29 June, 2013
“It’s some kind of make-over day,” Gina explained on the phone, “fish pedicure, massage beds, lunch, make up, hair-do and they take our photo at the end.
“Are you sure it’s free?” I ask, my voice laden with suspicion.
Gina: “Yes, they only charge if we book and don’t show up.”
Me: “So is there a booking fee?”
Gina: “No. I won it, says it’s worth £300. Weirdly, I won it once before. I asked my sister to come last time, but she said she didn’t want her photo taken with me.”
A couple of weeks later we found ourselves in a beautiful Georgian building in Cheltenham, sipping “bubbly” (hey, Cava has bubbles). Momentarily, I was alone, Gina had nipped off to the loo and the Twiglet-like staff (skinny and tanned) were busy. I got up and pocketed the £2 coin I’d spied on the floor across the room. Oh yeah, I thought, I could get used to this.
Our first treatment, a fish pedicure was going great, till I put my feet in the tank. The fish leapt on it, delicacy that it was for them. Unfortunately, this released a dormant childhood trauma within my brain. Suddenly, my fear-of-being-eaten-by-sea-creatures was back and I was freaking out. Twiglet was looking at me like I was nuts and Gina just ignored me. (She works for a mental health charity, so she knows the importance of staying calm around psychotics).
I sat quietly doing a bit of self-healing and managed to ease my feet back into the tank, where a couple of fish chewed my heels.
Me: “They’re not very hungry, are they?”
Gina: “No, not that many of them in there either are there?”
Me: “Why are they all in such a huge swarm in that corner?”
Gina: “Is that a dead fish they’re fighting over?”
I watched enthralled, till Gina scooped it out with a net. She dumped it’s tiny corpse on the teak side table.
“Put it in the bin.” I said
Gina: “No, they might want to see it.”
They didn’t. A Twiglet arrived, took one look at the fish and in a trembling voice said, “I don’t do fish”, and legged it out of the room.
We lay on some electric massage tables for a while, then were taken upstairs to “hair and make up”; where there were two new Twiglets, one each. I looked down at the vast array of products in front of me. Like a teenage girl’s dressing table, it was a total mess. I noticed the make up brushes were used and unwashed. How many greasy faces had they smeared with foundation, I wondered. I felt a bit sick, but I let her get on with her “craft”. A chatty hour later, we both had amazing hair and Gina bore a new, uncanny resemblance to Cher. Her “old” face had been completely hidden behind a slightly orange mask of thick concealer and even thicker foundation. Looking in the mirror at the end, Gina gasped a little too loudly, “Oh my god, I look awful.” A moment of awkward silence ensued, then we were escorted on to the next room, by yet another Twiglet.
“Did you bring lots of outfits?” Twig asked.
“Er, no, I didn’t realise it was a photo-type thing.” I replied. I was wearing jeans and purple top. Casual, comfortable and cheap. Twig looked shocked and disappointed. We entered the dressing room and I understood why. The walls were adorned with photos of ordinary people, in extraordinary fake poses, dressed in evening attire; ball gowns, strapless dresses and all that.
Our photographer “Sam”, had had a camera since he was thirteen, he told us. And he felt lucky to do what he really loved, fashion photography. Within minutes Gina and had posed together hugging, then back to back, touching the side of matching aviator sunglasses , under a Minnie Mouse umbrella, leaning against walls, wearing hats, hugging our knees. Sam went through the motions with all the enthusiasm of someone who does this by rote, all day, every day. “Wow, you’re really getting this modelling thing.” He said to me, with zero conviction, he was wrong. I wasn’t into it, I was too busy wondering how much the photos would cost.
Our last stop was to browse the photos on a giant screen as our host (Ms Hard Sell) got us some drinks. There was another embarrassing moment when she returned and found Gina photographing the giant screen with her iphone. So, Gina deleted the photos and then Ms Hard Sell could begin. In the end neither of us wanted a joint photo. I got one of me and she got two of her, for her mum.
Finally at 6.30pm, we escape the Twiglet tower.
“So do you wanna go out for a drink?” asked Gina.
I was considering finding a karaoke joint and get Gina singing “Do you believe in life after love,” so we could get free drinks. Problem was, she was driving.
“Could do,” I reply. “Or we could go round my mum’s and wash it off?”
“Thank god you said that,” replied Cher.