BY LIZ STEVENS
Knight Ridder Newspapers
It all started with that dorky icon of customer service, the Time Life operator. In 1990 it surfaced on stage, clamped to Madonna's noggin like some high-tech orthodontic headgear. Now it has infiltrated the very core of cooldom: the Hollywood prop house.
It's the headset.
Yes, that liberating gizmo that allows the wearer to knit a scarf, carve a turkey or juggle several small dogs while talking on the phone has wheedled its way into everyday life. Look, Ma! No hands!
"I'm a major headset devotee," admits David Hale Smith, a Dallas literary agent. Smith's headset comes with a very long cord so he can pace the perimeter of his office while he converses. "I'm like a dog on a leash. I sometimes forget that it's on and walk down the hall to the men's room."
You can thank headset microphones for freeing all four of Janet Jackson's appendages during sweaty concert performances. Sports agent Jerry Maguire (a.k.a. Tom Cruise) nails the deal wearing a sleek Plantronics number. And the wired sales staff at Old Navy clothing stores can locate a size 12 in no time, thanks to the futuristic walkie-talkies fastened to their heads.
"It's fun for the staff," says Old Navy spokeswoman Kirsten Maynard. "They look cool. They feel cool."
No longer confined to drive-through McStaffers and office receptionists, the headset is destined to become the next communication must-have. It's ergonomically correct, improves productivity and looks soooo stylin', especially if you're a tough cop (Kevin Spacey in "The Negotiator"), free-lance assassin (John Cusack in "Grosse Pointe Blank") or really hip soccer mom (no sightings yet reported).
Witness employees at cutting-edge restaurants sending and receiving data from the kitchens. At health clubs, aerobics instructors no longer have to worry about banging their teeth against hand-held mikes. Headsets that attach to cell phones that attach to belts provide the ultimate in mobility. No more of that one-hand-on-the-steering-wheel thing.
"People are finding they want to do more with the time they have," says Tom Benoit, marketing communications manager for industry heavyweight Plantronics. "I get home from work, I put my headset on, and talk while I make dinner."