Friday, May 19, 2006 | 7:22 a.m.
In the Darwinian world of cocktail waitressing on the Strip, Tiffinnie Meleski believed she had the upper hand with five years' experience at the Mirage.
But she got a rude awakening when she asked to work at the resort's ultrahip Jet nightclub, the latest of several sexy haunts to open on the Strip in recent years.
She was told she lacked experience - and then watched as buxom waitresses in their early 20s, with little or no experience, were hired for the job she wanted.
At 27, Meleski felt over the hill.
Meleski encountered one of the biggest obstacles facing women who seek the lucrative, iconic jobs as cocktail waitresses: premature obsolescence in an industry where younger, more attractive servers can earn up to $90,000 a year in tips, delivering bottles of champagne to high rollers.
Many older waitresses end up at the tired, older joints - or just quit, their feet bruised from being stuffed into high heels and their egos bruised by skimpy costumes baring varicose veins and cellulite.
Such has been the reality for Strip cocktail waitresses for decades. But the shoving aside of not-so-old waitresses in favor of even younger ones is accelerating because of the advent of posh, exotic nightclubs and the changing face of Las Vegas tourists.
They're wealthier and younger than ever - and, according to casino bosses, they are expecting more eye candy as they drop hundreds of dollars at nightclubs.
Today's cocktail waitresses aren't so much applying for food-and-beverage jobs as they are responding to casting calls and auditions as models and entertainers.
More than ever, hiring the young, the bold and the beautiful is the new business imperative along the Strip.
Today's Strip isn't even coy about the importance of hiring buxom women in slinky uniforms. Witness Jet's cheeky billboard, which asks, "Saline or silicone?"
The strategy is playing out with another business trend: farming out dance clubs and lounges to management companies because of their expertise in hiring the right look.
These managers aren't hampered by Culinary Union rules that give older, longtime workers first dibs on new jobs. Nightclub operators' contracts with the Culinary allow them to hire who they want, based on appearance.
One such management organization - Light Group, which operates Jet - wouldn't comment for this story about how appearance or age plays into hiring.
MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman said Light was hired because of its expertise in the nightclub business. Clubs run by operators such as Light are more profitable than those run in-house, he said.
"Do we tell them to go out and hire young, good-looking women? No," Feldman said. "We say to them, 'Go out and make this club the most successful it can be.' "
Men are griping, too.
A group of male bartenders at the Mirage has filed separate complaints with the Nevada Equal Rights Commission, claiming the men were passed over for plum jobs at new venues such as Jet and Stack, a hip restaurant.
The bartenders, ranging in age from their 40s to nearly 65, are complaining of age discrimination because the Light Group hired young men and women for the jobs.
Some of the men are making less money because they lost their shifts at older bars that closed to make way for the new venues.
"The Mirage is trying to attract a younger, hipper clientele, and in keeping with that they've effectively excluded these older workers who are equally qualified, if not more qualified, than these younger bartenders," said Lani Esteban-Trinidad, a Las Vegas employment attorney representing the bartenders. "There's no reason why these guys shouldn't be allowed to work in these bars."
Some legal experts say casinos do have a good reason not to hire older men and women.
A controversial provision of the federal anti-discrimination law allows companies to discriminate if it is essential to their business. It's a legal gray area open to interpretation.
"Casinos sell more than just food and drink - they sell excitement," said New Orleans attorney Fred Preis, who has represented several casinos and other industries in appearance-standard lawsuits.
Southwest Airlines lost a landmark court battle in 1972 when it argued that sexual energy - generated by the hiring of young women and the use of flirtatious logos and marketing pitches - was an integral part of its business strategy of selling flights to men.
While casinos have a persuasive argument that they are selling sex, they could be asked to prove to a judge that young, good-looking workers affects the bottom line, said Catherine Fisk, a law professor at Duke University and an expert on appearance standards.
"At issue is whether being a cocktail waitress in a casino is more like working at a Strip club - where it's a bona fide part of the job to be young, female and a certain body type - or more like working at a restaurant," Fisk said.
The Mirage's sexier look has coincided with record profits partly attributed to the new venues, which attract tourists who stay longer and spend more money.
Servers who can carry off their good looks in skimpy costumes are happy to - because they are rewarded with better tips than their less sexy co-workers, said Kathleen Nelson, a UNLV professor who has surveyed casino waitresses.
Las Vegas employment attorney Richard Segerblom said casinos that consistently hire young people at the expense of equally competent, older workers are still in danger of running afoul of anti-discrimination laws.
Appearance standards, he said, are the "cutting edge" of employment law and a legal gray area.
It's unclear whether requiring women to wear revealing uniforms, for example, discriminates against older women who can't fit into the outfits or refuse to wear them, Segerblom said.
Judges "want businesses to be able to use their judgment" and have been reluctant to weigh in on subjective matters like sexy clothing, he said.
While the increasingly common practice of relying on independent companies to operate entertainment venues may take a toll on older union workers, employment experts who represent both workers and casinos say the practice is legal.
Casino attorneys say the Culinary Union won't balk when older workers don't get the new, lucrative serving jobs.
It's the sacrifice for bringing more tourists to town - and keeping the vast majority of the union's 60,000 members happily employed making beds and washing dishes.
Culinary Union Secretary-Treasurer D. Taylor said the union has prevented casinos from firing older workers, who can work as servers as long as they are able.
And the union has at least gotten management to allow servers to wear lower heels and offer maternity uniforms for pregnant servers.
"It's a balancing act between the rights of workers that we defend and the rights of properties," Taylor said. "There's no question that Vegas has always tried to search for the fountain of youth."
And now, more than ever.