You Are the Model?

A chapter excerpt from the new book by Penn & Teller’s stupidly larger half: God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales

Penn & Teller are the guys who wear gray suits. The articles always say we wear matching gray business suits, but we’ve never worn matching gray business suits. The Beatles sometimes wore matching suits. The Monkees were more likely to wear clothes that were very similar but had little variations based on the different styles and personalities of Micky, Davy, Peter, and Mike. The Monkees might have worn shirts that were the same color and the same fabric, but they’d all have different collars, sleeves, cuts, and buttons. When I was a child, I thought that was so, so cool. So Teller and I wear suits that are the same color and fabric but have different cuts and linings, and we wear different shirts; sometimes I go double-breasted and Teller wears single-breasted. Some seasons the differences are subtler, but our suits never match completely.

We can’t buy suits off the rack because we’re different sizes, and they aren’t just suits anyway—they’re costumes, so we have them designed. Penn and Teller are only different sizes because of me. Most people think that Teller is little and I’m big. That’s not true. Teller is normal size and I’m the different size. I’m really, really big. I’m stupidly big. I’m a fucking giant. I’m Sasquatch. I think I was too big to even be drafted into the army. At least that was going to be my argument if they hadn’t abolished the draft before I turned 18. I’m just shy of 6 feet 7 inches tall (if we ever go metric, I’m 2 meters, which is a very cool height) and my weight varies, but I try to stay 20 pounds south of 300. Teller is almost 5 feet 10. He’s a normal-sized man. To give you an idea of how stupid my size is, Teller is about the same size as Art Garfunkel. Teller & Garfunkel are two regular guys; Simon & Penn are waving to each other from about the same standard deviation on opposite sides of the bell curve.

Besides our suits being very different sizes, they’re all a bit tricked out. Our jacket pockets never have flaps and they’re a little bigger than they should be, so it’s easy to grab hidden shit and palm it. We do a lot of costume changes in the Penn & Teller show, but the audience never knows it. I have one jacket that has a breast pocket that connects through the lining to the side pocket, allowing me to place something securely in the upper pocket and then steal it from the lower pocket. I have a jacket with a big pocket on the back that Teller can sneak an American flag into. We sometimes change jackets backstage as a quick way to make sure we have the right props properly hidden in the correct pockets.

It was French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin who got the idea for magicians to wear a top hat and tails—the same Robert-Houdin in whose honor Erik Weisz changed his name to Houdini. Before Robert-Houdin came along, magicians dressed like wizards or Asians (there was little difference between the two way back then). They wore conical hats and long flowing robes. The idea Robert-Houdin had was that if magicians dressed just like their audiences, the tricks would be more amazing. Magicians have been knocking off his idea for almost 200 years without understanding it. Some magicians today still dress like they’re working for audiences in 19th-century France. If they were working for audiences in 19th-century France, they wouldn’t have to throw a pigeon into their tails to impress the crowd, they could just turn on a flashlight and be a god. Most magicians today dress like desperate rock stars from the mid-’80s. I don’t understand that at all. Wouldn’t they be less embarrassed in conical hats?

We understood Robert-Houdin’s wardrobe idea and figured that just about every man, at some time or another, dresses in a gray suit. Maybe it’s to go to work, or maybe it’s as a defendant, but it’s a common look. We thought it was a better idea for us than top hats and tails or baggy shirts and a wind machine. Teller and I are creepy enough; we might as well dress normal.

Our “normal” is professionally designed. One year in the ’90s we were changing designers. We were going from Canali to Zegna or something. GQ magazine thought it would be funny to do a fashion layout on the new gray suit look for Penn & Teller. The joke was that anyone would give a fuck that our suits were changing slightly. GQ knows how to do fashion shoots. They set up a beautiful rooftop in Manhattan with a view of Central Park. They hired stylists for our watches and serious hair and makeup. All the cheeses from the magazine and the designer were there. It was a big fucking deal.

It was spring in NYC, and I walked from my apartment right off Times Square to the GQ office building. I was wearing gym shorts (with underwear; I knew I was going to be changing my clothes. I’m not modest, but I try to be polite) and a T-shirt. I don’t remember what T-shirt I wore, but you can bet it was one I got for free from a radio station. Picture gym shorts with a T-shirt that says “WROK Rocks the Rockin’ Rock Out of Rock in the Rock City.” Picture it with a pizza stain on it, even though they were catering lunch.

I don’t ever brush my hair unless I’m working. It’s hair that’s unfashionably long. Just stupid old-man hippie hair. Recently, a woman at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino sent out a message that her granddaughter was getting chemotherapy and was going to lose her hair. The Rio sent out a note asking employees with long hair to donate to Locks of Love. This group claims to make hair fungible. The little granddaughter wouldn’t get my exact hair, but there would be more hair in the system, so she could get some. They cut off 10 inches, and my hair is still unfashionably long. My mom tried, during much of the time our lives overlapped, to get me to cut my hair. She started when I was in junior high school, saying, “You look like a girl,” and ended right before her death, saying, “You’re 45 years old. On a young man that hair was fine, but on an old man, it’s really unattractive.” She never gave up, but I hung tough and made sure my mom was never happy with my hair from the time I was 12 years old. For our live shows, I have microphones in my glasses. It puts the mics at just the right spot; the sound is great and it doesn’t change as I move my head. It was my idea. Carl Sagan came to our show, asked me about my mics, and then started doing it; how great is that? I have battery packs on my back, and they’re connected through my ponytail (Carl just had his wires hanging down his collar). It’s part of mic-ing me up before the P & T show for our stage manager to work the cables through my hair, and that means she’s the one who braids it, not me. When I do TV, they have hair and makeup and someone professional brushes it. I don’t ever do anything with my hair. I don’t even ever shave except before a show, and then only about once a week. It’s not a sexy stubble like Hugh Laurie’s. I have a very light beard, so it’s more like some random hairs sticking out of my face here and there. I’m a fucking pig. My mother used to say I had a light beard because I was part Native American. I think it’s because I have no genitals.

I showed up that day to the GQ offices, a little sweaty from walking, hair tangled and loose on my shoulders, in a T-shirt and dirty gym shorts. Probably exactly the way Christina Ricci shows up every day to the movie set, but very different raw material.

I went up into the office building and met the execs and the photographer and his assistants. The photo assistants were drop-dead gorgeous women; they often are. The photographer was intense in studied black casual clothing. All the magazine big cheeses were there. The metonymic term “suits” was really right for these guys. They were executive “suits” at a suit designer company. These are guys who can tie their ties better than you can jerk off. Everyone but me looked great.

Teller had a later call time than I had, so he wasn’t around. They took me out on the roof and showed me the view. The photo assistants had our new gray jackets draped over their shoulders, and they were posing in the spots where we’d be standing later while the photographer took test shots to make sure the lighting and composition would be perfect for us. It might have been a joke, but it would also be a layout in GQ, and it was going to be perfect.

Everyone was embarrassed as they told me their makeup guy was running a bit late, but there was a whole catered spread, and if that wasn’t enough, they had a gofer who could run and get me any other food I wanted. They said I should make myself comfortable, that the makeup artist would arrive presently. Our “dressing room” was a beautiful boardroom. This was GQ in New York City; there were no fuckups there, except me.

I didn’t mind waiting. They had a few newspapers for us, so I sat down, put my feet up, and started reading the Times. They knew I drank caffeine-free cola, so someone brought me over a glass of that with ice.

I was on my second glass when the makeup artist arrived. He was a small, handsome, slightly effeminate man. He was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt too, but his shorts were a skintight designer take on bicycle shorts that were in fashion that year. His T-shirt was Italian and made of hummingbird-testicle flesh or something. His sunglasses cost more than his rent, and his hair and skin were perfect. He was foreign. He was Italian or something. He was swarthy. His package and makeup kit were both large and professional. He made it clear, in every way he could, that he was homosexual.

He didn’t apologize for being late, even after every suit gave him the stink eye. This makeup artist was a makeup artist. They were lucky to have him.

One of the big cheeses asked him to get started, but an artist doesn’t rush. He casually walked outside to see what it was like on the set, so that the makeup would be perfect for the shot, the way the light caught the skin. He wanted to judge how much wind there was in order to gauge his hair-care products and how much balm to put on the lips.

He sauntered back in and picked up a small piece of smoked salmon from the catered tray. No one else had dared mess it up. He ate, shrugged, and looked for somewhere he could lay out his brushes and towels.

He didn’t ask where he should set up—he took over the room. This was his moment. He owned that boardroom. He commandeered the end of the dark, heavy hardwood conference table nearest the window and laid down a fresh towel. He began opening little careful latches on little careful drawers and laying out brushes.

At this moment Teller arrived. He had outdone me in the pig department. He was dressed like me, but he’d added black socks. He thought he could save some time getting dressed in the suit if he wore his black dress socks with his sneakers and shorts instead of white socks. His gym shorts were bright orange. His T-shirt was white and from JCPenney. He walked into the room, introduced himself to the suits, shook hands with the photographer, grabbed a big handful of the expensive catered food that the makeup artist had started with, shoved it in his mouth, went to the other side of the room, picked up a newspaper, and started reading, while chewing in that annoying way he does where his eyebrows move too much (we’ve been working together a very long time).

The makeup artist didn’t even see Teller, and although he had set up right where I was sitting, he hadn’t once looked at me. He was laying out brushes, palettes, differently shaped sponges, and cotton. I had put down my paper and was just watching him set up, watching him move. He knew exactly what he was doing, and I liked watching that. He was clearly great at what he did. The executives were uncomfortable with his unapologetic tardiness and slow, careful movements, and they may have projected impatience onto my observations, but I was just watching him set up.

When he was all ready, and not a fucking instant earlier, he looked up, turned in the general direction of the suits, and in his very sexy European union accent said, “OK, where is the model?” Please read his sentence in an accent. It doesn’t matter what accent you use, but make sure it’s a very heavy accent. So you can just barely understand yourself.

His whole story was in his looks and his movements, and in that sentence. This was an important gig for him career-wise (although not important enough to be on time), and more than important, it was a sexy gig for him. He was a gay man about to do a GQ fashion shoot. I’ve done some magazine and TV shoots where I know there are going to be sexy female models with us and I get very excited about going to work (although not excited enough to shave, brush my hair, and put on a clean shirt). I used to run the scenarios through my mind: This was the day I’d fall in love with another model, or, better yet, I’d bang her in the stairwell. As I sat in the GQ building, I imagined our makeup artist getting ready for work that day, thinking he’d be around very beautiful men. He was a very beautiful man, and, well, you never can tell, can you?

The suits answered the question “OK, where is the model?” by pointing to me, the closest person in the room to the makeup artist in terms of geopositioning coordinates, but certainly not in terms of class, style, or taste. He looked at me, paused, and asked me, in that same generic accent you used a moment ago, “Where is the model?”

He figured they had pointed to me because I was the guy who knew where the model was. Maybe I was a … what the fuck could he possibly think I was? Model pointer? But whoever I was, I must have been the one who knew where the model was.

Understanding the situation, I gave him my best, most charming smile and a shrug, and I said, “I guess that’s me. I guess I’m the model today.”

I expected we’d share a little laugh at my expense, and then I’d say there really wasn’t much he could do, so put on a little powder, brush my hair back, and we’d be done and he could move on to Teller.

That isn’t what happened. He didn’t back down. He looked at me like he was about to spit on me. Then he made this disgusted noise deep in the back of his throat and he said, in that intense accent, incredulously, “You are the mod-el?” He threw down his brush. He shook his head in disgust. Not American disgust, but that European disgust. He turned his back on me and said a simple, “No.”

The designer and the GQ people ran across the room. The suits were moving, their ties were bouncing. They hustled him out of the room as I protested: “Hey, it’s OK. It’s not a big deal.”

I could see them through the classy glass walls reprimanding him. They were firing him. They were trying to figure out how they could get his makeup kit back to him without having him go back in the room. They were intense. When I’m yelled at like that, I cry. Assistants were on the phone. They were all pissed and panicked.

I didn’t know what to do. I just sat there while they tore him a new attractive asshole inside his trendy bicycle shorts.

After much too long, one of the execs came in, called me “Mr. Jillette” and explained that they would get us another makeup artist. It would take about an hour, but there was another makeup artist who was very, very good, and they’d called her and she could be with us in about an hour, maybe a little less. They made the feminine pronoun very clear.

I said, “No, no, no. I mean, can you blame him? No one would think I’m a model. He was caught off guard. He didn’t mean anything by it. Everyone is waiting around. The light is just right in the park. Let’s just use this guy and it’ll be great. It’s no problem. Really.” They argued with me a bit, they were pissed, but it would save a lot of money to not wait around. They went out and brought him back in.

This is where this makeup man became my fucking idol. He did not apologize. He didn’t even stop his European disgusted head-shake. He came over and looked at me like I was a piece of dog shit stuck to the bottom of his shoe. He hesitated before even touching me. I thought I should show him that the reason I was there was not my looks, but rather that I was funny, so I said, “I understand your disgust, it’s like you’re being asked to paint the Mona Lisa on a Big Mac.” It wasn’t funny or witty, but it gave him an opportunity to give me a bygones-be-bygones laugh. He didn’t even smile. He never cracked a smile. He didn’t even give me a “well, that’s the way life goes” shrug. He touched my face like it was covered with garden slugs. My shit-eating grin, and the executives glaring, had no effect on him. He knew that my being the model was very, very wrong, and he might have to be in the room with it, but he would never condone it. I felt shame and embarrassment, and I kept giggling nervously like a little girl who happened to look like an unkempt yeti, but mostly what I felt was respect. A deep respect. A deep respect like a Bob Dylan respect. Respect like the diamond bullet lodged in Colonel Kurtz’s head. I was in the presence of an artist. I was in the presence of a real man.

He did my makeup and he did a fine job, but he never backed down. He didn’t say a thing, and he never stopped shaking his head in disgust. He finished and said, with a resignation that did not in any way blunt his dignity, “And where is the other mod-el?”

I pointed to Teller.

He buried his head in his hands.

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Chris Baughman isn’t a writer. He’s the first to tell you that. He’s a cop. He works Las Vegas vice, chasing pimps and prostitutes. But sometimes art comes from these kinds of places, from the harrowing scenes of real life, from places that defy logical explanation. “I didn’t know if I could write or not,” the detective says. “But I felt like I needed to.” So he’d come home from working the Vegas streets, sit down at his computer, and let the words flow:



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