But it was short lived.
In January, the sport announced it would no longer employ female promotional models on the starting grid because it did not “resonate” with its brand values. “Grid girls,” F1 bosses said, were “at odds with modern day societal norms.”
But James tells CNN Sport: “I absolutely loved it. You want me to wear a super comfortable outfit and go to the VIP areas and watch what I was already going to pay to watch? Yeah, that’s fine by me. It was a dream job.”
‘We’re not just there to stand on the concrete’
The decision to ban “grid girls,” who for decades promoted brands and sponsorship deals, has divided many.
But James argues there was more to the job than met the eye — that girls weren’t there just to look pretty.
“The drivers are focused on wanting to win the race, they don’t want to schmooze, they don’t want to have conversations — so that’s when ‘grid girls’ come in,” James, from Birmingham in the United Kingdom, says.
“You’re not just standing there on the concrete. You’re meeting fans, you’re posing with photos and, because you’ve got the branding on your clothes, it’s going out on Instagram.
“Saying that we’re just a pretty face is absolutely ludicrous. We’re saleswomen at the end of the day. We need to learn how to talk to people and get people on board with the product.”
Critics, however, argued the role was demeaning, sexist and unnecessary.
“Podium girls are there to attract male viewers so big fat cats get bigger bonuses,” one Twitter user writes.
“It is inappropriate for men to make money out of women as sex objects which in turn fuels sexism in society … (it) gives young girls and women the impression they’re just eye candy and does nothing to encourage women in sport.”
The Women’s Sport Trust, a charity which promotes gender equality in sports, also said last December that it was “disappointing” to see high profile international sporting events still choosing “to use women to accessorize their events rather than be a central part of the sport.”
A salesperson in an outfit
James has worked as a promotional model for eight years. As well as being a “grid girl” for F1 and British Touring Cars, she’s also worked as a ring girl in boxing, a walk-on girl for the darts and a start-line girl for speedway.
Thanks to her job, where the pay is well above the UK’s minimum wage of £7.50 ($10.55) an hour for over 25s, James says she has been able to buy her own property and has learned invaluable sales skills which helped her rise through the ranks to become a manager for a popular bar chain in the UK.
At some promotional events, she’ll earn up to £140 ($196) a day.
“I’ve got the ability to sell, I’ve got the ability to do customer service, I’ve got the ability to talk to people. I feel so well-rounded and well-equipped because I’ve done so much promo, so I feel I can go into any industry and go straight to the top,” she says.
James admits that it is the outfits “grid girls” wear which appear to cause the most uproar among critics, with the catsuit — a skintight one-piece that’s normally made of lycra — seemingly the source of much offense.
“I think they just don’t like that we wear catsuits — but I’ll choose it every time. It’s super comfortable and I can move around in it,” she says.
No matter what outfit she wears, James says, she’s still a “saleswoman” at the heart of it.
“Yes, I might be wearing an outfit that’s very particular to that job, but you are essentially a saleswoman,” she says.
“You don’t know what you’re selling until a couple of days before you have to turn up. You’ve got to learn the product, you’ve got to learn the advantages of the product and you’ve got to make sales for it.”
For F1, this means giving big-brand sponsors as much exposure as possible.
Political correctness gone mad?
The decision to ban F1 “grid girls” came just four days after the Professional Darts Corporation also announced it would no longer be using “walk-on girls” to accompany men onto the stage.
Another “grid girl,” Rebecca Cooper, has also been vocal on Twitter about January’s announcement, saying that recent bans are “political correctness gone mad.”
“If we don’t do something to stop this where will it end? No grid girls, no cheerleaders, female singers being told what to wear on stage, no models in magazines?!” she tweeted. “I’ll fight for my right to choose what I wear, where I work and to keep a job I love.”
Di Grassi: ‘Grid girls aren’t obligated’
Formula E driver Lucas di Grassi has also come to the defense of the F1 “grid girls,” telling CNN Sport that the decision could lead to a slippery slope.
“What happens if you extend this logic to cheerleaders (and) catwalk models?” he asks. “Each person has their own interests, their own way of choosing what they want to do — the gird girls aren’t obligated (to do it).”
People are increasingly becoming more confused by what is politically correct and what isn’t, Di Grassi says.
“Correct is women being paid equally, for them to have the same access to jobs (as men) in engineering and in driving, if they have the skills,” adds the 33-year-old former F1 driver.
Mercedes’ F1 chief Toto Wolff tells CNN Sport the lack of female presence in the sport won’t go unnoticed this year, adding that women need to be encouraged to join the motorsport industry in other ways.
“We need to get more females into the sport in marketing, communications, engineering and as racing drivers. We at Mercedes will try to support that as much as we can,” he says.
While that may mean jobs for other women, the decision still has a direct impact on promotional models like James.
“Everything you’ve ever work for — it’s just taken off you,” she says.
As Di Grassi explains: “I think by abolishing grid girls, the only thing you do is take jobs off 20 girls who could have been there.”
‘We’re made out to be so vulnerable’
James says it’s frustrating that critics have assumed women like her need protecting.
“They say we need protection and that we’re so vulnerable — we’re not,” she says, adding that if women didn’t want to do the job, or didn’t want the attention, they wouldn’t apply.
James says her agency offers her all the protection she needs: “I can’t say enough about them — their job is to look after me. I’ve got that safety, that security … If you tried to book me and get me to do anything inappropriate my agency would put their foot down and say no.”
She says at some events her agency will also be there to check each girl is happy with the outfit they’ve been given to wear — and often provides them a selection of different styles to choose from.
‘Grid kids’ — Will it work?
“Grid kids” will now replace the women, the sport’s governing body, the FIA, announced last month.
In a statement, it said “grid kids” made the pre-race ceremony “more relevant and interesting for fans, especially the younger ones.”
Chosen by motorsport clubs or by “lottery,” the children will be competitors in karting or junior categories. Some will also have an opportunity to stand alongside the drivers on the grid before a race.
“What better way to inspire the next generation of Formula 1 heroes,” managing director, Sean Bratches says. “An inspiration to keep driving, training and learning so that they can dream of one day being there themselves.”
That decision might have just saved F1, James says.
“I’m glad they’ve got the young kids. As a motorsport fan, that’s awesome because it means a young up-and-coming driver will be able to talk to sponsors and they’ll obviously know a bit about racing so I do see that as a good thing.”
The new F1 season, with its grid kids, will kick off in Australia later on March 25 in Melbourne.