Photo by Stacy Kimball. Image by Kat Aileen
The struggle is real for these much-maligned hired hands.
Although it involves being in front of a camera, Ellen Sirot's job was never about being famous--or even being recognized. But that changed in 2008, when her interview with CBS News went viral, and she was recast as "the creepy hand model."
Later parodied by Michaela Watkins for Funny or Die, the video depicts Sirot talking about her work as one of the world's top hand models. She says she doesn't cook or clean or take out the garbage or open cans--literal manual labor--in order to avoid accidental damage to her livelihood. Then she performs a hand model's version of voguing, instructing the interviewer on how to best capture her favorite beauty pose, a sort of claw-like extension that maybe looks better with a prop. The interview is cut with a shot of Sirot walking into an elevator wearing elbow-length black gloves, holding her hands up in a dramatic field-goal kind of gesture. Reddit recently discovered the video again, to a chorus of jokes about hand jobs.
The vitriol Sirot experienced is extreme, but it's not uncommon for hand models to inspire hatred, despite their ostensibly lower-profile status in the realm of advertising and media. "People think hand modeling is a really easy job and you make a lot of money," says Ashly Covington, a hand model who's worked with brands like Gilette, Pizza Hut, and Miller Lite, as well as for magazines like Cosmopolitan and InStyle. "People don't actually understand hand modeling. They think, 'Oh, okay. She walks around in gloves all day, and she's too good to touch anything and makes millions of dollars.'"
To read Covington's hate mail, you'd assume it also involved something like strangling baby animals. "Ashly," one letter begins, "You are far from impressive. I wonder why anyone would look at those nasty-looking hands. That is all you probably have going for you."
"Why don't you work all day, go to school all night like I do, like a real person in society?"
I wanted to talk to hand models because of a book: Introduction to Hand Modeling by Chelsea Martin, whose red-manicured hand reaching out of a kitschy gold frame is on the cover. It looks so good that I thought she was serious, or at least partially serious; surely an amateur couldn't get her fingers to look so seductive. Did this indie lit poet/cartoonist I knew from the internet have a secret past as a parts model? Had she figured out that the perfect way to subsidize the writer's life was to get a job holding perfume bottles in dynamic and suggestive ways?
The answer to both of these questions was, disappointingly, no. Introduction to Hand Modeling is a fictional how-to guide/memoir narrated by a top hand model with a fawning obsession with her "mentor," a shadowy idol named Dale Gerard, "perhaps the most famous and successful Hand Model currently living." (In the book, he is also the subject of a biography called Brevity, Eloquence, & World Domination: The Story of Dale Gerard and "has set the industry standard for nail length, nail width, coloration, and knuckle shape.") The guide details the narrator's unlikely rise to the top of the hand modeling industry despite a severe burn scar on her middle finger (she owes it all to Dale Gerard), as well as offers the titular introduction. There's a section on the types of jobs hand models can book, a joke history of hand modeling that includes the narrator's legendary hand model grandmother, tips for "How to Stay Humble" ("1. Hand Modeling will happen with or without my participation."), and practical exercises such as:
Digital Romance - In this exercise, your hands are in some kind of romantic relationship. Develop an elaborate love story for the two of them to act out. Maybe one of them isn't sure about their feelings. Maybe they are both in love with each other but one of them has a terrible disease and is afraid to tell the other. The sky is the limit, but make sure your hands are telling the story.
The book is very funny, but it's also very mean. The vain, clueless narrator is based on an image of the hand model as a person who has synecdochally concentrated her outrageous narcissism in her hands and blithely believes that's a respectable--nay, honorable--way to make a living, elegantly dipping golden French fries in perfect ketchup containers over and over for hundreds of dollars an hour, while McDonald's employees slave away at minimum wage behind her. Martin's hand model is so fixated on her hands that she lacks awareness of any other part of herself, a fictional incarnation of the "creepy hand model" ruthlessly mocked across the internet.
"I know nothing about actual hand modeling and intentionally didn't read anything about hand modeling while I was writing," Martin told me in an email. "I've looked at a few things since I finished, and I think it's funny that some of the things I wrote that I thought were really out there are wayyy less ridiculous than stuff real hand models do." When I asked her for an example of the ridiculous stuff she was talking about, she sent back the clip of Sirot.
One of the first things people want to know about hand models is how a person becomes one, both because it's not a job you hear or think about every day and because it seems like a get-rich-quick scheme.
The answer is usually disappointing. How-I-got-started-hand-modeling stories are often ones of discovery, or casual suggestion turned serious (and seriously lucrative) career, which understandably inspires resentment. ("I want to stick my average fist in her face," wrote a (male) blogger of Covington after she did an interview with CNN. "Do I wish I had that job? Absolutely.") Every hand model I spoke to told hers in a similar tone of pleasant surprise: I just lucked out, I never would have thought. It's not like these women grew up with fantasies of spending hours squeezing toothpaste in very slightly different positions, in other words. They began taking better care of their hands only after they realized doing so was a fairly cool trade-off for moderate flexibility, huge earning potential, and occasionally getting to touch Andy Samberg's face. (That was Covington.)
It's not like these women grew up with fantasies of spending hours squeezing toothpaste in very slightly different positions.
After moving to New York to pursue a career as a DJ, Farrah Sabado, another top hand model, told a friend that she was worried about making rent. In her financial panic, Sabado was gesticulating wildly; the friend stopped her and told her to wait just one minute: "You could be a hand model. Look at these!"
Sirot's story is a bit more intentional, but no less of a happy fluke. "I was a dancer, and like all dancers I was struggling, because there's really not enough work to pay your rent," she says. She booked a Converse commercial--they needed someone with ballet training--and after it went well, decided to try to supplement her artistic pursuits with commercial work. The photographer gave her some advice.
"He said, 'You know, there's a million girls who look like you, but you have great legs'," she told me. He suggested she go to a parts modeling agency. She "didn't even think about her hands"; she sent them body shots, leg shots, and, after getting her first pedicure, foot shots. It wasn't long before she nabbed her first campaign: Dr. Scholl's. But she quickly noticed there was much more work for hands. Sirot told her agent she wanted to try it; the agent sent Sirot away with the instruction to "take care of her hands for a couple of months and come back and show [her]."
And that, Sirot says, "was the nugget of the next 25 years."
While definitely swish in some ways, hand modeling is not without its downsides. It's very clear that the optimistic finger burns-to-riches story Martin uses in her book--in which Dale Gerard reassures the skeptical narrator that her scar "adds character and dimension!"--would never fly in the actual hand modeling industry. Pre-existing scars are deal breakers, and the threat of future imperfection--paper cuts and writer's calluses, as well as actual injuries--is the single biggest source of stress a hand model faces.
"This is what started me wearing gloves all the time," Covington told me. "I was on my way to a shoot, walking. All of a sudden my arm swung back, and I felt the sharpest searing pain on the back of my hand. A construction worker behind me was carrying a 30-foot-long metal rod, and he had jammed it into the back of my hand. There I am, with a cut on my hand as I'm about to go in and shoot a dishwashing commercial."
"He was like, Whatever," Covington continued, laughing. "Why is this girl so upset about a cut on her hand?"
Why this girl was so upset about a cut on her hand: it could have ended her career, or at the very least damaged her relationship with a client. The lighting designer and makeup artist were able to conceal the cut--it's easier to cover up fresh ones than scars--but after that, Covington was effectively sidelined for two weeks. "I could do some stuff with the left hand," she says, "but my right hand was out of work."
"I remember one time I was in New York City--it was raining, and I reached up to open the taxi door, and I grabbed it wrong," Sabado tells me. "I broke my nail. Boom: I was out of work for one-and-half, two weeks." Sabado, who has worked for Skittles, Apple, and several magazines, will wear gloves on the way to castings in the summer; in the winter she wears gloves all the time, and she also wears them to sleep at night. (As for the impression this might make on bedfellows: "WHATEVER.")
Because hand models work freelance, losing two weeks of work can be disastrous--the rates vary as widely as the jobs available, from about $100/hour to, Covington told me, $15,000 for a couple of hours. That is truly insane, but it's not the norm, and it's not like models are working consistently. "People hear [the] day rate, so they think that's normal, [that we] make that every single day. [They think] I go to a job five days a week, so that must be what everybody does."
"When you're not working every single day, every single job matters," she says. She wears gloves because of how quickly her schedule changes--and because she's been burned (well, cut) too many times before. Sabado's practice of only donning protective gear before a shoot isn't practical for Covington, who works more often-for her, "before a shoot" is pretty much all the time. Print campaigns are generally more stable than TV work; they can take as little as a couple of hours, and those schedules are much more predictable than those of commercials and other television spots-HSN and QVC are big clients-which often require long hours and being effectively on-call. When I spoke to Covington, she had just arrived in LA for a McDonald's shoot that she'd booked at seven the night before, and it was one of two cross-country red eyes she'd taken for work in a week.
If you're doing a spot for KFC, they're going to want less white hands. If you're going to do a spot for Olive Garden, they're going to want white hands.
In addition to the perils of existing in the world at large, hand models' own homes can be minefields--cooking is a particularly nerve-wracking arena. Knives-like people smoking cigarettes in the street--make everyone go on the defensive, and washing wine glasses is the premise for many--a hand model horror story; Sirot told me that careers have ended with a freak shattering incident. ("And then everything's ruined.")
And although critics like Covington's suggest the hand model's life is one far removed from the harsh realities of the quesadilla-scarred and stubby-pinkied, the industry itself is as multi-facetedly shitty as any. "I work with so many girls who are straight-up bitches," Sabado told me. "I hate to talk shit or whatever, but they feel privileged or high and mighty. I wouldn't be pissed off about it, but they're so terribly mean!"
On top of the "real mean girls"-style competition--which, to be fair, isn't completely pervasive; all the models I talked to also say they've made great friends through their jobs--Sabado is also Filipino, which comes with its own set of issues: fewer jobs, a different kind of competition.
"If you're doing a spot for KFC, they're going to want less white hands," Sabado says. "If you're going to do a spot for Olive Garden, they're going to want white hands. Every single time I go in for a pharmaceutical company I never get it. All of my white girlfriends get them. I get all the Target stuff, all the AmEx stuff. But it's different for me because I have a skin tone that can go either way, so I get hired by clients who want that flexibility to darken or lighten the skin tone in post-."
While the roles for hand models of color are expanding, they're necessarily tied to the roles for models of color (for celebrity doubling jobs) and to attitudes towards race in general. "I'm not sure I work as often as my colleagues--my white friends who are in the business," says Genia Morgan, who's been working as a hand model for about six years. (Her first job was with Viagra.) "I still think I'm booked because of my skin tone. I'm representing the African American group. I haven't seen a 'race-neutral' gig."
"I really have a strong belief that 75% of why you're chosen is because of your skin tone," Sabado says. When I asked her if she thought white women got more hand jobs (sorry) than women of color, she says, "Absolutely."
That parts modeling is an absurd career is a fair point; if everyone woke up tomorrow with liver spots, scars, and weird moles on their hands, the world would not be a worse place. Capitalism is late and bad; it has begat all these little, unnecessary jobs for people to do simply because people will pay them to do them. Those jobs begat more little, unnecessary jobs for people to do, and then those jobs begat more little, unnecessary jobs for people to do, and then those jobs begat the parts modeling industry, which is a bunch of little, unnecessary jobs that require humans to use their disembodied hands, lips, legs, and feet to sell nail polish and iPhones.
Still, many of us are trapped in the horror of little, unnecessary jobs; to target hand models for lucking out with good hands and the ingenuity to use them (by not using them) is grounds for "don't hate the player; hate the game." Ultimately, it's still a job; all the models emphasized the skill involved, the years of practice. "It's important to learn to do stuff with your hands and not just be pretty," Morgan says. This is what Sirot was trying to say in her virally misunderstood interview, and it's also what comes across in Martin's book, despite her mocking: The amount of grace, nuance, and coordination required of hand models isn't necessarily natural, or easy. The women I spoke to envision themselves as parts of a whole (hence "parts" modeling)--they see themselves as providing unique skills that are indispensable to the production of the ads they're in.
While the life of a hand model is almost always going to be some degree of strange, the idea that hand models aren't "real [people] in society" is a misconception.
"When I'm in my kitchen making breakfast or something, I'll be practicing," Sirot says, now very much pro-cooking. "I'm really good at one-handed egg cracking. I can do it with my right hand or left hand. How to pour things, how to chop, how to peel--all that stuff that you don't think about until you have to make it look really nice on camera. How to scoop ice cream so it just gets that wave."
"A lot of people think that hand models get paid and have the same life as supermodels," Covington tells me, "but hand models are a part of the crew, like the lighting designers, makeup artists, photographers.
"My hands aren't the star," she says. "The star is the product."
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