The secret lives of mannequins

Living mannequin blows the whistle on what ordeals mannequins suffer in silence

by - 01/05/2015

I have always be fascinated by the way the public interact with mannequins, how they treat them and what they do when they think no one is looking; If only mannequins could talk, what countless stories they could tell on what happens when the store closes and the lights are turned off, or in plain daylight, when shop staff are looking the other way. After 25 years as a living mannequin I think now I can offer a small glimpse into their world.

The Early Years

My early living mannequin years were spent standing in various tool hire shops, usually by the counter or shop entrance. It was there that I first encountered an odd ritual that a lot of men, usually tradesmen, perform when they see a male mannequin.  On a regular basis, they would walk into the shop, and if they noticed the "mannequin" standing there, they would head straight for me, and give me a goose. This was more likely to happen if the guy was with an audience of workmates. This happened so frequently that I started wearing a cricket box. This also helped them feel less embarrassed when I "came alive", as I would point out I was wearing a box.

Testing The Clothing Zips

At exhibitions or shops, usually I'd be wearing specialist work or activity clothing, as you might expect, people would start inspecting the clothing, feeling the material, reading any tags attached to the garment, for the price or technical information. This is where I discovered that people have a fascination with zips. Faulty zips must be a burning issue, as that is what seems to concern them most about a garment, do the zips work well? I have lost track of the number of times the jacket, coverall or wetsuits that I'm wearing has been unzipped, zipped and unzipped again.

Talking To The Mannequin

Another popular thing for people to do when the see a mannequin, is to approach it and either ask it a question or say "hello", and shake its hand, as a joke; this gets a brilliant reaction if I shake their hand back or actually answer their question.

The Key In The Eye Test

Sometimes the interaction is a bit more intense, a nose being squeezed or in extreme circumstances a slap around the face. On one occasion, while standing by the counter in one of the hire shops, I noticed I was being studied closely by a customer. The customer asked the assistant, "Is it Real?", "No" the assistant replied, "But I can see it breathing" (by this time I had to take a breath), "It's a special medical mannequin costing thousands of pounds, we have it on loan from the hospital", he replies thinking quickly on his feet. The customer looks me over again, and seems convinced, and proceeds to get out his car keys. I can't quite see what he is doing from the corner of my eye, but suddenly I feel a sharp pain in my eye. He's poked me in the eye with one of his keys to see if I'm real or not. Fortunately he poked the white of my eye, but it could have been much worse, needless to say, that made me break character; he was very apologetic, but what an odd way to choose find out!

Stab The Mannequin

I suppose I should have counted myself lucky that it was only a key. I first came across the concept of a person standing still, pretending to be a mannequin, when I read an account, when I was a teenager, of a Italian woman who had stabbed a living mannequin standing in a shop window with a knife, in order to settle an argument with her husband; I presume she thought that he was a real mannequin, or at least I hope that was the case. Knowing that story should have prepared me for what was to come, and I have always been mindful of what could happen.

Rough Handling

Mannequins also encounter a lot of rough handing when being dressed or moved around. Often when I'm hired to be a  mannequin there is a great opportunity to play a prank on some of the staff. In the past, shop staff have been asked to change the mannequin's clothing, "stick one of those hard hats on it", or add safety glasses, for example. Either the items are roughly placed or limbs are contorted and twisted into odd position in order to add or remove the clothing. A manager might also say, "we want that mannequin over in the window" or "on the lorry". Once after being carried by two lads, who been instructed to put me on the lorry, their interpretation of this was to carry me horizontally and swing launch me onto the back of it.

Again, at a hire shop I used to go to, it used to be a regular practise to play practical jokes on the new Saturday staff. On this occasion, the two new staff members were asked to undress the mannequin wearing the chainsaw clothing kit. During initial examination process, they played with my face and were fascinated to see my teeth when they moved my top lip. Then, for some reason, the guy starts getting a bit violent and does karate kick to the stomach. Not content with this, he starts punching me in the chest, and exclaims, "The dummy is very stable", "look I can punch him in the chest and he doesn't fall over". I have to think quickly before I become a kick-boxing practise dummy so I decide to pretend to fall over so he'll realise that he could damage the mannequin. So at the next blow I start to fall backwards, "Oh shit, it's falling", he grabs my arm to catch me and pulls me forward, and re-balances me, this successfully stops his kick-boxing practise.

Surprised that they hadn't caught on, I remained in character and allowed them to undress me by removing the visor, chainsaw jacket and then lay me down on the floor to remove the chainsaw over trousers (I was wearing an company overall underneath, which they were instructed to leave on). The manager came up and couldn't believe that they hadn't sussed, and told them to take me downstairs. Well they both tried to lift me, but were unable to do so, so they both proceeded to drag me across the floor, each taking a leg, then down the stairs, head bumping on each step, and across the shop floor, where they were told to sit me down in a chair. "but what about the knees", one said, "oh you can bend them", so with the manager's help, they lifted my up, grabbed a leg each and bent my knees and sat me in the chair and walked away. The manager had to make some excuse for them to go back and adjust my pose and give me some kit to hold, and that's when I knew I should come alive, they hadn't got a clue, and were literally speechless when I stood up, and thought I'd been substituted at the last moment. Something peculiar to living mannequins is the lengths people go to, in order to ascertain if you are real or not.

Secure The Mannequin

Mannequins, not being that heavy are often secured into place with whatever cones to hand, cable wraps/ties, gaffer tape and evens chains to stop them from being stolen. I have employed all of those in pursuit of getting the perfect mannequin effect. Unfortunately, sometimes, being a quite convincing mannequin, you often get forgotten about, left outside in the rain, or chained to a lamppost.

On one occasion that springs to mind an unsuspecting staff member was asked by the Manager to make the new mannequin look as it it was using a power tool. After a while, the staff member came back with some large cable ties and a huge angle grinder. He then, while he was still holding the angle grinder, put my left hand on the handle and tied it on with the cable ties, he then did the same with my right hand. After testing that they were secure, he slowly let go of the angle grinder, but as it was quite heavy and I stated to move forwards. He noticed that I would fall over and pushed me back,so that I was standing up organist a the metal post behind me  and proceeded to use a larger cable tie around my neck, to tie me to the post. the Manager, dhow been watching, shouted, "Not too tight around the neck, you don't want to damage the mannequin, he's only on loan"

A Slap In The Face

Once the manager of one of the hire shops, I used to visit, wanted to play a joke on a manger in neighbouring phone shop. The hire shop Manager had been talking to the all week about the new mannequin, setting the scene, and how it was coming from head office. Then he offered to to the phone shop manager for a day. After being wheeled over there and dropped off by some hire shop staff on a trolley, the phone shop manager looks at what I'm wearing, and says "We're not giving him free advertising", and grabs a fleece from a packet and tries to stuff my hands down the sleeves. He then removes my hard hat, and re-poses my arms. I stood there for about an hour, not moving. I could here the hire shop manage popping in everyone and then to check on things. Another half an hour passes. The Phone shop manager was staring at me as suddenly said, "I'm sure that mannequin keeps looking at me", after a few more minutes, he came over to me and slapped me round the face to see if I was real, not.  expecting me not to be I presume. At this point I grabbed his hand, and he let out a scream. He was very apologetic afterwards, "I really thought you were a dummy mate!", he exclaimed. I could hear the hire shop manager laughing in the doorway.

Steel The Abandoned Mannequin

Not too long ago, I was a rescue mannequin for a stairway evacuation exercise. The point of the exercise was to treat the mannequin like you would a human, but that didn't stop some of the course attendees hitting and punching the mannequin while the instructor wasn't looking.

The Final Experiment

Recently, I had the opportunity to complete a final piece of research. It involved taking the place of a long standing mannequin that is regularly placed outside a shop. The locals are very familiar with this mannequin, and therefore accept its presence. In the daytime, when the shop is open, interaction is pretty normal, members of the public are encouraged to take photo of themselves with the mannequin, and post it to a twitter account. Behaviour towards the mannequin is controlled and reasonable.

As an experiment I wanted to see if people's reactions would change if the mannequin was left outside when the shop was closed. Although many people still walked by, there was much more interest and scrutiny and comments about how long the mannequin had been there, and how they had always thought it was real. Some people, unprompted by a sign, took photos with me, and unlike the daytime, where I would come to life, I remained in character throughout. A couple of guys came up and prodded me, one with gentle kick in the back-side; then they stared into my face and blew smoke into it, and although they were questioning if I were real or not, I remained in character and they left convinced it was a  mannequin.

There were also a number of people who took my hand and shook it as a joke. One guy with a girlfriend, in a very jolly mood, took my hard hat and wore it himself, and then started pulling my nose, then he slapped me hard round the face. Believe it or not, even though it really hurt. I remained in character, and still believing I was a mannequin, and very amused by the whole thing, starting pulling at my nose again and lips, telling his girl friend to have a go, who had been telling him to not do any of this. Then I saw another slap coming so I put my arm out to stop him, his mood changed completely, very apologetic, and "weirded out", as he put it, I gave him a bit of a lecture about not hitting mannequins, which I think he found quite surreal, and would probably think it had all been a dream in the morning.

I hope he apologises to the real mannequin when he's out there again.