You Want a Piece of Me?

If fashion models are Ferraris, then I am a 1999 Honda Accord with 300,000 miles on it, rusting in the junkyard—far from showroom condition but good enough for parts: hair, kidneys, what have you, but mostly hands.

Back when Internet companies were sprouting faster than chia pets, the demand for mouse-themed print ads surged. Somebody had to click those mice. That somebody is called a hand model. I call it “beats working for living.”

My qualifications were two-fold: First, a lifetime’s avoidance of manual labor has given my hands a smooth, uncalloused look. Second, I was the only guy my modeling agency could find willing to bear the humiliation of going to a beauty salon and requesting a manicure.

Once I learned to ignore women snickering at me while I got my nails buffed and cuticles trimmed, I discovered I enjoyed it. And I’m not putting the “man” back in just manicures. When a foot modeling assignment introduced me to the rapture of pedicures, I got hooked on them too.

Unlike George Costanza, I have so far managed to avoid career-ending mishaps with hot irons. Coffee was almost my Waterloo. Before my first hand modeling gig, I downed my usual quad shot latte. Mistake. It’s hard to hold your hand perfectly still for hours after that much caffeine. The photographer had to muster a C-clamp into service to tame my shaky hand.

A booking begins with a perky message from my agent like, “Hi, Steve. This is Jennifer. Are you free for a four hour hand job on Friday?” Those calls used to give me a lewd thrill until the day I scandalized myself by accidentally playing such a message while my mother was visiting. Over the years I’ve discovered a foolproof method for ensuring that Jennifer will call to offer a hand job: Do something the day before that totally mutilates my hands, like gardening or flea-dipping the cat.

On set, the shoots follow a familiar pattern of gradually eroding expectations. The account executive announces that we are assembled for the momentous task of capturing on film the power of the Internet, the thrill of e-commerce, or perhaps the ecstasy of backing up a hard drive. He gives a pep talk like, “Our goal is to create the definitive mouse photograph—one so beguiling, daring and hauntingly beautiful, it puts all other mouse photography to shame.”

Then the art directors do their part to make mouse clicking seem exciting. They snake the cord in a perfect S-curve. They highlight the mouse with dramatic red and blue spotlights. They paint leopard patterns on the mice. They balance a mouse on my fingertip. They have fierce arguments whether I should right-click or left-click. Right-click? Do we dare? I encourage these on-set debates since my meter is running the whole time.

Endless Polaroids are taken and I am given curious instructions like, “You’re covering too much of the mouse. Can you make your hand smaller?”

“Depends. How wedded are you to the five-fingered hand concept?” I reply.

After hours of fussing, someone usually shouts, “Let’s get on with it. It’s just a goddamn mouse,” and actual photography begins. When the photos appear in print, they generally look a lot like a hand clicking a mouse. Only more beguiling.

#

By far, the wildest call I ever got from Jennifer began, “How are your kidneys? I have a client looking for a kidney model.” I’d heard some urban legends involving kidneys that didn’t turn out so well, so I was a little apprehensive. Jennifer continued, “Meet this doctor at the Sheraton Tiki Bar tonight. He’ll buy you lots of drinks to swell your kidneys, then take you to his room for an ultrasound. If he picks you, it pays $500 for an hour’s work.”

“Meet a strange man in a bar, let him ply me with liquor, go to his hotel room, and let him examine my internal organs?” I said. “No problem. For a moment I thought it was something sketchy.”

Looking forward to doing some serious damage to the doctor’s booze tab, I arrived at the bar and joined two other model-types drinking with the doctor, who explained that a nephrology convention was in town and he needed a kidney model the next day to demonstrate a new ultrasound machine. He gave us his suite number, told us to come up after a half-hour of drinking, and excused himself to prepare the equipment.

We models surveyed each other, all clearly wondering who had the blue-ribbon kidneys. I tried to pull a psych job on them. “I’m Irish,” I said. “We’re known for our handsome kidneys. Oh sure. The original kidney-shaped swimming pool? Modeled after an Irishman’s kidney.” My renal rivals just ignored me. “Jennifer said a biopsy would be needed,” I continued. “If doc’s keeping that from us, I wonder what else he’s hiding. Say, does your drink taste funny?”

At the appointed time we proceeded to the doctor’s room. I pointed at a tube of K-Y Jelly on nightstand and whispered to one of the models, “Told you—butt lube. We’re all gonna be ass-raped as soon as the Rohypnol kicks in.” Punching me in the shoulder was his way of telling me I was getting to him.

The doctor asked the first model to take off his shirt and lie on a portable table. The doctor squirted some K-Y on the ultrasound probe and placed it on the model’s abdomen. When his kidney came into view on the monitor, the doctor experienced love at first sight. “That is the most beautiful kidney I’ve ever seen. Utterly perfect. There’s no need to look any further. You two gentlemen can leave.”

“What? No swimsuit competition?” I protested. The second model grumbled that we should all be given a chance and the doctor acquiesced.

The second model’s innards produced an even larger response from the doctor: “Magnificent! Better than the first. The definitive kidney. Worthy of a medical textbook.”

Next it was my turn to lie down and submit to the cold, slippery, vibrating sensor. I giggled and squirmed, ticklish buffoon that I am. The doctor was underwhelmed. “Now this is a fairly substandard kidney. Note how ill-defined the corticomedulary junction is. All in all, an unimpressive specimen.” Though I wasn’t expecting the doctor to find my kidney as adorable as a basket of puppies, it was discomforting to confirm what I’d always suspected: My beauty really does go only skin deep.

“Well, my corticomedulary junction and I know when we’re not wanted,” I said and left in a huff. I dulled my shame by stopping at the bar and treating my Irish kidney to a few shots of Irish whiskey, compliments of the doctor’s still-open tab.

That night I had an alcohol-fueled dream. I was dead, being autopsied, the medical examiner peering into my chest cavity, saying, “I don’t know what this man did for a living, but I’ll tell you one thing: He was certainly no kidney model!”

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

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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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