The exec sec is back!
Saturday 24 June 1995
For I confess: I always had a soft spot for the executive secretary - the sort of girl who read Cosmo and drank Remy Martin, who was heavily into beige, who shoulder-massaged and then married the boss. At school, I used to fantasise about sharing a fabulous penthouse apartment with my friend Ceri, where dinner parties would begin with Martini and end with a swirly, rich but light pudding called something like creme, and me being seduced by a man who looked like Pierce Brosnan and didn't feel embarrassed about playing a big white piano. Sadly, by the end of the Seventies, like blue mascara and American tan tights, my heroine was gone. In the Eighties, high-flying girls drove shoulder pads, drank Opium, and aspired to be the boss. In the early Nineties, it was worse still: her skills were downsized and horizontally integrated.
But now she was back! Or maybe this was a new, different executive secretary. The question, metaphorically speaking, was: was she still into beige?
And so to Olympia. Initially, the vibe is not good. The first stand I visit is Tipp-Ex. OK, so their newest product is the "pocket mouse", a nine-metre roll of correcting tape, which maybe, just maybe, the executive secretary could arrange on her desk as a cute, post-Rubiks cube toy, but, still... Weren't exec secs too busy booking the boss on to the Red Eye even to think about typing?
Round the corner is the Madame Tussaud's concession, alongside its sister theme park, Chessington World of Adventures. The former offers a venue which "superbly recreates the relaxed atmosphere and style of an English Country Garden where you can enjoy Cocktails, Canapes or even Dinner in the company of superstars and international sportsmen"; the latter's account manager talks bravely about corporate days out. But, frankly, are wax dummies and water rides an exec sec's idea of sophisticated entertainment? Where, after all, would Pierce Brosnan be playing his white piano?
At last my spirits revive, at Career Woman Cars. Maybe a Skoda Felicia is not the exec sec's car of choice, but the colour - Romantic Red - is a winner. "Colour is a very big issue with women," declares Richard Burns. "When ladies select a colour," he assures me, "99 times out of 100, it's a colour they're wearing." And what exec sec could refuse a sporty white Saab convertible, lined in grey (you can't have everything) leather, driven in "sensonic" - high-heel-friendly automatic clutch - and aspirationally priced at pounds 20,995?
Upstairs, the fashion show is beginning and the exec sec is beginning to take shape. Two models with big white teeth and shiny, bouncy Charlie's Angels-style hair (don't forget your jumbo curlers) shimmy down the runway, only slightly mis-lip-synching to Abba's "Money, Money, Money", slipping in and out of high shoes and checked jackets and flared knee-length skirts and ghastly padded jackets. Separates are the order of the day; the key colours are navy, red and, above all, beige.
A few verses later, the Angels are joined by two hunky men carrying umbrellas, copies of the Times and nebuchadnezzars of champagne - the personification of the exec sec fiance. More smiling girl models join in, leading up to an elaborately choreographed finale which the troupe must have been rehearsing for weeks. The girls look like Pan's People without the kaftans, the boys like embarrassed dancers on Morecambe and Wise.
But where are the exec secs themselves? Though it may be hard to distinguish between them and the exhibition stand girls, navy jackets and beige slacks do seem thin on the ground. Dawn, 26, is an admin co-ordinator for a business director. Fiona - small bag hung across navy jacket, never wears trousers, says "grooming is 120 per cent and perception nine-tenths of the job" - is a personal assistant. Even Ruth Carlisle - three language A-levels, Thames Valley Secretary of the Year 1992, Dip PA AIQPS, keynote speaker in the Realising Your Potential seminar, looks just like an air hostess, ambition is to work abroad - is a personal assistant, to the president of Walker Snack Foods.
Nobody, it seems, will admit to being an executive secretary. Events co-ordinator, yes. Office-slash-administration manager, certainly. Personal assistant, of course. But exec secs are still - and I blame post-feminism - secs. "It's a totally derogatory term," says Nicholas Vesey, creative director of fasttrack, a new and fashionably lower-case association for professional, um, secretaries and support personnel, who spent two days in a room failing to think of another term. In the words of keynote speaker Ros Sloboda, no-messin' PA to Michael Grade (her first words to her future boss were, "You'll never get the job"): "We all have to cope with being thought of as not having a brain."
Finally, I spot Angela, who lives near Harrow and is today sporting a smart, pale pink jacket. Exec sec! Exec sec! Sadly, however, Angela turns out to be simply an exec - the editor of Executive Woman, to be precise. She drives, not a white Saab convertible, but a Nissan Micra. "I'm a crap driver," she explains. The jacket? "Got it from a fat catalogue," says Angela, munching on a mid-afternoon tuna sandwich. "I haven't got time to shop. In the office I look like a tramp. A very large tramp." Did she, at least, start her career as an exec sec? "No," says Angela. "I got divorced."
So the exec sec is back! Sort of
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