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.”
The only hope of making ends meet is to book an ad campaign or catalogue job. But even those are less lucrative than they once were. “Where you used to get $5K for a job, it’s now $2K,” says JD Ferguson, a former model who now works as a fashion photographer. “I remember my booker saying to me, ‘Hey, if you won’t do $2,000, there’s another guy right behind you that will.’ ”
Backstage, a photographer comes over to take a photo of AJ. He makes a stern face—not a clichéd Zoolander pout so much as an expression of vacant cruelty. AJ is from Kentucky, has light-brown hair, steely blue eyes, and an action-hero physique. He is mild-mannered, speaks Arabic, and is studying business. But he wants to be an actor. “I want to be Daniel Craig and be the next 007.”
He and another guy watch a female model as she assumes various poses (shrug shoulders, pretend to laugh, make a peace sign) for photographers. “God, that girl is gorgeous. I would drag my balls though a mile of broken glass to be with her,” says the other guy.
Almost all of the male models I meet seem straight. “Gay models will go down in history as the biggest misconception about the male modeling world,” says Ferguson.
But being straight doesn’t seem to make any difference backstage, where the female models are avoiding the male models like at recess in elementary school. The women are preened over by stylists, surrounded by fashion reporters, while the guys just hang around and smoke. Maybe it’s the discrepancy in income and age—the girls all seem to be highly paid 15-year-olds. “They seem, I don’t know, really serious,” says AJ.
There are some women who are interested in Petey and his friends. The guys call them modelizers. “That’s some girl who will fuck guys according to how many campaigns they’ve had,” Petey says. Apparently there are a lot of them, but Petey’s not that interested. “I don’t know what I am getting into with all this.”
Petey lives in an apartment in South Williamsburg with Jesse, a part-time model in film school, and Tiara, a waitress and aspiring actor. It’s a huge space, for which they pay $2,400. The place looks as if six families lived there and suddenly had to evacuate: clothes all over the floor, cheap furniture, cans of Polar Ice beer arranged in a triangle on the table like billiard balls.
Jesse and Petey sleep in gray metal bunk beds in the back room, and Tiara is sleeping on the futon in front of the TV because she doesn’t have a bed yet. AJ is crashing here for Fashion Week as well. Petey brought him over because otherwise he would have to stay at one of the model apartments. “It’s nuts at those places. They charge like $1,200 a month for a bunk bed,” he says. “There’s all these rules, and the guy who runs it is tense.”
Ford maintains two male-model apartments—one in Greenpoint and one in a high-rise in Chinatown—but agencies have them all over the city. In the Greenpoint apartment, there are five bedrooms, each with at least two sets of bunk beds, plus a central room with a large kitchen and living room that contains a Chuck Norris–style exercise machine. A model named Will Anderson found the place and persuaded Ford to let him be the super and manager. At 36 years old, he is like the stern Mrs. Garrett in the house. He has lived in model apartments for ten years now, and in 2006 he self-published a coffee-table photo book called Apt. 301, a collection of his snapshots of sexy boy models sleeping, eating, and horsing around in messy rooms and rumpled sheets.
Will has placed admonitory signs all over the apartment. “If you use a plate etc. wash it don’t leave it in the sink!!!” says one, hanging above the sink, written on a paper towel in bleeding red letters. On the front door: “To anyone staying here make yourself at home!! Be clean. DON’T FUCK with anything or you will be sent home + lose your contract with FORD.”
At the Chinatown apartment, there’s no such chaperone. It’s more of a Just Put Crap Down When You Are Done With It guys’ dorm. A bowl of soggy, half-completed cereal is left on a desk; a cruddy shelf is filled with self-improvement books (Coaching the Artist Within, Live What You Love); a bottle of Grunge Off, used to clean the sticky resin out of a bong, sits next to the TV. The fridge contains ketchup, Smucker’s Goober jelly–peanut butter, eggs, one slice of American cheese, two Pepsis, and a half-eaten package of bologna. The rent here is $1,000 to $1,200 a month for a bed.
For Fashion Week, Nico and Jakob are living here with three other models. Nico, from Chicago, was discovered at a skating event when he was 15. In 2007, when he was 17, he appeared with Sienna Miller in a Pepe Jeans campaign. He is shy and brooding and pretends to not care about modeling. Jakob, from Leipzig, looks like a rosy-cheeked private-school boy. He was discovered on the street near the Technische Universität in Berlin, where he studies economics. Last season, he became the lead male runway model for Givenchy.
When I visit, the guys are sitting on the big black leather couch watching Back to the Future Part III. The apartment smells like pot, but the boys pretend they don’t smoke it until I mention that I like pot, and then one expertly rolls a spliff. We watch Christopher Lloyd rescue Mary Steenburgen on a steam train.
They say that when they have girls over, the other roommate just agrees to sleep on the couch. But it doesn’t seem like many women have been here.
I notice a composition notebook wedged into a stack of books by the TV, left perhaps by a model passing through. The author takes account of his short modeling history: “The first shit agency. Signing with Ford. Not doing shit for almost 6 months. Then finally having a career, heading home, heading back, losing wallet.”
A few pages later, there is a self-improvement to-do list: “Start studying trends in fashion. Discovering more and more models transfer into acting. Big modeling begins in New York and then branches. Double major in business/acting.
“Thoughts: 1) Modeling is not just earned over time, it’s more being perfect all the time. 2) Take more care of self: working out, diet, skin care. 3) I love the way the static hits the screen and makes Heidi Klum’s tits shake.”
A couple nights later, we are at the Vman party at Indochine, celebrating the model-search winners. There is an ice-sculpture replica of Petey’s cover photo. “Look! I am immortalized in ice!” he jokes. I watch him glad-hand his way around the room. He is dressed up in a slim suit like a fifties greaser.
Jakob and Nico are here as well. Nico, who somehow knows how to exude sexuality like there is a smoke machine around him at all times, is wearing a silver-sequined jacket. All of them were dressed by stylists. “I would never wear this, ever,” says Nico.
Petey introduces me to a girl he is sort of seeing, Nika, who is tall, with a big face that is almost a perfect circle. She is also a model and is dressed in a tight kimono-style dress with heavy-looking earrings and a shiny brooch on the collar. They met a week ago on a photo shoot for a label’s look book. One photo had her topless with her hair in front of her breasts.
Nika’s friend, also a model, is equally tall with red hair and pale skin. I ask her why most female models seem to avoid the men backstage. “It’s because most guy models are douche bags.”
“Is it because they are always hitting on you and stuff?” I ask.
“No! The opposite! I’ll be changing and getting naked in front of them, and they will be staring at their own bodies.”
But here everyone is mingling. AJ, who was one of the finalists for the model search, tells me he was invited by another woman at the party to go upstairs and watch her while she changed clothes.
Another Vman finalist named Adam is wandering the party wearing a dark suit with platinum hair, which makes him look like a beautiful Anne Rice vampire-angel. He’s 18 years old, sweet, open, polite. He tells me he’s staying in a bottom bunk at the Greenpoint model apartment. “Every day I have had castings. Even on weekends,” he says. For the Vman competition, he entered snapshots that his girlfriend took. Like Petey, he broke up with her when he moved up here.
Later, he tells me he met an actress at the party. They both lied about their ages. “She has a small role in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and is up for a role in Gossip Girl.”
Over the course of the fall, Petey, Nico, Adam, and AJ all went back home. It wasn’t that they were giving up. They just missed home, and they couldn’t afford to stay in New York between jobs anyway.
Jakob went back to school in Europe, but he’s been the busiest of all the models, with campaigns for Givenchy, Lacoste, and Trussardi, and runway shows in Paris and Milan. Adam has been in demand as well, although he didn’t go to Europe for the shows because he couldn’t afford the airfare. He just returned to New York and moved into Petey’s old apartment in Williamsburg, with Jesse and two other guys. He plans on staying until May at least, “to lay the foundation and continue to develop the book,” he says, like a serious sophomore returning to school. He is in talks with his agent over the critical decision about whether he should keep his hair platinum or let it go natural. “I’ve dyed it three times so far, so it may fall out. Right now I have some cool roots going on,” he says. He hasn’t made much money yet, but photographers love him. “He’s an editorial star,” says Novak.
Petey’s been to Paris three times since Fashion Week to do work for Yves Saint Laurent. He also did a Joop! Jeans campaign. “It takes so long before I see the money, though. And with 40 percent for taxes, 20 percent for Ford, who knows how much it will be.”
He sounds a little weary, and lonely. “You get up and get on a plane, go through customs alone, your cell phone doesn’t work, you don’t talk to your friends. I’m in a weird state right now. I’m not sure what I really want.”
He’d mostly prefer to stay in Nashville, especially now that he’s trying to rekindle things with Sally. “I was doing some things I shouldn’t have been doing. She is in the process of forgiving me,” he says. “Sally was my first real girlfriend, not one of those three-week high-school girlfriends … I really love her.”
But his agents are urging him to get back to New York, fast. “They told me it’s a vital time in my career,” he says. Vman and Ford just announced the winners of the second-annual Model Search, and the model apartments will soon be filled with a new crop of pretty faces. Last year’s boys will have to hustle.