At the Ugly NY talent agency, nontraditional looks are a beautiful thing.
OVER THE COURSE OF a sunny 20-minute conversation, actor Tom DiNardo alternately describes himself as “totally not a traditional leading man” and as a “chromosome-missing-looking guy.” He notes that he would be well cast as “a perp, a guy in a mental institution, a crazy killer.” Disputing one client’s belief that he resembles a hillbilly, DiNardo says he views himself as “more of a [Whitesnake lead vocalist] David Coverdale type.”
So how is it that the 40ish DiNardo finds himself on this January afternoon in the office of one of New York City’s most buzzed-about modeling/talent-rep agencies? It’s because he doesn’t look anything like Robert Redford. Or Brad Pitt. Or any other GQ-perfect stud.
DiNardo, at 6 feet tall and 170 pounds, with stringy locks held back by a headband and tufts of hair encircling his chin, could be any random guy you’d pass on the street. And that’s the reason that Simon Rogers, owner and CEO of Ugly NY, wants to represent him. “Tom’s very arresting, isn’t he?” Rogers says admiringly.
Ugly NY’s models and actors have blue hair, and they have green beards. They are bald, blond, Botoxed, multiply pierced, and tattooed within an inch of their lives. They are tall, short, skinny, and fat -- like the individual Rogers warmly refers to as “Manny the 700-pounder.” All they have in common, it seems, is a certain inarticulable something that catches and holds your eye.
The agency, which opened its doors in New York last June, has quickly forged a reputation for itself as a one-stop shop for, shall we say, interesting-looking talent. Ugly NY opened with a model shop until licenses for its union-franchised talent arm (for TV, film, and theater), Ugly Talent NY, were approved last fall. As of mid-January, Ugly NY boasted 300 or so models/actors, Ugly Talent NY about 150, four bookers, two assistants, an office manager, and a bookkeeper. And forget the ultramodern design and pulsing club music usually associated with big-time modeling agencies; Ugly NY fits easily into a medium-size, wide-open room. Upon entering, you’re offered your choice of water or candy.
But what the company might lack in size and fashion-world pretentiousness it makes up for in moxie. What kind of representation agency, after all, barrels out into a beauty-conscious universe trumpeting its supposed ugliness?
According to Rogers, one that is both extremely self-aware and swayed by the high demand for nontraditional-looking talent. “Look at what we’re seeing in advertising and entertainment and everywhere else -- the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, all the reality TV,” he explains. “People respond well to seeing other people who look like themselves. Advertisers are waking up to the idea that ‘just like us’ is a massive wave.”
(To answer your next logical question: Yes, he’s married … to another model. His wife, Lisa Houlgrave, doubles as Ugly’s unofficial staff photographer.)
Around March 2006, however, Rogers endured a two-month lull, one of the first in his career. Acknowledging the obvious -- that even the most successful modeling careers boast only a limited shelf life -- he took an old friend up on a long-standing offer to open a New York branch of Ugly, which originated in London in 1969.
The administrative staff used boxes as desks for a few weeks when they first opened, and the Ugly NY website didn’t reach full functionality until a few days before Christmas, but the concept itself took off immediately. Before long, A-list marketers like JVC, Nokia, and Levi’s came calling. The entertainment world soon followed.
When preparing to cast National Lampoon’s Dirty Movie, scheduled for release later this year, actor/producer Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Oz) knew exactly whom to call. “We had needs for what I’ll call ‘unique’ types,” he recalls with a laugh. “I knew Simon socially, so it was perfect synchronicity. Instead of going through a million and one casting agents, we got everything we needed in a single place.” Ultimately Meloni cast DiNardo as “the redneck guy” and another Ugly NY personality as “a hooker who’s had a hard night.”
The agency’s talent has no problem with the “ugly” label. “People get it. They realize that you mean ‘interesting,’ not ‘ugly,’ ” says Michael MacNeal, 22, clad from head to ankle in black, with shiny white sneakers, a skull ring on the index finger of his left hand, and an exposed chest tattoo. “Besides, a name like this isn’t easy to forget.”
It took model/actor/musician Liz Sparrow a bit longer to overcome her skepticism. When she moved to New York nearly three years ago, the agencies she encountered felt scammy at best. “They’d say, ‘Yeah, you’re great. Give us $2,000 and we’ll take some pictures,’ ” she recalls. It took her a while to let down her defenses at Ugly NY, which asks its talent to pay only for comp cards (to be left with clients) and $300 annually (only after the talent has been paid for work, not up front) to cover expenses like mailings and website maintenance.
“I kept saying, ‘Why are you being so nice? Why do you know our names?’ ” Sparrow adds. DiNardo, for his part, initially found Rogers “a little like a vacuum salesman” but soon realized the enthusiasm and empathy were genuine. “If a cyclops walked into the room, Simon would take him for lattes,” he jokes.
UGLY NY LOCATES much of its talent through open calls or via its website. Still, the firm doesn’t hesitate to pounce when it spots an intriguing individual -- like the bike messenger who arrived to drop off a package and left with a line on modeling gigs.
Rogers conducts an additional share of the talent-spotting during his off hours, approaching individuals on New York streets and subways with an Ugly business card and a pitch. He rarely receives a hostile, who-you-callin’-ugly? response. He claims that out of every 20 people he pitches, 18 call within a day or two.
“I’m very respectful. I don’t get in people’s space,” Rogers says, seemingly surprised by the suggestion that anybody might react negatively. “Once they hear me out, they realize that the name is tongue-in-cheek. I’m not saying, ‘Phhtt! Down with the pretties!’ I’m saying that, even though it’s a hoary old cliché, everybody is beautiful to somebody.”
That said, the nonunion Ugly NYers aren’t making a ton of money. Assignments range from the hundreds of dollars to five figures. But the phone rings much, much more often than it did before they secured representation. Prior to joining up with Ugly NY, DiNardo toiled as a Macy’s elf and a stand-in for KISS guitarist Ace Frehley; Sparrow had the usual spate of waitress jobs; MacNeal attended high school in Pennsylvania. Since allying themselves with Ugly NY, they’ve scored gigs ranging from MacNeal’s Time Out New York cover to DiNardo’s role in Dirty Movie.
And while you’d think that the Ugly NY talent would have all sorts of stories about people doubting their modeling bona fides, most of the unusual requests have stemmed from the client side. Rogers tells a tale of a pair of 400-pound individuals in the agency’s London office who have been repeatedly booked to test out a mattress company’s wares. He’s also received some interesting calls from drugmakers: “Even though this seems strange, they want people who look like they could have cancer.”
Mostly, Rogers worries about weathering the firm’s growth and, especially, finding more talent. “In every category, we have to have a choice for our clients, whether they’re bikers or hipsters or grannies,” he says. The possibility of a Los Angeles office has been bandied about, as have production and voice-over divisions.
Ugly NY might also be beautifying your TV screen before too long. Realizing that the novelty of the concept might resonate with viewers, Rogers arranged to have Leopard Films, an independent TV production company, capture many of the proceedings for posterity. TLC snared the pilot and may spin it into a series before the year is out. “It won’t be train-wreck TV,” Rogers promises.
The more exposure, the better -- that’s DiNardo’s take on the matter as he prepares to leave the office. “I’m game for anything,” he says. “My mind-set, when it came to my career, used to be despair. Now it’s expectancy.” On that hopeful note, he hands off a few well-worn glam shots. It’s impossible to regard them as ugly.