Brooke Colman's hands are six meters high and made of fiberglass.
Granted, not her actual physical hands—but when Nikon wanted to launch a new digital camera by placing giant statues of it in various major world cities, and needed some giant hands to hold it in position, it was Colman the company turned to.
"Yeah, that was a weird one," she says. "I had to go to this studio in North Wales and hold my hands in the exact position they wanted for hours while they poured in this silicon putty stuff. After it set, I had to wiggle my hands out very gently. Then they made a plaster cast and used digital imaging to scale it up to six meters. On the launch day, the hands were standing in central London, Berlin, Paris, Milan, Warsaw, and Zurich. I had to go down to Covent Garden and be filmed wiping the lens of the giant camera they had made, in some sort of ultra-meta 'the real hands interacting with the giant hands' kind of publicity thing."
Colman is a professional hand model. This is what she does. You have more than likely bought products at least in part because you've seen her hands holding them on billboards and in TV commercials—from washing up liquid and nail varnish to cheese spreads and high-end jewelry.
Hand modeling is a strange concept. There is a whole mini industry of people who star in some of the most important, visible, and expensive ad campaigns in the world—yet we never see their faces. Colman recently collaborated on a photo-book project exploring the lives of hand models with the photographers Oli Kellett and Alex Holder, called (of course) "Hand Jobs." We caught up with Colman to hear about the highs, lows, and general weirdness of having people take pictures of your hands as a career.
VICE: So, first off, how does one get into hand modeling?
Brooke Colman: My granddad was a props and stunt man on films, and he used to sometimes say that I had "hand model hands," though at the time I didn't really know what he meant. Then I got accepted to study acting at Lee Strasberg in New York and was like, What can I do to make money to pay for my flight and the course? So, just on a whim, I googled an agency, got my mom to take some pictures, and went to see them. Literally the next day, I had a casting for Aquafresh Toothpaste and got the part—I think in that ad you probably saw about one inch of my finger. I'm still with that same agency, Hired Hands, now.
If you're an actor and you do one commercial, it can stop you from doing any others, because your face is recognizable and associated with that brand. But with hands, it's much more anonymous and you can keep working.
So you have campaigns with multiple brands going on at once?
Yeah, when I watch telly or walk around London, I'll often have moments where I go, "Oh wait—hold on a minute, those are my hands." The weirdest ones are where they use my hands with someone else's face or body.
That is quite weird.
Well, advertisers don't want anything at all to distract from the product, and hands are really noticeable—especially in close-up. So I spend a lot of time in really awkward positions crouched under or behind fashion models, trying to keep my hands in shot, but the rest of my body out.
It can lead to quite strange relationships. The models can start thinking, What's wrong with my own hands? And the hand models think, Are you mad? You're this totally stunning creature, and all they want me for is from my wrists up. It can actually be quite hard on your self-esteem.
I remember I did one shoot and this model got upset and snapped, "Can you stop touching my face now?" I think she just felt claustrophobic—and it must be strange to have someone else's hands on you. But I really try hard to be respectful and make everyone feel OK with what's going on.
So even really big name models will have someone else doing their hands?
Yeah, I know models who've done Kate Moss's hands, and people like Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Brad Pitt. I did a really funny one where I had to be Dec from Ant and Dec's hands for Tatler. I guess the whole thing was a joke that they had really feminine hands, so I was wearing all this jewelry and sort of cradling Ant, pretending I was Dec. I was crouching behind him, while he stood on a box—but they were both very lovely and charming.
When I did Julia Roberts's hands, she wasn't even on set that day, but there were about 20 people in the crew, all to shoot me pulling some mascara out of a tube. The camera was over my shoulder, and there was this whole rig of tripods and magic arms to keep the mascara tube floating exactly where it needed to be for the shot. I had to maintain these really horrible positions all day. It's funny—that can happen quite a lot: The crew set everything up really carefully, but sometimes forget that there's actually a model attached to the hands and don't leave space for you. So you end up suspended from the ceiling or crouched on the floor—anything to stay out of shot.
Sounds quite tiring.
Quite a lot of hand modeling is about maintaining what are essentially stress positions for hours at a time. It's not easy work—physically or mentally. I do a lot of yoga and see an osteopath pretty regularly.
A lot of times, directors and photographers—especially if they're new—will start to treat your hands like inanimate objects, and begin moving them around like props. It feels very odd—you become invisible, but attached to this weird five-fingered object. But I'm lucky in that, by now, I actually have relationships with certain directors. The really great ones are those with the experience to know the best results come when they communicate what they want and let me figure out how to achieve it.
That objectification thing is interesting; it reminds me of stuff I've read on the male gaze, and how it can almost slice women up, fetishizing them into a series of "ideal" body parts.
Well, you mention fetishes… you do have to deal with a bit of that. You start to look at people who follow your YouTube channel, then realize that every single one of their videos involves hands or feet in some way. I was approached by one guy through my own website to do a charity event—and of course I was like, "Sure, I want to help." Then, as we spoke, it turned out that he'd seen my stuff, and what he wanted me to do was wrap my hands around his neck and choke him in some sort of asphyxiation thing. Needless to say, I walked pretty quickly. But I think whenever someone has to use the internet to generate work, they make themselves vulnerable.
On that note, tell me about Hand Jobs.
Ha! That joke never gets old, does it? Hand Jobs is a photo book by Oli Kellett and Alex Holder exploring the lives of hand models. I guess it is quite an odd community to look at. I've been involved in this for a while and have seen how it has changed. For instance, in the past year or so, I've been really encouraged that the scene is getting much more diverse. Obviously this could go even further, but it really used to be only white hands, and now there's much more variety.
It can get a little competitive sometimes, too, but really there's a little hand model community—we try to look out for one another in case there's an agent doing something shady, or a production company that doesn't treat people right or something. And there seems to be kind of an interest or fascination about hand modeling. Like, I'm a trained, working actress, and I'm producing this amazing new play called The Greatest Fight, about Muhammad Ali—but all anyone ever wants to ask me about is the hand modeling.
Every article about it just seems to ask the same things—do you really moisturize 30 times a day, and are your hands insured for loads of money? The answer to both of those, by the way, is no. Those are myths, or at least pretty major exaggerations. The only concession I really make is that I use a dishwasher and avoid most of the cleaning products I actually advertise, which I guess is another strange unreality of this world—we use these images of "flawless hands" to sell products that no one with flawless hands could ever use.
Now that I stop and look, your hands do actually look pretty cool.
Thanks. I always thought they were a bit long and spindly, really—but I guess they work well on camera.
Hand Jobs is available to buy through Hoxton Mini Press.