Photographed by Harry Benson, Vogue, March 1997.
Who hasn’t dreamed of an unexpected windfall and allowed herself to imagine what wishes it would fulfill? With three winning Powerball tickets reportedly sold for this month’s $1.5 billion drawing, we were reminded of Niki Barkoutsis, a size-two PYT from Queens who was working at her family’s Chirping Chicken chain when she hit the $22.5 million jackpot nearly 20 years ago. And her luck didn’t end there: Barkoutsis was taken on a whirlwind shopping trip by Vogue. Have times really changed? Barkoutis dined out with Michael Kors and fell hard for a sparkly Marc Jacobs slip dress. Her story is republished here for Powerball losers who want to party—vicariously—like it’s 1997.
“Winner Take All,” by Charles Gandee, edited by Camilla Nickerson and photographed by Harry Benson, originally appeared in the March 1997 issue of Vogue. It has been condensed and edited for the Web.
On November 9 of last year, 23-year-old Niki Barkoutsis took time out from manning the cash register at the Chirping Chicken restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to fill in a $5 New York State Lottery card with six numbers that struck her as lucky. The numbers were 16, 20, 21, 23, 40, 46; and at 11:21 that evening—when the local news cut “live” to the third largest Lotto drawing in New York State history—they proved to be very lucky indeed. Barkoutsis hit the jackpot, winning $22.5 million.
Maybe because she’s young and attractive, or maybe because she worked behind the counter of a fast-food restaurant with a funny name, there’s an almost overwhelming temptation to cast Niki Barkoutsis as a latter-day Cinderella. But it’s a temptation that should be resisted. For one thing, Barkoutsis had a perfectly nice life before November 9. Her father, it turns out, owns not only the Upper West Side Chirping Chicken but five others around the city. She has a long-term, steady boyfriend that her Greek immigrant parents, whom she describes as “very liberal,” heartily approve of. And last summer, she felt sufficiently flush to treat herself to a week’s vacation in Rome with a girlfriend.
Considering her passion for fashion, not to mention her size-two figure, it was no surprise that when Vogue asked Barkoutsis if she’d like to meet a few designers and model a few pieces from their Spring collections, both her big eyes and her big smile grew even bigger. Her only question? “Do I get to meet Tom Ford?” (Alas, Ford was out of town.)
When the car pulls up to the redbrick row house on the tree-lined street in the Astoria section of Queens where Barkoutsis lives with her brother, mother, and father, she’s peering out of the window of the family’s third-floor walk-up apartment. It’s her first visit to a designer’s studio—Marc Jacobs is waiting in Soho—and she’s dressed for the occasion in brown suede pants, wine-color ankle boots, and a furry taupe jacket with a leopard-print collar. On the ride to Manhattan, Barkoutsis gets a crash course on Jacobs’s journey from grunge to glamour. Grunge holds little allure. Glamour, on the other hand, sparks considerable interest. “I like sexy clothes,” she says, pleased to hear that sexy clothes are now one of the specialties of the house of Jacobs.
It’s hard to know what Barkoutsis is expecting at Jacobs, but it surely isn’t Rex, the designer’s beefy young assistant, dressed for work in second-skin black leather jeans, motorcycle boots, and a very tight T-shirt emblazoned with the word Superman, who nods a tacit hello. Barkoutsis beams. Jacobs is on the telephone, a Louis Vuitton agenda at his side. Someone explains that the agenda is significant because Jacobs is now set to do for Louis Vuitton what Tom Ford did for Gucci. Barkoutsis says she understands.
One wall of Jacobs’s loftlike studio is lined with shoes, another with rolling metal racks filled with clothes. Barkoutsis’s eyes dart from one to another. The proverbial kid in the candy store comes to mind. But before she can choose between the shoes and the dresses, the makeup artist has work to do. After giving Barkoutsis the once-over, she ushers her to a chair where the hour-long process of creating a “soft, natural, not made-up look” begins with a pair of tweezers. Then it’s the hairstylist’s turn. “You have a pretty face; why hide it?” he wants to know, sweeping Barkoutsis’s long straight hair back into the kind of devil-may-care pile that’s currently all the rage on the runway.
“Look at me,” Barkoutsis says, looking in a mirror. “I look like a different person.” And then it’s time to hit the racks.
“I’ve always had this obsession with clothes,” confesses Barkoutsis. “I love clothes, and I’ve never minded spending money on clothes—except for sweaters. A hundred dollars for a sweater? No way! I will not spend money on sweaters.” Her aversion to $100 sweaters notwithstanding, Barkoutsis estimates her annual pre-lottery expenditure on such things as suede pants, silk shirts, and fake furs at $5,000. However, judging by one of her first post-lottery purchases—a long-coveted $6,000 diamond-studded Ebel watch—that figure seems destined to go up. But probably not as much as you might imagine. Barkoutsis is a savvy shopper. By ringing up a relative who works at Neiman Marcus, for example, she was able to snag her Ebel for half price.
Barkoutsis’s first choice at Jacobs is a gabardine miniskirt and an embroidered paisley tank top. The fashion editor declares the outfit “young but sophisticated—very eclectic, very much a kind of Marc Jacobs ‘signature’ look.” But it’s too small. Jacobs says he had a feeling it would be, because he fitted it on a model “half Kate Moss’s size.” Barkoutsis’s second choice, for which she is heartily congratulated, is a silk paisley slip dress, beaded so that it sparkles when it catches the light.
“You look fantastic,” declares the fashion editor as Barkoutsis emerges from the dressing room. “I mean, it’s so beautiful on you—the coloring, the beading, everything.” Jacobs is no less pleased, though somewhat less animated: “I like that it looks so naked,” he says. “It’s as if you’re not wearing anything at all—which is the ultimate luxury, to be able to walk around naked.”
In the elevator, Barkoutsis declares the slip dress “great, gorgeous, sexy”—adding, “I just love the little sparkles.” Then comes the question of the day. “How much?” asks Barkoutsis, letting out an incredulous howl when told that the dress will set her back $2,850. Quickly composing herself, she has an idea: “But Marc’s such a cutie. Don’t you think he’d give me a discount?”
On the drive to Victor Alfaro’s new studio a few blocks north in Greenwich Village, Barkoutsis can’t get that sparkly slip dress out of her mind. “Oh, I want that dress,” she sighs. “You know, if I had someplace special to go, I’d buy it in a minute. But I don’t. I never go anyplace.”
At Alfaro’s white-on-white loft, Barkoutsis is greeted by another beefy young man in second-skin black leather jeans, motorcycle boots, and a very tight T-shirt. This time, however, it’s Alfaro himself. (Alfaro’s assistant, Andrew, is small and dark and dressed, head-to-toe, in loose-fitting black.)
Whether it’s because his friend Madonna is in town and they’re set to have dinner, or because he’s unabashedly intrigued with the idea of a $22.5 million winner, Alfaro is in a frisky mood. Racing through the kinds of polite suits that the Miller sisters favor, Alfaro lands on a body-hugging dress with a keyhole cutout for that crowd-pleasing window-on-the-cleavage look. “How about this?” asks Alfaro. “But I have no bosom,” says Barkoutsis. “Plus, I have hips.” Alfaro scans her body, then says, “Hips? You don’t have hips. But you do have a booty.” The dress goes back on the rack.
After a wispy floral, peasant-style number is considered and rejected (Barkoutsis can’t figure out if it’s a skirt or a dress), it’s decided that a cocoa jersey slip dress with spaghetti straps might look nice paired with a paper-thin French leather jacket the color of butterscotch. “The dress will make you look sexy, and the leather jacket will make you look hip,” explains Alfaro, who, out of the blue, asks if Barkoutsis has a boyfriend and if her eyelashes are real. She does and they are.
After changing, Barkoutsis submits to the hairstylist, who announces, “I’m going to give you something a little more sleek.” He then pulls her hair back tight, which requires, in addition to a suitcase full of gels and sprays, endless pins and much grimacing. “Very Cindy Crawford,” the stylist gloats. “I love it,” says Barkoutsis.
It’s the makeup artist’s turn. “I’ve never had makeup on my ears before,” says Barkoutsis, who’s told that with her very Cindy Crawford hairdo her ears need to be “toned down.” Which seems to bother Barkoutsis until she hears that in this pro’s opinion she has “big eyes, beautiful lips, and gorgeous eyebrows.” Clearly on a hyperbolic roll, the makeup artist adds, “You didn’t need to win the lottery, because you were already rich with beauty.”
More pictures. More shouts of “fabulous.” Coffee is brought in on a wooden tray.
Back in the car, Barkoutsis delivers her verdict: “Victor’s very funny. And I liked the clothes. They were different from Marc’s. Marc’s were more fancy-schmancy.” Declaring the Alfaro ensemble ‘”more for, like, everyday, but very chic,” she fantasizes about its potential: “I could see myself walking down the street in the summer wearing that outfit—you know, going shopping or whatever. So, how much?” Told that the dress is $680, the jacket $1,650, she says, “You’re kidding. Don’t get me wrong; the dress is very beautiful—but it’s so simple.” And then she remembers that as she was leaving, Alfaro took her aside and said, “If you ever want to buy anything, I’ll give you more than half off.”
Like Alfaro, Michael Kors is in a frisky mood the afternoon Barkoutsis stops by to pick up a dress for dinner at the Independent, the new Tribeca hot spot where Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy recently celebrated her 30th birthday. Courtesy of Vogue, Barkoutsis is set to have dinner with Brad Beyer, a tall, blond heartthrob who played football back in Wisconsin before tackling soap operas, Hollywood, and off-Broadway.
Kors, who is chaperoning Barkoutsis and Beyer on their big night out, pulls out a black double-stretch jersey halter bodysuit with a plunging neckline, which he declares “sexy, sexy, sexy.” Barkoutsis blushes. “All you need are these screaming lizard Manolos and this little black pencil skirt, and what can go wrong,” declares Kors, instantly producing not only the specified shoes and skirt but a “killer” python belt. “The only thing is,” adds Kors, “in this outfit, all you can have for dinner is a radish and a cigarette.” (As it turns out, Barkoutsis orders the steak au poivre, and doesn’t smoke.)
While five people stand around and watch, Barkoutsis slips into the bodysuit, skirt, heels, and belt. “I love it; you look fabulous,” says Kors. “I love it, too,” says Barkoutsis, standing as straight as a marine, which, in this outfit, is necessary. But Lance, Kors’s fair-haired assistant, thinks the skirt might be a tad long. Kors, however, isn’t concerned: “When you walk, it comes up. When you walk, that thing is flying—flying. Actually, by the end of the night, it’s a miniskirt.”
While admiring herself in the mirror, Barkoutsis asks the now familiar question “So, how much?” Which inspires Kors—who says, “Yours for under a thousand [$925 to be exact, belt and shoes not included]”—to launch into a shameless sales pitch. “The very cool thing about this is that it has no season at all,” boasts the designer. “You could wear it on New Year’s Eve; you could wear it on a hot summer night.” Still riveted to the mirror, Barkoutsis says, “It’s extremely sexy. But I love it.” Asked what her boyfriend would think, Barkoutsis says, “He’d be a little wary, but I’m sure he’d love it, too.”
For some reason, Kors can’t seem to take his eyes off Barkoutsis. In fact, the sight of her seems to send him into a kind of fashion reverie. “You know, Kylie Bax wore this outfit in my show,” he recalls, “and when she came out, with her short blonde hair and those big shoulders, it was a very sort of Brigitte Nielsen moment.”
On her way out the door, Barkoutsis sighs, “Oh, after all this, my clothes will never look the same.”
A few hours later, at the Independent, Barkoutsis is a big hit. With Kors on one side and Beyer on the other, even Ellen Barkin, seated at the next table with a man wearing sunglasses, seems a little envious. And then there’s the formidable Kal Ruttenstein, Bloomingdale’s eagle-eyed fashion director, who, though all the way on the other side of the restaurant, is nonetheless curious to know, “So, who’s the girl?”
The morning after, Barkoutsis is as enthusiastic as ever. Which is understandable considering that she’s on her way to meet the senior statesman of New York fashion, Bill Blass. “I have this thing about older men,” she explains, noting that her boyfriend is 29.
There’s a solemn hush to Blass’s monochromatic pearl gray showroom, and Barkoutsis, taking the cue, begins to whisper. “This one is very different,” she says, looking around. And then the great man himself emerges—wearing a silk tie, white suspenders, and a double-breasted gray suit. “Is that her?” asks Blass, who seems suspicious when Barkoutsis is identified. “She seems so nice, so natural, so unaware of anything extraordinary happening to her.” And then Blass gets down to business: “Good figure—almost a professional model figure. Could use a little more bosom, though.” The latter observation might have been prompted by the fact that Blass spent the previous day fitting Jessye Norman for the inauguration.
While Barkoutsis submits to yet another round with the hairstylist and makeup artist, Blass scours the racks of suits, dresses, and gowns. His eyes land on what one of his assistants will later describe as “a chewing-gum matte-jersey one-shouldered gown with double-strap detail.”
Racing back to retrieve Barkoutsis, whose hair has finally been allowed to stay down, Blass escorts her into his inner sanctum, where a low, circular pedestal stands in front of a pair of hinged mirrors. “Step up here, young lady,” says Blass. “You’re the star.” Various assistants are summoned, one with bolts of silk chiffon in his arms, another with a pincushion attached to her wrist like a corsage. On cue, Barkoutsis tosses her head and laughs. On cue, Blass tosses a wisp of silk chiffon in the air. The photographer snaps. The fashion editor mutters, “It’s working.”
After the last flash has gone off, Blass heads down to his sable-color Mercedes-Benz to be whisked off to his house in Connecticut for the weekend. Returning the gown to the rack, Barkoutsis spots a coat that catches her eye. “Look at this,” she says, pulling a plucked mink with a slight blue tinge off its hanger and putting it on. “I love this.” Although the mink is not part of Blass’s collection—it belongs to a senior employee—Barkoutsis doesn’t care. She carefully jots down the name of the furrier on the label.
Asked about the Blass dress, Barkoutsis says, “I’m going to have to use an analogy to describe that dress. You know when it’s cold and you come home and you can’t wait to get between your sheets because they’re so soft and silky and warm? Well, that’s how that dress made me feel.” And then Barkoutsis turns, as she always does, from the poetic to the practical: “How much?”
“I bought it,” says Barkoutsis when she calls three days later to check in. And then, with understandable hesitation, she reveals the one purchase she made at the end of her big week. “I bought the mink.”