When a 1995 clip from The Big Date resurfaced on YouTube in early April, it quickly went viral, thanks to a shaggy-haired contestant named Jon Hamm. Famous today as Mad Men's dapper, womanizing Don Draper, Hamm, then a 25-year-old waiter, was rejected on the dating show by a pretty young woman, described as a computer animation student, looking for someone “who knows how to give a good foot massage.”
But the woman who rejected Jon Hamm wasn't actually a computer animation student. Her name was Mary Lou Carter and, like Hamm, she was an actor. Fresh off the bus from Seattle, she'd only agreed to appear on The Big Date because it was a paying gig: She heard about it through a casting call, and treated it as an audition to show off her acting range.
“I think I had, like, five different accents and 20 different facial expressions in that clip. I was a dork,” she recalls.
Now a Van Nuys – based portrait photographer who has taken her husband's last name, Mary Sandler has given up on acting. She'd entirely forgotten about the dating show, which was one of several she appeared on nearly 20 years ago – and had no idea that her co-star had been the future Don Draper himself. That is, until TMZ saw the clip (incorrectly labeled 1996 on YouTube) and found her on Twitter and Facebook on Friday, April 4.
By 11 a.m. that morning, Sandler, in a state of shock, threw on some makeup for a live Skype interview from her living room with TMZ hosts Harvey Levin and Charles Latibeaudiere. An hour later, she was interviewed for Inside Edition, followed by appearances the following Monday on Good Morning America and Today.
“They all asked me the same thing: 'Do you regret rejecting Jon Hamm?'?” Sandler says. She's sitting at a Whole Foods picnic table with her husband, Justin Sandler. Both vegans, they munch on veggie wraps. “Like I said in all my interviews, I wouldn't change my husband for a thousand Jon Hamms, and it's true. We do all right. We're best friends and business partners.”
And, she thinks, maybe Hamm is better off without her, too. “If I were with him now, maybe he wouldn't be famous. Or maybe he wouldn't have found his love that he's been with for 17 years,” she ponders. “You can't change anything about the past. It's a butterfly effect.”
Her only regret about The Big Date is that she didn't “smile forward,” or extend her neck to avoid looking as if she has a double chin – which she doesn't. (Still, she always instructs her actor clients to “smile forward” in their headshots.) It also would have been nice to go on that trip to Jamaica's Sandals resort that she and her date were promised, but never actually received, for winning The Big Date.
But the media couldn't fathom that one woman had the audacity (insanity?) to turn down Hamm, dubbed one of the sexiest men alive by People magazine in 2008. A Buzzfeed listicle even turned her dating-show clip – made all the more goofy by her 20 different facial expressions – into a series of mortifying GIFs, underneath which the author wrote: “What an idiot!” And that was one of the nicer remarks directed at her by vicious Internet commenters.
“You have to have a really thick skin in order to be famous,” Sandler says. All too predictably, the comments about her appearance even spiraled into racism, with one commenter calling her a “Muslim suicide bomber,” she says. (The comment appears to have been deleted from TMZ.com.) “I'm not even Middle Eastern. I'm black, white and Italian.”
Just two weeks before her brush with fame, the former fitness model had coincidentally hired a life coach to help her achieve self-love and acceptance in the wake of an eight-year illness and subsequent battle with weight gain. Her agent had dropped her just days before the clip went viral. Then, in the midst of Hamm mania, perhaps not so coincidentally timed to Mad Men's final- season premiere, Sandler scored a meeting with a prominent publicist. That same day, April 9, her brother died.
And then, as fast the media frenzy swept her up, it dropped her.
“I'm still a little bit numb from everything. I still don't really know what's going on, but everything's quiet now,” she says.
While Sandler unabashedly welcomed the flood of media attention, she was frustrated by her portrayal as “some fool named Mary Carter,” as she was described by a writer from Salon, one of the few websites that actually named her other than the “woman who rejected Jon Hamm,” the web headline that TMZ chose. But if the latter description garners press, Sandler is willing to capitalize on it. In fact, her husband sent an email to L.A. Weekly with the subject line “Girl who rejected Jon Hamm!” (The pitch worked.)
“[The media] could've painted a picture of something that's positive about her life,” Justin Sandler says. A musician and actor, he has highlighted blond hair and tattoos; one on his right bicep was tattooed on the reality show L.A. Ink. “Instead, they said, 'Now she's married and her husband plays in a Guns N' Roses tribute band.'?”
To be fair, Justin Sandler does play drums in Guns N' Roses tribute band Hollywood Roses, but it's just one of three bands with which he tours the country when he's not picking up commercial acting gigs (he's in national commercials for Progressive insurance and T-Mobile) or directing and producing short videos and photography books for 3 Cubed Studios, a production company the Sandlers founded out of their Van Nuys apartment.
Mary Sandler hopes to ride the wave of bizarre publicity to promote 3 Cubed's art and charity projects, which includes The Beard Book, a self-published book of photographs and interviews with more than 100 bearded men. Proceeds from the book and the accompanying June 5 gallery show at Los Globos will benefit the Keep a Breast Foundation for breast cancer prevention and the Foundation for Testicular Cancer at Justin Sandler's alma mater, Indiana University.
“It's not just about me and it's not just about Jon Hamm,” she says. “I want to make a difference.”
The Sandlers met in 2009 after she approached him via a modeling website to participate in a male “beefcake” calendar she was photographing. She didn't realize that they were already MySpace friends, or that he'd been admiring her from afar for years. After a series of phone conversations, they met in person for the first time at the Whisky on the Sunset Strip, and they've “never been apart since,” Mary Sandler says. They were married two years later.
Of course, it couldn't have been love at first sight – back in 1995, The Big Date host Mark L. Walberg quizzed the aspiring actress on whether she falls in love (a) after getting to know someone or (b) the moment she sees them. Unlike the stuntman with whom she was ultimately paired, Sandler clicked her buzzer for (a). The audience booed, and Sandler's mouth dropped open in mock disbelief.
“You need a little time to find out, huh Mar?” Walberg questioned. “You don't believe in love at first sight?” Sandler shook her head no, her dark wavy locks bouncing in the sort of exaggerated motion that, two decades later, makes a perfect GIF.
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