Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019
Beyond Zoolander

Beyond Zoolander

Confessions of a model-geek


Illustration by Julia Minamata

Like you, I’ve done some weird stuff for money. Pulled pints for Irish felons. Made PowerPoint™ presentations for shady corporations. Even pressure-washed a German opera hall in a lightning storm.

But by far the weirdest thing is what I’m doing right now: blinking under hot, all-frequency lights in a suburban warehouse with an enormous camera lens inches from my face. I haven’t shaved in weeks. Sweaty goo hangs from my face. I’m wearing drugstore eyeglasses, and sweat stains have been sprayed into the armpits of my “Byte U.” T-shirt. I’m a video-game geek in my first commercial, and it’s time for my close-up.

I used to be a good kid. I wrote about avant-garde art and railed against corporate domination. Now I’m in clown pants for North America’s Largest Home Video Retailer. As The Man pulls on a pair of blue-and-yellow gloves and bends me over for the Big Logo money shot, I ask myself, How did I get here?

At first I thought it was a scam. I was walking along Queen Street in Toronto when a woman from some agency handed me a business card. “Ever considered modelling?” she asked. I was baffled. In high school, I was an enormous head perched on a gangly little neck, with my dad’s bad skin and a mall haircut—I was the kind of guy girls’ mums thought was attractive. Sure, I’d “grown into my face,” and my girlish look had become fashionable. But I still walked like a geek, and a string of horrific yearbooks had left me with Post-Traumatic Photo Syndrome.

Besides, everyone knows that being a male model is (as Vice magazine would put it) “totally gay.” In the post-Zoolander world, the supermodel has gone supernova and become self-satire. I was sort of flattered to be asked, but to be a male model today is to publicly proclaim oneself poncey, vain and sexually ambiguous. How would I ever tell my mum?

And yet I was tempted, drawn by the titillating prospect (no matter how remote) of my potential “discovery.” I’ve spent years gazing at various glossy pages and TV screens. I never had any special desire to be famous, except in the daydreamy way everyone sort of does, like wanting to be in a band. But after all those years of staring at the fish bowl, I wanted, just once, to try to be a fish. I took the card and decided to keep going until someone asked me (a) for money or (b) to take my pants off.

Two weeks later, I was posing for foppish portfolio shots on the agency’s fire escape, clenching my back teeth (“It makes your jaw look stronger”) and summoning whatever Tantric magic my bony hips could muster. My new agent, Lucy (I had an agent!), had booked me for a ream of casting calls. It was time to hustle my ass.

For WAMs (Californian for waiter/actor/model or, in my case, writer/actor/model), castings are the daily grind. The typical casting office looks like what you’d expect from Fashion Television, only cheaper. There’re lots of enormous European magazines and Polaroids of Lolitas in their underpants.

The guys have Gap hair and all-American chests and the women are antiseptically hot, the sine curve of their bums generated by some sinister libidinal equation. Waiting my turn on the white pleather couch, I felt like the only non-believer at a religious gathering. I half-expected a bored Barbie or Ken to call security and have me thrown out.

But amazingly, I got gigs. I stumbled down the catwalk for Toronto Fashion Week in a ridiculous black Sprockets-y outfit, complete with red mesh vest and driving gloves. I was Painter #2 in a Hudson’s Bay ad. For Sears, I flung fake snowballs at fembots in snowsuits. I spent a night running round a track in Scarborough with five other guys, modelling futuristic track suits. (The spread ended with us tripping over a banana peel tossed by a monkey.) I was even the dude on a Roots mobile-phone display at Radio Shack, hands in pockets, sporting a little black toque. (“What’s up, homeys?!”)

But where was the glamour? The winnowy Eurasians dying to meet me? There was no partying or doing blow off models’ chests. Just endless Zoolander jokes and strings of killer cab bills. It was the worst of both worlds: all the fruity aftertaste of being a model, with none of the Faustian benefits. I wasn’t any closer to revealing my inner Mick Jagger to the world—I just felt dirty.

The last straw was Christmas dinner, when my firefighter cousin asked, “So…how’s the modelling going?” This called for drastic measures. My New Year’s resolution was to either take my little escapade to the next level or quit. I needed to put the “A” back in WAM. Modelling is hustling, but acting—acting is art. I needed to get on television.

Aside from my complete lack of acting experience, there was one other big obstacle: my “look.” No one in the industry says a WAM is “good-looking.” They say, “So-and-so has a cool look.” “Look” here is not understood as a pose or an expression; it’s your overall vibe, your brand. In 90 percent of cases, bit TV players fall into a half-dozen immediately recognizable boxes: Hot Girl. New Age Dad. CEO. Hip Black Guy. Geek. Your face has to immediately stand for something in the cultural alphabet. What was I?

My acting teacher spelled it out over beers one night. “Your look’s too model-y,” he said. “You’re up against the Hot Guy ingenue types. It’s tough to compete there.”

The solution came to me later that week. A friend showed up to a gallery opening looking smarter than usual. “I didn’t know you wore glasses.” “They’re fake,” she said. I tried them on for a laugh, and a cute girl immediately smiled at me. I had accidentally discovered my star brand: Goodbye, second-rate model. Hello, Cute Geek. Instead of competing with the Supermen, I’d come as Clark Kent.

My next audition was for the part of “Boyfriend,” but at the last minute they handed me something else instead: gamer geek in a video-store commercial. “Like Booger from Revenge of the Nerds,” the script read. I polished my new glasses and slouched into the casting studio.

“Okay, we’re going for a very deadpan, Clerks-style thing,” the casting agent said, looking us over. “Let’s try it.”

The spot was about a guy who’s been obsessively playing video games and hasn’t bathed for weeks. His manager walks in, gets a whiff of him and passes out from the stench. I read my lines well enough, but it was obvious I wasn’t really right for the part. Geek, yes. But Booger? I walked home feeling a little relieved, glad I wouldn’t have to make my TV debut for a video store chain I actually hated.

Two days later, my agent called. They loved the glasses. I got the part.

Okay, let’s try some improvising,” the director says. “Play with the dialogue a little. Let me hear you say ‘Absolutely, Doctor!’”

“Ab-so-lute-ly, Doctor!”

“Good! Now try really getting down in your rankness,” he says. They want that zany, Spicoli-type energy. The other actor (Tanya Kim, now co-host of CTV’s eTalk Daily) is super cute and I’m trying to crack her up. “Take it in—it’s rich. You’re just like, ‘Get a load of me.’ Try sniffing your armpit and saying the name of a type of cheese.”

It takes me a couple of tries to understand what he’s talking about. Then lightning strikes. I take a deep whiff à la Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda and exhale: “That’s feta, baby!”“Yes! That’s it! Feta is it!”For the first time, a bit of showbiz juice floods my brain. Who knows, maybe I’m about to spawn a new North American catchphrase. Maybe “That’s feta, baby!” or “Ab-so-lute-ly, Doctor!” will become the next “dy-no-mite!”

“Okay, let’s set up for the close-up.”

The costume people come at me from both sides, spraying more fake sweat into my armpits. Then two grips scurry forward with a modified tripod. They raise it to the height of my elbow and start adjusting its various clamps and buckles.

My delusions of Jimmie Walker greatness vanish as I realize what they’re doing: the director wants a close-up of the Game Freedom Pass™ video card in my hand, and my arm has to be strapped into a brace to hold it completely still. The real star of the spot has arrived: the logo. It’s time to pay the piper.

“Let’s do it!”

I loved No Logo, but here I am, an appendage of the machine. As the crew makes sure the light is playing perfectly off the card’s surface, I ask myself for the millionth time: Why am I doing this?

The weird thing is, it isn’t for the money. I’m not getting paid much, and the truth is I probably would have done this for a hundred bucks. For cab fare. For the same reason Alice stepped through the looking glass: just to see what it feels like.

“Rolling!”

A hush descends. The air suddenly tastes different. I feel the first X-rays pass through my body and hold my fingers perfectly still. The logo is ready for its close-up.