I Was DeNiro’s Leg: Tales from the parts-modeling industry

GQ, July 2002

 

DANIELLE KORWIN IS EXAMINING MY HAND. She takes it in her hand, turns it over, gives it a professional once-over. “You could use a manicure,” Korwin says. “And your fingers…” She struggles for diplomacy. “Your fingers have taken a bit of a beating. But the skin is nice, smooth.” Korwin is the founder, owner and sole agent of Parts Models, the world’s only modeling agency that specializes exclusively in parts: hands, legs, feet, anything disembodied. Let fashion have its faces. The world of advertising nowadays demands focus, sophistication, specialization. Need a finger for a diamond-ring ad? Want a photo of an elegant hand holding a teacup? You need Parts. “It’s very hard work,” Korwin says. She means it seriously. “It can be very frustrating. You have to be prepared to deal with a lot of rejections. There’s a lot of running around involved. Anybody who’s ever been told by their aunt, uncle, manicurist, boyfriend; who says, ‘Oh, I’ve got great hands, I want to be a hand model, can I do this part time and on weekends?’ No, It’s not a part-time and weekend job.”

The competition is fierce. Korwin receives fifty to a hundred photo submissions a week; of those, she may interview one person. She’s looking for what she calls “the correct combination of qualities.” For hands, she wants smooth skin, certainly, but more–”hands that don’t show a lot of surface structure, that don’t show a lot of tendons popping through. I also look for a man with not a lot of hair on the forearm; I’m not looking for Godzilla. But I want a hand that looks like a masculine hand.”

Evidently that rules me out. Korwin rejects me kindly, tells me she’s looking for “slightly larger” hands. She shows me a magazine ad featuring the hand of man who works for Parts Models. I ask, what’s so great about his hand? “He’s got a good, strong hand that can range. There are more corporate hands, and there are more aggressive, masculine hands that lend themselves to, you know, holding a bottle of beer. I look for a range of types of hands. Basically, the hand is the prop for the product.”

A hand, in short, should have presence but little ego. It should be charismatic but self-effacing. “The hand is an actor,” Korwin says. “Some people have that instinct. They know how to work with a product, how to hold something so There’s not too much tension in the hand. The same with feet: you have to know how to place them, how the camera works with you.’

Parts models are invisible: they are the stuntmen, the heavy lifters. I wonder: Is there a stigma attached to being a parts model, like, ‘Oh, I’m not good enough to be ‘whole’ model?’ “There’s no stigma,” Korwin assures me. “One of the things about being a parts model is that you almost have an indefinite shelf life. You can have a longer career than as a fashion model, where you can go in and out of vogue very quickly.”

There are even roles for the less-than-perfect. Arthritic hands, big noses–Korwin supplies those too. “I can’t think of any body part we haven’t done,” she says with a laugh.

What about private parts?

“Private parts?” Korwin sounds genuinely baffled. “What are private parts?”

I explain about private parts. Oh, Korwin says: well, yes, on occasion a model may have to be nude on the set, say if his or her back is being photographed. “But in general, everything we deal with is something your grandmother wouldn’t be afraid to look at.” Eyes are pretty much the only thing Korwin avoids. “You can’t make a career out of just modeling your eyes. We get a call for that maybe once a year. Anyway, I’m not looking for someone who can do just eyes. It has to be someone who can also do legs and hands and feet, a variety of things.”

 

THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE who make a regular living from their parts can be counted, more or less, on two hands. Ellen Sirot has been a top parts model for ten years. She was Cheryl Tiegs’s hands in a Dannon Yogurt television commercial. She portrayed the hands of both Elizabeth Hurley and Paulina Porznikova in Estee Lauder commercials. (Even celebrity models sometimes require body doubles; a pretty face does not a pretty hand make, necessarily.) By her own estimate, she makes upwards of $80,000 a year from her hands. Sirot does legs and feet too. Ladies Home Journal has labeled her “The Cindy Crawford of Hand and Foot Models.”

I arrange to meet Sirot on the street. She is fine-boned and spry, with fair skin and dark curly hair, more Andie McDowell than Cindy Crawford. I know it’s Sirot because she’s wearing white cotton gloves. Later she confides that she owns at least fifty pairs of white cotton gloves, which she changes a couple of times a day, plus all sorts of other gloves, one for every occasion. “People look at me all the time. They either think I’m crazy or a germaphobe.” She doesn’t shake my hand. As we walk to a corner restaurant, I notice she tucks her hands under her armpits, for security purposes.

We find a table and sit. “I have to watch what I eat,” she says. “No salt: that can make my veins stick out. No caffeine, no chocolate, no sugar, nothing that’s stimulating.” A jittery hand-model is not desirable, she says. “You get put in weird, contorted uncomfortable positions, and you have to be able to hold it for a long time.” As a former dancer, Sirot is accustomed to contortion. “Everyone with nice hands thinks they can be a hand model. But it can very stressful. There’s a lot of money at stake.”

Still wearing gloves, Sirot hands me her composite card. It’s a visual resume, a brochure of photographs displaying her hands–slender, perfectly innocuous–engaged in manual labor, or what passes for such in the world of women’s advertising: wearing rings, holding credit cards, spreading nail polish, spraying household cleanser, checking the results of a pregnancy test. “I have a particular kind of hand, a working-type hand. I’m the healthy, happy mom. I do nail polishes, pharmaceuticals, tons of contraceptive ads.” Once, Sirot was directed to a photo shoot at the offices of Forum, which she thought was a business magazine. “You’ll be doing hand jobs today,” they told her. She laughed: hand jobs, ha-ha, that’s a standard hand-model joke. No, really, they said. It was Penthouse Forum, shooting a hand-job how-to. With a banana, Sirot says with relief. “They didn’t have me on a penis.”

The ideal woman’s hand can be summarized in three words, Sirot says: hairless, poreless, veinless. “I have very good skin tone,” she adds. Maintaining such a hand requires around-the-clock vigilance. She applies moisturizer at least a dozen times a day. At night she applies a thick cream and puts vitamin E on her cuticles. Sometimes, for added moisturizing effect, she wears plastic baggies while she sleeps. Sirot estimates that twenty percent of her salary is spent on her hands. “I’m expensive to maintain.”

Nicks, cuts, bruises, burns–they must be avoided at all costs. “I don’t do any sports,” Sirot says. “I don’t do housework. I don’t cook. I don’t wear jewelry.” No activities that will build up the hand muscles: no driving stickshift; no tying laces, slip-on shoes only; no clothes with tiny buttons. Sirot has rigged her house so that doors and drawers open without effort. Evidently, the ideal “working-type hand” does as little real-life work as possible. “When I started out, I wasn’t nearly as obsessive as I am now,” Sirot assures me.

I have not yet seen the goods. I have waited patiently. It’s time. Sirot holds her left hand above the table and slowly draws off the white glove. The hand she unveils is a fraction the age of its possessor. “Porcelain” does not describe it: the skin is ghostly luminescent, like certain fishes that rise to the sea surface only on moonless nights. It’s the human equivalent of veal. Sirot says that sometimes on the set, people only talk to her hands, not to her.

“Did you touch them? They’re really soft.”

I do, and they are: velvety and delicate, like an infant’s eyelids or the petals of young hothouse flowers. A minute hasn’t passed and Sirot has the glove back on. The vision sinks below the table, out of sight, into the depths of her lap.

JAMES FURINO, PARTS MODEL EXTRAORDINARE, is quite different from Sirot, although he often works with her. (They’ve held hands and played footsie for hours on end.) I meet him the following day at Starbucks. He strolls in at the appointed time, shakes my hand vigorously, then asks the counter girl for “one of those frothy chocolate coffee things.” I remark that he seems to take a more sanguine approach to hand security than Sirot does.

“Oh, she’s a nut! I mean, They’re hands. Big fucking deal.”

He laughs pleasantly as he says this. Furino is in his late thirties: slender, tall, green eyes, retreating hairline, which isn’t a liability in the parts business. He resembles Kevin Spacey, only more fun. Formally trained as a musician, Furino entered the parts business a dozen years ago on a lark. He holds up a hand–smooth skin, long, slightly spatulate fingers–and looks at it in wonderment. “I don’t have the most muscular hands, They’re sort of androgynous. They blend in. They’re large, not too hairy. They photograph better than they look in person. It’s really freaky. I also do feet. Turns out I have incredible feet. I had no idea. What the fuck.”

He pulls out a black binder of print ads that feature his hands. Motorola cellphones. Duracell batteries. Moviefone.com. “I’ve done pretty much everything. Have I done Starbucks?” He thinks, shakes his head no. “I’ve done Dunkin Donuts, American express, Pizza Hut, Neutrogena, DeBeer’s diamonds.” He likes the variety of it, the constant novelty. He’s been the hands of Regis Philbin and Tom Skerritt. He was Robert DeNiro’s leg in the movie “Casino.” Once, almost, he was Michael Jackson’s hands in a music video. (I note that Furino is Caucasian.) “I’ve done crazy stuff, hands on fire in asbestos gloves and stuff. My thought is, I’m gonna say yes to whatever they want, because if I don’t, some other knucklehead will do it for $250 an hour.”

Furino refers to his parts as “my straight job.” The rest of the time, he writes jingles for Nabisco, Club Med, Ringling Brothers, AT&T; he does voiceovers; He’s producing a screenplay he wrote (and revised thirty-one times) during his spare time on commercial shoots. “It beats working for a living. People say, ‘No, It’s really hard work.’ Teaching second grade is hard work! Working in a coal mine is hard work! I mean, get a fucking life! It ain’t rocket science. It ain’t reattaching limbs.”

The one non-fun thing Furino about the parts business, Furino says, is talking about it. Ever since that “Seinfeld” episode where George Costanza tried to become a hand model, the whole world is aware of the profession. “I hear the same jokes wherever I go. If I go to a party, I could say, ‘I’m a NASA engineer, and on the weekends I’m a neurosurgeon–oh, and I’m a hand model.’ And the person will say, ‘Hey, everybody, He’s a hand model!’ and they won’t shut the fuck up.”

Unlike some hand models, Furino doesn’t have parts insurance, which can cost $8,000 a year. He doesn’t bother with professional manicures. (He does his nails himself.) He scuba dives, he plays softball, though on those occasions he does wear gloves. “I try not to be blatantly stupid. I keep my hands out of toaster ovens.” He acknowledges that women’s hands must adhere to a higher standard than men’s. “As a guy, your hand should look real. A little cut here and there doesn’t matter. So I banged my hand, what are you gonna do? They have Photoshop, they don’t even care anymore.”

The only time Furino takes the parts business seriously, he says, is when he’s on the set. Commercial directors are not known for their charm. Camera crews are underpaid and work like dogs. Setting up a shoot is expensive and can take days. When your hand is being paid $400 an hour to place a cup on the spot marked ‘X,’ it shouldn’t take you more than once to do it. “It’s high-pressure. You gotta show up on time. You gotta come in all buffed and shiny. You gotta shut up. You gotta laugh at the right time. And you gotta pay attention. If you fuck up this much”–Furino holds his thumb and forefinger an inch apart”–the director will never hire you again.”

This reminds Furino of his favorite story, the one he hopes to tell someday on Letterman, when he’s famous and can reminisce about his crazy, early days as a hand model. He’s two hours into an expensive commercial shoot when he realizes he’s got a migraine coming on, the kind that makes him puke for an hour then sleep for eight. Now’s a bad time. He’s heard that caffeine helps, so he runs downstairs and chugs two cups of coffee. Then he remembers another trick he’s read about: supposedly an orgasm can forestall a migraine attack. Something about dilating the blood vessels in your brain. What the fuck: Furino ducks into the men’s room, just him and his attractive right-hand model. A few minutes later, they’re both back to work.

“Sometimes,” he says, “you gotta do whatever’s necessary.”