Rachel De Barros launched her first car-related business while a student at Ohio University. She printed pink fliers with her name and phone number, promoting herself as a door-to-door mechanic. An oil change? Brake job? Simple repair? De Barros was for hire.
No one called.
"I would wait by the phone, like, Come on! I need money," said De Barros, 37, of Feasterville, staring at a spot on the table where a phone would be. "So I changed the fliers, made them white, and wrote, 'Call Jimmy.' Then I started getting calls."
Some clients were unpleasantly surprised to see a woman at their door - "I'd say, 'Jimmy overbooked himself again. He does this all the time' " - and they hovered over her while she worked on their cars.
Now, instead of skeptical clients, she has cameras hovering.
A recent addition to the cast of Velocity network's All Girls Garage, De Barros now works on cars and motorcycles while a crew records what she and two other female mechanics are doing and why. De Barros' full-time role was vacated by Jessi Combs, and her first episode was telecast Friday.
"I was a fan of the show before," said De Barros, who works on vehicles in the back of an energy company in Southampton - for fun, not for money. "I'm learning so much from the other girls. It's all about having fun."
Velocity producers found De Barros through her three-year-old site, gearheaddiva.com, which features do-it-yourself articles and videos related to domestic vehicles, especially old muscle cars like Chevy Camaros, Mustangs, and the 1973 Plymouth 'Cuda she has been restoring for the last few years. The goal, she said, is to educate as well as entertain, to show people they can do the same repairs. And she's learning, as well. At one point, she said, she had spent 40 hours trying to salvage a rusted part before realizing buying a new one might be worthwhile.
Other production companies had approached De Barros before All Girls Garage, now in its fourth season, but this was the first offer with no gimmicks and serious work.
"The others had ideas that were really degrading, like, 'We'll put you in disguise and send you to male mechanics who will give you a bad deal and then you can take off the disguise and have a showdown.' I didn't want to do a show about man-hating," De Barros said. "You want a pro-woman message, to demonstrate that women can work on cars as well as men."
De Barros learned the basics of auto repair when she and her sister spent summers working at their uncles' auto-body shop. She always was mechanically inclined, marveling over the Transformers cartoons and happily taking apart the family VCR - "the magic movie box" - as a teenager.
"Not all of the screws fit when I put it back together, but it still worked," she said. "I made it more efficient."
After college, De Barros held a variety of jobs, including the full-time one she currently has as founder of her own social-marketing firm that helps local businesses expand their Web presence. But the grease kept calling. She decided to hone her car skills and start a blog about her efforts.
She took an intense four-month course at a local automotive training school, tackling jobs with which she was less familiar, like wiring and engines. Then she worked free of charge at various repair shops near her home. Younger male workers, she said, were usually eager to help her learn. Older guys were generally more dismissive, assuming she was there looking for a date.
"You had to prove yourself by showing interest and knowledge," she said. "Like, 'Oh, why did you use 150-grit sandpaper on that instead of starting with 80, because that would knock it down so much faster.' They don't expect you to even know sandpaper has grits."
When she found the blog getting attention, she decided to use her social-marketing experience to promote herself.
Auto-industry insider and journalist Diana Merrill Claussen got to know De Barros in 2012, when De Barros was part of an all-female team customizing a 2013 Ford Mustang at that year's Specialty Equipment Market Association show, the country's biggest auto-parts trade show. The team's finished product, which entailed lowering the springs and installing a new suspension system, stereo, and tires, "was this amazing car, and it just stole the show," Claussen said. At one point, Ford had to remove the car from its display as it was taking attention away from other vehicles it wanted to feature, she said.
"It just blew my mind," Claussen said. "For Rachel to be a part of that build, it shows she's got street cred."
Claussen says the same of All Girls Garage. It provides information and insight, as well as showcasing teamwork, because the three female mechanics "calmly discuss problems without cursing each other out and throwing things around the garage" - a more typical trope of reality television.
"We still have that old stereotype of chicks in thongs laying across sports cars," Claussen said, "but I've heard a lot of men who've seen the show say, 'Wow. Those girls are amazing.' "
It doesn't hurt, of course, that De Barros and her two cohosts are attractive and that network demographic research indicates the majority of the show's viewers are male. De Barros' own research shows gearheaddiva.com, too, has a majority male audience.
She does admit to engaging in some appealing to the audience. De Barros often wears gloves while working off-camera, but she and her cohosts generally work bare-handed on the show because "the dirty hands? The guys like it," she said, shrugging.
Other wardrobe rules: The grease should be limited to the hands - "You definitely don't want to look like you've just returned from Mordor's pit after dropping the one ring that rules them all."
Works on cars and makes references Tolkien? No surprise she has a male fan base.
Still, she said, neither the show nor her website would attract anyone if she didn't have the skills.
"You can't get away with being a bikini model, not knowing anything about cars, just sitting and saying your lines," she said. "One of the hardest things is to work while looking at the camera. It's like your hands have to have a certain muscle memory. You have to have experience."