September 2006

Girl (n)power or licence to leer?

Jenny Thompson gets out the peroxide and the fake tan to witness life as an npower girl

Jenny Thompson (centre) with her fellow npower girls © Npower

Forget England's worries, there's a bigger injury crisis for the npower girls at Old Trafford: someone's just broken a nail.

Actually, I just made that up. But would it surprise you?

Anyone who has attended a day's Test cricket in the last five years will have seen the npower girls: all blonde to a woman and clad in red and green. And you've probably made your assumptions and left.

As a female cricket journalist I was curious. Who are they? Why are they? So I spent two days at the Old Trafford Test as an npower girl. At mere mention of this proposition one colleague hinted darkly at career suicide. Another scoffed: "What next? CMJ dressed up as a mascot?" Hang on, I'm not about to streak or become a porn star.

There is a serious point here: putting yourself in someone else's shoes, the (possibly uncomfortable) experience of being judged on what you look like rather than who you are. And then there's the whole unnerving but exciting notion of 'faking it'.

The daunting part was the preparation: a self-imposed three-month diet and exercise programme, which became a three-week crash diet and uber-exercise programme when I lapsed on the original plan. This was pressure I didn't need but there's a lot to live up to as an npower girl - only 30 out of the hundreds that audition make it and it's a coveted role.

Since npower began to build their girls into a recognisable brand, ebookers,, Wolf Blass, Betfair and the Daily Telegraph have all followed suit. But it's the Christmas look of npower that stands out - and I was worried that I would too, for the wrong reasons.

Despite gallons of fake tan, false nails sharp enough to pick any seam and peroxide I doubted I would be faking it convincingly enough. Reactions ranged from the sublime - "It's an npower girl! Go and talk to her", "I can't, I'm too scared" - to the ridiculed. Colleagues didn't recognise me; my dad's mates thought this was my new career; npower even asked me back.

It's not all glamour you know... © Martin Williamson

But I won't be taking them up on their kind offer: handing out 4 and 6 cards; doing water and lunch runs for the photographers; photo-shoots; hospitality; grinning and bearing the (often patronising) nonsense is all too much like hard work. But you do get to hang around with Mike Gatting.

My two days in the red-and-green were exhausting though remarkably good fun. I talked cricket with the girls who are, in the main, sports-mad. Some play county level cricket, and two - Kimberley and Fiona - are the daughters of former Sussex player Peter Graves. Jess is a sports psychologist and England rugby player.

Leanne, a stand-up comic and Sheffield University graduate (most have degrees from the red-bricks), is the one who taught me about the three Ts when posing for photos. "Tits, teeth and tum!" she proclaims with delicious irony. Someone did ask us to get one of those features out for the lads but that thankfully was about as bad as it got. The crowd were generally friendly, if not that original with their "What have you come as?" lines.

Politics graduate Lois intends to be a spin doctor but in the meantime all the spinning is done by her washing machine: an entire team's worth of npower kits litter the house she shares with Gilly; they are old university mates.

Some of the girls choose not to work the whole Test ("it's too shattering") and they don't usually go out in the evenings either. When they do, they don't always reveal their line of work, for fear of being judged negatively. It's an interesting dichotomy that while they are idolised by some - as attested by the deluge of "I now know an npower girl, great!" texts I received, not to mention the many autograph and picture requests - they're expected to stand atop that pedestal with a permanent smile. And given the way some leer at them, they may as well be whirling round a pole.

This is hardly the sex industry of course but the skimpy uniforms (size 12 is the biggest, while my part-amused, part-horrified mother measured the skirt at 16 inches) and visual requirements - hair down, make-up perfect, legs tanned - are unmistakably aimed at creating an alluring image. As one of the clan says: "Sex sells." I can't remember who said that because while I worked out some of their names the blonde identikitness does make them a bit like the Stepford Wives, but with attitude. That's not their fault but we were all pretty much faceless.

Jess and Sally are the ones who get recognised, if anyone. They're the ones on the TV ads - "I've got a dog called Sally" is one of the less charming lines and has become a catchphrase, but Sally just shrugs it off - and Jess is the one on the cardboard cut-outs, which are stolen so often that npower allow for five to go missing per Test. Jess isn't recognised in her civvies, though, not even by the man who sat next to her on the Tube, with his stolen Jess cut-out resting proudly on his knees.

One of the crew doesn't wear a red skirt, he wears trousers: Pete, the sole npower boy, who is there to take on the heavy-lifting jobs. He has even been called on as security for the girls when spectators get lairy towards the end of a drunken day. "I'm the token boy, but I have the best job in the world," he laughs. And now, as the girls line up for a shoot, he has to take custody of their shades, so that everyone looks uniform. "I'm back to where I started in life - as a glasses collector."

I couldn't help wondering if it wasn't all just a little bit outdated. "They do have to work," explains npower's sponsorship manager Sue Heritage - and she's right. "They don't just sit there looking pretty. We have 45,000 4 and 6 cards per match and they have to get distributed somehow. They also run our competitions. The glamour bit didn't come before the role, the role came before the glamour." But the glamour still exists. "Anyone can wear a red skirt," she adds, "but it's how you deal with the punters."

But why do they do it? Money (about £100 a day) of course and, as one says: "It beats working in an office." Enlightening and fun though it was, I'm not so sure. "All jobs become boring," says another. She's not wrong. After two long days the novelty wore off as fast as my tan.

This article first appeared in the September issue of The Wisden Cricketer

Jenny Thompson is assistant editor of Cricinfo