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Getting the Upper Hand
Jewish Exponent Feature American Express. Avon. McDonald's. Neutrogena. Pampers. Panasonic. Sprint. Tums.
You've seen Ellen Sirot advertise all of these products and companies, though you'd never know it.
Sirot, 37, is a top parts model: She specializes in showing off her hands, feet and legs. Earning as much as several thousand dollars a day working for TV and magazine ads, she is a supermodel in a competitive field most people have never heard of.
"My hands are really beautiful," Sirot said in an interview. "They're an amazing work of art. Pure porcelain. They're like a newborn kitten, they're so soft."
No Sun, No Garbage
Parts Models, a New York City agency, represents Sirot and more than 100 other men and women.
Former model Dani Korwin founded the company in 1986, and takes credit for discovering the niche; no other agencies were representing parts models then, she said.
"You have to make a conscientious effort to take care of the body part," explained Korwin. "If you're a foot model, you can't wear flip-flops in the event that you may stub a toe. This is part of the downside of parts modeling."
Sirot's hands, for example, have not seen the sun for 15 years, she said. She owns 500 pairs of gloves and rarely takes them off, except to moisturize her hands about 20 times a day. She does not cook, clean or take out the garbage, because even a minor paper cut could cost her weeks of work. Wine glasses shatter in her nightmares.
"I started as a normal person," she admitted. "But now I'm an obsessive hand model."
Obsession is part of the job description, at least for female parts models. But the same techniques that keep a woman's hands pristine "would be a little weird for men's hands," said male hand model Jimmy Furino.
"My hands are manicured, but they don't look like mannequin hands," he said. "I go to the gym, I get calluses, and my hand looks like a man's."
Furino, 47, usually works with Sirot when an ad calls for a couple, to promote jewelry, for example.
Sirot fell into modeling for extra income, while working as a dancer and waitress after graduating from Barnard College. A photographer told her she had athletic legs and perfect feet -- and that she should show them off.
She got her first pedicure, then won an assignment to a national Dr. Scholl's ad campaign, and saw her earnings rise from $2 an hour as a waitress to $300 an hour as a parts model. She soon noticed that hand models were the ones working every day.
"I became a hand detective," she said. "It's made me not only a hand model, but a hand-care expert."
A model's hands must be veinless, poreless and flawless. Evenly shaped, healthy pink nails are important, as are soft cuticles and nailbeds.
"You want them to seem like they're the hands of the girl next door," explained Sirot. "The all-American hand."
Even at her wedding 10 years ago, she wore sneakers to protect her feet and gloves to protect her hands. She now lives with her husband in the New York City suburbs, in Westchester County. She and her young daughter have developed the "hand-model high-five" -- a gentle tap of their palms -- but she still relies on her husband or assistants for nearly every daily chore.
"Hands are like the forgotten appendage," she adds. "They're abused, and usually not cared for at all. Ask any woman and she'll say, 'My hands show my age. I wish I could just sit on them.' My hands look like a 20-year-old's."
The strength, endurance and muscle memory she developed as a dancer help, Sirot added. When cutting a pizza or scrubbing a counter for an ad -- activities she would never do at home -- she must keep her hands steady and calm. Otherwise, the muscles and veins would show.
"It's not as easy as it looks," she acknowledged. "It's very yoga-like. You're acting with your hands."
She is now one of few people in the world working full-time as a hand model. And unlike Victoria's Secret runway models -- most of whom are out of a job by age 26 -- Sirot's career has lasted. She expects to continue her work for another 15 years or so.
"You can have a normal life," said Sirot, "if you don't mind wearing gloves all the time."