Grid girl power: The style and substance behind the glamor

Story highlights

Grid girls share the tarmac with the stars of F1

Work long hours and have to abide by strict rules

Over 250 applicants for the job from all over the world

Have been part of F1 since the 1960s

CNN  — 

It is 5:00am on Sunday morning in Austin, Texas.

Dawn has yet to break here but preparations are already under way for the afternoon’s Formula One race.

A golden glow of light pools from a hair salon in the west of the city; inside the COTA girls – named after the Circuit of the Americas track where the U.S. Grand Prix is staged - are being preened and coiffed for their big day.

The young women share the grid with some of the sport’s biggest names but while Red Bull’s four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel was still getting his beauty sleep the COTA girls are already at work.

“I’ve been waking up at about four o’clock in the morning,” explains Amanda Bingman, a first time COTA girl and the troop’s only redhead. “The drivers probably get to sleep in and wait for their crew to get their stuff together.

“But it’s worth it – beauty is pain!”

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There is a happy chatter at this pre-dawn pampering party for the 31 young women selected to be COTA girls for the 2013 U.S. Grand Prix.

Center stage

Despite the early start, the overwhelming feeling is one of excitement at sharing center stage at a prestigious international event that is watched by half a billion viewers around the globe.

“What’s it like being a grid girl?” 24-year-old Krystal Malloy, who is a photographer by trade, ponders.

“Get ready for an almost paparazzi style feel to it! You walk out and you instantly have cameras taking pictures of you and video cameras filming you.

“You’re just ‘wow, this is amazing!’ You feel the energy of the people, the crowd and how excited they are. It’s a wonderful feeling to be part of this.”

Grid girls – also known as paddock girls or brolly dollies – have been part of motorsport’s glamorous panoply for the last 40 years.

Sponsor driven

They arrived in Formula One following the advent of sponsorship and advertising in the late 1960s and soon became a popular promotional asset for the sport.

Their duties include displaying the race number placards on the grid, clapping the drivers onto the podium, making appearances in VIP suites and taking part in photo sessions with the fans.

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The girls are not allowed to talk to the drivers unless they are spoken to first and there’s an even stricter rule imposed by the COTA girls’ manager Kristen Ditto, a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.

“One of my very, very strict policies is that in a non-working situation the girls may not interact with the race car drivers,” Ditto explained to CNN.

“However, in a working situation they have to be cordial and that’s it.”

COTA girl Grace Kim illuminates further: “Last year I was the grid girl for Michael Schumacher. I think he said hello - but he was getting in the zone.”

Do the young women see themselves as playing the glamorous figures in a man’s world?

Tough selection

“No, not at all,” says Malloy. “We are very well versed. We went through a series of interviews before we even got this job.

“We have no problem conversing with people and being personable instead of just standing there and looking pretty as a picture.”

Ditto and the circuit’s marketing manager Rodrigo Sanchez are intent on cultivating a sense of empowerment within their brood of COTA girls.

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Good looks are only part of the selection criteria. The applicants – there were 250 this season with some even applying from Europe and Australia – go through a three-stage interview process.

“I actually got asked how much I could bench press in my interview,” laughs Ashley Elgie, a sports trainer, saleswoman and architect – as well as a repeat COTA girl.

Ditto jokes that she plays the role of picky X Factor USA judge Simon Cowell on the selection panel.

Cross section

She is looking for well-rounded young women who can represent the modern American sweetheart in F1’s global community.

“We have the cross section of the American woman,” Ditto, an attractive blond, explains.

“I’m not looking for a stereotypical, 5”10 blonde model. We have Asian, Latino, African-American girls. We’re not looking for a maximum age, we actually have one COTA girl who is 38.

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“It’s not just about the looks department either, it’s a lot more than that. We are looking for the all-American woman who is poised, attractive and confident, a great communicator and who can be a COTA ambassador.”

Although the role of a COTA girl comes with a salary and a year-long contract, the women also hold down full-time jobs or are in college.

Learning curve

Being a COTA girl is an exciting break from the norm but for some it is also a useful learning curve.

“I’m in school right now for radio and television,” explains Jordan Hannah, a 19-year-old from Dallas.

“I want to be a sports reporter or an anchor woman so this is really good for me.

“It teaches me how to handle myself in environments when I might feel overwhelmed, how to communicate with people from different parts of the world.

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“It gives me a feel of what I might be doing if I am a sports reporter one day.”

Ditto hopes that the experience of being a COTA girl will, above all, be a stepping-stone for the young women in their future careers.

“Coming from the Dallas Cowboys taught me a lot,” she adds. “It gave me the background that I need to pass on to these girls and get them ready for life skills, not just here at the track.

Eye candy?

“I want them to hold themselves high and be confident because self confidence is the key to everything.”

The experience of being a COTA girl may well be empowering but that does not stop everyone from viewing them as eye candy.

The girls concede attention from arduous admirers comes with the territory.

“Yes, it happens,” says Elgie. “We’re always very polite but also very modest about the situation and just keep moving on… ‘Thank for the compliment, that’s very nice of you to say.’”

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Ditto is also on hand to make sure the girls are not put in any situations they do not feel comfortable with.

“The girls are always being hit on,” she says. “It’s just the nature of the beast but we want them to be at ease with everything that they do.

“If I walk in the door and it’s all alcohol, all men; a bunch of people just carrying on, I probably will just skip that suite or I’ll just tell the girls ‘just keep a smile on your face, say hello and we’ll quickly excuse ourselves.’

“I have to be the bad cop. If the environment goes sour then we quickly assess the situation and get out of there.”

American sweetheart

It may be less than sweet but for now being an American sweetheart is not a job for the boys.

Grid boys have made rare appearances in F1, for example at the European Grand Prix in Valencia, but there are no plans for cowboys to giddy up on the Texan grid.

“I haven’t had any [men] apply,” says Ditto, when asked why there aren’t any COTA boys.

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“I don’t think it’s sexist but I have to be really, really careful because that’s a good question.

“I would say in different parts of the world that would be totally acceptable, I just can’t see that being welcomed here because we are so used to seeing beautiful Texas women. I think it’s cultural for sure.”

Tom-boy girls

Kim, who is also the circuit’s official DJ, has her own theory: “We’re kind of tom-boy girls.”

Elgie agrees: “We recently worked at an event where we were able to race go-karts round the track.

“I was so mad because I was in first place for the longest time and then I got passed by some man at the end. I was so ticked off, I got second place.”

So, the COTA girls definitely do not see themselves as second best in a man’s world?

“Never!” exclaims Kim. “We’re always representing girl power.”

Girl power just needs a little extra preening and with that it is back to business at the early bird hair salon to “fluff and puff” their Texas style.