The Stamford Advocate

Grownup Gadgets

By Beth Cooney, Staff Writer

Sensual somethings add spice to life

Stamford1The party starts the way most parties do. There are some chips, pretzels, a half-dozen slightly nervous girlfriends catching up on kids and office gossip. And then there are the X-rated contents of Gina Cordaro’s black duffel bag.

“OK, I know that’s what you all want to see, what’s in that bag,” Cordaro tells the rapt and giggling women in the living room of Phyllis Manginelli’s home in Stamford’s Cove section. “But I’m going to make you wait.”

So they begin their pleasure party with the “appeteasers,” as Cordaro calls them: Oriental bath crystals, edible honey-flavored body powder and perfumes scented with pheromones to enhance sexual chemistry.

“Oh, I need a really big bottle of that,” says Diane Evans of Stamford, as Cordaro sprays some super primal pheromone drops on her arm. The room erupts in laughter. “You see,” Evans confides over her reading glasses, “I’ve been married for 37 years. I need a lot of help.”

Such is the banter at a Fantasia Home Party, where instead of bakeware, plastic containers and scented candles, the wares being sold in the living room have a risque edge.

Besides lotions, powders and lingerie, Fantasia party-goers view demonstrations of battery-operated gadgets with deliberately suggestive names such as the Twist & Shout, the Purple Pleasure Pal and the Ever Ready Rabbit (made famous by Kim Cattrall’s character on HBO’s “Sex & the City”).

In polite society, such gadgets might be referred to as marital aids. Rina Valan-Hudson, president and founder of the Pennsylvania-based Fantasia Home Parties Inc., prefers to call them “very necessary objects.”

“These are things a lot of women want, but we’re not exposed to it,” explains Valan-Hudson, who describes herself as a plus-sized, middle-aged mom. “But like me, most women don’t have the guts to walk into an adult bookstore to check them out, ask questions about them or buy them.”

Stamford3So about 20 years ago, when Valan-Hudson’s daughter was a toddler and she wanted to work from home, she borrowed $12,000 from her mom, and began researching and collecting an inventory of sex toys and hawking the stuff she liked best at home-based parties for women only.

The results have been something of a phenomenon, especially during the past few years when her business has exploded in Connecticut and in six other states in the Northeast. Her 200 sales representatives book about 5,000 parties a year.

Valan-Hudson has some theories on why her business increased 90 percent between 2001 and 2002 and is exceeding last year’s sales figures by 60 percent this year.

“It has something to do with Sept. 11,” she speculates. “I think people have figured out what matters most and they are working on their marriages. After a while, even in the best marriages, you need to spice things up. And this stuff is fun, different and it can make things more interesting.”

The best customers at Fantasia Home Parties tend to be married women in their 30s and 40s with kids, Valan-Hudson says. “People in their twenties, when relationships are new, they don’t want or need this stuff,” she says. “What they usually need is a fire extinguisher.”

The rest of us, though, need a dose of accelerant. At least according to the ladies at Manginelli’s house, whose reactions to the stuff Cordaro is selling range from shocked to bemused.

“I think this is fun, just a lot of fun,” says Evans, the grandmother who splurges on something in the battery-operated category and is planning to host her own party in a few weeks. (Like most home party arrangements, hostesses get free merchandise based on the volume of purchases.) “I mean, I wouldn’t use half this stuff, but it’s a fun night out,” Evans says.

When Cordaro flips the switch on an elaborate contraption called the Jelly Donut and credits it with aiding in the conception of her second child, one of the party guests lets out an audible gasp.

“I’ve seen everything now. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like this in my life. I’ve never seen half this stuff,” the mom says, putting her head in her hands. She declined to give her name because, “Oh my God, I don’t want anyone to know I’m even looking at this stuff.”

Still, she makes a purchase: a relatively conservative piece of lingerie and some body spray scented with exotic flowers.

“I don’t want the other stuff. I just want to smell good and look nice,” she says. “I’ve got two kids. That’s enough.”

Sitting in the corner of the couch, a demure redhead in sweat pants is silent as she circles multiple items on the sales menu. It is her second Fantasia party and the single lady is about to become a repeat customer, buying up lubricants, massage aids, lingerie and a few toys. “Oh, I love the stuff,” she whispers, offering several hints on things to buy. “I’ve got that one,” she says of a certain battery-operated item. “It works good.”

Cordaro, who averages two or three parties a week in the tri-state area, says it’s often the most low-key guest at the party who turns out to be her best customer. “They come in, sit down, know what they want, but they tend to be discreet,” she says. “I used to be shocked when they bought a lot, but not anymore. If anything, I expect it.”

Orders are taken in private and delivered to the party hostess pre-wrapped in a brown paper bag, says Cordaro. That way if someone orders something kinkier than the cucumber-scented body lotion or mango-scented cleansing wipes, no one but the sales representative will know.

It’s the element of discretion, Valan-Hudson says, that has been the key to her success.

That and the fact that women like to shop for just about anything in packs. “Nobody ever has to get their arm twisted to go to one of these parties,” she says. “It’s about shopping, sex and a few laughs. And we all need that.”