It had all the elements of a typical New York City photo shoot: bright lights, a gushing director ("Excellent, that's it, hold it right there"), even some sad-looking scrambled eggs that lay bereft on the craft-services table. But the subject of the shoot wasn't some leggy model striking a fierce pose. Instead, the focus of everyone's attention was on a pair of manicured hands, gently shaped to resemble a teapot.
The hands belong to 25-year-old Ryan Serhant, whose appendages are the centerpiece of AT&T's popular "Hands" advertising campaign, in which art-directed digits and palms form images associated with different countries (in this case, England). For more than 10 hours, Serhant's paws were painted, positioned, and repeatedly retouched by an artist, while a black T shirt covered his (actually quite handsome) face. The teapot configuration is just the latest hand job for Serhant, who over the past two years has contorted his extremities into the shapes of the Great Wall of China, a pair of Japanese geishas, and Egyptian hieroglyphics, among other finger fare, appearing in magazines, airport terminals, and on billboards across the world.
"When I told my parents that I was a hand model, they were like, 'What?' Which is pretty much how everyone responds," says Serhant, in between hands-free sips of water through a straw that an assistant unwrapped for him.
In the world of commercial modeling, there's always been a niche for the handsome-handed: pizzas that needed pulling, beers that needed pouring, and cheeks that needed stroking, by mitts that could endure a sharp-focus close-up. But the recent boom in high-tech gadgetry, from iPhones to Kindles, has meant big paydays and endless gigs for people with the right mix of hairless hands, dry palms, and small-pored skin. While Serhant declines to say how much he earned for his day-long shoot, an AT&T rep on-set jokes, "He'll be able to retire after today." In general, top hand models can command anything from a few hundred dollars an hour to $10,000 per day.
"The heyday is now for hand models," says Danielle Korwin, founder of Parts Models, an agency that exclusively represents body parts. When she opened for business in 1986, Parts was the only all-appendages outfit in town, and there were no more than 10 full-time hand models working nationally. Today, after three decades of tech growth, Korwin has more than 300 models on her roster, and estimates that some 50 people industrywide are making a living with their hands. "In the wild, wacky, [and] wonderful world of hand models," she says, "there's definitely been an uptick."
Even as the overall economy crashed, hand modeling rode a wave of tech porn to higher ground. Companies rolled out lighter and sleeker products—digital cameras, phones, laptops, and MP3 players—all of which required new ads showing handling, pushing, typing, and pressing. "More tech, more tech!" says Ashly Covington, a full-time hand model who has caressed computer keyboards, in addition to twirling razors for Gillette, spraying deodorant for Axe, and tearing into crescent rolls for Pillsbury. As she sees it, "The more new phones, computers, and videogames they come up with, the more work for us hand models."
Cheaper than their full-body counterparts, hand models also benefit from the fact that their most valuable assets are relatively anonymous. That means that unlike most on-camera talent, they are free to work for competitors—Covington has posed for both Dell and HP. Tylenol and Advil have also reportedly "given each other a hand."
With serious dollars at stake, mishandling their mitts is not an option for top-flight hand models. Most full-timers don't go as far as their pop-culture doppelgangers George Constanza (who preserved his hands with oven mitts as a would-be finger jockey on Seinfeld) or Zoolander's J. P. "I'm a hand model, mama" Prewitt, who kept his money-makers in a glass dome. But most models do wear gloves all day to protect against bumps and scrapes, spend thousands of dollars a year on manicures, and apply lotion 30 or 40 times a day. "Lubriderm; lots and lots of Lubriderm," says Serhant. Adds Covington, "You have to think: hands first."
Hand models also need to be more than pretty phalanges. They must master their craft, holding heavy objects without apparent effort, conveying desire with a simple caress of a cheek or squeeze of a cheeseburger, and oozing a certain feel-good aura around the products they are paid to sell.
Runway strutting it ain't. But that doesn't mean hand models aren't subject to the same cruel winds of ageism. Like other people who trade on their looks, hand models sometimes struggle to find work by their late 30s and 40s. "My hands are old now," says Jody Newman-Albom, 39, a former de Beers diamond model who used her hands to pay her way through graduate school in the late 1990s, only to give it up in order to start a family. "I wanted to play in the mud," she says.