What Happened in Vegas?

Why are Las Vegas bartenders now mostly women?

Bartender Varia Dellalian, representing Lebanon, competes in the Diageo Reserve World Class Global Final cocktail competition on July 10, 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Female bartenders are becoming increasingly common in the once male-dominated world of Las Vegas bartending.

Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Young, beautiful, sexy female bartenders dart around behind the mahogany bar serving drinks to anxious customers and pocketing generous tips. The bartenders are dressed in very low cut V-neck midriff tops displaying surgically enhanced breasts and low-slung, hip-hugging, skin-tight stretch pants that reveal muscled abdomens and tattoos right above the buttocks. Tao, Marquee, Pure, Lavo, Ghostbar—all nightclubs in Las Vegas casinos. The music blasts, and the crowded dance floor rocks. These clubs are huge—50,000-60,000 square feet on multiple levels. Not long ago, only men held bartender jobs in Las Vegas, but in little more than a decade, female bartenders have taken over the majority of the jobs in the casino nightclubs. There are still young male bartenders here—good-looking, muscular guys who sport black vests, black shirts, and ties, but they are in the minority now. And there are none who are over 35.

A decade ago about 80 to 85 percent of nightclub bartenders were men; today women represent about 60 percent of the club bartenders. Why have women moved in? The answer has to do with how Las Vegas has changed. After the city’s attempt to market itself as a family-friendly destination failed in the late 1990s, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority adopted a new advertising motto, “What happens here, stays here,” to attract a young, hip customer base. Besides the motto, the casinos have added “pleasure pits,” “ultralounges,” “European” (topless) pools, and nightclubs, all of which restrict access to adults only. The sexy marketing scheme, combined with the new venues in the casinos, has been wildly successful.

And its unintended effect has been to squash the once hallowed profession of the male bartender. Las Vegas has always sold sexy, of course. But there were clear hierarchies. The women were cocktail waitresses or dancers in the shows. But bartenders were men—often middle-aged union members who were proud of their bartending skills. There was an occasional female hired for her expertise in bartending, not her sexy appearance. But as the casinos were increasingly owned by major corporations that were more “brand” focused, they imposed additional “professional” hair and makeup requirements on the women. Darlene Jespersen served bar at Harrah’s Casino in Reno, Nev., for almost 20 years when she was fired in 2000 for refusing to follow a new companywide policy that required her to wear makeup. She sued, alleging sex discrimination because her male cohorts did not have to wear makeup. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit saw it differently. It ruled against Jespersen. According to the court, the makeup requirement did not unreasonably sex-stereotype her and it imposed no greater burden on her than the rules that men shave and keep their hair short.

At least for certain jobs, the casinos have gone well beyond makeup requirements for women. While cocktail servers on the casino floors have traditionally dressed in fairly revealing clothing, management in the upscale casinos on the Strip worry that aging servers do not project the right image, and they want more exposed flesh. So some have redefined the jobs of servers as “models” and “bevertainers,” and they hired young, sexy women and dressed them in even skimpier costumes. Besides serving drinks, bevertainers and models entertain by dancing and parading through the casino. Casinos believe that the new job descriptions will help them evade sex and age discrimination lawsuits because looking young and sexy is a legitimate job qualification for a dancer.

Even card dealers have seen a change. Since the late ‘70s and early ‘80s casinos have hired female card dealers who compete head-to-head with men for their skills and wear the same androgynous clothing to work. But alongside the traditional dealers, a few casinos have added “dealertainers” who are young, sexy women hired for their looks. They spend some of their time dealing cards and then move to stages near the card tables to sing and dance. When I asked a middle-aged, former female craps dealer what she thinks of the new dealertainers, she said, “The blonde with the boobs and belly hanging out, G-string and heels is doing everything she isn’t supposed to do: compromising security of the game, making a mockery out of our profession. It disgusts me.”

But the nightclubs are the focus of the more sexualized environments. These days, college students and recent graduates from all over the U.S. flock to the casino nightclubs to celebrate 21st birthdays or bachelor and bachelorette parties. The girls wear their “slut” dresses. The guys don new shiny shoes. Middle-aged Midwestern salesmen relax in the casinos, trying their hands at blackjack and eventually making their way upstairs to the nightclubs. Wealthy, single thirtysomethings from across the border in California flock to Las Vegas on weekends to party at the nightclubs. And in the background are the women, pouring drinks and chatting with customers waiting in long lines at the bar. One male nightclub bartender told me that customers get less irritated by the wait if they are served by a pretty, friendly female bartender.  

Men who would like to be bartenders complain that the jobs are going to unqualified women. They argue that male bartenders have to work their way up from porter to barback to bartender while women are hired without serving in these positions. Men who are rejected for bartender jobs argue that bartending requires skill. It takes more than large breasts to be a good bartender, they say. But for the most part it’s a lost cause. Over the past decade major casinos have built mega-nightclubs in the casinos and leased their operations to management companies that have total control over the employment policies. Free of union contracts the management companies hire for looks and sex appeal and often exclude men.

Men could apply for jobs as cocktail servers either on the casino floors or in the nightclubs, but cocktailing, unlike bartending, is traditionally a woman’s job and continues to remain that way. The more expensive the casinos, the better looking the servers. Even in lean economic times, men generally don’t apply for cocktail positions. This is somewhat surprising given that cocktail jobs are well-paid, especially at the high-end casinos. Although the hourly wage is not much to talk about, cocktail servers who work on the casino floor earn generous tips, which means that their annual incomes can exceed $100,000 a year. So why don’t men apply? One female human resources manager of a Nevada casino said that she has a skimpy bikini-like costume for a male applicant just in case a man applies so that she can demonstrate that her casino does not discriminate. The manager suggested that besides shielding the casino from liability for discrimination, the costume serves the purpose of discouraging men from applying for the jobs. And, she reported, men do not apply.

I asked a male bartender at one of the hottest nightclubs about the possibility of male cocktail servers at the nightclubs. “That will never happen,” he said. “I see girls dancing around in their tiny dresses. It would be hilarious to see guys doing that.” Those “tiny dresses” are actually corsets or bustiers—laced-up in the back or the front and barely covering the buttocks with black garter belts, lace stockings, and high heels.

In one way, the shifting gender dynamics help women. Bartenders make less money in tips, but it’s a skilled job, and they get more respect. When you are a cocktail server, “People are grabbing and touching you. It is miserable,” a guy whose girlfriend is a nightclub cocktail server said. But the women keep doing it because you can make $500 a night. When you’re a bartender you have more prestige and you are less exposed. The bar is a physical barrier between you and the customer—no one can surreptitiously grab or touch you.

Not that bartending leaves you free of a certain kind of harassment. People don’t grab as much, but there is real pressure to stay young, beautiful, and thin. When I asked a female bartender about how she likes the job, she said, “There’s a lot of pressure. Everyone is looking at you, and there are so many beautiful women here!” Bartenders in some of the clubs get weighed regularly, and if they gain weight, they can be fired. But heck, it’s Las Vegas. And what happens here, stays here.