In my early 20s, a trip to the bank took me on an unexpected detour into modeling. Hair modeling, to be precise. I was a scholarship kid at one of the country's priciest colleges, in one of the nation's priciest cities, and constantly looking for creative ways to fund beer nights with the boys and date nights with girls. Most jobs didn't fit my schedule or NCAA rules for student-athletes. Donating blood required a day of rest, and the frat-boy black market—selling term papers, printing fake IDs, promoting parties—seemed too risky. I was a signature away from donating sperm for cash when a local boutique owner near Washington's Foggy Bottom neighborhood spotted me taking money from an ATM, and offered me a way to put some back in.
It sounded simple: submit my mop, and my body, to his creative vision for an annual Hispanic designers gala held at a swanky city hotel, and he'd help me build a portfolio—the first step, he said, to paid work. "BS," I would normally have thought. But then I remembered that an old baseball teammate of mine had made thousands of dollars moodily laying around for Abercrombie & Fitch the previous summer, and now a stylish guy was telling me I had "the look." One pair of white furry boots, a white Speedo, and a pot of silver body glitter later, I wasn't so sure my "look" was working out so well. I was not an official model, but a "Winter Wonderland creature" who flanked the runway where the real Zoolanders strutted and posed. Adding insult: I had been ID'd by a girl from one of my classes, which meant my baseball buddies would hear all about it. I didn't even get free photos to use in building a modeling book (although in this case, I would have been more tempted to destroy them than display them).
Until that night, I had thought the term "hair model" meant letting amateur hedge trimmers hack away at your head in return for a free cut, or having professional stylists fluff you up for inclusion in look books or product advertisements. But, as I was to learn, it's sort of a catchall term for a go-to guy for stylists, a hanger for designers, and a canvas for makeup artists. Which is how I wound up slathered with latex paint beneath spiked, frosted hair tips. The boutique owner (now out of business) had apparently been impressed enough by my Wonderland work that he'd suggested me to the Beverly Hills-based stylist Cristophe, best known for helping former first lady Hillary Clinton break her jones for headbands. The ensuing nightclub fashion show veered more toward a bad acid trip than a state dinner. I found myself looking like an overly sexualized Smurf, daubed in blue paint with rainbow swirls. At least I got to wear pants this time around. And my photo appeared in DC One, a short-lived monthly magazine that "relishes celebrities" and, evidently, little blue people.
Over the next 18 months, I never actively pursued modeling work, but a few small gigs materialized—mostly shoots with photographers aiming to boost their portfolios. We are not, my friends, talking the big leagues here. But I did eventually get a paycheck—for a group spread in the February 2005 edition of Condé Nast's now defunct men's magazine Cargo. A true novice, I showed up commando—that's sans underpants for those not in the industry—to Condé Nast's slick Times Square headquarters expecting to shake a few hands and perhaps sign a contract. Instead, I was expected to try on spring suits for the upcoming shoot—a perilous new development for my dignity and the integrity of the fabric involved. This was a "fitting," I later learned, and as I ducked behind a clothes rack to maintain my modesty, it was clear I was entirely unfit for the job. They gave it to me anyway, and I earned $250 for a day spent in a West Chelsea warehouse drinking Heineken and jumping around with a handful of other guys in formalwear.
And that's where it all ended. By 2005, agent-less and head-shot-less, I was now jobless, too. I wasn't in the fashion world long enough to have any profound insights about the industry, but I did learn something about myself: I don't take good pictures, and I don't feel comfortable in front of a camera.
Do I regret my follicular foray? Absolutely (which is why I've tried to retain my anonymity in the photographic evidence above). But I've also adopted a philosophical outlook on it. We've all pursued at least one goal that later scorches our cheeks with embarrassment, a random experience that finds its way into that third-date conversation and the "other" section of a résumé alongside "intermediate Spanish" and "proficient in Microsoft Office"—only to disappear when actual talents take its place. Hair modeling was that experience for me. At least it kept me from early fatherhood and a life of student crime. And if journalism goes belly-up, well, we all need a plan B, don't we?