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Confessions of an air stewardess

15 MARCH 2013

The stylish Pan Am series starring Christina Ricci has given modern day viewers a glimpse of the glamour of flying during the 1960s. 

Christel Vane, who was a real-life Pan Am stewardess from 1959-1984, chats to HELLO! Online about what her working life was really like. She reminisces about sharing coffee in the galley with Sir Paul McCartney, following strict guidelines for hair and make-up and she reveals that Walt Disney was not among her favourite passengers...

 

Christina Ricci

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How did you start out with Pan Am?

"I was living in London at the time that Pan Am were recruiting, and you know in those days women didn't stand much of a chance; you could either be a secretary, or marry the boss, but I really wanted to travel the world. Pan Am were looking for girls who spoke languages and had a university degree, and I spoke French and German. There were about five people from New York who were interviewing, and we had to answer a lot of questions and they asked us to walk the length of the room. Apparently there were about a thousand applications but only two of us were chosen, and the other girl fell ill so I ended up being the only one chosen to go and start in New York. That was two weeks later, it all happened so fast."

Were you nervous about your first flight?

"In those days it took 14 hours to go to New York, but when I arrived a Pan Am representative took me to a hotel for breakfast and they really were so good to us. They really helped us settle in, find a place to live and more. It was a very special job in those days."

 

Pan Am



Were there many famous people on board?

"Yes, every famous person you could think of! At the beginning most people that used air travel were famous. Elizabeth Taylor was on board, Sean Connery, Paul McCartney. I remember Paul got on with his family and at night they fell asleep, but he said he couldn't and I was standing in the galley. He came up to me and said, 'You know I could really do with a coffee,' so we both drank a coffee out of a paper cup and just chatted in the middle of the night. He was a really nice person, most of them were. Liz Taylor as well, she was very friendly and very kind."

Did you have to deal with any particularly difficult celebrities?

"I suppose there were some people who acted a little like primadonnas. They thought they were extremely special. On the aircraft you're limited with time and what you can do, and they just thought you had everything and they had to be treated in a special way. There was one senator, but I don't remember his name, and Walt Disney actually wasn't particularly friendly."

Did you have any rules about your hair and make-up?

"Yes, when we first started you had to have your hair cut and it couldn't go beyond the shoulder. You also had to look very natural and I remember we weren't allowed to dye our hair. I had these blonde streaks from the sunshine and they told me I had to wear my natural colour, but I had to tell them it was all natural! They also took us to some make-up classes."

What about your uniform?

"We couldn't look sexy! We had a very nice uniform, it was light blue and quite tight fitting. But we had to wear these girdles that really don't give you much shape. It pulls you in completely and you can't breathe, so for hot places like Bangkok or Karachi we'd also take them off before landing!"

 

Pan Am



How has flying changed nowadays from your time as an air stewardess?

"Back then security wasn't such a big issue so it was much easier to travel around. But I think flying now has also lost its glamour. When I started, I was on an aircraft like the 707 and we had 12 people in First Class. It felt like being part of a family, where you could actually sit and talk to passengers, where people weren't just on their mobiles or looking at their screens. Sometimes when I fly nowadays I go back and talk to the crew, we speak the same language, and that's really nice but it absolutely isn't the same. We used to have more time to talk and get to know our passengers, so in that sense it was more fun before."

What was the highlight of your career?

"Well I worked with Pan Am for 28 years so it's difficult to say. The whole experience was absolutely amazing and even travelling in those days was something special. I remember a three-month stay in Indonesia. We flew for the Hajj, which is the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims believe you should all do at least once in a lifetime. We couldn't walk down the aircraft because women weren't allowed to do much. But that trip was great, staying in a beautiful, luxurious hotel in Jakarta then flying from Karachi to Mecca, and after that we had ten days off in Bali. I loved Beirut, too." 

How did flying fit in with your personal life?
 
"We were away on weekends, Christmas, Easter and the like, so boyfriends just had to fit in with my schedule. But there were so many boyfriends so it didn't really matter!"

What do you think of the new Pan Am series with Christina Ricci?

"I've only seen about two or three episodes and when I watched it I felt I could identify and believe most of the stories, but it had a touch too much Hollywood in it. Maybe reality needs a bit of Hollywood these days, I don't know. Overall it was really good but I think they could have been more intelligent, the way the characters are shown, because the job really does make you very independent and sophisticated."

Pan Am: The Complete Series is out now on DVD.

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