A Hand Model Remembers Steve Jobs

Ryan Abbott tells of how the late Apple CEO’s perfectionist touch saved a noble profession.

When people talk about the legacy of Steve Jobs they invariably reference the products he helped usher into existence: the Macintosh computer, iPod, iPhone, and iPad. But I am almost positive that in the near future Steve’s legacy will focus on something else entirely. He will be remembered for championing a cause far more important than moving gadgets and gizmos — for reinvigorating a movement at the crossroads of art, economics, and patriotism.

He will be known as the man who brought hand modelling back to the U.S.A.

The 1960s were the golden age of American hand modelling. Despite lithe fingers from the Ukraine and flawless Brazilian cuticles, we retained our stranglehold on the industry. Why? Because we had better moisturizer. Also, we innovated, pioneering previously unimaginable ways to grasp and point. In the early 1980s, a series of unfortunate incidents led to the dissolution of the U.S. Union of Hand Models. Amateur and unskilled hands began palming the market, and globalization decreased opportunities for Americans. Soon, hands were out and chimpanzees and robots were in as the indicators of choice.

It took a visionary like Steve to return us to glory, and I am fortunate to have witnessed it. The idea to focus on hands in Apple commercials came directly from Steve. Since his passing, a few tales have come out emphasizing how challenging he could be to work with. People have said that he was a perfectionist, a micro-manager. Let me tell you, the stories are true.

I was on set filming one of the first promotional videos for the iPod Nano, for which I was demonstrating the correct use of the click wheel. I hadn’t been introduced to Steve yet, but partway through a take, a slim shadow entered my light source and yelled “Cut!” It was Steve. He had seen my fingernails on the monitor and thought they were too long.

“They’re distracting,” he said. “They need to be sleeker.”

I had a nail file in my back pocket, of course, so I began gently trimming my right index finger. Steve stood beside me, his arms crossed, watching.

“How’s this?” I asked, holding up my hand.

“Not even close,” he said. “Shut down production. I’m cancelling the iPod. This is the most revolutionary product to hit the market in years, but it’s going to be a complete failure if you can’t get your fingernails right.” He took the file from me and began shaving my nails down to his exact specifications. Now that’s vision.

A few years later, I got a call asking me to handle the iPhone for a series of TV spots. I showed up more ready than ever, with crystal-clear nail beds and rounded-square edging sure to be Steve-approved.

“They’re perfect,” he said, and I let out a sigh of relief. “But I hate your fingerprints. They’re way too spirally. They’re interfering with the phenomenal proportions of the interface.”

I was swapped out for another hand model who, I have to admit, gave the performance of a lifetime. In fact, I was utterly shocked when, a few years later, I received an email from Steve himself inviting me to hand-model the forthcoming iPad commercials.

This time, he didn’t wait for filming to start before inspecting my hands. “Are you kidding me?” he exploded, after seeing me interact with the device. “Your hands are way too oily, you’re leaving swipe streaks all over the multi-touch display.”

He went on. “We’re about to introduce the most game-changing, innovative device ever conceived, and you’re finger-painting all over it. I’d almost rather use a stylus!

“By the way, it provides the most phenomenal web-browsing experience you’ve ever had.”

Sure, Steve was tough, but when his biography is written — the next one, I guess — it will surely say that his quest for perfection and insistence on hand close-ups re-energized the American hand model business. There’s no doubt in my mind that he initiated the biggest comeback for our industry since Madonna brought back vogue-ing in 1990, only this time the momentum has sustained. I was proud to have been one of Steve Jobs’ favorite pair of hands, and if he were around today, I’d be proud to shake his.

Illustration by Jeremy Nguyen

Ryan Abbott is a writer from Vancouver, currently living in Paris. His writing has appeared in Joyland, The Globe & Mail, Vancouver Magazine, Sad Mag, McSweeney's Internet Tendency and a few other places where words gather.