You just never know when you'll become the face of your company. Take, for instance, the experience of 52-year old Lynne Austin, who couldn't possibly have imagined what lay in store for her when she agreed to start working at a restaurant called Hooters 30 years ago in Clearwater, Fla. Austin became the very first "Hooters girl," donning the white tank top and orange shorts, as the position requires. And soon after she was asked to start appearing on billboards and throughout other advertisements produced by the chain. Some 300,000 Hooters girls have come after her, as has a whole new category of eating establishments, called "breastaurants," featuring other brands like Tilted Kilt.
Not too shabby for a 20-something whose first gig with the chain was to clean down the restaurant for $5 an hour before the customers came in. After her six years of work as a Hooters girl Austin used the public attention to launch her own personal brand, launching businesses and making appearances on television shows such as "Married With Children." She also sought to capitalize on her sex appeal in adult magazines, appearing in photo spreads in Playboy, as was reported by the Tampa Tribune.
Three decades of Hooters
Hooters is marking its 30th anniversary this year. Over that time the chain has experienced explosive growth and now counts 410 restaurants in 27 countries. In total, Hooters restaurants generate $1 billion worth of business a year, as USA Today reported. And according to the salary information website, Glassdoor, a Hooters girl makes $3.47 an hour before tips.
In a statement provided to AOL Jobs, Rebecca Sinclair, the chief human resources officer of Hooters America, championed the experience of working as a Hooters girl. "Being a Hooters Girls for an iconic brand that is focused on providing a guest-obsessed experience takes some exceptional characteristics," she wrote. "Taking pride in being charismatic, fit and glamorous while engaging with our guests, builds confidence and communication skills that will carry these women throughout life."
Of course, Hooters has attracted its fair share of criticism and controversy over the years for its trademark envelope-pushing. In the process critics have questioned the depiction of women at Hooters restaurants. The chain has also been charged with sexual discrimination, among other allegations.
But no one can deny that Hooters is a trendsetter. And Austin, who is now a mother of four, is only grateful for her Hooters experience. "It changed my life," she told Inside Edition, as can be seen in the video above. Was the company sexist? "I never got that feeling. I was a waitress. That's what I was doing. I was just waitressing at a fun place people wanted to be at. Making money," she said.
Not everyone agrees. "If a Hooters girl finds the work fun, then she's having fun at her own expense, and at the expense of every other woman who won't be taken seriously in the workforce," Ileen A. DeVault, a professor of labor relations at Cornell University's Industrial Labor Relations School, told AOL Jobs in an interview. The whole model "asks for harassment" of women, DeVault said, who summed up the experience of being a Hooters girl as "degrading."
The 'California beach look'
Austin, for her part, was discovered back in 1983 by company co-founder Ed Droste. He spotted her at a bikini contest in Clearwater, Fla.. At the time Austin was working as a telephone operator in the area. The offer to join Hooters was by no means a no-brainer, as she told the Tampa Tribune. "Ed told me I'd be famous one day and I'd make more money than I could ever imagine, but I was skeptical," she said.
Why did Droste choose her? As he told Inside Edition, he was looking for that "California beach look," and "she had it." In speaking to the Tampa Tribune, Droste said over time Austin also revealed herself to be a valuable asset for the company for reasons beyond her looks. "We didn't realize that she had such a gift to communicate and relate to people. She is very witty and had a very tasteful sex appeal," he said.
In total, Austin spent six years working as a server. And during that time she regularly appeared on Hooters billboards while also being featured on Playboy centerfolds and speaking to radio outlets to help promote the brand. Along the way her prestige grew at the restaurant; customers waited up to three hours to be served by her.
After leaving the company she's been able to further capitalize on her success, launching wine and jewelry businesses.
Charges of discrimination
Not every Hooters girl has been as thrilled with having worked for the chain. As AOL Jobs reported this past spring, Sandra Lupo, for one, claimed Hooters engaged in disability discrimination and forced her to quit as a result of a brain surgery. After a noncancerous mass was found in her brain Lupo was forced to undergo surgery, which left her with a scar and a buzzcut. She initially opted against a wig, but was asked to put one on by her employer.
The wig, however, interrupted her healing, and so she ditched it. She then saw her hours reduced, she said, and so she was forced to look for a new job. She's now working as a registered nurse and is seeking $25,000 in addition to lost wages from Hooters.
This post was updated at 10:15 AM Eastern Time on Monday Nov. 11 with the statement from Hooters.