Clock is ticking for Australia's bikini-clad Meter Maids

For decades women in gold lycra bikinis have patrolled the streets of Surfers Paradise, the popular resort on Queensland's Gold Coast, feeding meters to save motorists from parking fines.

Lately, though, the "meter maids" have fallen on hard times, their raison d'etre threatened by pay-and-display machines and their image tarnished by a series of nude centre-spread scandals.

Now their fortunes may be revived, thanks to plans to enlist them as roving tourism "ambassadors". But there is one condition, and the maids are not happy about it. If they travel around the country, they will have to cover up. "Forget about dressing them in bikinis," warned Paul Donovan, the chairman of Gold Coast Tourism.

To Roberta Aitchison, who runs Surfers Paradise Meter Maids, that makes no sense. She believes the distinctive swimsuits – usually teamed with akubras (traditional Australian cowboy hats) and knee-length white boots – are integral to the maids' image. Without them, she asks, "why would anybody want to take a photo? No reason at all."

Ms Aitchison concedes that the maids possess more decorous items, such as gold leggings, gold jackets and gold ballgowns.

"We will cover up to a certain extent, but we won't cover up completely," she told The Australian newspaper. "Otherwise it's a pointless exercise. We need to keep it sexy and summery, and you don't really do that in a corporate outfit. You do that in a bikini."

The maids first appeared in 1965, the brainchild of a Surfers entrepreneur, Bernie Elsey, who wanted to highlight the opposition of local businesses to the introduction of parking meters. Since then, they have become an institution on the Gold Coast, a 21-mile strip of beaches backed by nightclubs, souvenir shops and fast-food outlets.

One of the original maids, Annette Welch, was disinherited by her grandmother, who was outraged by the sight of her in a skimpy swimsuit. Most locals, though, regarded the women – who dispensed tourist information and advertised local businesses on their bikini bottoms, as well as inserting small change into meters – as an asset. They were even paid by the Surfers Paradise Chamber of Commerce. That arrangement ended in 1990, when Ms Aitchison – then a meter maid – appeared in Penthouse, together with a colleague, Melinda Stewart. Sacked by the chamber, the pair set up together in business.

The idea of using the women as ambassadors is not new. After a cyclone hit the Gold Coast in 1967 and tourist bookings slumped, the safari-suited mayor, Bruce Small, embarked on a national quest to publicise the area, accompanied by a bevy of maids.

The latest venture is partly aimed at rescuing the maids, who have been struggling financially since the local council forbade them from selling merchandise – including keyrings, calendars and "stubby" (beer bottle) holders – on its land. Under the new plan, the maids would receive appearance fees, but a spokesman for Gold Coast Tourism underlined the authority's position on the wardrobe issue. "If they're providing information to visitors on the beachfront, it's entirely appropriate for them to be wearing bikinis," he said. "If they're at the Melbourne Convention Centre, that's probably not appropriate attire."

In the early days, it cost just five cents to park locally. After feeding an expired meter, the maids would slip a leaflet under the car's windscreen wiper, stating: "You have just been saved from a parking fine by the Surfers Paradise Meter Maids." Since the introduction of pay-and-display, they have taken on the task of explaining to motorists how the machines work.

A legal battle erupted a few years ago between rival meter maid organisations, with Ms Aitchison taken to court by her main competitor, Lisa Hassan, after distributing a video of her performing a striptease. One solicitor described the case as a "storm in a D-cup". Last year Ms Aitchison bought Ms Hassan out.

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