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Ladies and Cigars

Aficionadas: Women and Their Cigars

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-John Cockburn, English traveler in Costa Rica, 1735
"A cigar numbs sorrows and fills the solitary hours with a million gracious images."
-George Sand, 1867
"For me, cigar smoking is part of the ritual of the fine art of living."
-Helena Stigeler, president and cofounder, Michel Perrenoud International, Inc., 1995
"I smoked my first cigar during a business trip to South America," says Dallas-based businesswoman, inventor, author and patent-law expert Tomima Edmark. "I had just returned from a dinner given by one of the embassies in Santiago, Chile, and I was sitting in the hotel lobby with a group of 12 American businessmen when they, en masse, began lighting up Cuban cigars. I was intrigued by the sight. One of them offered me a cigar, but in a very teasing way, never expecting me to accept."
Having grown up with five brothers, Edmark knew a dare when she saw one. "They were surprised at first when I said, 'Sure.' But they loved the fact that I joined them, and they loved showing me the ropes. I have to say I didn't enjoy the taste right away, but I immediately understood the pleasure in the ritual--cutting it, holding it, gesturing with it."
Edmark says that her cigar smoking attracted the attention of a number of other men in the hotel lobby that evening. "Some of the men in our group called my attention to a Latin gentleman who they said had been staring at me amorously for some time," Edmark says with a laugh. "The man eventually approached me and said, 'I've been looking all my life for a woman who smokes a cigar.' I declined his invitation to dinner."
Edmark's story may resonate with other cigar aficionadas. It sums up the whole range of reactions that a cigar-smoking woman is bound to elicit. Confronted with a woman smoking a cigar, men
may fall back on familiar ways of relating with women in an attempt to "normalize" a disorienting experience: "Let me show you how," like a boss or father; "Let me tease you," like an older brother; "Let me sweep you off your feet and seduce you," like a macho man; and occasionally, "Let me do this with you," like a co-conspirator and a buddy. A woman's desire to smoke cigars is threatening to some men, comical to others. Some men find it titillating and sexy; for other men it can be an initiation rite, a way to break down gender barriers and welcome a woman into the group.
It can also be just plain shocking: Author and editor Colleen Mogil, 31, of Philadelphia's Main Line, once caused a car crash by smoking a cigar. "I was driving home, cigar in hand. I stopped at a light and noticed a man in the next lane staring at me with a look that said, 'Is that lady smoking a cigar, or am I seeing things?' As he tried to figure it out, he drove right into the car in front of him."
In the words of journalist/supermodel Veronica Webb, "It's fascinating to see a woman with a cigar because it's about staking a claim. And it often takes people off guard." Webb should know: The BBC-affiliated reporter, who smoked her first cigar with Cigar Aficionado editor and publisher Marvin Shanken, recently wrote an article on cigars for Esquire. "I was intimidated," she says. "Cigars are one of the great male secrets, and here I was writing about them."
Women, it seems, just aren't supposed to like cigars. We all know the cliché: An exasperated wife looks at her husband and demands, "Are you really going to smoke that vile thing?" Almost 100 years ago, Rudyard Kipling's short story, "The Betrothed" (1899), laid the foundation for today's stereotypes about cigars and the war of the sexes. In it, a fiancée tells her husband-to-be, "Darling, you must choose between me and your cigars."
Less than 50 years later, Hollywood portrayed a woman with a cigar as a provocative novelty in the film version of Colette's Gigi. The eponymous heroine (played by Leslie Caron) is transformed from ragamuffin to the "ideal woman." Significantly, her training includes learning how to select, unwrap and clip a good cigar--and then offer it to her escort. Of course, she wasn't supposed to smoke it. Gigi might appreciate cigars, even be an expert at handling them, but the pleasures of a smoke were still reserved for men. The message was clear: A woman who reveres cigars, knows how to appreciate them, but leaves them to the guys is a dream come true.
Since the days of Kipling, and onto the legacy of Gigi, cigars have belonged to men. Or so it would seem. Think about it: With a cigar, men celebrate the birth of a child, cement business deals and affirm friendships. They smoke them in clubs and secret societies. Cigars are an integral part of such cherished guy-rituals as the poker game and the stag party.
If the association between men and cigars in American culture is strong--indeed, as overpowering as Cohiba smoke in a windowless room--the link between women and cigars is, well, shrouded in smoke and mystery.
Pushing beyond the smoke screen of cliché, however, it's obvious that Edmark, Mogil and Webb are not alone. Increasingly, women are starting to smoke cigars, or are coming out of the closet as longtime cigar smokers. They're enjoying the aroma and taste and ritual--and why shouldn't they? It's not an anomaly or a coincidence--in fact, it turns out that the "masculinization" of cigars is a recent historical development, and that there is as much precedent for women loving cigars as hating them.
At trendy clubs such as Manhattan's Le Cigar at Tatou and Cigar Bar, at Big Smokes where traditionally the only women were miniskirted "spokesmodels," and at George Sand Society events, where women outnumber men three to one, cigar aficionadas are a visible new presence.
But are women smoking cigars in sufficient numbers to exert a significant influence on the marketplace? Diana Silvius-Gits sits on the board of directors of the Tobacconist's Association of America, is former president of the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America, Inc., and owns the Up Down Tobacco Shop in Chicago. "Women are our next big market," Silvius-Gits says. "We are seeing a tremendous surge of women smoking cigars. They're educated, they know what they want and I see more of them every day in my store." Helena Stigeler, president of Michel Perrenoud International, says that three times more women than men buy Perrenoud's pyramid-shaped humidors.
Market research conducted in the late 1980s determined that women comprised one-tenth of one percent of the total cigar market in the United States. Norman Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America, says that the market has clearly changed in the eight years since this study was done. Based on anecdotal reports from cigar manufacturers and retailers, women appear to be smoking cigars in significantly greater numbers.
For these women, cigars are a relaxing ritual, a meditative experience and a reflection of the level of status and success that they have achieved. Take the case of Cynthia Ekberg Tsai, who runs two East Coast venture capital firms (Tsai Globus Bioventures and MassTech Ventures) and is founder and director of NuGene Technologies, Inc., a gene therapy technology company based at New York University. Tsai started smoking cigars 10 years ago.
"My life is high-stress," she says. "A cigar, for me, is about relaxation. It allows me--requires me--to sit still for an hour! I savor the taste, watch the smoke, get lost in my thoughts." She prefers a smaller ring gauge Davidoff and smokes three or four times a month, on special occasions or with business associates.
Like many of the women interviewed for this article, Tsai says she is more likely to smoke cigars in Europe, where it is common for women to do so. In her experience, many Europeans are downright blasé about women with cigars. She recalls taking a friend to an elegant luncheon in Paris where, "completely unsolicited, the waiter came over and offered us a cigar after our meal. That made quite an impression on me."
Sharp says that statistics support Tsai's observations: There are more women cigar smokers in Europe, with Denmark having the highest per-capita consumption. In Tsai's opinion, the United States has been slower to accept women cigar smokers in a business context as well. Every year she attends the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and doesn't think twice about lighting up a cigar alongside some of the world's top businessmen. Here in the States, Tsai is much more hesitant in doing so.
Tsai may feel that way because she has had a few awkward moments involving cigars. On a 1991 trip to South Africa, for example, she caused a commotion by lighting up in a restaurant. "Everyone, including the chef, came to my table, saying they were so excited--they had never seen a woman smoking a cigar!" Tsai concedes that "it is inevitably a statement for a woman to smoke a cigar--you know you'll attract some attention if you're doing it in public." But, she adds, "It's hardly ever a negative response. And it's also simply about enjoying the pleasures of living."
Edmark (who in 1989 created a popular women's hair accessory called the TopsyTail and is now marketing her new product, the "Bowrette Collection") says she knows that people may assume she is trying to make a statement by smoking a cigar. But she insists, "I smoke them because I enjoy them. The taste and the smoke are really pleasant." Still, she concedes that being a businesswoman who smokes a cigar hasn't hurt her professionally: "I know that by smoking cigars I have created an image and an ambience of success around myself. If people think I'm a mogul, fine!"
Julie Ross, cofounder of the George Sand Society, Santa Monica--a cigar-smoking club that welcomes women and men (there is now a chapter in Manhattan)--has been smoking cigars for 10 years. She prefers Montecristos and Avos, and says she picked up the habit from a friend visiting from Europe. "It's common to see women smoking cigars in Italy," she notes. "And women have always smoked cigars in Holland and Denmark, maybe because historically, equality between men and women has always been the rule there."
Whatever the reason that aficionadas are more common in Europe, Ross notes that cigar smoking is catching on in Southern California. "Our membership is about 60 to 70 percent women, with most of the women successful professionals in their mid-30s and up. But there's another group that's growing--women in their 20s, most of them college and graduate students." Ross says she is especially gratified that the GSS draws both men and women. "In an unusual twist, women are bringing their husbands and boyfriends to our events," she says. "At our last formal dinner, almost every woman in the room was smoking a cigar, even male members' wives."
Far from alienating men, cigar smoking is a ritual that can bond women with each other and the men in their lives. As Ross puts it, "When a man and woman share the love of cigars, it creates a unique intimacy." For example, Michael Sirgado, an attorney with Waters, McPherson, McNeill, often goes to Dunhill's and Davidoff's Manhattan stores with his wife, Jo Anne, also an attorney: "I enjoy a cigar more when my wife picks it out. Going together is a sort of ritual we share."
After her South American adventure, it was a boyfriend who showed Edmark the etiquette of selecting, cutting and smoking a cigar. "I found it endearing that he wanted to show me how to go about it," she says. So endearing, in fact, that the two are now married. "We smoked Romeo y Julietas to celebrate the night he proposed. I saved the butts and bands and am having them framed," she says with a laugh. In a reversal of the Gigi dynamic, husband Stephen Polley, chairman, president and CEO of the Dallas-based Interphase Corporation, selects and prepares Edmark's cigars for her. Edmark doesn't like "little ones"--she tends to go for Churchills. "If you're going to smoke a cigar, don't be scared of big ones," she advises women who want to experiment. "They're actually milder."
Women aren't just smoking cigars in record numbers; they have also made successful careers in nearly every facet of today's cigar marketplace. Helena Stigeler develops and markets elegant and innovative cigar-smoking accessories. Cigar manufacturers such as Emmanuelle Marty, cofounder, co-owner and president of Sublimado Cigar Corp. in Miami, have dispensed with the notion that women cannot thrive at the highest echelons of the international cigar industry. For these women, enjoying cigars is an integral part of their work.
"Cigars are my livelihood, but I also find them relaxing and elegant," says Marty. "Smoking is like having a conversation with myself. I love to play with the smoke and savor the aroma of quality tobacco. For me, it's an event. And I think women can look very elegant with a cigar." She prefers her own Cognac-mellowed Sublimados, but also smokes Cuban Montecristos and Bolivars.
Stigeler, who smokes Avo Belicosos, concurs. In fact, she thinks cigar smoking is about complementarity between the sexes. "Women becoming cigar smokers and going to events in recent years has allowed men to feel more comfortable with their own elegance."
Perhaps no one has met with greater success in blending business with pleasure than Silvius-Gits. She markets her own line of cigars (the Dominican-manufactured Diana Silvius). She also flexes her political muscle through her involvement with national tobacco organizations (she recently joined Cigar Aficionado's Lafayette Park smokers rally before the Big Smoke in Washington, D.C.), and speaks with boundless enthusiasm and knowledge about smoking cigars. Silvius-Gits, whose motto is: "If it doesn't smoke, I don't want to have anything to do with it," describes the Davidoff Double "R" in the reverential language Keats used to describe his Grecian urn. About her encyclopedic cigar knowledge, she says simply that "women who work in the industry really know their stuff."
Alicia Wilson is living proof of Silvius-Gits' theory. She is the store manager at Alfred Dunhill of London's Manhattan branch, where she runs cigar-education seminars. Wilson trains corporate executives and other interested individuals (men and women) in the art and science of cigar smoking, and consults with restaurants in creating cigar menus to complement their cuisine. "I don't think men have a problem taking advice from me about cigars," she says.
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