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Days of Blondes in Low-Cut Gowns Over on the Auto Show Circuit

January 5, 1996

DETROIT (AP) _ He’s middle-aged and balding, with all the sex appeal of your average mechanic. But Ken Strunk drew a bigger crowd at Detroit’s auto show Friday than the stunning blonde at the Nissan turntable down the aisle.

As the auto industry has changed, so has the car-show model. Or, as they prefer to be called today, the ``product specialist.″

At this year’s North American International Auto Show, those employed to extol the automotive hardware on display include graying men and women, a handicapped man in a wheelchair, and a high-tech robot in a cowboy hat.

Young, statuesque women barely out of their teens have not disappeared amid the glaring lights and shining chrome, but most are expected to know at least as much about the car they’re promoting as any amateur gearhead.

``In the last five years it’s really become a lot more diverse,″ said Stephanie Clark, auto show manager for Productions-Plus, a modeling agency in Birmingham. ``We’ve got a lot of ethnic talent, a lot of bilingual talent.″

Many of those behind the microphones also have acting or modeling careers, and work the auto and trade show circuit as spokesmodels to travel and earn some decent money. Wages typically range from $150 to $500 a day.

Strunk, 46, does trade shows with his wife, Ann Reskin Strunk. They’re working the Detroit show for Delco Electronics, an arm of General Motors Corp. When not on the road, they live in the Cincinnati suburb of Fort Thomas, Ky., and produce industrial training videos.

On the Delco stage, they take turns showing the latest technology that’s being offered or planned for new cars, such as satellite navigation and night vision systems.

Strunk, a professional actor, talks to a pair of pointy-eared aliens on a large video screen overhead in a 12-minute show that’s part infomercial, part corny sitcom. He doesn’t miss a line _ a recording of the entire script plays from a microcassette recorder wired to his ear, so he can keep in time with the aliens’ dialogue.

In two decades of this work, Strunk has seen a lot of changes.

``The presenters at the auto shows in years past were always the buxom blondes,″ he said. ``More and more they’re getting away from that and going to real people.″

Connie O’Connell of New York, a 42-year-old product specialist for Audi, said that when she started as a show model 20 years ago, her looks alone were supposed to lure people to the car.

``It used to be glitz, it used to glamour, it used to be everybody standing there staring at the models who had very little to say.

``Now you see people trained on the car, dressed more corporately _ less glitz, less glamour, more information, more realism.″

O’Connell noted the change four years ago when BMW hired her to promote an expensive sedan at auto shows.

``They loved the idea that I was approaching 40. They dressed me in designer clothes and had my hair put up in a French twist every day to attract that wealthy, upper middle-class market.″

Fact is, auto shows and car-buying are no longer male domains. Women buy about half the vehicles sold in the United States, more work in the industry, and the shows have become a family attraction.

Car buyers also are more sophisticated about technology. Some models can field detailed technical questions about the cars they represent. The automaker’s credibility is on the line if they fumble the answers.

``You’d better know your car, and it better not be the public that knows more than you do,″ said Beth McLeod, a Nissan model working her eighth Detroit auto show.

Stanton Schnepp, a 37-year-old actor from Los Angeles, was happy to get the Detroit job promoting Audi’s new TTS roadster, a concept car that the German automaker plans to produce. But he admits his automotive knowledge didn’t land him the gig.

``I know nothing about cars. When I say, `a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder, double-overhead cam, triple-charged engine,″ I don’t really know what I’m saying.″

No matter. Schnepp, dressed in khakis and an expensive leather jacket, recites a memorized script every half-hour with the kind of Yuppie enthusiasm for life’s finer things that stodgy Audi wants associated with the TTS.

``Look inside,″ he urges showgoers as he opens the driver’s door. ``Aluminum everywhere, the rivets gleaming, the leather smooth. But not prissy _ it’s rich, familiar, like you’re favorite baseball glove.

``And the bold red and white instrumentation. I mean, you feel like you should call air-traffic control before leaving your driveway!″

He’d rather be acting in a TV sitcom. So why do the auto show?

``The pay’s really great.″

Schnepp declined to say exactly how much Audi’s paying him, but said he usually earns $800 to $1,500 a day at trade shows.

McLeod, a 29-year-old model from suburban Detroit, is the daughter of a General Motors engineer. Unlike Schnepp, she knows a cylinder from a crankcase.

``When you’re brought up with that and with three brothers who know everything there is to know about cars, it’s just an easy job,″ she said. ``I like the traveling, too _ I don’t have to spend all winter in Detroit.″

Dressed in a conservative business suit, McLeod’s youth and good looks help promote the image Nissan wants, but she says they occasionally attract some unwanted attention, too.

``You get the rude comments. You get used to blowing those off. But you have to be very careful. There are a lot of weirdoes out there, and we’re always conscious of it.″

During her first year, one admirer quietly lingered around her turntable for three hours, then threatened to kill her. Police were called and the man was arrested.

``I don’t take any chances anymore,″ McLeod said. ``If someone hangs out for more than what I consider the normal time, then I usually have a salesperson go and ask them, `Do you have a question?′ And they never do.″

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