Hooters: Breasts. And cancer.

Hooters Girls are famous for one, and now they're battling the other.

By Stephanie Hayes
Published June 25, 2007

Breasts. Boobs. Hooters.

Half the population has a pair.

In America, they're celebrated. Obsessed over. Regarded with a sexy sense of humor.

But sometimes, breasts get cancer.

The cancer is reckless and unfunny. Like an intruder in the night, it leaves the body ransacked.

It's not sexy.

So, let's say you're Hooters. The owl on your sign has two big, round eyes with dots in the middle. Your slogan is "Delightfully Tacky, Yet Unrefined."

Your "Hooters Girls" are famous for sweet physiques and tight orange shorts. They are hourglass beauties ready with a warm smile and a plate of wings. They are all-American sex appeal.

What happens when cancer finds a Hooters Girl? A pink ribbon and an ogling owl try to live in harmony.

It's a weekday morning at the original Hooters in Clearwater, and Eau de Chicken Grease fills the air. Countdown to the lunch shift.

Sara Olah, legs cased in bulletproof support hose, props one foot on a chair. She scrunches a pillowy sock. Stick-straight spun gold tumbles down her back. Robert Palmer sings.

Doctor, doctor, give me the news, I've got a bad case of loving you.

Today, like every day, she will ask her customers for breast cancer donations. Most, she says, will take her seriously.

"A Hooters Girl is a strong-minded woman who's able to fight for a cause, " says Olah, 23. "We're not just, you know, a blond thing here to play with wings. We're women with a voice."

Time for the morning briefing. Hooters Girls scarf hot wings, cheesy sandwiches and curly fries. In various states of dress, they swirl on blush and fluff hair.

Manager Juan Esparis teases them.

"You've got five minutes, for those of you who smoke - in the back. Don't put your cigarette butts on the floor. That's my house, keep it clean. And for those of you who are hung over, go to the freezer."

Someone groans.

Sheila Padgett-White sits back from the crowd. An oversized blue Hawaiian shirt covers her orange shorts, tank top and name tag that says "Sheera." She doesn't fuss with makeup - it was perfect when she walked in.

She has been a Hooters Girl for 23 years. Sat through countless morning meetings. She doesn't shed the shirt till show time.

- - -

At Hooters, the face of breast cancer is Kelly Jo Dowd.

She's the reason Hooters Girls can ask for donations. She died a month ago.

She was a model, a drop-dead stunner with dark blond hair, tulip lips and curves for miles.

She was prissy. She wouldn't touch a bus tub without napkins.

She was one of the original Hooters Girls at the Clearwater store, which opened in 1983.

She graced the cover of the 1998 Hooters swimsuit calendar. She worked through the ranks to become manager of Hooters in Palm Harbor.

She found a lump in late 2001. She waited 10 months to get checked. Cancer.

She had intense chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction. She went into remission. About two years ago, doctors discovered that the cancer had returned and spread incurably through her body.

She worked at Hooters, even in pain.

"She was all about business, " said her husband, Michael Dowd. "She knew what it was like to be on the floor and serve."

She hated when servers were sloppy or partied too hard the night before.

"These people come in expecting the Hooters product, expecting to get a beautiful girl who is going to be sweet to them, " her husband said. "She didn't minimize her job."

She coped with fading looks while working in a sea of beautiful women. "She handled it with great grace, " he said, "but it was not painless."

She cut off her thinning hair and walked through Countryside Mall completely bald. Her husband thought, "God, I love you."

She went to work with a bandanna on her head. One day, a customer asked Kelly Jo why she cut off her beautiful hair.

She heard it again and again.

"They'd say, 'God, you don't look anything like those pictures."

- - -

No one at Hooters denies the irony.

Hooters has given to charity: the USO, Special Olympics, diabetes, muscular dystrophy.

But breast cancer?

"We've just always been a little bit afraid that people might think we're being insincere or opportunistic, " said Mike McNeil, Hooters vice president of marketing

Then, a window opened.

Kelly Jo's daughter, Dakoda, a top-ranked teen golfer, played in an LPGA event. Cameras swarmed in to tell the Dowd story - People, USA Today, the New York Times.

Hooters saw a chance to break in.

In 2006, Hooters and the V Foundation for Cancer Research established a $2-million research grant in Kelly Jo's name.

All Hooters stores sell little paper cards in the shape of a server uniform. They tell Kelly Jo's story and cost $1. The money goes into the research grant. After she died, Hooters had them reprinted in the past tense.

New Hooters Girls watch a DVD that shows Kelly Jo urging early detection.

"Who's going to question our sincerity now?" McNeil said. "Nobody."

Still, some wonder if charity makes the Hooters concept more palatable.

"It makes it so much it easier to rationalize going in there, " said Janet Rose, an American studies professor at the University of Missouri, who has spent a year researching Hooters. "It's one of those classic feel-goods."

Michael Dowd sees only positives.

"People think it's trivializing it because your name is Hooters, " he said. "I don't want to offend women, but if you're raising millions of dollars and you're committed to the cause, I think we should focus on that more."

- - -

Hooters: a repository for the eternally young.

Where fried food won't make you fat. Smoking won't yellow your teeth. A beer headache won't stop you from looking gorgeous through an eight-hour shift.

Where cancer seems unfathomable.

But all around, there are pink reminders of reality.

Pink lights. A big pink ribbon on the sign outside.

Sheila Padgett-White points out pictures on the wall. "That's when she lost her hair. She was always wearing cute hats."

Padgett-White knew Kelly Jo Dowd for more than 20 years. They competed together in bikini contests. Padgett-White helped Kelly Jo style her hair when, after chemotherapy, it grew back curly.

"We get a lot of young girls, and they don't realize your looks go away, " she says. "I've been here 23 years. I know that."

The knockout in the blue swimsuit stares back at Padgett-White. Customers flood in for lunch. Dave Matthews sings.

Rip away the tears, drink a hope to happy years, and you may find a lifetime's passed you by.

"It's unfortunate that one of ours had to come down, " Padgett-White says, "and not be able to come back from it."

In a swirl around her, blonds and brunettes, still glossy, still perky, hold their chicken wings high. They carry on.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5303.