From the tough-as-nails Hooters girls to the trashiest of men that they served, the Hooters on Edward Street in Bellville held dreams, struggles, talent and resilience. There was a bouncer called Beast who could lift me off the ground with one hand. There were vicious fights over tables on popular nights. There was a tiny, messy locker room we all shared, which saw tears, tantrums, solidarity and some of the most unrepeatable things I’ve ever heard. Here’s to the old men we humoured, and the few who humoured us. Here’s what I learnt as a Hooters Girl in Cape Town:

1. Men are trash

Obviously. This is the place many men come to openly be the trash they are. This is the place that emboldens them.

“Hey girl, your boyfriend ok with you working here?”

“Yes.”

“I wouldn’t be…”

“K.”

“…you know, if you were with me.”

“What can I get you?”

“Tell me more about yourself first.”

2. The job drought for millennial graduates is real

I sent out 52 job applications, I got two call-backs and no job. So I became a Hooters Girl with an MA. I found the vacancy on Gumtree after giving up on sites like Career24. Hooters didn’t ignore me or tell me I didn’t have enough work experience, or that I’d have to intern for no pay or that I was overqualified. The email response was simply: “Happy to have you on our team”. I was told to come to Hooters the next day for a uniform fitting. For this, I was asked to “please wear a nude bra and a G-string (no panty-lines may show out your uniform)”. I promptly responded saying I would be there on time wearing the appropriate underwear.

3. Men are really trash

“How do you know when a mechanic has had sex? He only has one clean finger.”

“What’s the difference between old women and old men? Old women will be too old to look at. But old men will still be able to look.”

“Do you know why women are so badly designed? The exhaust and the intake are too close together.”

“You haven’t got big enough boobs to be here. But your thighs make up for it.”

4. Turning the patriarchy on itself is tricky

When harassment is part of your job from day 1, you realise that playing into objectification and doing so deliberately is a messy dance. Inversion always is. Performing a type to get a tip is nothing new. There are facets of power at play: I’m on display for your consumption. I’m also taking your money. You exoticise me as I  listen to your dad rants and smile as though they’re interesting to me. I’m using my youth for (and as) currency. You’re using it for relevance. We all go home with something.

5. An honest explanation of why men come to Hooters

“It’s a male group identity complex,” said the man whose table I was serving. “Marriage becomes project management; micro-managing life. We sacrifice the barbaric. And that’s why we come here, that’s why I’m speaking to you – to indulge my primal self that’s kept under the wraps of decency seven days a week. Under the image of husband and father, the barbaric dies a slow death.” No shit. This is what he told me. Most conversations were not this self-reflective though. This guy went on to try and chise me on LinkedIn. On LinkedIn.

6. How to use make-up

Make-up was compulsory for the job (in addition to smooth padded bras and G-strings). I received lots of help from the Hooters girls and, although I’m still learning to finesse this art, I learnt both how beautiful and difficult make-up can be. Having it enforced on me as a restaurant policy, however, was something else. And not something I was in the position to argue against at the time. I stay grateful for the education.

7. Resilience 

In the beginning, every time someone I recognised walked in, I wanted to hide. I had contemporaries looking at me like they expected me to be somewhere better by now. The shame look, the smug look. I was living with my father at the time and he said these magical words to me: “Fuck them,” and followed it up with “And fuck what they think. You know what you’re there to do.”

Feeling demeaned or defeated can make you reckless. One night I drank brandy and coke with a long lost friend who pitched up randomly, both surprised and delighted to see me. After my shift, we drove out (don’t drink and drive guys), did doughnuts in a parking lot in the rain in a Hilux. Then we crashed spectacularly into a highway barrier. When we caught our breaths, he looked at me and said, “You should have seen your face.” We burst out laughing and drove the wrecked car onwards to the club where we were going.

The next morning my whole body was bruised and in pain, but I put on my stockings and tiny shorts and went to work. One woman refused to pay and I swore at her. My stone-cold 21-year-old manager (and ex-Hooters girl) took my side publicly before giving me a warning privately.

I smiled through rage – as did all the girls working double shifts dead on our feet, with a playlist on repeat – a playlist on which Avicii’s Wake Me Up when it’s all over, when I’m wiser and I’m older – was the best track. I’d lose conviction sometimes, only for another Hooters girl to tell me about her borderline abusive relationship, exploitative family and debt before turning around smiling  with a “Welcome to Hooters!”. I’d get home after my shift and continue working on my own projects.

8. Hustle 

I learnt not to undersell myself or take any crap. Everyone I met and interacted with, only saw confidence. I stopped downplaying my skill-sets and talents because I just couldn’t afford to anymore. I stopped letting my voice be drowned out in a conversation and I learnt to be robust in a room – wearing that outfit every day helped. You can’t hide in that outfit. I networked everyday all the time, no matter the power dynamic, no matter the waning sense of self-belief, the fatigue, the judgemental looks – nobody would see it in me. I learnt to focus on what I wanted and where I was going – and to say a grand fuck-you to what anyone else thought of how I was getting there.

When I left, the owner was happy for me, he wished me luck and told me not to worry about notice. I grew to love my boss, my manager, the girls, the bouncer, the barmen, and most of the loyal customers. Many of them really came for the food. The boneless wings are out of this world. Shout out to that guy from Ruiterwagt who wrote me that poem and bought me shots. I left with a pile of receipts with scribbled phone numbers and messages, and actually, I left with more of myself than I started with.

– By Mia Arderne