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Naughty wares spice up these house parties

Saturday, September 28, 2002

By Cristina Rouvalis, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Ellen Blangero arrives at the house in Irwin at noon, cheerfully carting 15 boxes of merchandise with hand-written labels that say "Between the Sheets," "Like a Virgin" and "Dazzle Dust."

Ellen Blangero of North Huntingdon, a distributor for Slumber Parties, gives her pitch during a recruiting event for the Ohio-based company that sells sex toys through home parties.(Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Standing by a floral couch, the 53-year-old mother of two spends an hour setting up, carefully positioning her toys like projectiles on the coffee table to ensure maximum visibility.

"What is that?" says Jennifer Cunkelman, 27, pointing to one of the larger exhibits. "Now I am getting scared. I am really getting frightened."

"But I soooo want to look at this swing," she says as she walks toward a $139 contraption that is designed to put romance in motion.

Blangero flashes her bright saleswoman's smile and says, "I sold it to one girl and her friends came over to borrow it."

Blangero seems an unlikely sex toy saleswoman. She runs a day-care center out of her North Huntingdon home, which is filled with playhouses, sandboxes and play gyms. (Her sex toys, she says, are locked up and out of view.)

She wears a white butterfly and floral sweater and a gold cross -- hardly the uniform of a vixen.

But Blangero is a foot soldier in a growing business -- the home sex toy party business, where dildos, massage oils and remote-controlled panties are sold in the same giggly home party format as Tupperware and Mary Kay cosmetics.

Blangero works for Slumber Parties, a $15 million Ohio company that is stepping up its presence in Pittsburgh. At Sheraton Station Square Thursday night, it held a recruiting drive that attracted 45 women, including nine new distributors. It has many competitors, including Coming Attractions and Surprise Parties.

"It's a burgeoning business," says Patti Britton, the sex coach for iVillage.com and a board-certified clinical sexologist. "It's the format that works with women, girl talk."

Sex toys, she says, are becoming more mainstream as they are discussed on TV shows such as "Sex and the City." But still, Britton says, women feel safer buying a sex toy from a friend's living room "than slithering into some slimy store where guys are leering at you while you look at objects wrapped in plastic."

Patty Brisben, a former pediatric nurse who founded the company in Milford, Ohio, nine years ago, says some Pittsburgh radio stations refused to run her ads in January after the company got e-mails from local women requesting a party.

"People like to think we are like bookstores, but we are educators for women," ... she says. "We are into helping all-American couples."

"Do you think you get this kind of information when you walk into a bookstore?" asked her son, Chris Cicchinelli, vice president of the company. "You don't."

Customer service in this company means a distributor coming to your house and putting on a show that is a mix of dirty jokes, bedroom banter and product information.

At a bachelorette party last week, Blangero recites a dirty ditty before passing around assorted oils and powders to bride-to-be Kristine Ray and her friends and family.

"Almost everything we sell is edible," Blangero says. The women rub the potions on their arms and taste the products, which come in flavors such as pina colada and caramel.

When launching into an explicit explanation, Blangero tells the women, "There is no shame in this."

"Do these things come with instructions?" asked one woman, looking bewildered as she examines one item.

"No, but I will be happy to explain them to you."

After a two-hour presentation that elicits giggles and cries of "that's nasty," the women go one by one to another room to order privately. Blangero sells $400 worth of merchandise at the afternoon party -- it's not a sleepover -- and earns 40 percent of the profits. The percentage goes up to 53 percent if she recruits more distributors.

Blangero sells most of her toys at regular home parties, not bachelorette ones. Her customers range from age 21 to 74. "There are some people who will never get into this. That's fine."

She says she hasn't gotten any grief from her unusual dual career, but some men don't approve of their wives going to sex toy parties. "Men are threatened by this. But it's not to replace you. It's to enhance you."

Cristina Rouvalis can be reached at crouvalis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1572.

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