Last Thursday Bill Austin arrived for a photo shoot wearing a pair of purple golf gloves filled with Bag Balm, a thick lotion originally designed to keep cow udders from chafing. Austin, age “top secret,” is the Bay Area’s preeminent hand model. For the past twenty years, his digits have featured prominently in ads alongside iMacs, nose-hair trimmers, Visa cards, cigars, Montblanc pens, Black & Decker screwdrivers, Rolex watches, massage oils, violins — the list goes on. Remember those Allstate commercials that declared, “You’re in good hands”? Yep, those mitts belong to him.
The previous evening, Austin had spent 45 minutes prepping his nails for the shoot. “It’s not hard work,” he admitted, “but you’ve got to do it all the time or some young buck will come up behind you and pretty soon, a photographer will say, ‘Yeah, Bill’s hands are looking kind of crummy here. ‘”
Reputation is everything in the hand-modeling world, and Bill Austin owns the best. He arrives for jobs carrying what has become known as the Suitcase. It contains, among other gems of his trade, 36 pairs of cut-off sleeves. If the hands need to say “high class,” he has the tux sleeves. If he needs a rolled-up denim shirt to match a power drill, he has that, too. “Photographers like working with me because I don’t waste their time in wardrobe,” he says. “Every tick of the clock is money. So I come prepared.”
When Austin gets asked how he got into the biz — and he gets asked a lot — he likes to tell this story: “My parents met on a set in Paris. They were both hand models. And they realized if they had a child, he’d have the most perfect hands on earth.”
Two beats go by. “Okay, I’m bullshitting,” he deadpans.
The truth is that Bill Austin, born William White, was face modeling one day in 1979 and the photographer was desperate for a pair of nice hands. She took a look at Austin’s — long fingers, well proportioned through the palm, no funky breaks or ugly blemishes — and sent him out for a manicure. He returned with a new career.
At the time, the reigning hand model was a man known as the “Hands of San Francisco,” and Austin, then the young buck he himself now fears, decided to challenge him. For six months he promoted himself. Throughout the late 1980s, Austin says, the two rivals ran neck and neck, until Mr. Hands suffered a career-ending blood blister. “This was before Photoshop,” Austin points out. “He lost nine months of work, and in that time I was able to make all the connections I needed.”
During the dot-com explosion, Austin became known as the “Hands of Silicon Valley.” As new technology made products smaller, the need to put them in scale grew. Austin says he worked five to six jobs a week during the heyday, and for a time insured his hands with Lloyd’s of London. “It only takes one nick, and that could be it,” he explains.
The insurance policy, the Suitcase, the corny stage name — it’s all part of the hype, Austin admits. “People want to know who this guy is bringing in the suitcase,” he says. “In this business, reputation is everything. You have to make a name for yourself, and that’s what I did.”
Off the set, a hand model’s livelihood is fraught with peril. When he gardens, Austin wears two pairs of surgical gloves. When he rollerblades, he applies a layer of thick hand lotion, a second layer of the Bag Balm — “Great stuff, even if it is for cows.” — a pair of golf gloves, a pair of workman’s gloves, and finally, steel wrist guards. “I’m getting a workout,” he says, “and at the same time my hands are getting a full treatment.”
He has had only one close call, when he got his thumb stuck in the spokes of his mom’s wheelchair and it caused an under-the-nail blood blister. The injury occurred in the post-Photoshop era, but even so, the resulting lag in work could have cost him trusted clients. “I thought Photoshop was the end of my career,” Austin says. “I thought they’d be able to get any ol’ pair of hands in there. But what most people don’t realize is there’s a brain that comes connected to these hands. You need to know the tricks of the trade. It’s just like fashion modeling: You can get a pretty woman to put on an outfit, but once you send her down the runway, does she know what to do?”
Today’s shoot takes place inside a business park somewhere off Highway 101. Since Austin often models tech gadgets before they hit the market, he has to sign confidentiality agreements. The photographer, likewise, doesn’t want his name in print.
Inside the studio, Austin removes his golf gloves and unzips the Suitcase. It’s like getting a peek into Picasso’s workshop. The famous cut-off sleeves are folded in neat rows. Other items include
• One nylon stocking mask with eyeholes: When Austin holds shiny objects, his face appears in the reflection — this mask obscures his mug.
• A mirror that looks like a flyswatter: Austin likes to see what the photographer sees, so he holds the mirror in front of the lens and adjusts his fingers accordingly.
• A legless camping chair: Austin sometimes has to sit in one place for hours at a time. The chair lets him rock and stay comfy.
• Foam cushions to prop up his modeling arm.
• A rolled-up black velvet sheet that contains watches, pens, and cufflinks.
• A small ironing board and iron.
“We need a gray sleeve today,” the photographer says. “We’re going for soft.”
“Got it,” Austin says. He pulls out the gray sleeves and goes to work, very carefully, with the hot iron. “This was Costanza’s doom, wasn’t it?” he asks.
Once finished, Austin reaches into the Suitcase again and pulls out a grip belt, the kind construction guys wear. Instead of hammers and drills, it has emery boards and cuticle nippers. Also on the belt: A dusting brush. A roll of duct tape. A jeweler’s loupe. A bottle of Advil.
Now ready, Austin approaches the set, sits in his small chair, slips on the gray sleeve, and rests his elbow on the cushions. He raises his left hand into the light. “Oh,” he says, “I can feel the decaf going through me now.”
“Okay,” the photographer says, placing his own hand on the set, “I’m gonna want something like this.” The photographer motions as if he’s holding an imaginary cell phone. “Then I’m going to take it away. Then we’re going to do an open-palm shot as if you were, well, nothing heavy would ever enter your hand.”
Austin acknowledges the directions and takes a long look at both his hands. “Just seeing which one is better today.”
He notices his right thumbnail has a horizontal groove midnail. “It comes about once every two years,” he says, “and I don’t know why. I think it’s my diet. Or maybe the stress level; each time I’m going to have a new baby it appears.”
The cameraman scrutinizes the groove. “Not a problem,” he says. “We can work around it.”
“You know,” Austin says over his shoulder as the photographer moves three massive lights into position, “it takes about nine months for a nail to grow from cuticle to tip, depending on which finger it is. The index finger grows fastest.
“These are the things you learn as a hand model.”
Once the lights are adjusted just so, Austin says, “I need five minutes. I want to clean up this hand.”
“Go for it,” the photographer says.
Austin pulls a small sponge and a cap of foundation makeup from his grip belt. He pats the flesh-colored goop across his knuckles and down the fingertips, careful to apply it evenly. Next, he presses the jeweler’s loupe into his left eye socket and reaches for his cuticle nipper. “I go through one of these every three months,” he says as he works on the fringes of his nails. “I like ’em really sharp.”
Finally satisfied, Austin declares his hand ready for its closeup. “Okay,” the photographer says, as he places a cell phone in the hand. “Good, good.”
“Something like this?” Austin says.
“That’s great, Bill. Just like that.”
The photographer clicks away. Then he removes the phone. “Take a break, Bill.”
Austin wiggles his fingers.
A few minutes later, the photog adjusts the lights for a new look and returns behind his camera. “Oh, no!” he says. “I just lit up your fingernail like crazy, the little groove.”
Austin remains calm. “Can I move it?”
“Nah,” the photographer says as he heads toward his lights. “Let me do something. … Now, just bring the phone toward the camera a little bit.”
“Oops,” Austin cautions. The new lighting illuminates a deviant thread on his cuff. Out come the surgical scissors. Snip.
All is well on the set. The photographer resumes shooting. Between takes, Austin checks the setup with his flyswatter mirror. “You know what?” he interrupts. “I’ve got a lot of lotion on my hand. It’ll take just a minute to wash it off so it won’t be so shiny.”
“Go right ahead,” the photographer says.
“You’ll get a better shot.”
A few minutes later, Austin returns to the set and picks up the cell phone. His fingers look nice around the edge of the product, soothing, even. The lotion-shine is gone. It’s a great hand, really.
Moments later the photographer removes the phone and prepares to take pictures of Austin’s empty hand. Later, he’ll Photoshop other products into the hand.
“Wait,” Austin says. “There’s a divot in my index finger from the phone.”
The photographer looks over his camera, then reaches over and squishes the fingertip. He snaps his final shots. “You can relax now,” he says, returning to his laptop. “You’re good. You can put your hand down.”
Less than two hours after he arrived, Austin sheds his gray sleeves and repacks his suitcase. He has earned a nice fee today, but nothing over the top — not like some guys try to charge. He says he’s been in the business so long because he goes for volume, taking all the jobs he can get, not just the big ones. Ever since Photoshop appeared, a lot of photographers think they can get away with using just anyone, he says.
“That’s not true at all,” this photographer says. “You can clean up some stuff, but not everything.”
“And you’ve got to know how to work with people,” Austin adds.
One of the biggest jobs Austin recently missed out on was the launch of Apple’s new wafer-thin iPod Nano. Just last week the billboards popped up along Bay Area freeways, and he felt the twinge of professional jealousy. “Whose hand is that?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” the photographer replies as he puts away his gear.
“It’s a beautiful hand,” Austin says.
“It’s crazy cleaned-up, too,” the photographer notes.
“Yeah,” Austin laments. “It’s a beautiful crazy cleaned-up hand and it’s not mine.”