Will Racier Showgirls Rev Up Japan's Car Sales?

Models can now dance, do skits, and bare a bit of skin

Behind closed blinds, seven advertising managers scrutinize the style and performance of Toyota Motor Corp. models. But these models do not vroom down highways on four wheels. They are "Toyota Pretties"--young women charged with the weighty task of explaining the inner workings of new Toyota cars at the Tokyo Motor Show in late October. Tomoko Kayama, 24, carefully rehearses her lines about the hybrid gas-and-electric engine of Toyota's new Prius compact car. At this rehearsal in a conference room, no car revolves elegantly on a moving platform. Instead, a pair of assistants rotate a table and a third stands by with a stop watch as Kayama practices her patter.

Toyota Pretties have long been fixtures at motor shows, as have the Nissan Fair Ladies, Mitsubishi P.S. Ladies, and Honda Ladies. Now they will play an even bigger role. With Japan's auto market stalling, Toyota and its competitors are jazzing up their show booths to rev up sales. Industry insiders estimate that Japan's auto heavies have boosted motor-show budgets this year by as much as 50%. The show this year will feature two-story displays of vehicles, showgirls, musicians, and mimes.

The young women in question face perhaps the biggest changes of all. For decades, regulations have strictly restricted costumes and activities. Hemlines were rigorously reviewed by car makers and show organizers. One year, rival auto makers complained of the short skirts on the Mitsubishi models.

But the Motor Show organizers want to raise attendance, which was down almost 30% from 1991 levels at the last show in 1995. So for the first time ever, the models will dance and act in skits to introduce new cars. "Before, we just had to speak clearly. But now things have become more complicated," says Kayama, who must coordinate her explanations of the Prius with the announcements of a hip-hop MC and a videotape showing the Prius zooming through the suburbs. Other Toyota Pretties have been rehearsing how to snap their fingers in unison on stage.

More important, this year showgirls can reveal as much skin as their sponsors want. Toyota Pretties, who in 1995 wore black-and-white ties, long-sleeved shirts, and long skirts, will be in vinyl, pearl-colored miniskirts and go-go boots. "That [old] costume was very Toyota. It was very conservative," says Hitomi Watanabe, 24, who will be introducing Toyota's rugged Grand Cruiser at the show. "This is more active."

Nissan Motor Co. will counterattack with a professional model in a revealing, two-piece sporty jumpsuit as Nissan's Race Queen. And the Fair Ladies, who earn $2,800 a month, will wear skintight, hot-pink miniskirts and shirts bearing their midriffs. "I have been doing sit-ups to prepare to wear this outfit," says Nissan Fair Lady Chief Wakana Shimizu.

If these new tactics betray the car companies' desperation, many women still are eager to land the jobs. Each year, thousands apply to Japan's auto makers, partly because the job includes traveling around Japan, but also because they feel it gives them more responsibility than an office lady who just serves tea, makes copies, and takes messages. "We learn how to deliver Toyota's message to everyone from children to elderly people," says Kayama. But it's a short career. Showgirls are expected to go on and find another job or get married after only three years.

OPEN DOORS. Only 1 in 100 applicants is accepted. At Nissan, the board member in charge of domestic sales must approve the company's annual Fair Lady lineup. Once hired, Toyota Pretties undergo two months of training to learn how to strike poses, speak English, open doors elegantly, and even change a car's tires and oil. Before the Tokyo Motor Show, the showgirls review their skills. Nissan Fair Ladies spend hours rehearsing how to walk and pronounce words like "ultrasmall" (to describe Nissan's Hypermini electric car) so clearly that they can be understood over background music in a crowded room.

These models now have to enunciate clearly and remain polite and cheerful in their new outfits. Fair Lady Shimizu admits the costume makes her feel self-conscious. But it beats her regular work answering questions in Nissan's Ginza showroom. Says Nissan Fair Lady trainer Midori Chubachi: "To stand at the Nissan booth at the Tokyo Motor Show is every Fair Lady's dream."