Guy on the Box

Once in a while my agent Jennifer calls with a direct booking—no go-see required—causing me to do a conga dance in my apartment. But most of the time, clients need to see models before hiring them. That’s because they’ve all been burned by models who look nothing like their comp cards—women who appear as blonde bantamweights on their comps, but arrive on set auburn welterweights. Thanks, changelings, for ruining it for those of us who picked a look in high school and haven’t varied it since.

The whole go-see process can be incredibly lacerating to your self-esteem. Imagine waking up each morning unemployed, hoping the phone rings. When your agent does call, you’re invited to a job interview with a hundred other hopefuls. You schlep yourself across town and you’re judged on your most superficial qualities, the symmetry of your face, the whiteness of your teeth, your receding hairline. There’s nothing to hide behind. If you’re not hired, it doesn’t mean they didn’t like your work, your blueprint, your layout, your draft. It means they didn’t like you. On the other hand, if they do like you—you lucky dog!—you get to work for a single day, then it’s back to being unemployed. And you better not owe money to your bookie, because it’ll be six months before you’re paid, as the funds trickle from client to ad agency to modeling agency to model. Modeling is absurd and degrading, a vain pursuit in more ways than one. Maybe that’s why I like it so much.

I’d only been modeling for about a year the day Jennifer called to tell me about a whale of a go-see. Combe, Inc. was looking for new faces for their Just for Men haircolor boxes. Eight shades, eight new faces. Hundreds of models were being called in from all over the country. I was living in Virginia at the time so the prospect of traveling to New York City for a cattle call didn’t seem too appealing. Then she mentioned the job paid $18,000. That’s when my limited statistics knowledge came in handy. I thought, Hmm, an 800 to 8 chance at an $18,000 payoff? That’s an expected value of $180. The bus only costs $40, so really I’ll make a $140 profit by auditioning.

I talked myself into it with that unshakable, baseless optimism in the face of overwhelmingly negative odds that only actors, writers, wildcat oil drillers, and other inveterate gambling addicts can comprehend. I know my last hundred auditions/query letters/wells/slot machine pulls were busts, but this time it’s mine. I can feel it.

Peter Pan was my bus line of choice. It was cheap, it reminded me I wasn’t the only one who refused to grow up, and its buses feature a menacing graphic of an alligator snapping at a group of children. The bus broke down north of Baltimore and we were herded onto another bus. By the time the giant alligator squeezed through the Holland Tunnel, I was pretty sure I could have swum there faster.

Spirits flagging, I trudged over to the casting office and stood in the waiting room with scores of other models. The casting agent was so backed up he just stuck his head out of the office and pointed at a few guys. “You, you, and you. Come in. The rest of you aren’t what we’re looking for. Sorry. See ya.” I was not one of the chosen ones. I’d never seen a casting brush-off that abrupt. Normally they invite you in the room and at least glance at your portfolio. What a waste! I felt like writing a book called The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Being a Total Dummy.

Just as I stepped outside, the greenish-yellow clouds unleashed an ark-inspiring torrential downpour with pinball-sized hail. Everyone dashed for cover and I sulked back into the waiting room and waited for the storm to pass. An hour later the skies cleared and I again got in the elevator, directly across from the casting office. Just as the elevator doors were closing, a second agent came out of the office, saw me and yelled—in true cinematic fashion—”Stop!” I wedged my Timberlands between the closing doors. “Why haven’t we seen you yet?”

“Because your buddy flushed me an hour ago,” I said.

“He’s crazy. You’re exactly what we need for the Sandy Blond box. You’re hired.” Talk about pure dumb luck. If it weren’t for that storm I’d have been out the door. I did a conga dance and dedicated it to the rain gods.

Just for Men

Me as the “Guy on the Box”

The photo session the following week surprised me because they never applied the goop to my hair. I figured that as a corporate shill I ought to at least use the product. The photographer told me that being a Guy on the Box is a huge stepping stone in entertainment. Prior Guys on Boxes have gone on to TV shows, soaps, and major national commercials. For me, however, it was merely a stepping stone to continued obscurity.

The most memorable part of the day was the after-shoot walk from Grand Central Terminal to Penn Station with Don Jole, Just for Men’s choice for the box of black haircolor. As a breeder, extolling another guy’s beauty is not something I’m accustomed to, but Don was by far the best-looking man I’ve ever seen. In doll-terms, imagine G.I. Joe’s rugged jaw line combined with Barbie’s long eyelashes and you get a sense of this guy’s warrior/poet, strong yet sensitive visage. It doesn’t do him justice to say he has a perfect smile. If you look closer you’ll see he has perfect lips, perfect teeth, perfect gums. The guy isn’t just handsome, he’s handsome down to the microscopic level. His mitochondria probably wear Speedos. Next to him I looked like an African dung beetle.

On our twenty-block walk, I witnessed the damage extreme male pulchritude can cause. We’ve all seen the carnage a beautiful woman can leave in her wake as she passes a group of men, but who knew the roles were reversible? I saw women trip over curbs, mesmerized by his face; swivel their head and plow right into people; and halt conversations to gape at him in rictal awe. One woman actually froze in her tracks, dropped her Starbucks to the sidewalk, stared, and muttered, “Holy shit.” The unswerving trajectories that New York pedestrians normally follow were interrupted as the bustling midday masses actually parted for this cynosure.

After I pointed out the devastation he was wreaking, Mr. Genetic Powerball Winner swore he never noticed these things. I guess if you always induce this sort of behavior in people, it skews your perception. You probably conclude that women are just sort of naturally clumsy creatures who constantly go around slack-jawed, walking into lampposts. I suppose it would be arrogant to assume they only act that way around you.

But I knew different and was proud to walk next to him and be mistaken for a gay couple. I preened at passers-by with an expression that said, Yup, that’s my lover. Ain’t he a peach?


This essay originally appeared in somewhat different form in Funny Times, TearSheet, NailPro, and Supermodels Unlimited magazines.

About Steve Altes

Steve Altes is the author of several humor books, dozens of humorous adventure essays, and the comedic graphic novel Geeks & Greeks, set at MIT and inspired by MIT's culture of hacking and Steve's own experiences with hazing.
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