12.23.09 11:48 PM ET
From Sex Scandal to Corporate Brand
Is being the other woman in a high-profile sex scandal becoming a good career move? It depends on the state of your 8-by-10 glossies—and your sense of timing.
Aside from her involvement in a scandal, Ashley Dupré, the escort linked with former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, has little in common with Jamie Jungers, who denies any connection to prostitution while sharing intimate details of her relationship with Tiger Woods. But these strange bedfellows finally appear to be on similar (if disparately successful) career paths. Jamie was recently hired as the holiday-season spokesperson for BidHere.com, a new auction site based in Sydney. And Ashley's media campaign to promote her new advice column in the New York Post, “Ask Ashley,” has made her a surprisingly effective mascot for the tabloid.
Watson confirms that the auction site experienced “a nice spike in traffic” after launching Jamie’s video endorsement—for a small, unknown company like BidHere, perhaps there’s nowhere to go but up.
Should scandal itself be seen as a savvy, subversive career option? And why exactly are women who've emerged from a sex scandal considered a valuable brand to these companies? After all, Gillette, Accenture, and others have felt compelled to politely back away from Tiger Woods, fearing a “family values” boycott if they didn't. (There's something daffy about shaving cream being dependent on sexual morality for its legitimacy, but we don't really question it.)
For one thing, BidHere, a low-profile startup that went live in November, has a lot less to lose by actively embracing one of the main players in the Tiger drama. Linda Watson, the site's media representative, says she thinks Jamie's particular situation fits well with BidHere's function: The conceit of the ad in which she appears is that her ability to shop in public has been “severely disrupted by the media frenzy surrounding her love life,” Watson explains, making online shopping a necessity. Watson confirms that the auction site experienced "a nice spike in traffic" after launching Jamie's video endorsement—for a small, unknown company like BidHere, perhaps there's nowhere to go but up.
While there's a very homemade quality to the BidHere video and, to put it politely, an unpolished feel to Jamie's performance, Jamie reminds me of earlier (and pricier) attempts to “brand” the extramarital sex partners of famous men. Ten years ago, Monica Lewinsky became a controversial spokeswoman for the Jenny Craig diet plan. She also launched a line of handbags. And a decade before Monica, Donna Rice was modeling No Excuses jeans after being caught by photographers sitting on Senator Gary Hart's lap.
Like Rice, Jamie offers one-dimensional notoriety, which makes me wonder how portable her brand is. Monica and Ashley project more layers. Ashley calls herself “the poster child for redemption” and (in her New York Post ad) “someone who could have used a little advice in the past.” (Full disclosure: As an ex-prostitute who got a huge career boost from the New York Post, I know how important it is to fine-tune your image. The Post loves a reformed sinner who doesn't renounce her past.) Ashley's coded statements about escorting are laced with implications of regret, yet she can also be sharp-tongued and defiant.
The president's illicit lover, known for her sexual appetite, Monica should have been the perfect spokeswoman for a diet plan. Women who feel guilty about overeating might empathize with her perceived sexual excess. Gluttony is traditionally associated with lust, after all. While both are among the seven deadly sins, this didn't go over well with many Jenny Craig customers and consultants, who objected to Lewinsky's reputation and pressured the company to end the relationship.
It's too soon to predict the results of a backlash in Ashley's case. Angry letters from incensed moralists were inevitable, but these may simply enhance her brand—and the brand of the racy New York Post.
Ashley's new column actually helps to redeem the Post. When embarrassing snapshots of her were plastered all over the tabloid, many felt that the New York Post was exploiting a young woman's vulnerability. By giving Ashley a platform to refine her image, the paper makes itself hipper and more humane. Ruthless exploitation coupled with sexual shame is so last century.
As an advice expert with sex-industry cred, Ashley has some notable New York predecessors. In the 1980s, Sydney Barrows adopted a tabloid nickname as her own brand and went on to publish self-help and etiquette books as the Mayflower Madam. Xaviera Hollander, whose memoir, The Happy Hooker, became a kitsch classic, wrote a popular Penthouse column for 30 years. While all three have survived a scandal, Sydney and Xaviera were veteran madams who faced prosecution and lost the businesses they had built. The only connection Ashley might share with them is geography.
The survivor Ashley most resembles is from another country and another era. Mandy Rice-Davies was 18 at the height of the Profumo affair, the U.K. call-girl scandal that destroyed a convservative war minister's career in 1963, and brought the opposition to power. Although she was forced to give evidence in court, hounded by the press, and labeled a notorious tart, Mandy thrived. She moved to Tel Aviv, where she opened a chain of restaurants and nightclubs bearing her name (Mandy's Singing Bamboo, Mandy's Candies), went into acting, and recorded a few singles.
Ashley's musical aspirations come to mind, of course, but that's not all. Like Mandy, she passed through the sex industry briefly and never became a career escort. But the career of a call girl, no matter how brief, is about branding and rebranding yourself at will—sometimes to suit another person's whims or fantasies, sometimes to pursue and live out your own. Reinvention is the middle name of every successful call girl, and living this out on the public stage is the next logical step when your career has been cut short by scandal.
Tracy Quan's latest novel is Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl, set in Provence and praised in The Nation as a "deft account of occupational rigors and anxieties before the crash." Tracy's debut, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, and the sequel, Diary of a Married Call Girl, are international bestsellers. A regular columnist for The Guardian, she has written for many publications including Cosmopolitan, The Financial Times, and The New York Times.