Petey is 20, from Tennessee, and so pretty. Last fall, he won the first Vman Ford Model Search competition and appeared on the cover of the men’s version of V magazine, shot by the designer Hedi Slimane. In the photo, Petey is shirtless, his face at a quarter-turn toward the camera, his hair swept off his head in an expressive pompadour. This made him one of the unofficial hot new things of Fashion Week, a position he seemed to be enjoying.
Not long ago, last year in fact, Petey was working at a restaurant in Nashville called Rafferty’s. A woman he was serving asked him if he had ever thought about being a model. He said he had not, even though a co-worker had once suggested he could be one. The woman took a few photos of him and gave him her card. She sent the test shots to Ford, where his smooth, skinny body and dramatic Johnny Depp jawline landed him a multiyear contract. “He has a natural ease in front of the camera that a lot of new kids don’t have right away,” says Blake Woods, an agent in Ford’s men’s division.
By September, Pete had broken up with his girlfriend Sally, moved up to New York, and, like dozens of other fresh boys, spent Fashion Week rushing from runway show to casting to fitting to party to get his face noticed. A typical day: a meeting at Steven Meisel’s office to take a test shot for a new Calvin Klein jeans campaign, then the Duckie Brown fashion show, then the Rag & Bone fashion show, then a fitting at DKNY, then a fitting at Tim Hamilton. I rode the N train with him down to Meisel’s studio in Soho. On the subway, we saw another male model, with long blond hair. “There’s one. You can spot them really easily,” Petey said with the geeky glee of a freshman. In person, Petey is friendly and endearingly dorky. “Sometimes I’ll see another model on the street and we will nod ‘hey’ to each other. It’s like a club.”
At the Duckie Brown show in Bryant Park, Petey is getting ready to walk. There must be about 25 or 30 other long-torsoed boys as well, including Petey’s fellow Ford models AJ and Nico. They had to get there at 10:30 a.m. for a 1 p.m. show. “They are young and they need to learn to be on time,” says Ford men’s agent Emily Novak. “It’s a multilevel job. We’re mom, we’re financial advisers, we’re getting the work. They are our responsibility.”
The Duckie clothes have Velcro hoods, nylon mesh, long pants, and two-tone hybrid sneaker-shoes. Petey, in makeup, his hair foofed high on his head, is stuffing his face with free food and joking around with AJ. “Oh, no, look who it is,” AJ says and gestures to another model who walks in. The boy is decked out in a fedora, skinny pants, and suspenders. He poses and struts around the room. “That guy’s a dick,” Petey says. “There are guys who love that they are models. If I have to hear about your Herbal Essences commercial, I’m out.”
Duckie Brown has hired a friendly-looking silver-haired Asian woman named Lynne O’Neill to produce the show. Like a patient eighth-grade teacher, she tells the boys how to walk. “Everyone, this is Modeling 101. Look at that specific point where the cameras are while walking. Don’t cut the walls. Come out center. Make a clean turn.”
The boys are restless but pay attention. Then they each practice walking—a normal, nothing walk. Unlike the female models who lean back and clomp down the runway, the men just walk like they were caught thinking about vanilla. “At first I was thinking about it too hard, but now I just walk,” says Petey. “It’s pretty easy.”
When the show is over, Petey, AJ, and I speed over to Pier 94 on the West Side Highway for the Rag & Bone show. Neither of Petey’s runway gigs today will pay any money. Instead, he’ll receive “trade”: a free sweater and sneakers from Duckie Brown and a $1,000 credit at Rag & Bone. The clothes are all right, but it’s hard to pay rent with a retro peacoat.
Financially speaking, male modeling is not unlike being a straight-male porn star: The men have always made less than the women, and very few become big names. For most magazine work, models are paid less than $250. Twenty percent of that goes to the agency, which also bills models for their board and expenses. “Sometimes you get charged for things you never thought of,” says Petey, “like $30 a month to be on the website.”