When Jenna Chong books a hand-modeling gig, she often walks onto the set not knowing what the product is, or what she will be asked to do. She might be told to dip a french fry with just the right amount of ketchup, pour pills out of a bottle so that all the logos are facing up, or make a hamburger look happier.
Or even, once, pet a 500-pound African lion.
That assignment came in 2011 while she was hand doubling for Kirsten Dunst on a fragrance commercial. Chong's fears were allayed by the lion's trainers, who assured her that the animal would not do anything to harm her — as long as she wasn't menstruating, and didn't stare directly into the lion's eyes. Oh, and no sudden movements.
"They said, '[The lion] may want to mark his territory and start urinating on you,' " she remembers. " 'If that happens, just sit still until he's done.' "
Chong, 31, is no diva. Musing on the possibility of being covered in lion urine, she adds, laughing, "I wouldn't have minded, actually. He's a famous lion. He's the lion from Chronicles of Narnia."
While most people get into hand modeling through other avenues of the entertainment industry — they are primarily actors, spokespeople, stunt doubles or models — Chong began eight years ago on a whim.
Growing up in San Gabriel Valley, Chong had planned to go to law school after she graduated from UCLA. Then she saw an episode of Oprah on body-parts modeling. It seemed like something fun to do for extra cash while she was looking for a "real" job.
"I had always been told I had piano hands, which just means I have slender fingers," she notes.
At her first audition, which she found on Craigslist, Chong met a professional hand model, who referred her to the Body Parts Models agency. Chong began booking jobs instantly. She still tutors Pasadena-area high school students, a job she began in college. But hand modeling is her career.
At first, her loved ones didn't take her seriously. Pop culture has satirized hand modeling, from Seinfeld and Zoolander to Ellen Sirot, the real-life hand supermodel who earnestly likens her hands to "Olympic athletes."
"Once my family started seeing me book these jobs regularly, they understood, but they still tease me about it every day," Chong admits. "Everyone asks, 'When are you going to get a real job?' Family, friends, strangers even!"
There's an assumption that hand models substitute for ugly hands, but actually, directors need experts skilled at completing precise shots efficiently. As an insert model for Giada De Laurentiis, Chong had to chop squash for eight hours straight. Even the pizza "cheese pull" is a technical skill worthy of putting on a résumé, because the consistency of cheese allows for only a 10-second window to hit your mark before it starts to look unappetizing.
"What I like about my job is that I get high visibility but I'm also anonymous," Chong says. She models for Carly, the T-Mobile 4G spokeswoman in a pink dress; consistently books national commercials; and has even worked with David Lynch on a Shiseido ad.
"I'm proud that I went into an industry I had no connection to and actually found success, but I try not to take [hand modeling] too seriously." She laughs. "Because you can't."
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That said, her dream job is to poke the Pillsbury Doughboy: "How great would it be to be part of such an iconic commercial?"
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