PINELLAS PARK — It’s a late summer afternoon in Valerie Workman’s Pinellas Park living room. TMZ flickers on mute as her five dogs howl. Sitting crisscross on her couch, she unzips a duffel bag stuffed with 30-year-old stripper thongs.
It’s been years since Valerie, now 55, has seen some of these items. By the time she gets to the bottom of the bag, her couch is covered in ancient bedazzled panties. But she hasn’t unearthed what she was actually looking for. There are plenty of relics from her nights as a dancer, but nothing from her stint as a hot dog girl.
In the early 1990s, roads in St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park and Largo were peppered with hot dog carts staffed by women in T-backs — thong bikinis. Valerie, who left dancing to peddle Italian sausages and sodas, claims she was the first.
It’s been decades since she packed up her cart and went back to dancing, but Valerie still wonders: What happened to the hot dog girls?
Once upon a time, the hot dog girls ruled the streets. Baking in the hot Florida sun, they made bank selling sausages on the side of busy industrial roads.
The controversial phenomenon lasted just a few years in Tampa Bay, but it was packed with action.
Some say the T-backs were so distracting that they triggered car crashes across Pinellas. Turf wars erupted. Police arrested girls for throwing fists and spraying mace. Later, Valerie would watch as a local radio station hosted a mud wrestling battle over a contested piece of territory.
In 1990, a time when the big-haired tackiness of the ’80s still lingered, Valerie first set up her hot dog cart on the side of the road.
Back then, Valerie was a single mom raising three small children. She was proud to have figured out how to use her strong physique, carved from years as a third-degree black belt, to support her family. She had worked as an exotic dancer at Pinellas clubs ever since she won an amateur dance contest at Jerry’s Rockin’ Disco, and could make almost $1,000 a night dancing at bars like The Office Lounge, Show Girls and Fountain Blue.
The clubs were fun, but she wanted to be her own boss and have her own space. When her sister’s boyfriend floated the idea to sell hot dogs on the side of the road, she shopped for carts.
“I could have gone on state welfare, but I chose to work,” she said.
Valerie stocked up on Sabrett all-beef hot dogs, napkins, chips and condiments at Sam’s Club. She got a license and boiled her dogs right in the cart, underneath a Sabrett-branded yellow and blue umbrella.
Her friends from the clubs soon followed. They set up on roads with good traffic. Some spots, like 49th Street, weren’t yet developed.
“When we pulled up, we had to make sure there weren’t any gators,” she said.
Hungry drivers on their lunch break and curious passersby stopped to see what she was doing. Cars slowed to honk. She made plenty of money from tourists taking pictures alone.
“People from all around came to Florida just to see the hot dog girls,” Valerie said.
Valerie believes she was the first hot dog girl, but that’s hard to prove. The phenomenon is well-documented in newspapers from the time, which show this wasn’t a trend specific to the Tampa Bay area. For instance, the Miami Times started running classified ads for bikini-clad hot dog hawkers in the mid 1980s.
In Fort Myers, Sarah Linski told the News-Press that she could earn nearly $700 in just 16 hours per week at a cart her boyfriend bought for her. She made an average of $125 on busy days with a regular bikini that covered her bottom, and about $200 a day when she went to work in a thong.
Vendors sporting T-Backs were documented on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, Metro Parkway in Fort Myers and Viscaya Parkway in Cape Coral. The thong-wearing vendors didn’t show up in the pages of Tampa Bay newspapers until July 1990.
Whether or not Valerie was first, she soon found herself in the middle of a phenomenon.
These were the days of thong bathing suit crackdowns across local beaches. Florida Gov. Bob Martinez approved a ban on exposed rears in 140 state parks. Sarasota had already implemented a city ordinance banning thongs, resulting in five arrests shortly before that.
Meanwhile the T-backs spread to Tampa.
One thong-clad hot dog girl set up shop on Hillsborough Ave. in Town N’ Country, triggering a county-level complaint. So county traffic engineer Gary Tait led an investigative team to find her.
“The concern is the vendor may be creating a distraction which may cause motor vehicle accidents,” Tait wrote in a memo.
He found the mystery woman selling frankfurters in the parking lot of a home improvement store.
As more and more hot dog girls appeared, men and women alike screamed at them from car windows. Some whistled and catcalled, while others yelled at them to find some real clothes.
“It’s not the most glamorous job in the world,” vendor Lisa Wallace told a News-Press reporter in 2000. “It’s definitely a job where you have to have a thick skin and a sharp tongue.”
“The hot dog vendors wearing tiny thong suits look naked from a block away and not much different on closer inspection. Watching them has caused quite a few drivers to forget the basics of automobile safety,” reported the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in 1993. “Gawkers have drifted through red lights, roamed across traffic lanes and become mindless of the cars in front of them.”
“I guess they should have kept their eyes on the road,” said Annette Baerman in 1993.
By June 1991, Valerie remembers, tensions between Pinellas’ hot dog girls were starting to sizzle.
Two other hot dog girls from the era did not respond to a reporter’s messages, but a VHS tape, news clippings and Valerie’s nostalgia fill in the gaps of the saga.
Cindy Gray, of Purrfect 10 Wiener Wagon, told a Tampa Tribune reporter she had been slinging dogs on U.S. Highway 19 for months. Cindy left for a week to get her cart repaired. She returned to find Hala Salaman’s girls set up on her spot.
Hala claimed a vendor for her business, Hala’s Wild Wieners, had been there for several weeks. Both refused to leave. After three tense days, a fight broke out.
Cindy said she hit Hala in self defense. Hala accused Cindy of dragging her by the hair. Hala’s younger sister Sahar ended up in the fray, and the three tussled on the ground until Kathleen Cook, one of Hala’s employees, sprayed all three of the women with mace.
Officers came to break up the fight. But that was just the beginning of the brawl.
Justice would be served a month later.
“Hala the Hardbody” and “Sizzling Cindy” agreed to face off on July 5 outside of the Yucatan Liquor Stand on the corner of Westshore and Cypress. They would wrestle in mud. A $500 cash prize was on the line. And Valerie was squarely on the side of Team Cindy.
DJs from Q105 Radio would host the television broadcast on Q Morning Zoo. The event was known as “Wienermania I.” (There would not be a Wienermania II.)
There was plenty of smack talking on radio and television broadcasts leading up to the event.
“The mud is going to fly in Tampa Bay, Cindy,” Hala said to the camera, surrounded by a cloud of curly blonde hair.
“I relish the chance to kick your buns,” Cindy growled into the camera, wagging her fist.
The fanfare started early, with “muddy Mary” drinks and breakfast hot dogs. Close to 200 spectators came, some from as far as Lake Wales.
"These two titillating titans in T-backs will settle the turf war once and for all,” said the announcer, sports personality “Rippin” Dick Crippen, on the morning of the battle. “They’ll smash and bash and mash each other in the mud.”
Valerie, then 27, remembers the matching American flag-themed T-back bikinis her fellow hot dog girls wore in the limo ride on the way to support Cindy. She was already buzzed on free drinks by the time they arrived.
But Hala never showed up.
“In my opinion, she’s a big weenie herself,” said Q105 DJ Mike Elliot.
That didn’t mean Hala had forfeited. In fact, she sent a bigger, stronger replacement — employee Kathleen Cook, a.k.a “Kathy the Macer.”
The battle consisted of two-minute rounds in the mud. Valerie remembers the girls had to be careful of potential nip slips.
“We’re not here to take tops off,” she said while rewatching the tape recently. “We’re here to strengthen the streets.”
Around 8 a.m., Kathy the Macer and Sizzlin’ Cindy entered the DIY ring made out of PVC pipes and tarps. It was slicked with 800 pounds of wet potting soil. A male exotic dancer named Kid Rafael paraded around the perimeter in tiny white shorts and a matching bow tie, holding up signs for each round.
Valerie cheered with the crowd on the sidelines as Cindy entered the ring, facing the Macer on her knees.
They lurched forward, grabbing each other by the shoulders. Into the mud they slid. Cindy flipped the Macer over, pressing her down into the ring. The Macer wriggled free.
“The mud is flying at the Yucatan!” Rippin’ Dick Crippen shouted.
In seconds, each woman was covered in dirt, distinguished only by flashes of hair — dark brown for Cindy, soiled blonde for the Macer.
The first two rounds were tangles of filthy limbs. Neither managed to get a clean pin.
But in the third round, Cindy’s supporters hopped in the ring, sliding around in the mud, to take the Macer down.
Kid Rafael the dancer got dragged into the fight. Then an eager fan hopped in, shouting “I love this town!” Everybody was thrown out of the ring.
Cindy and the Macer squared off again for one last scuffle. This time, Sizzling Cindy emerged victorious.
“Cindy was declared the wiener, so to speak,” Elliot quipped.
Later, the girls would wake up to red, itchy sores covering their bodies. Whatever was in the potting soil gave them a rash that left them unable to work for weeks.
But spirits were still high at the end of the fight. The girls cleaned up and posed in front of a cart for a photo.
Every now and then Valerie still sees the snapshot on a “Perfect 10 Wiener Wagon hot dog girls” postcard in local beach shops.
In the years to come, things would get harder for the hot dog girls. Valerie says her parents got harassed by law enforcement. Her children were teased at school.
Opponents called the career choice an attack on moral decency. Women in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach were arrested for “being a traffic hazard.”
In Palm Beach County, 75 residents mailed photos of women in scandalous bikinis to commissioners. Those leaders made vendors wear wider thongs after complaints that the women were “a religious and moral affront.” The rule didn’t hold up in court.
Pinellas County also began to crack down. News clips from the mid-1990s show the county tried to outlaw the display of one’s “anal cleft,” according to the News-Press. And the county started citing vendors for an ordinance that apparently bans “selling food and exposing one’s buttocks at the same time.”
When a teenage neighbor attacked her elementary school-age daughter, ripping off her shirt on the school bus, Valerie knew it was time to get out.
“I just decided that was it,” she said. “I was putting my family through hell ... just to freaking earn a living.”
She sold her cart for $7,000 (“I paid a lot more for it,” she said) and went back to dancing in the clubs.
Valerie has always been nostalgic. And now more than ever, she finds herself reaching for the past.
Valerie stayed at the clubs until retiring from dancing in 2004. She worked building boats and repairing roofs. She got laid off about six years ago, and hasn’t worked since. Then in 2014, while she was driving on 54th Avenue, she was hit by a truck head on. Things haven’t been the same since.
She still has side effects from her injuries. She can’t make a fist. She barely sleeps. Sometimes she tries to go to the beach, but mostly she stays at home.
Her husband Kevin has been having health problems too. He recently found out he had colon cancer. Four days after he was diagnosed, he broke his left wrist.
To distract herself from the pain, Valerie thinks of the hot dog girls.
“I’ve been searching forever,” she said. “I want to see them again.”
Armed with a waterproof camera that she carries everywhere in a small gold pouch, Valerie takes pictures all the time. When she runs into old friends she used to dance with. When she makes new friends. And soon, she hopes, when she finds her sisters from the hot dog days.