A hand model’s tale: Hongkonger on her love of manual labour
We talk to a Hong Kong model about her expressive, emotional hands, and the dedication needed to hold the same position for hours on end
The human hand can be powerfully expressive and lucrative, if you are a hand model with more than just slender fingers.
“I have the advantage of doing dance for more than 10 years, so movement-wise or expression-wise, I think I have an advantage,” says hand model and market researcher Bettina Ding, 30.
“I realised that the hands in Hong Kong adverts weren’t too good, and I looked at mine and thought, oh they’re really good, so why not – why shouldn’t I become a hand model?” says Ding, whose hand modelling career began in 2014.
All her life, people have told her that she had nice hands, and so it made sense to improve the quality of hands in Hong Kong advertising. Locally, she says, there is scant focus on how hands look. The typical client balks at hiring a proper hand model.
“Or they’ll just get, you know, someone they know to give a hand.” However, hand model hands are markedly different, according to Ding.
“The nail beds are longer, the fingers are more elongated, the emotion is a lot more elegant, I guess. And you can express different moods with your hands.”
For instance, in a jewellery shot, a hand model may express an elegant, soothing mood. Whereas, for a smartphone advertisement, quick, sharp movements may be needed, according to Ding.
The versatile performer, who has worked for luxury department store Harvey Nichols and independent jewellery brands earns about HK$1,000 per hour. For some start-up friends she charges less, because she values their entrepreneurship – their start-up spirit.
She describes hand modelling as interesting and fun, despite the paranoia she says she feels about broken nails, and awkward moments. “You’re the subject of a shoot, but it’s only your hands that are doing the expression – the rest of your body is in a really strange, awkward position that nobody except the photographer will ever know about.”
The work can be highly profitable, according to New York City hand model Susan Schell.
Schell says it is possible to earn thousands of dollars for a day’s work on a commercial shoot and hundreds of dollars for a day spent doing an editorial shoot.
“It depends on the client and the scale of the photo shoot,” says Schell. However, the highest-paid models often diversify into the body, feet, or other parts to earn what she describes as “a serious and legitimate salary”.
Where you come from makes no difference, as long as you have great hands. “There are so many categories of hands. Many top hand models are of Asian descent, but like I said, there are hand models of every shape, size, and colour who are very successful.”
The work can be niche though, she adds. For instance, a client may want a man with hairy knuckles or tattooed hands.
The biggest lesson Schell has learned is the importance of teamwork in producing the perfect shot. “You often have to be quite creative and flexible as a hand model – you are often asked to do impossible things, like hold something really heavy but make sure all your nails are towards the camera and make that look natural,” she says.
She adds that she has learned what pose looks best in a picture and how to give the client and photographer what they want with any prop in any scene, irrespective of pressure. Some clients ask her to handle seriously heavy accessories – she has held everything from bulky luggage to a whole birthday cake with one hand. Anyway, however light, most props she deals with feel heavy after she has held her arm out from her body for a while.
“The positions you have to get into to keep your body out of the shot can be quite tricky! It can take a lot of strength and flexibility to hold the same awkward position for a long time,” she says. She cites a nail polish shoot that meant holding the same pose all day with breaks, because her hand had to look the same in each shot.
“I’ve had to do a lot of strange things!” she says, adding that not every shoot is glamorous. “I have also had to pose with live animals including a rabbit, a fish, and a dog – it’s really fun but can also be difficult.”
Ding’s advice to wannabes is that they should just observe more. See how your hands naturally look. Look in the mirror, practise poses. Check which angles show your hands off best.
“You cannot imagine how a small change in the angle or the positioning of your thumb will affect the overall image.”