A Brief Adventure: My Year as a Male Underwear Model
What happens when a 31-year-old journalist tries his hand at a notoriously unforgiving industry?
Let’s get something clear at the outset. No one has ever told me I should be a model. I am insufficiently good-looking for the role, my measurables are too close to the mean, and I’ve rarely considered myself in front of a mirror and whispered, “One day, these cheekbones will pay my rent.”
But the pandemic got me thinking. And it also got me pumping. Where once my energy would have been expended cycling and walking everywhere, now it was rooted to the spot like an obedient dog. Having bought a pair of 15kg dumbbells in January, I decided to put this restless energy to good (if decidedly vain) use: I heaved these around for five or six workouts a week and tried to eat more than I normally would. For the first time in my life, my body was becoming a different shape. My biceps grew, my chest expanded. The skin between the buttons of my smaller shirts started saying hello.
The other by-product of a catastrophic global pandemic was that it became harder to get work as a freelance journalist. Editors weren’t emailing me with work, and the ones I emailed talked about budget cuts and freezes on freelancers. So, I thought, why not use the first development to solve the second? Why not ditch the penury of freelance journalism and live my life as an underwear model, splayed out on skyscraper-tall yachts, being painted golden by the sun?
I worked out almost every day as the weeks and months dragged on. Jack Hanrahan, a personal trainer who has worked with people like Jennifer Lawrence and Rami Malek, told me, “The key to building a well-balanced frame is to stick to the basics and put in the work — consistently.” He recommended I focus on free-weight compound exercises like squats and dumbbell rows. I soon discovered — while eating the four daily meals that he and countless other big boys recommend — that one thing separating the buff from the super-buff is the amount of their day they’re willing to spend cutting up chicken.
Looking to men who have made money in their underpants, I emailed (strapping, adonis-like) model David Gandy’s representatives for some advice from the man himself. I imagined that this giant of the industry would be more than happy to help out a budding model in the same position he once w—
“This is not something that David would be available for at the moment,” his people responded.
With or without Gandy’s help, I needed to begin. The agencies had to know that there was a hot new prospect in town, ready to be signed.
As you can see, my initial poses were somewhat limited in their ambition. Still, I sent them to Harvey James, a male model I know, for some feedback. He said they were good, but that my abs could do with going “from ironing board to more ice cube tray.” He was right. And after I asked him what he was talking about, I set about working on it.
In terms of poses, he told me to do whatever feels natural. “If it feels unnatural, just sort of pretend you’re this arrogant, male-model arsehole and then really get into character.”
This wasn’t a stretch for me. I put on my tiger-striped cowboy hat and fetched a blanket.
I sent these and more to a range of modeling agencies — Elite, Body London, Storm, Wilhemina — despite plenty of them specifically requesting headshots, side shots and that male models be over six feet tall. (I’m four inches shorter than that, but will not stand for discrimination.) When I applied to David Gandy’s agency, Select, I noticed that you can say that you were born in 1886 and have a 0-inch neck, a combination that might make for a stranger-looking underwear model than someone who was just slightly under six feet tall.
After I’d sent these photos, my inbox didn’t exactly struggle to contain the responses. I got one nice email from a scout at Uno. “I think you are handsome and super interesting,” said Javier. “The cowboy hat is really cool and the hat + blanket look left me speechless.” But, he said, it wasn’t to be. “Obviously you are special and have great energy in your poses but not all the team was convinced that they could get bookings for you in Spain.”
This was encouraging, but it was a rejection nonetheless. As much as I checked my emails, I wasn’t being snapped up by the big agencies as I had hoped. Perhaps I ought to bring the bar down a little. Capitalizing on the creepy way that Facebook targets ads at you based on your searches, I applied to a swath of less illustrious sites on my news feed, one of which was a “modeling service” called UK Models. Three days later, I received a voicemail from Asirah. “We loved your photos and would love to talk more about it.”
“You are clearly in good shape but you’ve also got the facial features for it,” she told me on the phone. Given my height, she explained, I probably wouldn’t be able to do high-end modeling, so magazine covers and catalogues would be the focus.
But in order to take me on, she said, they would need me to go to their studio, where they would take photos of me, which I would pay for. This was the first sign that the company is a scam. I told her I would think about it. “You don’t want to think about it too much,” she said. This was the second sign that the agency is a scam.
The third sign that the agency is a scam was that they take no commission from any work they might one day find for you — because, having charged you for the photos they took, why would they bother trying to find you work?
After receiving a range of emails and missed calls from other dubious-looking companies — The Models Kit, Amaze Models — I looked up the companies and the numbers. I found cheated customers and reports of scams wherever I looked. This page in particular is a valuable insight.
“These criminals should be behind bars,” says one woman. Five reviews, posted within 24 hours of one another, are almost definitely panicked fake reviews posted by the company itself: “don’t see why there is so many complaints I didn’t pay a penny and was still signed to an agency”; “Very excited to see what happens”; “I can’t wait to see what the future holds.”
This didn’t bode well for my career. Was I just hapless fodder for frauds? No, I thought. “Obviously you are special,” I heard Javier’s voice telling me (even though he’d emailed). I pictured the yachts and the sunshine. There was still time for me to reel in the big fish. I wanted Bella Hadid’s people to start talking about me. I needed Tyson Beckford to feel threatened. I had to to enter the big league.
So I dyed my hair silver and applied some baby oil.
I was sure that this would make the agencies sit up. “What?” they would say. “This guy’s got silver hair and sunglasses?” I sent these photos to places like The Squad, Nevs, Established Models, RMG, BMA, Bad Candy and W.
No one replied and I was rejected by RMG.
Perhaps I needed to take a closer look at what modern male models looked like. As I browsed the Asos website, I noticed one feature again and again on the male models: tattoos. They almost all had tattoos. Perhaps this was a kind of secret handshake in the world of underwear modeling; if you weren’t inked, you weren’t getting into the club.
So I got two tattoos.
All right, I didn’t get two tattoos. The UK went into lockdown when I wanted to get a tattoo, so I drew that on and added a small black heart above my own. But the agencies would believe it was the real thing — they would see the secret handshake, and extend their hand to meet mine.
I reapplied with these photos, sure it was the edge I needed. I imagined the magazine covers, the yachts, the money …
No one replied and I was rejected by RMG again.
Perhaps, I decided, my fate was simply not to be an underwear model. The signs weren’t exactly promising. Maybe, at the age of 31, I was committed to freelance journalism for the next 80 years. I asked for some feedback from Javier on why things hadn’t gone my way. “Sadly the model industry is based on the client needs, and to be an underwear model they look for boys between 18 and 25 years, taller than 1.85m and with a really defined body,” he said. “Also good cheekbones are really appreciated in this industry.”
Javier is a lovely man, but you’ll realize that what he said there is that I’m too short, old and ugly. I’d only been in it for a couple of months, but the modeling industry was a heartless game. It had spat me out without even chewing me. He also attached a photo to give me an indication of why I had been rejected.
I could have said it was like looking in a mirror, but the battle was lost. I was never going to make it. Maybe the real underwear model was the rejection emails I received along the way. Yes, I would need to resign myself to a life of freelance journalism: the industry where people care less about your chest measurements and more about your mind measurements, where the only six-pack that matters is the one belonging to the celebrity you’re profiling, and where people don’t ask what your body looks like, they ask what your brain looks like.
Who needs yachts, I thought, as I put my trousers back on. I get seasick anyway.
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