“I have had a crush on Kevin Bacon since seventh grade,” said Elli Frank, glimpsing the actor as she stood on tiptoe in the doorway of the fancy downtown lounge NA, carefully hiding the rip in the nether-regions of her jeans with her hand. She craned her neck to see Mr. Bacon as he swept inside to the Gotham magazine party held last Thursday night. “Oh my God. I love him.”
The 27-year-old Ms. Frank, an aspiring actress, stopped gushing and got to work.She was watching over the fleet of women she’d brought to the event: six delicate sylphs of varying ethnicities who were modeling silk nighties, boy shorts and camisoles and smiling at party guests as they walked in the door. “O.K., girls, to the bathroom! Quick bathroom break!” Ms. Frank instructed. Her employees—a politically correct collection of two fair-skinned blondes, two Asian and two African-American women—smiled vacantly and marched single file towards the stairs.
Ms. Frank is paid to supply attractive women to parties and events around New York City—this time by Gotham publisher Jason Binn. She describes her company, Eye5, which she started three years ago, as a “performance based marketing agency” that provides sometime actresses and models to work as hostesses, bartenders, coat-check or cigarette girls and “guests” at magazine launches, film premieres and store and hotel openings. At first, Eye5 sounds a bit like an escort service, although Ms. Frank says her girls don’t have sex for money, and don’t get propositioned. (Though sometimes they get phone numbers.) Instead, Ms. Frank screens her women to be both pliant and college educated. “Beauty and brains” is the agency’s M.O.; the company is “more than just the next shake ’n’ bake, really bad boob job,” in the words of Ms. Frank. Instead, Eye5 is “the Girl Scouts with cosmos,” she says, or ” Charlie’s Angels with a college degree.”
There’s no shortage of resources to help pretty up events in New York: guerrilla marketers, event producers like Noah Tepperberg and Jason Strauss’ Strategic Group, catering companies that specialize in food servers with hot bodies. But there is no one who seems to be quite like Mama-San Elli. She has 250 ladies at her fingertips, culled from over 1,000 applicants who responded to ads in publications like Backstage. Her newly opened L.A. branch employs 100 more. Eye5 girls have greeted guests at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, passed out ribbons at the Latin Grammys, distributed champagne for GQ, bartended at Christie’s, dyed men’s hair at the beach for Maxim and modeled furs for Donald Trump—all done with the idea that they can make money (approximately $30 an hour) and hopefully stumble into the gaze of a casting agent at a party. They pop up in photos on PatrickMcMullan.com, posing obligingly in stylish, sexy, perfect little outfits.
“When the client doesn’t provide the clothes, generally, if it’s summer, it’s ‘wear a white cocktail dress,’ if it’s winter, ‘wear a black cocktail dress,’” explained Ms. Frank. “My litmus measurement when they ask questions, the girls, about hair and makeup, I say, to a T, Audrey Hepburn. When in doubt, AUDREY HEPBURN. All I have to do in my e-mail, to them, I say, ‘à la Audrey Hepburn,’ and it’s loud and clear.”
Last Thursday evening, taking a break in NA’s Baroque-looking ladies’ room, Ms. Frank looked more like any lip-glossed Manhattan girl than a Holly Golightly. Her red hair was blown straight, and she wore a turquoise silk halter top, jeans and silver stilettos with rhinestones—shoes she said were often mistaken for Jimmy Choos, but were in fact Steve Maddens. Her heart-shaped face suggests Judy Garland; she has satiny cheeks and tends to punctuate her speech with dramatic pauses, as in: “I have. I think. An armadillo shell.”
“I would do, um, three upstairs and three downstairs,” she said, before sending the girls out in the smoky fray. “You know, just rotate!” The girls shuffled toward the door. Ms. Frank gave them approving little nods and pats.
Nydia, a striking African American part-time model, was circling the party in a brilliant red robe. “At some places, for lack of a better word, you feel like you’re being pimped, you know what I mean?” she said. “Here it’s more respectable. You don’t feel like you’re being used.”
“Is it better to stand around and look pretty and talk with people for three hours and make $150, or is it better to work in a bar until 4 in the morning and make $350?” said Pam, an Asian woman with spiky short hair and a peach negligee. “I really don’t know, you know? I couldn’t do this every night, I’d go crazy, but if I do this once in a while, it’s very nice to meet new people.”
Similarly, Ms. Frank has a hard time explaining exactly what she does to her family back in Jacksonville, Fla. Her parents, a former Catholic lay minister and a registered nurse, as well as her three brothers, tease her that she’s Heidi Fleiss (“My god, if there’s one joke I have heard enough, it’s, ‘Oh, so are you a madam?’”). And she hates it when people refer to Eye5 as a modeling agency (“It’s the antithesis of that!”).
“I’m looking for women who are uncommonly intelligent,” Ms. Frank explained the day before the Gotham party, hovering over a plate of fruit at Coffee Shop near Union Square. “Ninety-eight percent have a college degree or higher. We have actors, women who are pre-med, in medical school right now, Ivy League graduates. I’m also looking for congeniality. Like, literally, how personable are you? Do you get along with other women? I usually interview in groups of three and four, because I screen for bitchiness. I want to watch them talk with each other. I need to read body language. Because we are such a pro-woman company. And then, the last quality of the triangle, is obviously physical appeal, because it is a marketing company.”
Anticipating criticism, and slightly defensive, Ms. Frank said: “There are organizations for people everywhere. There is Alcoholics Anonymous, for those alcoholics who feel that they need to quit. There are groups that are for minorities, for gay people, for lesbians, for overweight people. There is nothing out there that says, ‘Do you know what? It’s O.K. for you to feel pretty. It’s O.K. for you to like yourself. It’s O.K. for you to want to take advantage of sheer luck.’
“We have women that are five feet tall,” Ms. Frank continued. “We have women that are six feet tall. We have high-end fashion—girls that look so hungry, like they haven’t eaten in a year, but still manage to not be grumpy and bitchy. And then, you know, we have J. Lo curves, and absolute, complete voluptuousness. It’s girl next-door, it’s, you know, tomboy, whatever. It’s any look. We have a wide diversity.”
According to Eye5’s database, these women have degrees in women’s studies from UCLA, ethnomusicology from Columbia, psychology from Brigham Young. They speak Hindi, Russian, French. They are pretty and they pout. One of them is the “Former personal assistant to Lennox Lewis.” There is even a set of twins, Jodi and Diane, who list modeling, film and “land development” in their background.
“You can’t afford to hire people who are less than the best,” said Ms. Frank. “I learned all this backwards, by the way.”
But Ms. Frank, who has no formal business training and admires self-taught entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, the dyslexic billionaire high-school dropout behind Virgin Airways, did have some guidance.
“I read one book on marketing, and it was a parting-the–Red Sea kind of book for me,” said Ms. Frank. “It’s Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. I just read it. It just made sense. It wasn’t that it taught me many things, it’s that it showed me how to look at them. How to look at those things I already knew. I feel like with my company, I hit the tipping point about eight months ago. I feel like it was Fashion Week, and then it was overnight and I woke up and had accounts!
“I was the president of my senior class in college,” continued Ms. Frank. “And I am absolutely not lessening what it takes to run a company. But I swear, it’s just like student government. I’d love to tell you that it’s so excruciatingly painful to run a company, that it’s so hard. But it’s not!”
A Star Is Born
Ms. Frank lives in the East Village with two 24-year-old roommates. Her bedroom consists of a little futon and a corner desk with a computer, which is where she conducts much of her business. She moved to New York nearly five years ago, with big plans at age 23.
“The whole deal, since I was about 5 and I saw Annie, my whole thing from that point on, literally, was, I’m going to move to New York and be an actress, like the girl that’s in Annie,” Ms. Frank said.
Fresh out of North Carolina’s Catawba College with a degree in American politics and international relations, and a summer internship at the Defense Department on her résumé, Ms. Frank took a job as an assistant at Random House. She auditioned and got a callback for Rent —just one callback. She starred in infomercials for teeth whitener and for the Garden Genie hose, and took “ridiculous amounts of extra work.” She spent time as the Sambuca girl, slinging shots in a bar in Hoboken. Then Random House laid her off.
“I was only 23, I didn’t know anyone in this city, and the last person I knew who would give me money was … nobody!” said Ms. Frank, giving a little laugh. “So I nannied for three separate people. I had daytime nannying, nighttime nannying. I was a mess.”
She was also intimidated by the other women in show business.
“When you go to an audition, you see cute guys, and they’re getting along and playing cards in the corner, and girls are like, ‘Break a leg, bitch,’” said Ms. Frank. “And no one talks to each other, and it is so competitive.”
She developed the idea for her female-friendly agency, and named it (unfortunately) “NYCeyeCandy Marketing and Media” while she was holding down the three nannying gigs. Each morning, she dropped off her charges at school, ducked into a Starbucks bathroom to change into her sole Elie Tahari suit, and raced across town to meetings with Bloomingdale’s or Esquire. She didn’t mind the kids she cared for but she hated “the dirty looks from doormen, who treated me like crap.”
At first, there was some genuine confusion about what service NYCeyeCandy was providing, exactly. Her first business cards, black, “eyeCandy” and featuring a set of sexy metallic purple eyes, attracted an e-mail from a prospective client requesting three ladies, including one blonde and one brunette, for a weekend on a yacht. The only instructions were that they should bring bikinis. There would be “a number of gentlemen” on the boat.
“I’m reading this e-mail, and I’m like, oh my god,” said Ms. Frank. “Oh my god! He thinks I’m an escort service! And I didn’t think it was funny. I was sooo offended and so hurt. I’d been working for six months at the time. I was bawling. That was the first time that someone said to me, you know, you might want to change the name of the company.”
So she did, and business improved. These days, a few hours of Eye5’s informal modeling services, with a handful of women (such as the Gotham event) might run a company a few thousand dollars. Ms. Frank still works seven days a week, baby-sits two nights a month in exchange for a tiny Union Square office space, and holds down a part-time copy-editing job at a medical journal.
“I have a ridiculous amount of debt,” said Ms. Frank. “I have my own student loans. I put rent for almost a year on my credit-card convenience checks, when I was starting the company. That adds up with A.P.R. of 24.9%—thank you, Citibank! So I start to think, I have this profit coming in, and I’m like, for the first time I’m going to buy a pair of Jimmy Choos—and I realize, oh no, I have to pay off a grand on this credit card first. So no matter how far I get right now, it’s very humbling.”
She would also love to afford health insurance. One night, at an event in the Hamptons, her client’s assistant lost her temper (because Ms. Frank and her team were late) and hurled a bucket of glassware that shattered on the sidewalk, taking a chunk out of Ms. Frank’s shin.
“It bled and bled and bled throughout the whole event, and all I got from her was, ‘Do you want a Band-Aid?’” said Ms. Frank. She went to the E.R. at Beth Israel and got stitches, and never paid the bill. She had to take them out herself a week later.
A Face in the Rent-a-Crowd
The news last week that Playboy would be relaunching it’s 1960’s-era gentlemen’s clubs, complete with cocktail waitresses in bunny outfits, is a sign that a certain nostalgia might be fueling the demand for Ms. Frank’s services. Of course, not everyone is a fan of the idea of rented women at parties.
“It seems like sort of a European thing, to have beautiful women standing around wearing dresses, but you might as well drape them over a car,” said veteran publicist Zoe Turnbull. “It’s a bit rent-a-crowd, isn’t it? It’s a jolly expensive way to do it. If you’re a good publicist, you just make sure there’s the right, fun people there.”
Still, this year, Ms. Frank expects to double the amount of money she brought in last year, and she plans to expand to Miami and London.
“I’ve never met another company that provides the type of services that Elli does,” said Elizabeth Riordan, the vice president of event marketing and promotions for Gotham. “At some events I need lanky but curvaceous women to fill out lingerie; other times I need skinny, skinny, tall women to fit into wedding dresses, where they’re basically like clothing racks. I also have catering needs and a ton of bartending needs. And I haven’t used her for this, but she definitely can ‘dress a room,’ per se. People hire her for the aesthetic situation, for the level of intelligence. You know what you’re getting.”
“New York City is such an amazing city,” gushed Ms. Frank. “It is so friendly to me and I feel like I am just so blessed, and I feel like it just completely embraced me and said, ‘We’re gonna give you a hard time at first, but we’re only going to do this because we know you can do it.’”
Last Thursday night, as her shift was winding down at NA, Ms. Frank was sitting next to her clean-cut Scottish banker-boyfriend, Alastair, who often tags along when she’s working. She was tired.
“Most of the people here don’t give me the time of day,” she said, observing the blow-dried publicists and striving socialites agitating at the party. “They don’t know who I am—and who am I? I’m no one.”
At 11 p.m. her girls would change back into their street clothes, and Ms. Frank would lug $8,000 worth of silk lounge wear home on the subway—or by taxi, if Alastair was paying. The next morning she’d be at the gym by 8 a.m. for her daily fix of “where I want to be”—Page Six—on the treadmill. Almost every night she has an event to chaperone. She acknowledged that her business is a diversion from her acting dreams; she only made it to one audition in the last year. But some Eye5 girls have found promotional work and modeling jobs through the company’s exposure, and Ms. Frank still hopes it might land her a place on the stage, by helping her “make that next connection.”
“Sometimes I find myself at these parties, wondering, Why am I here?” continued Ms. Frank. “I’m always looking for that pot of gold on the other side of the rainbow, you know? I’ll be at some event, hoping a producer will discover me, and then, when it doesn’t happen, you keep thinking, Maybe at the next event, or the next one …. “