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In Hazard, Kentucky, in the early 1990s, the two-hour drive to the city of Lexington was a necessity for many things: advanced medical care, shopping malls, bookstores, fine dining. You wanted Abercrombie cologne, designer boots, or heart surgery? You headed down the Daniel Boone Parkway out of Eastern Kentucky to Lexington.
Eventually, though, knock-off versions of those t-shirts, purses, and shoes would pop up at mountain flea markets, at half the price, spread across tables, hanging from clothes racks and peg boards, mixed in with craft items and As-Seen-On-TV specials.
The trade off, of course, was wearing a slightly damaged Tommy Hilfger t-shirt. But it was thisclose to the real version, which was for many too out of reach – both by distance and dollars – for the imperfections to matter.
To understand this flow of goods and services into the mountain economy is to understand how I came to get Glamour Shots at the Super 8 motel.
In the 1990s, nothing said mall middle-class luxury experience like Glamour Shots. Women would pay hundreds of dollars to be transformed into fantasy versions of themselves. Imagine a Snapchat filter applied in real time, real life. A makeover from the waist up. Within an hour session, you went from Brenda the homeroom mom to Brenda the sexpot and you had the photos to prove it. Draped in boas and pearls, fur wraps, silk gloves, fringed jacket and cowboy hats, your makeup was bold, your hair teased and shellacked.
You walked away with glossy 8x10s of the moment to remember forever and with the knowledge: This is who I could be.
The closest Glamour Shot portrait studio to Hazard was, of course, two hours away in Lexington. I recall it was near the mall food court, where I would have been scarfing down a slice from Sbarro before going off in search of CDs and books, hoping for a chance encounter with a University of Kentucky men’s basketball player who of course would have been shopping at the mall at the same time as me. I was awkward, overweight and already as tall as most of my teachers. There was no glamour in my preteen existence, despite many failed perms, and I had long held a healthy level of distrust of school and department store photographers who wanted me to smile for the camera. My sense of distrust was exceptionally high if they might come near me with a curling iron and feather boa.
Nonetheless, when my cousin Teresa found out some enterprising soul was bringing a Glamour Shot-esque setup to Hazard, I went along for the ride. (If you think these quarantine days are long and meandering, try spending a summer as a 12 year old girl in pre-Internet Eastern Kentucky. The days were doubly long. I would have likely gone anywhere.)
Teresa is my mom’s first cousin. Her daughter Ashley and I are the same age, and we spent days and nights together like sisters. Teresa loaded us into the back of her red 1990 Lumina and headed to this makeshift studio at the local Super 8.
The notion that a grown woman would take two young girls to a hotel room to be photographed by strangers has never ceased to alarm me but also doesn’t surprise me. The flea market factor was at play: a city amenity now available within minutes. And only a few years before, Teresa had been a successful pageant mom, with Ashley winning beauty contests across the state. Now Glamour Shots were suddenly in her town? Of course she was going.
And so was I.
We drove out to the Super 8, pretty new at the time, in a small retail development about ten minutes out into the county, next to the Arby’s (shoutout to the 5 for $5 roast beef special, a family favorite back then) and just down the hill from a large flea market, coincidentally.
We parked and searched for the room number along the doors dotting the motel’s perimeter. I wish I remembered more about walking into the room when we found it; I’d wager it smelled of hairspray and cigarette smoke. A man and woman were running the show, probably in their forties or fifties. They had rearranged the room into their own photo studio: a hair and make-up station on the round table, a photo backdrop and a rack of clothing and accessories squeezed in near the bed. Ashley says she remembers a fog machine; I must have blocked that out.
They invited us in, and we flipped through an album of potential looks. This was the moment to choose your Glamour persona: nautical, motorcycle chic, cowgirl, Hollywood starlet? The feather boas, hats, rhinestone jackets, cowboy hats, curlers, hairspray awaited our selection. Ashley went first. I stalled. This I remember clearly: I did not want to pick my style. I hemmed and hawed. Eventually, I chose a black fringed coat. The lady teased my hair and painted my face with blush, powder, and lipstick. Her partner positioned me in front of the backdrop, snapped away, sealing this moment in time:
My cousin bought the photo packages, even mine, and we left in our plain clothes, hair still high as the hills.
I showed the photos to no one, too embarrassed of both how I looked and of my consent.
Somehow the 8×10 still exists among my childhood memorabilia, floating to the top once in a while to make me wonder why I went along with it, and to ponder where those people came from to set up a photo studio in a motel.
Were they photographers before, shooting Little League teams and church directories when one night, one of them says to the other: You heard about Glamour Shots?
I’m impressed with their initiative to take this idea on the road to far-flung towns; I’m frightened to think of where the images may have also wound up, or what might have happened if we had posed for them without an adult. Turns out, we might have been there alone. As I started writing this, I asked Teresa what she remembered about that day.
“I just remember going and then coming back getting you girls.”
For my own sanity, I insist this could not be an accurate memory until she agreed. Of course she didn’t drop off 12 year old girls at a motel with photographers. OF COURSE.
Today, Glamour Shots are down to a handful of locations in two states, New Jersey and Texas. The New York Times wrote about it last year. According to the article, Glamour Shots once had more than 350 stores.
Their website proclaims that they are about “more than the makeovers.” Their photos look more like J.C. Penney studio photos than the costumed 1990s version that made them famous, although they have added boudoir and pinup to the Glamour Shot experience.
Thanks to an Instagram filter, I can conjure up a Glamour Shot look with a single swipe.
It’s safer and cheaper, but it’s certainly not as good of a story.
Tracy Staley is a writer and communications professional in Dayton, Ohio, by way of Hazard, Kentucky. She clings to her roots through writing, reading, and music and spends her days as a digital marketer at a Lexington, Ky.-based marketing agency. She also writes for the Rural Assembly. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.