We like to occasionally ask some of our favorite writers to give us the backstory on a story they loved. Here’s veteran journalist Mike Sager telling us about his story “Ugly,” which ran in the May 2012 issue of Esquire.
When you get a phone call from your editor telling you he wants an in-depth profile of an ugly guy, you panic a little. You imagine yourself having to walk up to some stranger. “Hey, you’re friggin’ ugly. Wanna be in a story in Esquire magazine?”
Then you think of a really good friend of yours. Great guy. Not a pretty sight.
You try to imagine how the call will go.
You even make the call.
Then you chicken out.
And you start panicking again, just a little bit, remembering how long it took to find the right Beautiful Woman for the piece I think of as this story’s reciprocal. (“The Secret Life of a Beautiful Woman,” Esquire April, 1999, collected in Revenge of the Donut Boys). With Hollywood and environs as my hunting grounds, it had taken nearly three months to find a beautiful woman to profile. In the beginning the magazine wanted a blonde. I kept remembering this five by seven model card, this brunette with baby bear brown eyes. She’d haunted me through the entire search, through dozens of interviews with other women who weren’t quite right for one reason or another. As it was I insisted on picking the dark-haired woman. Her name was Brooke Burke. I guess you could say my story was her break, though she’d been working her butt off for years to get where she was.
With the Ugly guy, I stutter stepped for a couple of weeks. I decided to put a notice on some casting services, looking for an ugly guy. I figured if I was up front, trying to cast an ugly guy, people could self select. These would be actors answering a call for a role. Nobody would get offended.
I got a zillion responses. In my estimation, not one of them was ugly. Most were easily younger and better looking than me. I struck up email correspondences with a number of them. I’d write, “Dude, you don’t look so ugly to me!” It turned out all of them were comparing themselves to the likes of Brad Pitt, who they saw as their competition. Well, they were actors, after all.
One of the guys I struck up an email correspondence with was also not ugly. But he was pretty fat. He was a comic. He was going through a divorce. He seemed to need an ear. We went back and forth. I explained to him that I couldn’t choose him—some years ago I’d already written about a 600 pound man. (Big, GQ, collected in Wounded Warriors). There’s a whole story how I found him, too, of course.
Finally I started getting desperate. I asked the fat guy if he could recommend anybody who was ugly. Come on, you must know somebody.
The fat guy didn’t miss a beat. “I have this friend we call the Dirtman,” he said.
Because it seemed entirely appropriate, we arranged a lunch at Jerry’s Famous deli in Studio City. The fat guy was there. This other guy was there too, a 6’9” former pro football player, who was not ugly either but who also needed an ear (as do we all from time to time).
The Dirtman, Warren Durso, was a little late. As we others were sitting at the table, chatting up, I watched this gnomish guy waddle into the restaurant and stop by a table of old biddies who were having lunch. One of them was super skinny, white hair cut in a bob, wearing a tight knit jumper with horizontal black and white stripes—and black and white striped knee socks to match.
Durso started chatting up the old ladies. Turned out the woman in the stripes was some kind of marginal semi-famous actress from bygone days.
In a few minutes, spotting his friend the fat guy, Durso penguin-walked in our direction (he’s had a hip replacement and a bunch of other orthopedic mishaps, detailed in the story.).
Reaching our table, he held up a business card. “Dudes!” he exclaimed. “I got her number!”
Nobody could tell if he was serious or not.
I knew at once I’d found the right guy.
In closing, I’d like to thank Warren for being such a sport. Not to mention the naked pictures he allowed for the piece. Of course, he’s used it somewhat to his advantage, touring the country, headlining as the Ugly comic. Right now he’s four-walling it at the Plaza hotel in Las Vegas. I saw him the other night, part of an audience of 13. Check him out if you get a chance.
To read more non-fiction stories like Ugly, see Mike Sager’s fourth collection, The Someone You’re Not: True Stories of Sports, Celebrity, Politics & Pornography. For more on these topics, see Sager’s latest novel, High Tolerance.
Photo: Mike Sager and Warren Durso at the Standard Hotel, West Hollywood.