When Gus Christensen was an undergraduate at Yale in the early 90’s, his gut was so big that his friends gave it a name: Kuato, after the mutant head that grew out of a character’s torso in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Total Recall .
Mr. Christensen’s waistband only widened after he graduated from school and took a job as a trader at a blue-chip investment bank. He ate muffins for breakfast, burgers and fries for lunch, steaks for dinner and eventually ballooned to 225 pounds–with a body that, according to the people who knew him, was pure fat, no muscle. “He definitely had a fatass,” quipped Mr. Christensen’s friend and former co-worker Jeremy Barnum.
After his 27th birthday, Mr. Christensen decided to do something about his weight. “You know how people say whatever weight you are when you turn 30 is sort of your baseline for the rest of your life, like you’ll never get below that again?” the financier asked from his New Haven office, where he manages his own venture capital fund (he left his trading job this summer). “I said, ‘All right, I’m not going to turn 30 at 225 pounds. I’d rather turn 30 at more like 180 pounds.'”
A friend started Mr. Christensen on a high-protein Atkins-esque diet, and he promptly lost 10 pounds. Then he had his tonsils taken out and subsisted on liquids for two weeks, good for another 15 pounds. Then he started eating yogurt and fruit for breakfast, sushi for lunch, and skipped appetizers and desserts at dinner. He finally got down to 180 pounds.
And then Mr. Christensen was discovered.
In February 2000, Mr. Christensen went on a ski trip to Badrutt’s Palace in St. Moritz with a group of New York friends. On his last day in the resort, he was sitting in the hotel lobby killing time before his train departed when a friend came by and told him of a “free spread” in a function room next door.
Mr. Christensen strolled over to grab a bite to eat–and walked right into a casting call for British GQ magazine. “They, um, liked my look, I guess,” Mr. Christensen said. “They called it ‘Classic American.’ They were very fashiony, like ‘Oh, yes! Yes !'”
A surprised Mr. Christensen agreed to stay on for a few days in St. Moritz to do the GQ shoot. “It was a chance of a lifetime!” he said.
“Some people just have a classic look,” British GQ fashion director Jo Levin explained via telephone from her London office. “If you shot in black and white, he could be a face from the 30’s or 40’s. There’s something timeless about him.”
The photo shoot featuring Mr. Christensen appeared in the November issue of British GQ and the December issue of Italian GQ . In the spread, Mr. Christensen sips bottled water on the Swiss ski slopes wearing ski-resort wear from designers like Burberry, Dunhill and Nicole Farhi.
“It’s hard work!” Mr. Christensen said of his modeling experience. “It really is. You know, you see some model on House of Style and she’ll be telling you what a hard life she has and everybody laughs, but when you try it, it really is physically taxing to hold all the clothes.”
Though Mr. Christensen’s modeling career has not exactly taken off since the GQ spread–he recently modeled for A Perfect Day in Paradise, a boutique on East 70th Street–friends who remember his super-sizing days said the financier has changed.
“He seems much more fashion-conscious,” said Mr. Barnum. “He’s much more downtown. He used to be more uptown. I could almost see him wearing black now.”
“Every time I go out to eat with him now,” said Mr. Christensen’s friend Valerie Westcott, “I’ll order and he’ll be like, ‘Um, what are you eating?'”
What’s Ommm !!?
A survey of Saks Fifth Avenue customers last year revealed that many shoppers felt as uncomfortable in the upscale department store as a country cousin in the River Club. Saks management, hoping to make the store more approachable, introduced a whimsical ad campaign urging potential customers to “Live a Little.” One ad featured a barefoot executive in a charcoal Hickey-Freeman suit and Regis-like silver tie meditating atop his desk in near-lotus position, incense smoke wafting to the ceiling. The copy read: ” Monday 9:27 A.M. Ommm .”
Saks was only the latest of a growing number of businesses to use yoga to help shill products. In recent years, yoga imagery has popped up in ads for Ford, Nike, Zippo lighters, Beth Israel Medical Center and even Alpine Lace Deli Cheese, the latter instructing potential customers to “taste the balance.” Some ads strained to associate their message with the mental and physical control attributed to Indian yogis; others mocked the pretensions of yoga neophytes. The online brokerage firm Ameritrade’s now-famous “Mantra” spot spoofed a meditation class where participants couldn’t keep their minds off $8 trades. A Ford ad showed a man meditating next to his new truck and a mountain of sports gear. “To be one with everything … you’ve gotta have one of everything ….” the tag line read.
While others would covet the powerful embrace of Madison Avenue, some yogis aren’t feeling the shakti . Jon Cassotta, an instructor at Laughing Lotus Yoga Center in Greenwich Village, scolded advertisers for not knowing their ashtanga from their elbow: “Yoga allows you to commune with the divine. It’s a prayer, a celebration of the understanding of identity beyond ego, but advertising depreciates the truth, the backbone of the forms.”
Georg Feuerstein, a scholar of yoga who heads the Yoga Research and Education Center in Santa Rosa, Calif., argues that the very nature of advertising violates two of yoga’s five basic yamas (principles), specifically asteya (non-stealing) and aparigraha (non-greed). “Anytime we accumulate more than we actually need, we are actually stealing from our fellow beings,” Mr. Feuerstein explained. “Non-stealing is constantly violated by advertising. And greed comes into play when advertising executives position products to promote consumption…. Advertising is the–let me use the word–the whore of the post-industrial society.”
Russ Hardin, the Saks executive who concocted the “Live a Little” campaign, tried to mollify these barefoot critics. “To me, [the 'Ommm' ad] doesn’t seem exploitive,” he said. “Rather, it shows that whether you are in an ashram in the desert or in an office in New York, yoga is a means to find yourself, to calm yourself, and that it’s good for everyone.”
There are, it should be noted, some yoga devotees–like the owners of a West Coast studio promising a “Bikram Yoga Butt”–who use advertising, too. “All the commercialization is doing is simply reflecting back how yoga is being integrated into our culture,” says Kathryn Arnold, editor in chief of Yoga Journal .
Indeed, as long as yoga’s ranks continue to swell–over 18 million Americans practice the discipline, according to a Roper survey–marketers will continue using it to sell stuff. “Advertising is basically a copycat medium,” said Robert Sawyer, a Manhattan advertising consultant.
But yogis like Mr. Feuerstein have a solution for kundalinis disturbed by yoga’s commercialization. “The whole goal of yoga is to be balanced,” Mr. Feuerstein said. People upset about the advertising, he said, “should practice yoga harder.”
Like Crouching For Chocolat
This is a season of fine films with awful titles. There’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon , Ang Lee’s martial-arts mouthful, which harried New York moviegoers have alternately retitled Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger ; Hidden Crouching, Something Tiger ; Tiger Crunching, Hidden Wagon ; and That Chinese Thing With the Long Line at the Angelika .
Then there’s You Can Count on Me , which sounds like the title of a new self-help book by Steve and Cokie Roberts. Mutated titles currently in circulation for Kenneth Lonergan’s drama include You and Me Count , Count on Something , You Can Stand by Me and Laura Linney Is Hot .
But the worst, by far, is the Miramax fable Chocolat . It’s impossible to say aloud without sounding like some pretentious Francophile, or a Tribeca resident. Hundreds of conversations about current films have been ruined by schlubs scrunching their mouths and telling friends that they must, at all costs, see “SSShhhhokkkoLAAAA .” (Keep in mind that the movie, while set in France, isn’t actually in French.) What was wrong with plain old Chocolate ? Oscar night is going to be a nightmare! Wait until a presenter like Charlize Theron tries to wrap her lips around that one.
C’mon, movie people! It’s not so hard. Two words: Yi Yi .