Monday, January 7, 2008

Smiles sell sweet spirits

Daytona Beach, FL
As published in the Daytona Beach News Journal
Written by Audrey Parente

Red Rum tastes great with pineapple juice, said Leesa Benz during a liquor-tasting demonstration recently.

"It's my favorite," she oozed, impersonating Marilyn Monroe, the blonde bombshell she has been identified with locally for more than a decade.

It's an act Benz of Ormond Beach has capitalized on in the past as a part-time entertainer, but recently it's paying off in liquor sales.

She started out last year as a taste demonstrator for various liquor products for Liquor Group Distribution, a 6-year-old, mid-sized liquor and wine distributor based in Ponte Vedra Beach.

But after having unusual success with her taste testing at local liquor stores, Lowell Newman, Liquor Group's executive, said he made her a sales representative and gave her an entire territory of her own - stretching from St. Augustine to Melbourne - including Volusia and Flagler counties.

"Leesa is a little different, very enthusiastic . . . and it works for her," Newman said.

It also works for C. Scott Sharps, vice-president of Sharps Discount Liquors, who just opened his fifth liquor store. Four of Sharps' sites are in Volusia County, the latest in Daytona Beach Shores. But the first was in Flagler County, opened by his father 11 years ago when the family relocated here from Vineland, N.J.

Sharps said his liquor business has been steadily growing: "We have seen increases every year."

He also noticed the unusual results of Benz's unique presentations.

"Our distributors all have people come in and do tastings on specific products they want people to be more privy to . . . new products or ones people might not be used to - and they (the people giving samples) might sell a bottle now and again," Sharps said. "But it would be a shock if she (Benz) didn't sell more than 12 or 18 bottles (at one tasting)."

The Ormond Beach woman with the bubbly personality, a Seattle native, worked for Estee Lauder Cosmetics before she joined the Navy in 1989. After her military service she returned to the cosmetic company in San Diego. Benz moved to the Daytona Beach area in 1994.

She was crowned Mrs. Daytona Beach in 1998 and competed but didn't win the Mrs. Florida crown that year. After that, for a number of years she made radio and television commercials and worked in the hotel industry.

In 2003, she hosted a public access TV talk show, interviewing such guests as former Hawaiian Tropic owner Ron Rice, Florida Sen. Evelyn Lynn and the rock group Foghat. This year the TV show moved to Internet television.

During all the years and previous careers, Benz performed her Marilyn impersonation at local auto club events, for the Post Office during the unveiling of a stamp honoring actress Marilyn Monroe, at art openings, music award affairs and various public venues.

Her busy life came to a crashing halt three years ago when Benz nearly died from a brain aneurysm.

"It was a freak thing," Benz said. "I had brain surgery. I was very fortunate from what the doctors have told me. I pretty much came out unscathed."

After months of recovery, the first person she interviewed for her Internet television show was her neurologist.

"Then I went back to work at the Plaza Resort and Spa for about a year until I was recruited by "Perfect Wedding Guide," she said.

She spent three years with the guide, and the demonstrations for Liquor Group were just a sideline until the opportunity to handle her own territory was too good to pass up.

"The Marilyn look always helps," she said. "People are intrigued with that. You also have to be personable and friendly.

"I make sure to talk to every person, even if I am busy. I look up and see a whole bunch of people come in and run to them, make eye contact, whip them up a drink," she said. "I am amazed people will just take a sip and they are sold."

There might be more to it. Benz has a grabbing sense of humor.

No separate liquor license is required by her to do the taste testing, provided the store has the proper licensing, but she is not allowed by law to sample beer.

On her table, among the bottles of Red Rum, Voo Doo Rum and an occasional smiley-face bottle of Happy drinks such as Happy Vodka and Happy Gin, is a frothy beer bottle with a beer spill.

Out of the blue Benz will gasp in dismay at the bottle, catching the attention of anyone who isn't already watching her - but no problem. It's just a rubber joke prop. However, as soon as she has all that attention, she goes to work doing her spiel.

"Just the attention I give people is all I need," she said. "Although with some people, you have to take more time with them and tell them about the recipes, like Shining Red Apple - Red Rum with hot apple cider - or how you can use the (smiley-face) bottles as a vase or candleholder."
Cutline: Leesa Benz hands out Voodoo and Red Rum samples to customers at Sharps Discount Liquors in Daytona Beach recently. It's a new career for the eye-popping Marilyn Monroe impersonator.


Leesa Benz, a former Mrs. Volusia County and now a liquor representative, is shown in this undated photo impersonating Marilyn Monroe.

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