Gemma Howorth for BlackBerry.
Gemma Howorth shakes my hand, which comes as quite a surprise.
I’d arrived early for our 1 p.m. meeting in Parsons Green, a fashionable and monied section of west London, and began overanalyzing how I’d greet her while drinking an expensive glass of Coke in a nearby pub.
Howorth’s hands are insured for £5 million ($7.8 million), and she takes extraordinary care to look after them, given her job as a professional hand model. When she sunbathes, she wears gloves to protect them from the sun’s harmful rays; she opens car doors carefully; and she moisturises her hands more than 30 times a day.
I thought that made it unlikely she would proffer a hand; worse, were she to do so, I feared I might squeeze too hard and do untold damage to her livelihood — or perhaps get a call from her insurer and her solicitor.
Hands on a hard career
However, Howorth greets me in her office with a firm handshake, having spent the previous five minutes typing emails in a glassed-off space nearby with three staffers she employs as part of Body London, her modeling agency. The agency was set up as an extension of her career as a professional body-part model, which began when she was 16.
“My mum saw hand models being interviewed on GMTV [a morning TV show], and she was amazed you could make money from this,” Howorth explains. “A friend’s mum was a high-profile fashion photographer. She saw my hands and she said, ‘Gem, your hands are better than most of the girls I work with: go see this agency.’ So I did.”
That agency closed down, and Howorth bumped along with another one, which promoted body-part modeling as an adjunct to its fashion and catwalk service, before setting out on her own. “I saw a niche in the market,” she says, straightening her blue dress.
“When I originally set up Body London, there was no other agency that specialized in body parts. The bookers at normal agencies wouldn’t know what to do when a client asked for body-part models. They’d go: ‘Oh, yeah. Sophie’s got nice hands, hasn’t she?’”
But being a body-part model requires more than just “nice” limbs. They need to be exceptional — at least in terms of the body part that’ll be photographed. “People you’d never even think could be a model are hand models,” says Howorth. “They’re just very ordinary looking people with amazing hands.”
And you need to be strong-willed and kind. “Personality can have a massive impact,” she says. “You can’t be weird, or annoying, or a diva, because you’re often in such compromising positions. I’ve had to lie on top of A-list celebrities to act as their hands. You have to be super-easy and have no ego.”
Body-part modeling has been a thriving industry for at least three decades, says Sarah Morehead, a fashion marketing lecturer at Northumbria University. You can be the most beautiful, thin model in the world, she says, but not necessarily have attractive hands. It’s an unnatural extension to the hyper-perfect image our media produces: you have to be stunning in every way, even down to your cuticles.
More perfect stand-ins don’t just exist in the modeling world. Think about body doubles in movies. In 1934’s It Happened One Night, Claudette Colbert’s legs were going to be switched out for those of a chorus girl in the movie’s hitchhiking scene.1 Today, actors and actresses regularly step aside when a scene calls for them to be shot in close-up: they’d prefer people remember their celluloid perfection, rather than their cellulite reality. Realizing that, stand-ins for still shoots seem almost inevitable.
And as part-specific models increase in demand, the agency that Howorth runs, which started out by specializing, has now broadened its scope into the mainstream. Finding her niche has helped Howorth expand into fashion and catwalk modeling of the more general type everyone knows about. Howorth now seems like she may want to leave behind the specialist niche.
“You know I dig these awkward silences…”
Eight minutes into our conversation Howorth becomes bored. I’m midway through a question about the difference in steady income between her body-part models — who presumably work on a campaign-by-campaign basis — and her high-end fashion models when she cuts me off.
“Is this going to be about body parts?” she asks. “I’d prefer it not just to be about the body parts, if I’m honest.” Howorth was focused on London Fashion Week, which was 10 days after our conversation, and booking her full-body models for that event.
Luckily, Howorth’s not the only game in town. Though her agency — set up three and a half years ago — was at the time the sole UK organizer of body-part shoots, plenty of models have carved out niches of their own.
Jemma Jade Saare works as a model for Harvey Nichols’ online website, wearing the clothes they sell through their e-commerce arm. She also specializes in lip and leg modeling for a variety of clients, including fashion photographer Rankin, and appears in campaigns for Kurt Geiger and Weight Watchers.2 Saare had been a fashion and commercial model since the age of nine, and met Howorth on a shoot a few years back.
They became Facebook friends, and it was through the social network that Saare moved from fashion modeling to specializing in body parts.
“I had a picture up on my Facebook profile,” Saare explains. Fresh from a day shooting for Harvey Nichols, her hair’s swept over her right shoulder, tumbling down her black dress. “It had my legs in it. Gemma saw it and said, ‘You’ve got great legs: would you be interested in doing body parts?’ I’d never considered it before, but I said absolutely.”
Saare wasn’t the only person who didn’t consider that there was a person behind the hands holding an iPad in an Apple ad. She slowed down the number of shoots she did to complete an English Literature degree. Invariably the conversation of her work came up, including with her tutor.
“He found it quite off-putting,” she laughs. “He had in his head a vision of just body parts, detached from the rest of the body, and he didn’t quite get it. I had to assure him that I wasn’t removing my limbs; they were fully attached.”
That’s not to say that body-part modeling isn’t as strange as the notion of detached limbs setting themselves into poses. Saare’s had her fair share of strange shoots.
“I did a Weight Watchers campaign. And my role was to squeeze a cod liver capsule between my lips as it all squirted into the camera.”
Saare grimaces at the recollection of it. “We did it over and over and over and over again.” By now she’s laughing at the memory. “That was real cod liver oil, all over me, in my mouth. Everywhere. And that was awful!”
Jemma Jade Saare grew sick of the taste of cod liver oil.
Work can be hard, too. Anyone who has bought a pair of tights from Primark, a mass retailer that has stormed European high streets in the past decade, will likely have seen Saare’s work. She possesses the slender legs that adorn the store’s hosiery packaging.3
“That was really tough,” she says. “We did some crazy, crazy poses. I had to pretend like I was sitting on things all day, but really I wasn’t. It was one continuous squat all day.”
The work can be tough, but Saare’s grateful for it. “Really, we’re privileged to be in this position.”
Saare’s careful with her legs, which can be difficult because she freely admits she is clumsy, falling over and tripping up more than most. “I need to make sure I don’t bruise myself or cut my legs, just damage my legs at all.” If she harms her legs or lips, she loses out on income. And in a smaller industry, that can be harmful.
When I call Kayko Andrieux she is at a nail salon, getting a manicure and a pedicure. That’s the life of a professional foot and hand model of 15 years. “We’re just paid to take better care of our bodies,” she says sanguinely. For Andrieux, that entails nail treatments every two weeks and taking extra care all around.
Andrieux moved to London from New York and found the London Underground less than welcoming. A fellow commuter stood on her foot. Andrieux lost a toenail and couldn’t work for six months. “Our nails and our feet are pretty much our way of making money,” she says.
Andrieux wears covers on her feet every day, and avoids high heels, which can cause corns. She’ll smear Vaseline on her feet and wear cotton socks, and applies lotion “like 25 times a day.” All told, she spends around £200 ($320) each month on her beauty regimen, including manicures, pedicures, and her own maintenance kit for her feet, which includes things such as emery boards, files, lotions, and balms. “Every hand and foot model has a kit,” she says.
She works with another London-based agency, Hired Hands, and has previously been allied with Parts Models, a New York agency considered the world’s largest and best. The larger media scene around fashion in the United States, Andrieux believes, means that parts models have had more work for longer there than in Britain.
“You’ve got so many magazines and catalogs,” she begins. “You need to show shoes on live models’ feet, and rings and necklaces on real people. You can’t just have a mannequin.”
Andrieux believes there’s a big difference between a professional foot model and a normal person, who may think body-part modeling is easy. A normal person doesn’t know how to pose their limbs correctly, they bite their nails, and they have scars. “They’d spend so much money retouching people,” she says, laughing.
Initially she was one of those naysayers about the body parts industry. “I used to think it was crap and I was too good for it,” she admits. “Now I don’t have to cast [audition for work]; I know what makes it special and professional. I know it’s a skill.”
And that can be important. One shot, using her hands for a Masterchef commercial, took two and a half hours. “It’s extremely exhausting and frustrating for everyone. You have to meet a particular brief. Any commercial is very intense.” She avoids coffee before a shoot: “You don’t want the shakes when there’s a close-up on your hand.”
But she’s confident that there’s a future for her as a parts model. Though she shoots commercial and fashion campaigns, the specialist body-part work will see her through another 15 years, she feels.
“It’s not like you stop doing this when you’re old or you’re fat: your hands or your feet don’t really change. I’m always taking good care of my body.” All the same, she’s realistic: “You won’t see me doing horseback riding, though.”
No one quite knows how big the body-part modeling industry is. Saare doesn’t know; Andrieux won’t hazard a guess; Howorth can’t put a number on it. Nor can Sarah Morehead of Northumbria University. “It’s definitely more of a niche market than commercial modeling,” says Saare. That doesn’t make it any less challenging to break into the industry: “the competition’s a lot smaller, but then again so is the clientele.”
Which perhaps explains why Howorth wanted to talk about the other part of her business: the fashion and catwalk modeling side. She has somewhere between 300 and 400 models on her books, all told, and about 15 percent of those people are body-part models.
Some are the bright young ingenues who make up most of the public’s general perception of the modeling world. Some aren’t. Howorth books models for body-part shoots who are in their teens, and others old enough to have teenage children. Some model full-time; always have, always will. Some are lawyers who book vacation time from work to attend shoots. Some grew up modeling and took a break to get a degree, but hope to return to their previous work.
Saare thinks about where she wants to be in 20 years. “I don’t want my own agency, definitely not. But apart from that, I don’t really know. I’m enjoying what I do right now, but in 10 or 20 years I would hope I’m doing something with my degree, rather than modeling.”
She had hoped to be a writer after graduating from college, but she believes the modeling hindered her. “I’m incredibly proud of modeling, and I wouldn’t want to take it off my CV,” she says. “But I think as soon as people see it some people can’t see past it. Some associate it with being an airhead. Which is quite unfortunate.”
Saare seems like the sort of person you’d get on famously with. Bright and bubbly, she embodies everything Howorth told me made a successful model — the need to be personable, to be professional, modest, smart, warm, and welcoming. Evidently agencies and clients agree, booking her on successive jobs, five days or more a week.4
I can’t quite place the face
Howorth has been at the body-part modeling career for years, and she is an established name working with well-paying clients. She can get up to £3,000 ($4,800) per job being a hand model, she tells me. Andrieux says that on occasion, the commitment needed from body-part models means they are paid slightly more than the average model. A friend of hers in New York made $200,000 a year, and in her first year Andrieux made $50,000. Being the only black foot model who wears size 7 in New York has its advantages. Saare was paid “in the thousands” for her Weight Watchers campaign with Rankin.
It all depends on the size of the client, the size of the campaign, and how many times your limbs will be seen by customers. Day rates for body-part work are similar to those for general modeling, and typically begin at around £250 ($400), but as with other industries with some glamor and a pecuniary bent, “so many people are willing to work unpaid to simply say they are a model.”
And though this is a career that has put Saare into a home, and allowed her to start paying off a mortgage, she doesn’t covet Kate Moss levels of fame.
“Not because I’m not proud of it,” she stresses. It’s just that it’s a job. The fact that hundreds of thousands of people see her on their computer screens, TVs, and clothes packaging, yet she is able to walk down the street unrecognized, is liberating. “I like that I can come away from my job and still have a life away from work. People don’t have to know who I am. I can just get on with my life.”
Saare has a nervous tick, running her hands up and down her hair as if she were shimmying down a rope. She does this five or six times during our conversation, but at this point her hair hangs loose, her hands are in her lap, and her smile is broad.
“I don’t feel cheated because it’s only my lips or only my legs.”
The stand-in was not chosen for aesthetic reasons: Colbert felt that flashing a bit of leg was unladylike. She became willing to use her own when she saw the chorus-line girl’s legs and felt they weren’t up to muster. ↩
Saare too balances a career in fashion and catwalk modeling with her body-part work. Though on a Venn diagram the two often overlap, sometimes they don’t. Some body-part models don’t have the looks for general, whole-body work. Some catwalk models have ugly hands. ↩
Saare’s in the enviable position of not having to work out that much for her legs. “I build up muscle really quickly. When it comes to legs, the less I work out the better,” she admits. ↩
Saare works five days a week for Harvey Nichols, a UK department store. When I ask her how she finds time to relax, she laughs and says she doesn’t. Lately, she’s been doing catwalk shows on weekends as well as her regular weekday work. “It’s hectic,” she admits, “but you have to appreciate the work when it comes in. You dose up on vitamins and power through.” ↩
Chris Stokel-Walker is a UK-based freelance writer for the Economist, the Sunday Times, the BBC, and BuzzFeed.