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I Am America: A Columbia male’s experience as a Hollister model

That dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement… a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

-James Tuslow Adams on the “American Dream”

There sits on the corner of 53rd and 5th a very peculiar store indeed. It is here that just four months ago I walked for the first time through the sliding glass doors of Abercrombie & Fitch’s “Epic” Hollister Co. I remember distinctly the audible gulp that the colossal glass panes created when they clenched close behind me. Everything about the store was grand. The plaid and acid-washed labyrinth of rooms, the storefront and its 60×15 ft. LCD screen that feeds a live stream of Huntington Beach, and the collection of human Barbie dolls and action figures that the management had amassed in hopes of seducing customers. I’d never thought myself to be an action figure and fiddled nervously with my thumbs as I sat solitary in the store’s changing room, clinging to the lonesome brown steel of a folding chair. I watched as the beautiful men and women flit and fluttered about the room, wishing I had better hair and hoping that one of the Brazilian girls would talk to me.

*     *     *

My good and handsome friend Jack* had been recruited by HCo. while on campus. After being interviewed and formally hired as a model, Jack recommended to me that I also apply because, “They let you pick your hours, pay you $100 dollars for showing up plus $9 an hour, and they pretty much just suck your dick.” I was hesitant to give it a shot. Just a week prior a female friend had been pulled away from me by an A&F recruiter. She’d been wearing flimsy short-shorts and a T-shirt while I’d been unshaved and sweatshirted and apparently deficient. “Just give it a shot, dude. I think you can do it. Why the fuck not?” I owned a razor. I had in my closet some well-fitted khakis. Hell, I owned an adequately expensive green and blue plaid button-up that I thought made me look pretty damn good.  Why the f*ck not.

I paced nervously inside the elevator of the A&F Headquarters high-rise. My fingernails were groomed too low to bite. Jack had recommended me to his new boss and I’d been asked to come in for an interview. I examined myself in the elevator’s mirrored walls as I rode to the 12th floor recruitment office. The fuzzy flannel of my shirt felt cool and alien against my now acceptably bare chest. Jack had warned me the night before that if they liked you enough they’d snap a few shirtless photos of you after your interview and chest hair was kind of a no-no. It made sense. Hollister’s California Boy was bare-chested and I wasn’t. An hour later I stood in the mirror of my bathroom shaving my virginal chest hair with an electric trimmer and razor. My skin was crosshatched and pink as I dragged the blade across my chest again and again, hoping that it’d eventually be smooth enough.

The mirrors of the elevator threatened from all four sides. I recall fretting over whether or not I should have shaved my sideburns to align with my earlobes instead of with the bridge of my nose. The image in the mirror split and the elevator doors opened and I was blasted with a wave of the store-exclusive “Epic” Hollister cologne. I sat and waited outside the office with a group of others waiting to be interviewed. They all dressed the same and looked like the people I’d seen in Harlem on my way to the train station. There was one man who looked slightly older and well-kept, wearing a green sweater with a collared shirt underneath, his black leather shoes tied neatly in bows. A list without my name was read and the group was ushered into the office. A manager immediately pulled aside the guy with the sweater and asked him if he was interested in the managerial training program. I went to the door and asked the secretary if there’d been a mistake; I’d been recommended by a friend. “Oh, don’t worry,” she said to me, grabbing my arm and assuring me that, “We saw you and were going to pull you in anyway.”

I was lead past the rest of the group and into a small office with senior managers Jessica* and Kate*. We exchanged handshakes and smiles and made small talk as I watched their eyes scale and disassemble my six feet two inches from toe to head. We all beamed and dimpled our cheeks and nodded with feigned enthusiasm until we had gawked at each other for a sufficient amount of time.

The secretary guided me back to the group where I was asked my three interview questions about what is diversity and what can you bring to the company and perhaps most importantly what two adjectives best describe the HCo. “Look.” The manager administering the group interview then told us we were done and that we’d be contacted soon if we had been hired. Jessica emerged from her office and pulled me aside while the interviewer escorted the others out. “Okay, so we’re going to go ahead and tell you that you’ve been hired. We’d like to have you come in tomorrow, don’t worry about training; you’ll be a model.” The interviewer hadn’t said a single word about the interview to Jessica, nor had he left her the clipboard that he’d been scribbling on throughout.

 *     *     *

It is easy to lose yourself in the store. There are two floors, overflowing with mound after mound of fluorescent look-at-me cotton and torn denim sent straight from the sunshiny beaches of Made in Bangladesh. There are multiple cologne misters in each room that loose a stream so constant and thick that it can be waded through. Massive speakers pulse and wobble the season’s approximately 12 song playlist—long enough for no customer to hear a song twice but short enough for employees to memorize within a couple shifts. I have become accustomed to the aroma and can no longer hear the faint din that I once did when I’d hit the wall of smell. There is a peculiar comfort you develop after being enveloped by the scent for long enough and you find your hips and lips involuntarily moving to the 12 tracks that you’ve by now memorized and assimilated.

*     *     *

The store is split down the middle by a majestic staircase that winds past two separate male/female pairs of models in only boardshorts and bikinis. The left side of the imposed dichotomy is the men’s section, or “Dudes” for short, and the right side is women, “Bettys.” The rooms are numbered in ascending order from front to back, with “Dudes 1” and “Bettys 1” at the immediate entrance and “Dudes 3” and “Bettys 3” at the back of the store. Upstairs is “Dudes 4” and “Bettys 5” and 6, along with a room manned by a fleet of cashiers and registers.
Hollister employs a standing militia of models whose job is to embody and champion the HCo. SoCal-inspired image. Assigned to each of the above rooms is a model of the corresponding sex. They stand in one spot and their only job requirement is to smile and ask each passing customer, “Hey, what’s up?”

As instructed by the higher powers at corporate, the Betty model uses little to no make-up, wears only clear or passably-pink nail polish, and maintains a physique that is capable of making young boys curious and grown men inflamed. Us Dude models are only expected to be clean shaven and properly haircutted. Should my hair not match one of the mannequin head diagrams of the “Acceptable Hair Styles” chart I am wink-wink nudge-nudged by a manager who suggests I do something new with my hair.  These are my only obligations, but I often look from Dude to Betty and am overwhelmed by a marked prevalence of gleaming white smiles, abs, and too-symmetrical faces that seems to suggest otherwise.

While there are fifteen  models working within the store at any one time, six of the fifteen are considered “Greeters”: two males who stand out front the store and the four swimsuited Dudes and Bettys on the staircase or in the window. It is only us who receive the $100 premium along with the hourly pay of $9 that a model receives. It is only us who are assigned clothing that differs from the Dudes and Bettys 1-6 clone-look. It is only our names that are remembered and squealed by the female managers when we walk into the changing room to start our shift. We are the Faces of Hollister and we are treated as such. I do not right away understand why I have been chosen to be a Greeter, but I know that I am one of the only Greeters who does not work for a major modeling agency such as Ford, Wilhelmina, Next, Major, or Click. I must be special.

The managers almost always assign the same people to the same stations. I am consistently outside at the front of the store. I must walk through Bettys and Dudes 1-3 to get to and from my LCD encased post and I become familiar with the models who work in each room. The first month I introduce myself to each, remembering names and hometowns and acting pursuits and favorite local bars. The second month I shake hands and smile and ask for names but end up forgetting them by the time I take my first picture of the day with inevitably Asian tourists. The third month I began to stop talking and start examining. It becomes apparent to me that as the rooms approach the back or upper portions of the store and the room numbers start to climb, there is a perceptible and gradual decline in gleam and fitness and symmetry. I begin to brush my teeth longer and work my abs harder and squint shirtless at mirrors until the reflection is blurry enough to appear perfectly proportioned.

*     *     *

I stand outside the front of the store and peer into the glass casing that houses the premier Greeters. Inside is a darling eighteen year old bubbly blonde who does runway and goes to high school online. Shimmying to the 85 decibel beat on her right is Jorge*. He is permanently tanned and his thick Brazilian accent and adorably poor English are the only things that manage to distract young girls from his washboard stomach. The eighteen year old is wearing a very flat shade of pink on her fingernails and I can’t help but think that guys like Jorge are the reason girls fuss over whether to purchase “1601 Midnight Purple” or “1703 Desert Sunset”.

To my right is Chris*, a traveled model working for Ford. He fits perfectly into the Spring 2011 Greeter’s Palm Canyon Skinny jeans and Dude’s Hoodie. My thighs and shoulders are rugby thick and I feel the cotton and denim fighting to accommodate the extra width. Having to sag my jeans to my crotch because I cannot pull them over my ass is not part of The Look and I want to wear the boardshorts that Jorge is wearing is the window. Chris is entertaining and tells good stories about all the high-fashion models he has on the side but I want to be where Jorge is—where the clothes fit and the tourists, teens, and bewildered-but-still-intrigued elderly couples will be more likely to request to take pictures with me. Maybe then I’d be good enough for an agency.

“Chris, could you please come in on time tomorrow?” Chris’s ranting about something I can’t hear over my dissection of Jorge is interrupted by one of the managers. We are not supposed to have food but managers rarely check up on us and Chris has a half-eaten apple in his hand. Chris had come into work noticeably drunk, late, and stumbly.

He takes a bite of his apple and grins with pieces still lodged between his teeth. “I’ll think about it; the whole getting up before 12 thing isn’t really my jam.” The manager feigns an awkward giggle and punches him on the shoulder. We are the most essential cogs in the store’s machine and the managers are always stuck in the middle, hoping to please the higher-ups while making sure to not give a Greeter cause to quit. I laugh along with them and shift my weight back on my right leg so I can imitate Jorge’s dance. The manager walks away with her clipboard and I wish that I’d come from Brazil so I could make girls stop and gape open-mouthed the way Jorge does. That’d get me in the window. I fiddle nervously with the month’s blue, red, and white HCo. bracelets.

*     *     * 

We stand at on our imaginary pedestals and wear our clothes that at any other store would be labeled a size smaller. We beckon you inside with our English catchphrases and promise you that if you buy all our shit you’ll be just as beautiful and happy-go-lucky as we are. Just inside our doors is the stunning male or female you’ve always known yourself to be and if you close your eyes and listen beyond the thumps of the bassline you’ll hear them calling out to you: Hey! What’s up?

There’s no need to worry about what you’ve come standard-equipped with; we’ve got everything you need and more inside for only $49.99. But before going in, feel free to stop and admire the waves and surfers of Huntington Beach. Be careful, though. You know the live feed is just a bunch of images superimposed over television screens, and you know that the sand isn’t actually there to get stuck between your toes, but it’s still so fucking easy to fall into the water.

*     *     *

It is a Saturday and I am engulfed by a sea of foreigners, parents, and the tops of their fourteen-year-old daughters’ heads. My “Welcome to the Pier!” is not enough for one Italian couple who stops and asks to take a picture with me. His wife takes her camera from her purse and I drape my arm around his shoulder. “To wear Hollister or Abercrombie in my country is to make it!” he tells me. “The seagull means America. We can look like America!” Her large crooked nose makes her hold the camera’s viewfinder clumsily against her face and the man’s round stomach pushes itself up against mine. I smile the smile and nod the nod he expects. Accepted, he lowers his arm from my shoulders and puts it too tightly, too familiarly around my torso for the photograph, as if trying to osmose me; I am America.

The two switch places, snap another picture, and bid me broken farewells. Before rounding the corner of our building, their clunky figures turn and give me exuberant waves goodbye. They are happy to have met me and I can make out from our entrance the crinkles around their eyes that communicate an authentic delight. I wave back at them and purse my lips to stifle the laughter that seems to rise so naturally and so cynically from watching seeing someone get so excited about taking a picture with me. I am wearing fake Raybans as part of The Look and the dark lenses conceal the laughter that my eyes betray. I am glad. 

* Names have been changed.

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