At OTC, even the fashion models are nerds

Model Irena Shyshkena poses at the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC 2017) Wednesday, May 3, 2017, in Houston. ( Steve Gonzales / Houston Chronicle )

By Lydia DePillis

Those wandering the aisles of the Offshore Technology Conference might notice female staff at various booths that look just a little too perfect — their hair elegantly waved, their heels precariously high.

Sometimes known as “booth babes,” models are a longstanding presence at trade shows, and they’ve become more controversial in recent years amidst charges that the using women as eye candy is demeaning. At OTC, however, the models aren’t just valued for their looks.  The Neal Hamil Agency has represented models at OTC for two decades, and co-owner Jeff Shell says that the requirements have changed over time and the models need to know and understand the technology the companies are hawking. 

In the past, Shell said, energy firms just wanted knock-outs to  serve refreshments, coffee and juice, and make their booth look good.  “But,” he added, “in the last couple of years, they want models with engineering experience. They’re asking for the models’ resumes now.”

The jobs now include phone interviews, not just casting calls; models are given company materials to study up on before OTC week starts.

See more images from OTC 2017. Story continues below…

It’s not clear what’s driving the change, but it’s been a welcome one for Irena Shyshkina, a nearly six-foot-tall, platinum blonde, Russia-born model who has an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and a masters in finance. She’s worked eight OTCs, nearly all with foreign companies, which appreciate having a local representative to make sure they’re communicating correctly.

This year, Shyshkina landed with a Russian company called Chelpipe, for which she can both serve as a translator and explain the intricacies of pipeline systems.

“In the modeling industry, everybody is saying that the girls just go and look pretty,” says Shyshkina, 35. “But surprisingly, everybody’s in school, getting different degrees, and a lot of them have an engineering background.”

Shyshkina herself has a side job in health care finance, and says she keeps modeling because she enjoys keeping one foot in the fashion industry. But she’s very interested in getting into marketing, and thinks that serving as a full-fledged member of the sales team at an OTC booth might help.

 

Of course, like everything at OTC, this year was depressed for booth models. Shell says only about 30 were hired this year, down from 50 or more at the height of the oil boom. But he was expecting it.

“Oil and gas isn’t the only industry that’s suffering right now,” he says, mentioning brick and mortar retail as another line of business that’s contracted for the agency. “The world is shifting and changing.”

 

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