Putting Yourself Out There

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Oh, great.

"Are you Polish?"

I'm completely exhausted from work, heading home at 11:30 p.m. on a freezing December night. And Random Crazyperson, ten feet behind me, is trying to get my attention.

"I asked you a question, ma'am."

He enters my peripheral vision from the right side. I'm not so much nervous as irritated. I glance across a dark Sixth Avenue at the nearest group of people, who are walking away. I pick up the pace; he picks up the pace.

"Stop walking."

I do a quick mental checklist of everything I learned in those two Women's Self Defense summer bootcamps my mother made me take back in Texas.

"Stop walking."

Now we're sharing the same plane, and he's closing in. That's it. Too far, I think. With a sharp pivot turn, I fire off a profanity-laden dismissal that startles both of us.

He and I freeze in our tracks. Now I'm facing him for the first time. In the tiny beat of silence that follows my outburst, the weirdo offers a creepily amused look of recognition. He actually starts to smile.

"Do you have any idea who I am?" he asks with great dramatic effect.

I take him in. Old, sketchy-looking white guy—probably in his seventies. I can see a gold cap on one of his teeth. Oily, gray hair. Beat-up messenger bag. Oversized, dusty cargo jacket. Two to three rings on each finger.

I don't recognize this guy from anywhere. All clues seem to point to deranged wanderer. Yet he seems more bewildered than I am when he then asks: "You don't recognize me at all?"

All I can think is: (a) I've forgotten the face of an old family friend (wouldn't be the first deranged wanderer in the family, I muse); or (b) he's some form of high-brow "Zoolander" 'derelict' celebrity, and I'm just out of the loop. He jumps in before I've had a chance to ask.

"Do you know who Annie Leibovitz is?" he says awaiting a response. "She works for me."

He launches into a monologue about how:

– He's a world-famous American photographer;

– Every single one of the rings were given to him by a celebrity he photographed over the past five decades—in particular, he showcases a gold-plated "R.S." ring he claims was a gift from the Rolling Stones after he shot a famous late-1960s album cover;

– He transformed several supermodels into celebrities (naming a few I've even heard of); and

– The stupidest thing I could ever do in my life would be to walk away from him right now because he wants me to be his "new face".

Still skeptical, I'm about to give him the "yeah, right" when I notice something I'd overlooked before. His clothes—if a little ill fitted—are nice. Really nice. The oversized parka he's wearing clearly sports the Spyder logo, the boots on his feet are North Face brand, and those rings are starting to look like some real assets. Not a vagabond, anyway...

"Where's your camera, then?" I ask.

"Oh, it's at my studio," he says dismissively. "Contrary to popular belief, a photographer does not have a camera sewn to his body at all times."

Before I can reply, he asks what I do. "I study acting. And I am not a model."

"Oh shut up," he retorts. "Stop wasting time with stupid comments. Recognize the event that's taking place. You're being impertinent in the face of the opportunity of your lifetime. I'm about to make you a star."

Things like this don't happen outside the movies. And though "Look What Happened to Mabel" might have been ringing in my ears, I wasn't about to get my hopes up.

When I left for college, my parents sent me off with a fair warning that New York City is a dangerous place—especially by night—and that young people with stars in their eyes can be taken advantage of in a heartbeat. In my two years at NYU, I've had to beat off a few get-fame-quick schemers. Such past incidents had always been pretty black-and-white. I'd never experienced any confusion on the subject—until now.

You see, nine months earlier my sister—who also lives in NYC—was walking down lower Broadway when she was scouted for a Diesel Jeans ad. Turned out it was the real deal. She did the shoot, all very professional, and walked away with $1,500.

Hers was a success story. Could this be a similar situation? My mother always said, If you want something great to happen, you have to put yourself out there.

Mr. Photog asked that I join him for just 15 minutes in a nearby Starbucks and hear him out. Actually, to be honest, he stated that it was the case that I would do so. (His arrogance was mind-blowing.)

As I hesitated to reply, he said the first thing that made sense to me since we met.

"I like your beak," he said with a grin. "You're not the prettiest face, but you're damn interesting to look at. And I like that beak of yours."

He was referring so candidly to the Sicilian nose that I inherited from my father. (A blessing or a curse in my life—I'm still not sure to this day.) My nose has always straddled the line between awkward and high fashion; it's the kind of thing that could make or break you on camera.

As a kid my mother would ease my insecurities by assuring me that one day it would be my nose that made me stand out from other beauties. Now, her belief was all too real.

Suddenly I wanted to kick myself for being so closed off. As if reading my mind, he started speaking reassuringly, tapping into my insecurities. His tone was more emotionally manipulative. Like a mini-Mephistopheles, he played on my moment of weakness.

"You wanna be an actress but you don't want to starve, right?" He looked me straight in the eye. "What about being big enough to do whatever you want? Actor, singer, mogul, rich kid. That's what I do for people."

For a second, logic went out the window. I felt my breath leave me and my stomach start to flutter. I tried to keep my face straight, but I yielded. I accepted his offer, and we headed toward Starbucks.

He asked for my headshot. I tried to explain that I needed new shots, but he said he would take what I had. I gave a copy to him.

On the way he scowled teasingly at my imperfections in the photo, and told me I needed at least three weeks of solid "work"—meaning, on my skin, hair, and figure. I remember hearing that and thinking it entirely logical. Of course! Of course I do. I have always needed a major fix up. I'm far too natural.

Passing into the well-heated Starbucks, listening to his endless stories of past transformations of ducklings into swans, my head started to clear. (Sudden defrosting will do that.)

In reality, the fog fully cleared when Mr. Photog pulled out a dirty, beaten laptop with BORROWED in big letters across the back of the screen. I asked him why the Mac was in such bad shape; he dodged the question.

"Your feistiness will get you far, but you need to learn when to shut the fuck up," he said with a mix of charm and acid.

When he didn't order a coffee, I followed suit. (Which was awkward since we were two of only 12 people in the place, and it was obvious that we were just there to bum their WiFi.)

He opened a folder on the laptop's screen to reveal hundreds of raw, unedited photos of models—many of whom I recognized from ads in Vogue and Cosmo. He pointed to one in particular.

"I took these when she was 17," he said. My heart skipped a beat. The photos were gorgeous. But I couldn't make sense of whether this man, who looked like a crazed homeless person, might actually be who he says he is.

Is it possible that he got his hands on these pictures from someone else? I wondered. I had to be sure I wasn't being tricked. I asked him question after question in an attempt to figure out who he really was. He skillfully avoided fully answering each one by making it clear that he had nothing to prove to me—that I needed him and not the other way around.

As he handed me a card to a high-end salon where I was to meet him the next day for my first "free" makeover, I looked around to see if anyone else in the place recognized him. No luck.

Finally, I asked him if he had a website. "Sure," he said. He typed in the URL and turned the computer over to me.

My eyes widened when I saw the screen. I'm no computer expert, but I know a free blog when I see one.

On the crudely designed page, there were a number of different versions of the one girl's picture, as if he'd run the same image through Photoshop a hundred different ways.

"That's Stella," he said proudly. "I found her when she was fifteen. She's a sexy little thing." He looked straight at me. His eyes had a tint of fluorescent green in them. "She's feisty—like you."

Despite the overactive radiator behind me, I felt a jet of icy cold run up and down my spine. I stood awkwardly.

"Well, you know, I have to go... Thank you for meeting with me." He seemed stunned.

I was near the door as he handed me his business card. It was on plain paper that had been photocopied and cut.

As the door closed behind me, I saw him looking at the headshot I'd handed him earlier.

"See you next week, Noni Culotta. I'll call you." He smiled widely, his gold tooth exposed.

Actress and singer-songwriter Noni Culotta is currently entering her third year at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she is earning her BFA in drama through the Stella Adler Studio. She hails from Houston, Texas, and is just beginning her acting career. She recently performed with her band at The Duplex NYC, and is working on recording her first solo album. Recent works include "Great Expectations" and "No Exit." She can be reached at [email protected].