“Have you ever considered modeling?”
For most guys, it’s a bizarre question. The world of male modeling seems mysterious, glamorous, and a little bit confusing. It certainly doesn’t seem like something you’d stumble into.
When photographers started reaching out to model Devon Ryan, he assumed that they wanted his money. He’d taken headshots for an acting class and posted them on several portfolio sites. Within weeks, he was receiving messages about modeling.
“They’re like, ‘Hey, Devon, I want to take pictures of you,'” he tells FashionBeans. “I was like, ‘Cool, but how much do you charge?’ They were confused by that.”
Today, Ryan’s a fairly successful model with an unconventional specialty: romance book covers. He’s also worked on campaigns for Ford Motors, the NFL, and theCHIVE, among others, and he continues to build an impressive—if slightly unusual—portfolio.
We spoke with Ryan about the (sometimes strange) realities of male modeling.
To get into the business, you probably need to find a niche.
Ryan’s a conventionally handsome guy, but he doesn’t look like a typical male model. He’s fit, but he’s not a bodybuilder. A self-described tech nerd, he founded several startups before beginning his acting career, and he believes that his interest in technology helped him become a fairly successful model.
“An author saw my portfolio and reached out to me,” he says. “She’s like, ‘You’re the character from my book!’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about?'”
The author had recently completed a romance novel about a man pursuing a career in the technology industry. The character pursues a few modeling opportunities, which sabotages his career. It’s remarkably close to Ryan’s life story (without the career sabotage, of course).
“I agreed to take a few pictures,” he says. “Long story short, she pays me a few thousand dollars to be on the cover of this book series.”
At the time, Ryan was focused on acting, not modeling, but he realized that the book cover was a big break. He sent copies of the novel—with his torso on the cover—to several acting agencies.
“I was like, ‘What can I do to stand out?'” he recalls. “I looked at my table and saw one of the book covers that I did, so I put that book in the there.”
When he received a callback from an agent, Ryan asked about the other parts of his portfolio.
“I asked them if they saw my demo reel. They said, ‘Oh, yeah, that was fine, but that book cover—that was awesome. We’ve been passing it around the office, and we’re all reading it.’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?'”
“With that said, it was a pretty nice compliment to find out that someone wanted me for something like that,” Ryan says, referring to the romance cover work. “It’s not something I ever thought I’d do, but I certainly wasn’t saying no.”
A weird break can make a big difference.
Ryan believes that his modeling work helped the book become successful.
“[The author] ended up selling the most books she’d ever sold, and that was with my body type,” he says. “We could theorize all day, but I think it was because it was something different. She gave her readers something different—it wasn’t a stock photo, and it wasn’t a guy with a big, huge body. I have a natural physique, and that’s what her readers wanted to see.”
Several months later, theCHIVE, a photo-entertainment website, contacted Ryan with a surprising request.
“They wanted to book me for underwear modeling,” he says. “I hadn’t done that before, but I was always looking for stuff like that—something that would diversify my portfolio, break down those barriers.”
At that shoot, Ryan realized something: To get to the next level, he had to confront some of his own insecurities.
“I was expecting the worst,” he says. “When I got there, I thought you have to be this super-tall, super-attractive dude to get that type of gig. I thought the other models would be these huge, 6’3″ guys—but that wasn’t the reality.”
“Models come in all shapes and sizes,” Ryan explains, “and all you can do is just focus on your niche. Keep diversifying, and keep exploring uncharted territory, so to speak.”
You need an agent, and for the most part, that isn’t negotiable.
When his modeling work started paying, Ryan got an agent. He says that’s an essential part of the business.
“You have to be careful,” he explains. “When you’re doing it on your own, if you don’t have a certain type of contract in place, they can basically use your images for anything.”
Ryan didn’t know that when he took his first romance cover gig, but fortunately, he worked with an experienced photographer who helped to ensure that the right contract was in place.
“He’d been in the business for a while, so he already had a contract in place to sell the author the license,” he says. “But in most cases, once you do that, the buyer can put that image anywhere she wants.”
Why is that a problem? Imagine finding out suddenly that your image is promoting an HIV awareness campaign—and that the ad portrays you as HIV-positive. That allegedly happened to one New York model, resulting in a lengthy lawsuit.
That’s not an isolated incident. In 2004, a Missouri model filed a lawsuit against a dentist, who allegedly used the model’s photograph in a magazine ad alongside an insert with “highly offensive, unsightly, and loathsomely diseased teeth.” The teeth didn’t belong to the model, and he claims that he lost work as a result of the campaign.
“You definitely have to be mindful of the legal hurdles when you’re doing it on your own,” Ryan says. “But my agent handles all of that, and he can say something like, ‘You can pay to use these images for X, Y, or Z purpose for the next five years—if you want to use them after that, you have to pay extra.'”
By the time you get the big gigs, you’re expected to know how to work quickly.
Ryan isn’t a runway model, but he’s been in campaigns for major brands. The larger contracts bring their own sets of challenges, and if you’re inexperienced, you’re not going to have a good time.
“It’s a super professional shoot, at that level,” Ryan says. “I mean, they are busy people, they want to get in there, get the job done, get a good job done, and get out, and move onto the next project. So you have to be prepared.”
Models need to know how to take direction quickly. If a photographer tells you to look over your right shoulder while raising your watch and crossing your eyes, you’d better be prepared to act fast.
“They filter out [people who can’t do that] through the audition process,” he says. “When it’s a big campaign, everyone auditions.”
Even when you’re getting good work, it’s not a well-paying profession.
Granted, the top male models make millions of dollars, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for models is around $22,000 per year. Ryan says that it’s supplemental income; the unsteady pay and random work schedules make modeling a difficult full-time gig—at least at first.
“That’s something I try to underscore with people,” he says. “You just don’t know until you experiment and try something, but start small. Think big, but start small.”
Highly-paid runway models often have to carefully control their weight and stay in tremendous shape. Catalog models can look more “natural,” according to photograph site Savage Universal, but Ryan believes that male models need to be willing to expand their comfort zones in order to get paid work.
“I would tell [newcomers] just to be humble,” he says. “Be cautious—you want to be safe—but go out there. Meet people. Take different types of pictures and just keep breaking down those barriers. You never know; someone might reach out to you because they like your head, and they want you to wear headphones for a certain campaign. The next thing you know, you’re one of the world’s leading headphone models.”
In other words, even if you don’t think that you’re conventionally attractive enough to model, you can probably find some paying work, provided that you’re willing to experiment.
“There are also, for instance, hand models out there,” Ryan explains. “That’s certainly not me—my hands suck, because I played football, so they’re all twisted up. That’s out for me—nobody wants to take pictures of my hands—but it’s absolutely an option for some people.”
Hand models, by the way, can make as much as $1,200 per day, far more than the average catalog model. That’s not easy money, as they have to moisturize constantly and keep their appendages in perfect condition, but hey—it’s a living.
“Your face might not ever be part of the picture, but you might be a successful model,” Ryan says. “The only way you’re going to figure it out is to just go out there and start trying.”