Why time may be up for meter maids who make surfers smile

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In Surfers Paradise, a brash seaside resort on the Queensland Gold Coast, "meter maids" are an institution. Dressed in their gold lycra bikinis, cowboy hats and white knee-length boots, they patrol the streets, feeding expired meters to spare motorists from the curse of parking tickets.

In Surfers Paradise, a brash seaside resort on the Queensland Gold Coast, "meter maids" are an institution. Dressed in their gold lycra bikinis, cowboy hats and white knee-length boots, they patrol the streets, feeding expired meters to spare motorists from the curse of parking tickets.

The maids were dreamt up 40 years ago as a tourist attraction, but the march of technology could render them obsolete. The local council is planning to introduce a meter-less parking system, and is raising charges so drastically that visitors may opt to leave their cars at home.

It is difficult to imagine Surfers Paradise without its entourage of scantily clad women inserting small change into meters. In between, maids pose for pictures, dispense tourist information and advertise businesses on their bikinis.

Some, though, believe that they were already on their way out. Their image took a blow in 1997 when one maid, Marina Durlin, was photographed nude for a spread in Penthouse magazine and several others appeared in a soft-porn video.

More recently, Surfers has witnessed a bitter war between rival meter maid organisations. The founder of one group, Roberta Aitchison, distributed a video of her main competitor, Lisa Hassan, performing a striptease. Ms Hassan took her to court, alleging verbal harassment, physical abuse and death threats. One solicitor described the case as a "storm in a D-cup".

A local councillor, Susie Douglas, told the Brisbane Courier-Mail that time was running out for the meter maids, although she acknowledged that they were "very Surfers". Later this year the meters will be replaced by pay-and-display parking machines, and fees will be increased by 500 per cent. Ms Douglas hopes that a couple of meters will be left in place "for nostalgic reasons". She said: "It's the end of an era."

But the meter maids will not go down without a fight. "We'll chain ourselves to the parking meters," Ms Aitchison pledged. But she has already devised a strategy to cope with change. Her employees will monitor the parking machines instead - assuming that anyone is prepared to pay the exorbitant (by Queensland standards) rate of £2 an hour.

Ms Aitchison has a dozen women on her books, "all gorgeous girls who speak beautifully". She said: "They are more of an attraction now than ever. People come to Surfers Paradise wanting to see meter maids. Everyone wants to have their photograph taken with them. They're part and parcel of the place." It was only last month that the institution celebrated its 40th anniversary, with some of the original maids attending a party on the beach, where skyscraper hotels block out the sun from mid-afternoon. The highlight of the event was a maid springing out of a large birthday cake.

Meter maids were the idea of a local entrepreneur, Bernie Elsey, to highlight the opposition of Surfers businesses to the introduction of parking meters in 1965. Until the 1990s, they were employed by the Surfers Paradise Chamber of Commerce. The first maid, Annette Welch, was struck out of her grandmother's will.

The women were sacked by the chamber in 1990 after Ms Aitchison, then a meter maid, posed for Penthouse, together with a colleague, Melinda Stewart. The pair promptly set up in business. The maids came to symbolise the Gold Coast, a 21-mile strip of beaches backed by souvenir shops, fast-food outlets and sleazy nightclubs.

The area has glitz as well as its tacky side. Just north of Surfers is the Palazzo Versace, a six-star hotel conceived as a homage to the late fashion designer Gianni. There is also a thriving plastic surgery industry on the Gold Coast, which is Australia's melanoma capital: two facts that may not be unconnected.

Comments