SHOW PEOPLE / A turn at the tables: The Cigarette Girl

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The Independent Culture
THE BUS-BOYS rush past with their trays held high while the Cigarette Girl, slow and stately, curls round the tables like cigar-smoke. This is a restaurant where the staff look more chic than the clientele: the bus-boys are in dark blue tunics and the Cigarette Girl is in a black velvet sleeveless dress, with a skirt that tilts up at the back, and tulle ruffles that are designed to echo the sculpted waves on the front of the Crustacea Bar.

Someone signals, and the Cigarette Girl reverses in towards the table, the way people do when they take a seat on the Tube. The box she carries all evening, strapped over her shoulder, is the weight of a laptop computer. Without losing eye-contact with the customer, she peels back the cellophane wrapping, tips open the lid of the packet, pulls out the foil, and hands over some complimentary matches with a 'Q' logo on them. She stops short of pulling out a cigarette, though ('It's a little provocative'). How much? 'Three seventy-five.' How much?

'It does annoy me when people bitch about the price,' she says. 'When you go into a restaurant you know that you are paying for the ambience.'

Her name is Kaethe Cherney and she's an actress. Like 90 per cent of her profession, she is 'resting', so she's after jobs which entail little responsibility and lots of tips. This one - at Quaglino's, Terence Conran's vast, shiny West End restaurant - brings her some limelight too. 'Nine times out of 10 the first thing people talk about is the cigarette girl. Part of me likes that.' She's been one of four cigarette girls since Quaglino's opened on Valentine's Day. The Christmas period is boom time: 'If I get into the right mood I can make a lot of money.' Last week she made pounds 140 in one night. You can't do that in rep.

She's American, born in New York. Her father, who died when she was five, was a figurative painter, and she was named after the social realist painter Kathe Kollwitz. She went to a progressive school where you could devise your own classes ('like how to repair a car') and trained at the Lee Strasberg Institute. Both her brother and sister are musicians. Her husband works for the Arts Council and runs the Cabinet Gallery in Brixton.

She has two CVs. There's the one she gave me, with her agent's name at the top, which lists the work in regional theatre, the rock video, the Haagen-Dazs commercial and the belly-dancing skills. Then there's the unofficial CV, also eclectic: five years in art galleries ('I was a real gallery girl'), and spells as a waitress in a sushi bar (where Jack Nicholson and Jerry Hall ate), a receptionist at a solicitor's (she was fired for being 'too American'), a coat-checker at the Caprice, and a balloon-delivery girl. 'I delivered balloons to Richard Nixon once,' she says, with some disdain. 'He gave me his autograph instead of a tip.'

She saw this job advertised at the Actors Centre. A poky, handwritten note said: 'Cigarette Girl needed. St James's area'. She thought it would be a lonely job in an old gentlemen's club. 'I'd be in a little box in the corner and men would come up and get cigarettes.' She wasn't keen. Then she walked in the entrance at Bury Street and saw the marble, the pillars, the glass. 'I thought, OK, make an adjustment now, yes, I want this.'

She did a simple sum which involved adding up the number of customers per night (600) and multiplying it by the fraction of people likely to buy cigarettes (one in 10). The mark-up on each packet, or cigar, was a pound. That's what she gets to keep. 'I knew I was on to a good thing.'

At the job interview she was quick to spot what the management was after: 'Not tarty, right?' They gave her the job there and then (there were 300 applicants, she says) and off she went for a costume fitting with Jasper Conran. 'It's designed very nicely. There's underwear sewn in, so I don't have to worry about exposing myself when I bend over.' He wanted her to wear red lipstick and three-inch heels. But she said forget it. 'I can't work in heels like that. No way.'

In her first week a woman asked if she felt abused. She said she didn't. The woman asked why not. She said: 'This is theatrical. This is camp. This isn't a career move.' Most remarks to her are coy. 'If I got a pound for all the people who say 'I wish I smoked' . . .' But some are crude. One man only called her over, he said, because 'you've got great tits'. When she failed to smile, he panicked and gave her pounds 5. But then there was the American who gave her a pounds 50 note and didn't even crack a bad joke. The Cigarette Girl likes Americans best: 'They appreciate that you are not your job.'

(Photograph omitted)