At 7 o’clock on a Monday night, I’m sitting in a salon on Oak Lawn Avenue. My freshly manicured nails—rounded tips, no polish, a buffed sheen—are wrapped in a hand mask. I asked for a paraffin wax treatment, but the man doing my manicure insisted that this procedure is better for softening the skin. I don’t know the difference. The gloves, textured like baby wipes, are cold and damp. They smell like lemons and rubbing alcohol.
“So why’d you want no polish?” my manicurist asks. His English is broken, but his disapproval is pronounced. (In retrospect, he was probably just trying to make small talk.) I glance over to the woman sitting to my left and hope that she’s lost in thought, or at least deep in her second glass of Chardonnay, before I respond in a hushed tone, “I have a job as a hand model tomorrow. And they need to look natural.” His expression flatlines. “Oh, okay,” he says. I’m convinced he doesn’t believe me. I don’t even believe me.
I glance over the sheets. I’m going to be assembling and holding tacos. I can’t properly dice an onion, but I do like tacos. And surely, I think, all of the ingredients will already be prepared. I’m just the model. I’ve got this.
I’ve never thought of my hands as being particularly beautiful. My fingers are long and dense. My palms are puffy. I rarely moisturize. And my at-home manicure routine entails globs of glittery nail polish and a quick trim with a toenail clipper the size of a Buick. So you can imagine my hesitation when I received a text message from a stylist in town asking to put a spotlight on my mitts.
After several back-and-forth exchanges and a few iPhone glamour shots of my fingers per her request, the stylist confirmed that I got the job. I had no idea what “the job” actually was. But agreeing to this is part of my new say-yes-to-things-that-scare-you-but-aren’t-really-dangerous lifestyle. Hand modeling lands somewhere between speaking into a microphone and wearing white skinny jeans in public, both fears that I conquered in 2016.
I’m greeted with a hug and paper cup filled with black coffee when I arrive at the studio early Tuesday morning. I remove my sunglasses and take a look around. Dark electrical cables snake across the sprawling concrete floor. Natural light spills through enormous floor-to-ceiling windows, bouncing off stark white walls. I squint until my eyes adjust. The faint smell of something familiar lingers in the air. Gripping my coffee, I follow my nose around a corner and into a full-size kitchen. The counters are teeming with fresh produce: glistening red bell peppers, perfectly ripened avocados, and onions of every hue.
A petite, doe-eyed woman with a dirty blond bob wipes her hands on her apron. She’s shredding iceberg lettuce. I later find out that she is the food stylist for the shoot. Her assistant, a quiet, burly fellow, is busy washing something in the sink. I don’t catch a good look at it. I’m distracted by the crackle of bacon on the stove. This is the aroma that led me here. I go unnoticed until I clear my throat and say the first intelligible thing that pops into my head: “Hi.” They glance over in acknowledgment, but it’s clear that I’ve muddled the workflow. A few pleasantries are exchanged before I back away and return to the front of the studio.
The stylist approaches and hands me a stack of white paper with recipes and instructions printed on each page. It’s the shot list for a series of five recipe videos for Mission Foods tortillas. I glance over the sheets. I’m going to be assembling and holding tacos. I can’t properly dice an onion, but I do like tacos. And surely, I think, all of the ingredients will already be prepared. I’m just the model. I’ve got this. My anxiety fades away, and a pleasant caffeine buzz takes hold.
“You can cook, right?” the stylist asks. Red flag!
“Yesss,” I slur, my “s” dragging on for a second too long as my eyes dart down to the concrete floor. Technically, it’s not a lie. I can cook a few things. My spaghetti squash casserole, for example, is out of this world. But when it comes to using proper culinary skills in a stylish manner, I leave that to the fine chefs of Dallas.
“You have a cookbook, right?” she asks as a follow-up. (Abort! Abort!) I photographed a plant-based cheese book in Vancouver last year, but the closest I got to cooking anything during that project was when I nearly scorched an eyebrow on a flaming punch bowl at The Shameful Tiki Room after we wrapped.
I glance over at the massive studio lights, cameras, and monitors and wish I could trade places with the bacon in the other room. My palms are clammy, so I slather moisturizing oil on them to mask the symptoms of my fear (but also because I imagine this is what hand models are supposed to do) and walk onto set like I’m Wolfgang Puck. Even if on the inside I feel more like a bad Guy Fieri impersonator.
As the director, director of photography, camera operator, producer, still photographer, production designer, food stylist, food stylist’s assistant, and client look on, I peel the skin off an onion and start slashing at it with a chef’s knife before slicing into a red bell pepper and, finally, a plump tomato. I look down at the inconsistently shaped shards of produce and cringe.
The director pulls me aside and walks me through the steps of how to properly chop each item. He’s a seasoned home cook. He passes me a Roma tomato and chef’s knife and instructs me to grasp the blade between my thumb and pointer finger while the rest of my hand rests on the handle. I grip the ripe fruit in my other hand. My fingers are supposed to bend around the surface of the tomato and curl under like a hawk’s talon, to better shield them from dismemberment. Instead, my nails slide down the surface and I lose my grip. Stupid manicure. I attempt to mirror his hands, but my fingers bend awkwardly.
Three tomatoes later, I’m able to properly grip the Roma. Kind of. I make smooth, circular chopping motions with the knife, which never leaves the cutting board. Juicy slices of flesh fall from the fruit. My performance is a far cry from spectacular but an improvement from the literal hack job I delivered earlier.
I have a big slicing scene the next morning but am advised not to practice at home, for fear I might sever a finger. It’s a fair request. Rather, I walk myself through the steps in my mind and end up dreaming about dicing vegetables all night long. There are worse things.
Maybe that did it. The next day, after another round of supervised practice, I properly mince an onion and fresh garlic on camera, and I feel unstoppable. My hands have gotten the hang of this. Later in the day, I catch a glimpse of them scrambling eggs in a monitor and think they look competent, beautiful even. I’m happy to check another fear off my list. I can’t help it if my cuticles look good doing it.