Top model?

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by Cooper Pfeene
Contributor

It took a phalanx of judges seated three feet away with a crotch-level gaze to remind me how ugly I am. Believe me, I’m aware of all my physical shortcomings — much like the anorexia camp counselor, I always feel fat — but I tend not to think about these on a daily basis. E.g., I don’t think of myself as being short, so I don’t feel short, that is, until some thirteen-year-old a whole two-heads taller than myself breezes past me at the mall. And even then, I don’t dwell on it, because I make up for my short stature in many other ways, and, really, there’s not much that’s sadder than a short guy who’s self-conscious about his height.

While onstage, though, it was difficult not to think about the scrutiny of the panel and the small crowd gathered, the latter of whom, if they were anything like the group of people I was there with, were rating me, and viciously.

Repeating through my mind was a question, one whose answer troubles me: Is $2,500 really worth this?

Eight hours prior, I had had brunch with one of my closest friends, nursing a post-Artrageous Grey Goose bloody Mary. (Some things make you drink because they’re so much fun that you join in, while others make you drink because the DJ had spun Gloria Gaynor’s claim to fame and the crowd had cheered.) Over a waffle and an omelet, we discussed Bridgestone’s continued foray into gay-targeted advertising, wondering if they had a nifty acronym for this marketing plan à la that dromedary tobacco company, hoping they didn’t.

We imagined testimonials from men out partying, not exactly lisping, no Paul Lynde these guys, but maybe a bit too oblivious:

  • No, no, I love Bridgestone.
  • Ooh, yeah, he’s fine. Damn, where’s my bullet?
  • He is…. Huh? Check your back pocket. Bridgestone? Oh, Bridgestone, ’cause when my cracked-out boyfriend’s driving us home from Play on a rainy night, I don’t have to worry about slippage.
  • Without Bridgestone’s safeguards against catastrophic loss of traction, his boyfriend’s whole driving-with-one-eye technique wouldn’t work so well.
  • Bitch’d wind up in a ditch. Did I leave it in the stall?
  • Yeah, when we woke up the next morning, we’d have to go and find the car—
  • Quit playing. I saw you pocket it.
  • — but with Bridgestone all-weather radials, alls I have to do is peek through the blinds. Sure, the car may be half on the driveway and half on the lawn, but at least it’s there.
  • I betcha Wynona didn’t have no Bridgestones on her car when Metro pulled her ass over.

My friend asked me what the audition would be like. I didn’t know, but I pictured men and women being unreasonably affectionate and displaying psychotic smiles — morning talk show hosts, them all. Then again, were I daily seated next to the chase, I, too, would have to distract myself with facial yoga to keep from deeply pondering the direction my life’s taken, from wondering whether or not hair plugs have truly advanced far enough.

So what are you going to do until then? he asked. To prepare?

Lots of pushups, I joked.

After brunch we walked around the Village, stopping in Posh briefly. If I were selected as one of the models I’d almost be able to afford an outfit from this store.

Thumbing through racks of ridiculously priced tees and polos, though, did serve a purpose other than to highlight my perennial penury and fashion dyslexia: Just what would I wear?

I decided to be ironic, choosing my trusty pair of Lucky’s and a fitted shirt with an interesting black-line floral design over one side of the chest and back.

The crowd was comprised of many you’d expect, and it was, on average, a more attractive crowd than usual — as ever, though, there were the outliers, i.e., those who’d screw the arithmetic mean: two men who could have been my grandfathers, a woman who resembled a thinner Kathy Bates, and several younger guys who, like many American Idol tryouts, you can’t help but wonder about: I mean, just what do they see in the mirror? Please don’t mistake me, for I don’t say that to fault them; rather, I say this out of a benign form of jealousy, for their talent is something I’ve always wished I possessed.

I came to the casting call knowing that I wouldn’t be selected because I lack the talent to make artificiality appear natural, which would explain why many of the others who, living and breathing, wouldn’t garner a second glance, but while onstage, posed and beaming, seemed handsome. If only this were real life, and if only I hadn’t heard many of these same men speak while out socially, for a lack of intelligence and grace can just ruin the scenery, so to speak. Shortly before the second round callbacks, when contestant number six bet me a drink that I’d be one of those picked, I gladly accepted the wager. After he was called up onto stage and I wasn’t, I enjoyed my only beer of the night as much as I could, having “won” that bet. At that point, someone joked that now I had an excuse to try out for porn—this being the same guy who joked he’d reply, “Does Sean Cody count?” if asked whether or not he’d ever modeled before—but, sadly, I lack the right “looks” for that as well.

I also knew I wouldn’t be selected when the photographer, upon lowering the tripod to get my hobbitness into frame, remarked, “Oh, it’s not that bad,” just like I knew I wouldn’t make the cut when, before the auditions had even started and an acquaintance wanted to get a picture of me and two other friends, no matter how hard I tried, I blinked at the exact moment the picture was snapped; if only this laser-accurate sense of timing extended past the realm of humiliation to, say, humor.

And, last, I knew I wouldn’t be selected as a model because my mind wouldn’t then, and doesn’t usually, let me smile unselfconsciously; I’ve got more “tells” than a gossip columnist, which is why I’ve never waited tables, or, apparently, taken up modeling.

For certain, $2,500 would have been nice, but did I truly want to be that guy in the picture glancing up with an ecstatic face and an insane smile, as though the Virgin Mary has just appeared to me inside Pottery Barn?

Sadly, yes. Why? There are both pragmatic and narcissistic reasons: to the former, I could have halved my credit card debt; to the latter, I would have had proof that all the shortcomings I see in the mirror aren’t so readily apparent to everyone else, proof that my friends and family aren’t lying to me when they say I have a distorted sense of my appearance.

There are some things that happen in our lives which, were we to put them in works of fiction, would seem hopelessly contrived, sickeningly precious (see so, so very much of On the Road), which is one of the main reasons why fiction will never truly mirror life…but I digress.

The following morning, without knowledge of my failed attempt to capitalize on a fading face, a straight male coworker said, “Damn, man, did’ya tie one on last night, or’d you get tied up?”

I smiled before I thought otherwise, and in the window’s reflection I saw the laugh lines around my eyes and lips, lines that disappear completely when I’m not smiling, and I liked the contrast, liked that, no matter how many times I still get carded, even at the movies, there are moments when I look haggard and worn, as if I have lived more than I have.