You don’t know Ashly Covington, but you’ve probably seen her hands. As one of the top hand models in the industry, her digits have appeared in ads for McDonald’s, Huggies, L’Oreal, Nikon, UPS, and hundreds of other companies. She’s on billboards and TV, in magazines and books. “Most everyone has seen my hands and has no idea,” Covington says.

Indeed, hand models are in high demand. Every brand from Revlon to Taco Bell needs someone to show off their products with perfectly buffed nails and smooth, spotless skin. After 13 years in the industry, Covington still loves her job, but says there’s more to it than just having a pretty hand. We spoke with her and a few other people in the business about what it takes to have famous fingers.

1. THEY’RE OFTEN DISCOVERED IN PUBLIC. 

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Most hand models didn’t grow up dreaming of this career. Instead, they fell into it by getting noticed. Covington, for example, wanted to be an actress, but early in her career, an acting agent told her to forget her head and focus on her hands. “I was like, should I be offended by that?” she recalls.

Carmen Marrufo, a “parts” agent, sometimes stops people on the street or in the office to tell them they could have a career in hand modeling. “I once had a woman come in to the office and leave me an envelope,” she explains. “I looked at her hands and said, ‘Oh my god.’ I ran after her. She was in the business for a while and made a lot of money.” 

What are agents looking for in a hand? Long, straight fingers and wide nail beds for showing off polish. No lumpy knuckles, lines, or scars. And an even skin tone is key. But all of this can also depend on what “category” of hand modeling you’re hoping to break into. Female hands with shorter nails and nude or no polish are “mom hands,” good for cooking, cleaning, and showing off household items (sexist, but true); longer nails are great for “fashion hands” that model jewelry and high-end fashion items; smaller hands can even be good for holding kids’ toys, since kids don’t always have the attention span for sitting still under hot lights for hours on end.

2. THEY CAN MAKE A LOT OF MONEY …

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According to Forbes, a successful hand model can make upwards of $75,000 a year. Covington says she once made $13,000 for two hours of work.

3. … BUT, THERE’S A CATCH.

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Because most hand models are freelancers, the amount of work they get in a month can fluctuate wildly. So while $13,000 for one day of work might seem like a small fortune, it might have to last for a few months if the work dries up. Plus, hand models get called in for last-minute work all over the country and often have to pay their own way. Covington splits her time between the east and west coasts, and once flew to California twice in one week for an indecisive client. It’s for times like these that she keeps a go-bag packed and ready. “The last-minute flights are the really expensive ones,” she says. “They won’t book us until a day or two before and so it’s not as lucrative as all these people make it out to be.”

4. THEY DON’T ALWAYS KNOW WHAT THEY’RE MODELING.

Courtesy of Ashly Covington, handmodelusa.com

Hand models aren't always given a lot of detail about their assignments. For example, a model might know the client is Baskin Robbins, but only find out on-set that she’ll be playing with Oreo cookies for the shoot. Kimbra Hickey, whose hands grace the cover of the book Twilight, only knew she was shooting a cover for a teenage romance novel. She had no idea the book would become an overnight sensation, and has since tried to get in on the fame by touring with the cast, recreating the cover shoot in public, and selling apple-scented lotion.

5. THEY’VE PLAYED CELEBS’ HANDS. 

Courtesy of Ashly Covington, handmodelusa.com

The next time you see a commercial featuring a famous actress applying a skin cream or mascara, remember this: That’s probably not her hand. Parts model Adele Uddo has doubled for celebs such as Natalie Portman and Reese Witherspoon. And trying to maneuver around a celebrity so that nothing but your hands are in the picture can require some awkward acrobatics. “A lot of times it’s me crouched behind them trying to hide with my hand coming up under their arm and over their face,” Covington explains.

6. FINGER EXERCISES ARE A THING.

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Sometimes a hand model needs to move a single finger just slightly in one direction without moving the rest of the hand, which can be really difficult. To practice, Covington started doing finger exercises designed for musicians like flute players, in order to gain muscle control over her individual digits. “I’d be on the subway or at home watching TV and I would run through them,” she says. “I still do. I can move most of everything independently. I invented my own sort of school for that.”

7. BEER-SLINGING IS AN IMPORTANT SKILL. 

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Much of being a hand model involves handling objects with absolute precision over and over again. For example, a beer commercial required Covington to slide a few beers across a table so that they stopped with the labels facing the camera. “What you don’t see is there’s a camera over my neck, my head is bent all the way to one side, and I can only see with one eye what my hand is doing,” she says. “It’s all about speed and pressure. It’s like how baseball pitchers think when they’re throwing.”

Sometimes, it can get awkward. If the hand model is affecting how the light hits the object, they’re covered in a sheet from the wrist up (see above). “I’ve been positioned between a director of photography’s legs a couple of times,” Uddo says. “And sometimes I have to do intricate moves where I can’t even see what I’m doing, like pouring while I’m underneath a table.”

Covington taught herself to pour a beverage so that it splashes at just the right angle in the glass. And because some clients want her to chop things on camera, she takes a knife skills course every year. 

8. OLIVE OIL IS THE BEST LOTION. 

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Covington’s key for smooth hands? “Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize.” She usually uses olive oil or coconut oil. Uddo has been making a concoction for years in her own kitchen that includes coconut, almond, and olive oil with vitamin E. A good, thick layer of moisturizer gets slathered on multiple times a day.

Also, many hand models don’t wear jewelry because rings and watches can leave marks on the skin. Covington says she hasn’t worn hand jewelry for 13 years. 

9. GLOVES ARE WORN ALL YEAR ROUND.

A scratched finger, bruised knuckle, or broken nail is really bad for business, so many hand models wear gloves when they’re out and about. “I got a cut once because a lady was pushing her way onto the subway and her big gaudy ring hit my hand,” Covington says. “Most people have cuts on their hands all the time and they don’t even know where they got them. If that happens to me, I can’t do the job tomorrow.”

10. TEA BAGS AND GLUE ARE A HAND MODEL’S FIRST-AID KIT.

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Need a quick remedy for a broken nail in a pinch? Find a tea bag and some nail glue and you’re good to go. “The first big job I booked in New York was for Dior and I broke a nail like two days before I was flying out there,” Uddo recalls. “I called a celeb nail technician and she came over the next day and re-secured it with a tea bag and glue. It was amazing. You couldn’t even tell.”

The glue sets the nail in place, and the tea bag acts to bind the two pieces back together. Top with a layer of polish and nobody would know it was broken. If you want to see how it's done, here's a demo.