” squeals one of the girls. “CHEESE” says Clive, as the flash leaps out its fleeting embrace to immortalise this holy moment, in the great hagiography of Clive’s existence. This is all starting to feel very odd, like Clive is a 5 year old at a theme park, and soon he will jump on a slide and dive into a ball pit, or start trampolining like an ADD toddler on the unwilling F-cups of one of the staff. His rictus grin is stuck- extending like a red-crescent moon under his starry popping eye-balls. Good for him, I think. He’s clearly struggled with the ladies for many years, and now all he needs to do is take a 5 minute walk out of the Time Warner Centre, with its troops of frighteningly dismissive and demanding females with yoga mats on their backs, debating which organic apples to buy in Wholefoods, into this calm haven of seemingly loving cartoon ladies who smile, feed him French fries and pat him on the back. Later I’m sure he will frame this picture, and put it on his wall at work. Or show it to his Grandma and tell her that the nice lady in the orange underwear is his new girlfriend.
It’s probably important here to talk about the oufits, which are of course, the signature feature of any Hooters restaurant. And what’s really their most standout feature, purely from a female perspective, is how remarkably unflattering they are. Sitting high and tight are a pair of orange shiny shorts, which resemble, almost exactly, the gym knickers I wore as I jogged round muddy English playing fields with a lacrosse stick as a small child, and which they eventually banned at my school after Raymond, the village paedophile, started turning up for the under 11 hockey games. Tucked into the shorts is a tight white vest with the Hooters logo stretched for dear life across the regulation bazookas. On their legs are shiny flesh coloured tights that suck in the skin like an angry sea creature.
More interesting, still, is the logo on the back of the vests, which reads, confusingly- “Hooters- delightfully tacky but still unrefined” I think about this for a long time, but comprehending this statement is trickier than Descartes. Tacky, intrinsically implies unrefined, no? But this statement seems to essentially be saying that tacky also means refined if it has to be qualified by the disclaimer that it definitely isn’t so. The tautology smarts and the mind boggles. I ask Debbie, who I have now warmed to, given that I am still seriously overheating and she has dutifully refilled my diet coke at least 8 times.
“It means that, we’re like, just up front about how fun we are,” she says.
I must admit, I had done a little bit of research before I met Debbie and her grinning fem bot chums. There’s a video on the Hooters web site, a 3 and a half minute montage that would probably send Germaine Greer into a catatonic state of fury but, presumably, delights the average Hooters diner. To the background of a David Hasselhoff-esque voice singing “you gotta get down to hooters” over a bouncy electro soundtrack, Hooters girls laugh, conspiratorial and winking, at jocular looking guys, Hooters girls watch sports and high five punters as their team scores a touchdown, Hooters girls arrive with plates of deep fried something or other resting attractively on their perky chests. As the final voice over tells us, “part of the hooters girl image is being fabulously fun.”
Well, it has to be said, even though I am less uncomfortable that I had perhaps anticipated, I am finding this about as fun as Anthrax. Clive on the other hand, is having a whale of a time.
And he insists on buying me lunch.
The food is, not entirely surprisingly, spectacularly bad, managing to be both heart attack inducingly calorific and undeniably gross. We watch, like mute and useless witnesses of a great tsunami wave, as a tide of processed muck exits the deep fat frier and makes it to our table our table via French manicured talons. A bowl of curly fries arrives, crunchy piglet tails, grey and lukewarm, tasting of sawdust and cooking oil. We get some grilled shrimp, which arrives with a plastic pot of what looks like calcified pee, fresh from the Dr’s cubicle, but turns out to be melted butter. Then of course, the wings, the jewel in the crown of this culinary nightmare- these, of course, are what hooters are known for- and I’m now relieved that I didn’t witness these being guzzled down in vats. Ten too many of them arrive, clammy and glinting, smothered in a faintly foul smelling gloop of red ectoplasm. I approach the first one with all the enthusiasm and caution of one about to take a nibble on the paw of a bad tempered hyena- I’m terrified that any second I might accidentally chow down on an artery and start to choke, only to be frantically mouth to mouthed and defibrillated by a team of screaming girls in orange underwear. Something tells me Clive from Oregon would like this very much.
“How ARE YOU DOING GUYS? These are sooooo good RIGHT?,” Debbie says, her little slick lipgloss mouth itching for flies.
I look at Debbie, and know for a fact that she has never eaten one of these wings in her life. But dammit, shes so cute, so damn cute, I fake it. I play along. “Oh yeah, mmmmmhmmmm,” I say, as the red sauce oozes down my chin, onto my shorts and my cardiovascular system screams for mercy. I masticate furiously, pretending in my head that this rubbery load is foie gras and fairydust, before finally swallowing it all up in one vomitous gulp.
We get our “garden salad”. It is covered in what they said would be a French dressing. Which turns out, in fact, to be ketchup. “Christ, is this?…”
“Yes, that’s ketchup,” says Clive, cheerily. “Right,” I say, attempting to rinse a slice of cucumber in his glass of water before eating it. It turns an odd brown colour, as if a paintbrush had just been dunked inside.
As our feast drags on, and Miley Cyrus is playing and Clive is wiping butter out of his beard, I start to feel myself becoming a touch maniacal, perhaps due to all the preservatives hitting my blood stream simultaneously and having a wild chemical party, and I realise it’s time to leave. “The thing about this place is”, says Clive, in between gulps, as Debbie plies me with lemon scented wet wipes, “it’s just 100 per-cent honest.”
And, I muse, as I gather my things and tell him that alas I’ve run out of business cards, don’t have a cell phone and will definitely find him on Facebook, he’s got a point. Walking home through the Park, I realize that all the semi naked civilian girls, clad in shorts and bikini tops and laughing in the grass, are terrifying to people like Clive from Oregon. They are swimsuit wearing Rapunzels, splaying their hair out across the lawn, waiting to be found by Princes- both enticing and foreboding. For those who are too fat or shy or downright weird to climb up a tower, never mind run the risk of being pushed down once they reach the top, Hooters is a legitimate solution, and the girls, who all unanimously, and convincingly declared to me that they loved their jobs, are probably doing a public service.
After all, Hooters is a thousand times more wholesome than a strip joint, whilst ostensibly, giving the same kind of satisfaction. You get to eat something, actually touch up the girls a bit as you pose for pictures, buy a souvenir T-shirt for the bros at home. Frustrated husbands don’t leave Hooters wanting to tear off their own genitals with despair. It’s sort of low-cal family friendly perving. There’s a stack of unused high chairs in the corner. Kids eat free on Sundays, even if they never actually come.
Alexandra King is a British exile living in Manhattan. When not writing atypically smutty pieces that more-often-than-not focus on the low-life beat, she works as a broadcast journalist for United Nations Television, covering international human rights stories. In her spare time she enjoys snuggling her psychopathic cat, gesticulating wildly and cartwheeling down hills. For the last 10 years, despite all evidence to the contrary, she has been convinced that Cher is her biological mother.