You might recognize me. Well, parts of me. My picture has been in major magazines. I’ve appeared on shopping channels modeling for household name brands. Go into any big box hardware store, and you’ll see my image peppered on major brand packaging throughout the store.
When I was a senior in college, I decided to pursue my childhood dream of acting. I got a taste of the lights and cameras when I appeared on an episode of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” and I was hooked. I had to try to recreate that moment and the excitement of being on camera.
I took my winnings from the show and paid for a modeling portfolio and acting headshots. Within weeks of sending out my photos, I had signed with an agency in Philadelphia, the big city nearest to me.
Six months later, I was paying my dues, taking live spokesmodel work at different events and being constantly rejected at auditions I was too young for. I got the feeling my agency wasn’t pulling for me because I was still a newbie, and for all they knew, I was like all the other pretty 20-somethings hoping to be actresses or models. To them, I could be as flaky as a buttery croissant.
Then I got a call that would change the course of my career.
My agent called, sounding a little tentative as she described a job she wanted me to take that she described as “a little different.” She told me she needed a petite performer, about my size, with dancing abilities and stage experience ― to be a dancing costumed root vegetable in a series of performances throughout the state.
I’d be required to do the dance numbers while wearing a nearly 50-pound potato costume. When she asked if I wanted the job, I hesitated. This was not exactly what I had in mind, but she assured me the job paid well.
I tossed my pride out the window and learned the choreography. Donning a giant potato costume, I appeared as dancing root vegetable at several locations throughout the Philadelphia metro area. I was punctual, prompt and professional. The client and my talent agency were both thrilled.
She told me she needed a petite performer, about my size, with dancing abilities and stage experience ― to be a dancing costumed root vegetable in a series of performances throughout the state.
I had mixed emotions over my professional acting debut. On one hand, I was now a professional performer and had disproven everyone who said I’d never make money performing. On the other hand, I was literally a giant dancing root vegetable.
I told my family that I was performing in a professional show, but I left out some very key details ― like the fact that I was appearing as a dancing potato in said show. I decided to have my moment and gloat without letting my pride take the hit.
A month after I wrapped up my stint as a potato, I had continued on with my normal life, getting rejected at auditions for young mom roles in commercials and working my very flexible 9-to-5 for a local photographer, when my agent called.
“Jenna,” she said, “I was looking at your portfolio trying to find you something good. Your hands are stunning. I have a client looking for a reliable hand model for a national chicken campaign. You’re on the short list. Can you get me a better photo of your hands by the end of the day?”
I wasn’t really surprised by the request. I’d known my hands were different since my husband tried to buy an engagement ring for my very tiny fingers. When I was at the height of my modeling career, my ring size was an astonishingly small 2 ¼. It made my hands painful to find rings for, but as long as I wasn’t being asked to model rings, which I never was, it made my hands perfect for the camera. When I was 21, I’d take any opportunity to be on camera, even if it was just my hands.
So I called in a favor and got some pictures of my hands done in a hurry. By the next day, I had booked my first print job, for a poultry brand. My agent confirmed me for a half-day rate, which was enough cash to nearly pay the rent on my apartment for a month, and I was thrilled. Surely, I would show up, hair and makeup camera-ready, and they would change their mind and use more than just my fingers. And even if they didn’t, I was finally meeting a client and professional photographer who used models and actresses in other bookings.
When I was 21, I’d take any opportunity to be on camera, even if it was just my hands.
That’s not how it works, though. Advertisers show up to photo shoots and commercials with storyboards and very detailed shot lists, so all I had to do was show up and wait. Once the lighting was right, I’d get called to the set and the photographer and the advertisers would be so focused on showcasing the product they would barely look past the parts of me needed for the job.
Nobody would really look at me ― other than to see if my hands fit the very specific set of requirements I would be given before each job. Most of the time, clients would request a short, rounded square nail with a natural look, which always meant one sheer coat of nude polish but almost never a French manicure to hide any imperfections in my nails. Occasionally, I’d have a crazy request, like the time I booked a series of vampire romance novel covers and had to have long, blood-red nails and matching blood-red lips. For those jobs, I was required to get acrylic tips put on and to walk around with daggers on my hands for weeks.
Once, during break on one of those sets, I made conversation with a photographer. He asked about my background and I mentioned that I danced in college and still took classes to keep my skills sharp. He told me he was disappointed because most dancers don’t have nice feet. I was wearing a pair of dressy sandals that day, and he looked down at my feet as he said it, expecting to see nothing but bunions and mangled toes. Instead, he saw cared-for feet with neon-pink polish on the toes.
He offered me one of the strangest compliments of my career. He told me my feet did not fit the dancer mold and that I’d probably make a great foot model because my feet were long and slender and I was used to manipulating them into precise positions for ballet. While awkward, it was just another conversation that led to a booking about a month later for my first foot and leg photoshoot ― with the same photographer, who requested me because I was easy to work with.
I was basically scrubbing toilets on camera for hours for a brand of toilets that marketed itself as being easy to clean, with convenient and removable seats.
As my reputation for professionalism and taking direction grew, most of the photographers and directors worked with me multiple times. Only a few could recognize my face, but each one could recognize my hands or feet. Still, they recognized my work ethic and professionalism, and I became one of the go-to girls in my area whenever advertisers needed a set of expressive but elegant hands or a pair of talented, bunion-free feet.
While friends thought I was living my best life on all these sets and assumed I was rubbing elbows with the glitterati, I was never more than my parts ― a hand, a foot, and sometimes, a scalp.
The reality of my job was spending long hours in my car driving all over the Philadelphia metro area, from South Jersey to Lancaster, in search of shoot locations, which were normally dusty, dank old warehouses. For one job, I was basically scrubbing toilets on camera for hours for a brand of toilets that marketed itself as being easy to clean, with convenient and removable seats. Once, I had to ring the same doorbell over and over again, in a slightly different way each time. Another time, I had my hair brushed and powder applied to my scalp while the announcer and a very well-known comedian discussed the plight of my thin hair live on national television, as if the rest of me wasn’t even there. Another time, I spent hours cutting into a partially cooked chicken while the chicken blood ran down the table onto my pants for hours. Over 10 years later, raw chicken still makes me shudder.
I told myself I was doing it: living my dream. But only parts of me were living the dream, and this version of the dream was not glamorous. It involved weird hours, doing even weirder things on camera repeatedly.
It also meant taking meticulous care of my hands and feet. I made sure my nails were never too short and my hands were never cut, dry or injured. Sometimes I’d lather my hands with moisturizer and shove them in a pair of spa socks at night a day or two before a job. Other times, it provided a convenient excuse to avoid doing the dishes so my hands wouldn’t chap. It meant taking care of my feet and making sure my ballet habit didn’t give me blisters or bunions. But for the most part, I was able to live a normal life while having this less-than-normal job.
Sometimes I'd lather my hands with moisturizer and shove them in a pair of spa socks at night a day or two before a job.
I worked off and on as a parts model for the better part of a decade, all the while waiting for my look to mature to fit the market I live and work in. I kept going to auditions for acting work and the occasional commercial modeling gig. I booked some acting jobs, always playing a character much younger than my years, and appeared in some traditional print work.
I used to be discouraged that I wasn’t successful as a “regular” model. All my life, I had been told I was pretty, and in the lowest moments of my modeling days, I’d suddenly doubt that I was. My worth became tied to the sum of my parts, and that could mess with my mind. I stopped loving the funny stories I’d walk away from jobs with. The work lost its novelty.
While I take the occasional parts modeling job nowadays to help save money for a vacation or a home project, I stopped marketing myself as a parts model. It allowed me to get rejected in acting auditions in the past and enter the photography business and figure out how I fit into the professional world as a creative.
Plus, the hustle taught me Business 101. Parts modeling showed me how to work for myself, doing anything from acting to photography to writing. It taught me that professionalism is key and paying your dues gets you noticed eventually.
Getting recognition may not happen the way you want, but with a little creativity and resourcefulness, you can use any recognition to your advantage. These truths helped me build several successful businesses and remain a profitable entrepreneur for the majority of my career.
And I learned these truths doing professional hand jobs.
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