Written By: Eliza Berman
In 1961, LIFE’s Eleanor Graves profiled a man named John Harkrider, the founder, owner, talent scout and booking agent of the Harkrider male model agency. That such a profession even existed might have surprised many of the magazine’s readers, for whom Graves’ explained the phenomenon that was sweeping the world of fashion and advertising:
There was a time, not too long ago, when the best salesman for anything in the world was a pretty girl…If a man crept into any of these pictures, he supplied only a shoulder to lean on or a hand to light the match. Today all this has changed. Men, often especially rugged types distinguished by eye patches, beards or tattoos, have moved to center stage, and it is now often the young lady who holds the match.
For modern readers, the top source of casual knowledge about male models is probably not a magazine like LIFE. Instead, there’s Zoolander and now its sequel, Zoolander 2, which lands Feb. 12. But the real life of a man like Harkrider or one of his models wasn’t exactly the glamorous fictional fashion world of the movies. The majority of the scout’s roster of nearly 2,000 had been recruited by Harkrider himself, whose daily routine involved walking up to strangers on the streets of New York City and declaring, “You’ve got a million-dollar face!” before leaving them with his business card.
The agent trained his men in the art of yes. “Never say no,” he told them. “If they ask you if you can be there tomorrow afternoon in a suit of armor, say yes. I’ll get it.” And with a diverse roster of men and boys of varying ages and looks, his ability to meet clients” needs was second to none: “On a recent morning in his New York office he received requests for: a man covered with freckles from head to toe, a teen-ager willing to swim with a shark, a man who would remove his dentures on TV, a Chinese man with a pigtail. Within half an hour the requests were filled.”
He may be but a footnote in fashion history but, for the thousands whose face drew his attention, Harkrider was nothing if not the patron saint of the male model.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.