On location with Miss Rheingold

Surely stranger things have happened at the Chelsea Hotel, the New York institution that has harbored bohemians and artists from Bob Dylan to Andy Warhol since 1883 and is famed for being the place where Sid Vicious stabbed his girlfriend, Nancy, to death in 1978.

Still, the scene is surreal: Several men sit in a blue-tiled bathroom, emptying bottle after bottle of beer into a white tub. A petite blonde with a diamond stud in her nose and a Japanese-themed tattoo that runs all the way down her back stands ready to bathe in the brew.

This is no bohemian artist party run amuck. It is 10:30 in the morning, and, as the smell of warm beer wafts out of room 801, staffers from advertising and design shop Powell are helping to set up a shoot that’s part of an estimated $1 million campaign to reposition Rheingold beer to the young and hip. Starring in the work is the newly selected Miss Rheingold, who will serve as the face of the 120-year-old New York beer.

The centerpiece of the effort is twin billboards that will go up later this month on Avenue B and Houston Street. In one, the spokesmodel will be seen prepping for a big night out, and in the other, she will wear her bottle-cap-embedded tiara and a sash that reads “Miss Rheingold 2003.” Point-of-purchase materials and print ads will also feature Miss Rheingold.

And how does a Rheingold girl get ready for a special occasion? By bathing in the beer itself, of course—and, no, beer-colored water will not do for the shoot. “That’s not authentic,” says agency founder Neil Powell, creative director on the campaign, adding that Rheingold is all about authenticity.

Miss Rheingold is Kate Duyn, 27, plucked from the Lit bar on Second Avenue in the East Village and a sometime model and dancer. “She’s got amazing energy,” says Sara Ribbler, Rheingold marketing director. “She’s a vibrant woman who is proud to be a New Yorker and support New York things.”

Duyn’s enthusiasm for her new role does not extend to the prospect of bathing in warm beer, however. “Oh, that’s disgusting,” she says as she emerges from the bedroom of the two-room suite in a terry-cloth robe. Duyn gamely submerges herself, and foam is placed in strategic spots. Photographer York Christoph Riccius, selected because of his experience with subjects who aren’t used to the camera, gets to work. In the shots, empty Rheingold bottles and a keg litter the bathroom floor.

The rock ‘n’ roll image is a far cry from the glamorous Miss Rheingolds of old, who were so demure, they distanced themselves from cigarettes and alcohol—but that’s the point. “They’re using some of the best pieces from the former Miss Rheingold and changing it to fit the times,” says Ribbler.

The annual Miss Rheingold contest was a ritual for many in the New York area in the 1950s and ’60s—at one time, 22 million people cast votes—but the tradition died out in 1965. The last advertising effort was in the late ’60s.

Unlike past contests, there was no popular vote this time around. The contenders were 13 New York bartenders, selected by Powell and the client, who were deemed to embody the new spirit of Rheingold: “A strong individual who is energetic and who has goals.”

“Miss Rheingold was the pop-cultural event in the ’50s,” Powell says. “We’re contemporizing it in a modern way.”

The brewery closed in 1976 and reopened in 1998. At that time, the marketing strategy was aimed at making a connection between the beer and sports.

“We just decided that wasn’t the route to go,” says Ribbler. The marketing team more recently settled on the current plan to market the beer to local twentysomethings. With that came the idea to resurrect the spokesmodel.

“At its height, Miss Rheingold was one of the most successful beer promotions ever,” says Ribbler, “so in looking to bring back Rheingold, [the contest] was something [CEO Thomas Bendheim] looked at for a long time.”

The Chelsea Hotel is an apt setting for the shoot, according to Powell, because both the place and the beer have a storied past and retain a cool vibe. “It’s a little bit of a classic, but new too,” he says.

Back in the bathroom, the tub is getting full. And exactly how many bottles does it take to make a bath? One hundred and forty-four—12 cases—plus a keg to add foam. “We did not break one bottle,” Powell boasts.