2000s Archive

My Life as a Hand Model

Originally Published September 2003
He’s more than a pair of pretty hands. What goes on behind the scenes in television commercials tells us a lot about the food we eat.

The bell peppers need more Vaseline. The Swiss cheese needs more baby powder. With just seconds to go before the cameras roll, assistants are placing hunks of cheese, piles of peppers, and bottles of olive oil around a stand-in pizza. The bottles refract the light and lend long shadows to the scene, as if it’s sunset on a hillside in Tuscany. A brawny prop guy appears and begins brushing baby powder onto the cheese so it doesn’t sweat, and another spreads Vaseline onto the bell peppers, then sprays them with water, forming delicate beads that cling longer to the skin.

“This is called a romance shot,” says executive producer Rick Katzen. “Don’t ask me how come the lighting says sunset, but the peppers look like they’re still covered in morning dew.”

On this bright spring morning, I’m standing in the cavernous studio of 50 Mile Radius [now Nadel Productions], in Manhattan. It looks like a cross between James Bond’s gadget factory and a M*A*S*H emergency room. Director Bruce Nadel, famous for his Red Lobster lemon squeeze, is shooting a commercial for Donatos, a Midwest-based pizza chain owned by McDonald’s, featuring their new Philly cheesesteak pizza. This first setup will be followed by an “appetite appeal” shot, in which cheese drips invitingly off a slice.

In the kitchen, about a dozen food stylists are preparing pies. There are 30 empty crusts, 50 onions, 100 bell peppers, and 3 trays of prebrowned cheese dollops (called scabs or spiders) standing at the ready. Each of the onions and peppers is being meticulously sliced and the winning rounds lightly browned in an oven. Each slice of steak is being sprayed with soy sauce and Kitchen Bouquet, then placed on a small griddle.

The lead food stylist takes a crust covered with lightly melted cheese and gingerly places each individual onion and bell pepper ring on top, being careful to tuck the steak into the peppers to give the pie more depth. Then she takes tweezers and situates about a dozen of the prebrowned scabs in strategic spots. The reason? The pie will continue to cook under the television lights, and everything is deliberately undercooked so it won’t turn gray too quickly.

Finally, the cry goes up: “Hero’s ready!”

Onstage, the assistants step aside, and in comes the perfect pizza. Nadel grabs his handheld camera and begins a near swan dive into the heart of the pie, curving, contorting, and getting millimeters from the tips of the peppers so the pizza looks like the Austrian Alps in The Sound of Music, all colorful, green, and alluring.

Ten seconds later Nadel abruptly quits. “Heat!” he cries, and assistants leap in with heat lamps and goggles, blasting the pie with white-hot light.

Suddenly we’re underneath the space shuttle before it takes off. When the cheese begins to bubble and the scabs begin to ooze, Nadel starts again. Once more we go through this routine; then the pizza is done.

It took 45 minutes to prepare the pizza; it took 45 seconds to shoot it.

Now James Furino walks onto the set. A lithe, forty-something drummer and onetime stand-up comedian, Furino is one of a select few supermodels who command double union scale per day ($839.40) for using their hands. Furino is supposed to chop the steak for the pizza. But there’s a twist: His hands will not be shown. The only thing you will see in the finished commercial is his chopping motion.

Later, Rick Katzen explains. In shots in which the hand is meant to be the stand-in for the customer—lifting the pizza, say, the fingers appear. But in shots in which the hand is meant to be preparing the food, the hand is not shown. To put it bluntly: Advertisers don’t want customers imagining that some minion in the kitchen is actually touching their food.

Nonetheless, hand models like Furino are still hired because they can do almost anything—and be almost anybody. “I’ve been Matthew Perry’s hands. I’ve been Regis Philbin’s hands. Once I was almost Michael Jackson’s hands.”

“Why did you lose the job?” I asked.

He cracked a stand-up’s smile. “My hands were too dark.”

I’d been mildly obsessed with my hands ever since I’d learned how to juggle and do mime as a teenager. The muscle and dexterity I developed stood me in good stead in the early ’90s, when I spent a year performing as a circus clown. When I first started to learn about food, I realized that hand control was a big part of cooking—slicing, chopping, even serving. We learn these skills by watching cooks we love, by watching restaurant professionals, and, if truth be told, by watching television. What better way to find out how television advertising slyly shapes the way we view food, I thought, than to become a hand model?

As best as anyone can remember, the idea of hand modeling for commercials began to gain currency in the 1950s. Kraft regularly used hand models in the 1960s. “It was live,” says Carmen Marrufo, “so if the cheese melted, it was a big problem.” Marrufo, the undisputed queen of the cuticles, has been a hand-model agent for more than three decades. She has watched as the business grew steadily, peaking in the 1980s. The rise of computer graphics, the increase in shoots abroad, and changing tastes have tempered the market. These days, Marrufo keeps only a handful of clients who have the skills to work with food.

“What about me?’ I asked, presenting my hands.

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