Selling Body Parts:  Monetizing Actors

In 1999, London’s The Sun and the New York Post ran articles reporting that singer/actress Jennifer Lopez had taken out a billion dollar insurance policy on her most valuable asset — her butt. Although she later denied the claims, the rumors revealed a key fact about the acting profession: success takes not only talent, determination and luck, but also the know-how to market and monetize every aspect of one’s body.

The plight of an actor has never been an easy one. The industry is unpredictable and the competition is stiff. The odds of making a living as an actor — not to mention becoming famous — are not very good, and are getting slimmer by the year. In 2006, the U.S. National Labor Bureau estimated that there were about 70,000 employed actors in the U.S. This figure is projected to increase to a minimum 78,000 by 2016. And these statistics do not even take into account the multitude of unemployed aspiring actors who currently make up the wait staffs of restaurants and coffee shops in New York and Los Angeles, and those who perform in “non-traditional” roles, such as adult videos and as entertainers at children’s parties.

For those actors who are lucky enough to consider themselves employed, the work is unstable and the median wage is about $25,920 a year. In expensive cities like New York and Los Angeles, such an amount is barely livable. In order to succeed, actors must exploit every resource they have.

But there are ways for actors to monetize more than just their acting abilities –– resources that they have that are surely more marketable than their table-waiting talents. Like many things in the entertainment industry, the monetization of oneself begins with an agent. With enough talent, conventional agents are easy enough to secure. And within larger agencies, actors signed to the commercial or legit (television and movie) departments often ask to be shilled out to the voiceover and promo departments if they are not booking enough jobs.
Voiceover, as unglamorous as it seems, can be a very lucrative option for actors who aren’t quite making it in the on-camera world. Not only does it pay anywhere from a couple hundred to thousands of dollars a gig, but voiceover-recording sessions are brief and easy (30 minutes per booking is standard), and voiceover is a skill that can be developed.

Linda Weaver, co-owner of New York-based Access Talent, an agency that specializes in voiceover, pointed out one thing that makes voiceover such a good moneymaking option for actors is that is can be learned. “Having a ‘good voice’ is somewhat important,” she said, “but being skilled in the techniques of how to sell a product and remain ‘real’ is more important.  The ears of an actor must be acutely trained to be able to hear his or her voice without judgment and to adjust to the nuances of what a producer is asking them to give.”
Like many agencies of its kind, Access Talent’s roster is made up mostly of theatrical and legit actors using voiceover to boost their income. However, Weaver commented, “It has become more and more difficult for performers to make a living from voiceover, due to how many people have entered this area of the business.” And although Weaver and her colleagues work hard to market their clients through their company’s website and by speaking to casting directors, it always comes down an actor’s ability to sell himself.

Another option for thespians looking to make their rent is modeling. Monetizing every element of an actor is not just for starving artists. Indeed, famous actors, singers and models are often seen “licensing” their hair (like Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker for Garnier Fructis shampoo), or face (like Carla Bruni for Fiat, a car manufacturer). For those who are literally willing to “give their right arm” to make it, there is so-called “parts modeling.” Hand, leg and foot models are in constant demand for commercials, print ads and editorial campaigns.

Dani Korwin, president of New York-based Parts Models, an agency that deals with practically every body part but faces, confirmed that while “some of [their] models are regular fashion and beauty models, others are actors who also happen to have beautiful body parts.” Korwin went on to say that the two businesses are very much intertwined and that parts models are more prevalent than people think. “If you count the number of hands or legs or feet with products in editorial content and on TV commercials you understand how important an aspect it is,” she said.

But though it may seem easy, this type of modeling demands obsessive attention to a specific body part. “Models have to be extremely careful with any part of the body used for photography,” said Korwin. “If a hand model gets a scratch on her hand it could knock her out of a photo shoot. So they have to be really careful in everyday life.”

Ellen Sirot, a top hand and foot model who is represented by Parts, is the poster girl for the meticulousness required of parts models. In an interview, Sirot confessed to owning around 500 pairs of gloves and wearing sneakers on her wedding day to preserve her prized appendages. In her day-to-day life, she refuses to cook, clean or even high-five her young daughter. But for Sirot and other top-tier models, whose hands pull in several thousand dollars per booking, such attention to detail more than pays off.

Sirot is not alone in her willingness to make sacrifices to succeed in the industry. Throughout the entertainment world, an actor’s value is literally the sum of his parts. Smart actors know they must try to cash in on everything from their looks to their voices to their pinky toes. And in order to do so they must be willing to do everything short of spending a billion dollars to insure their rear ends. ES