Antonio Sabato 1996

The New York Times
A Michelangelo in Bikini Briefs
Published: May 5, 1996

FLORENCE has David, London's got Eros and the husky Dioscuri brothers still gaze out on modern Rome. But New York is not a city to be outdone. For the next six months, it's got Antonio Sabato Jr.

A 90-foot-high billboard featuring the nearly nude Mr. Sabato, Calvin Klein's newest underwear model, was unveiled last Tuesday morning in Times Square. Wearing black bikini briefs and a soulful expression, Mr. Sabato may not be the ideal model to represent the wholesome "family entertainment center" now taking shape on 42d Street. But his billboard is a worthy, if fleeting, addition to the classic tradition of civic sculpture. A commercial billboard is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when the subject of public art comes up. On the other hand, when was the last time a work of public art stopped traffic on Broadway?Brand: Calvin Klein
Year: 1996
Model: Antonio Sabato
Ph: Wayne Maser

Sex sells, no doubt about it. Even so, there's much to be said in favor of the display of private places in public spaces, as the ancients understood. In his book "Flesh and Stone," Richard Sennett observes: "The naked, beautiful body seems a gift of Nature, but Thucydides wrote about nakedness as an achievement of civilization. The gymnasium taught young Athenians how to become naked." David Barton's gyms do the same thing for young New Yorkers. So do Calvin Klein's ads.

Nakedness is not natural: this is a major idea. One becomes naked not by taking off clothes but by putting on social customs. Inhabiting the body properly requires cultivation, thought and will. And it is one of Western civilization's glories to have turned the nude figure into a major urban monument. The heroic sculpture is not just a passive object. It proclaims the body as the seat of action. Civilization begins here, with exercise, a task undertaken not just for fitness, but for beauty. Perform that task well and you can move on to other things: the vase, the house, the dance, the theater, the city as a work of art.

Some talk as if Calvin Klein's underwear ads were a sign of moral decay. Actually, these ads have reinvented one of our most vibrant urban traditions. Exhibitionism as generosity. There's a moral dimension to showing off.

After the billboard was unveiled, Mr. Sabato was escorted downtown to Macy's, where he made an appearance in the Calvin Klein department on the ground floor. More than 1,500 people showed up. Mr. Sabato turned out to be better looking in person than in the photograph Wayne Maser took for the billboard. He wore outerwear as well as underwear for the event: a ribbed white cotton T-shirt, black jeans, tan cowboy boots.

Seated at a glass table on a platform covered with gray carpet, Mr. Sabato shook hands with his fans, giving each a smile. With a laundry marking pen, he signed their underwear or the boxes they came in. About 600 people made it through the line during the two-hour appearance. Women outnumbered men by about 8 to 1. Most of the fans seemed to be 25 to 35. A purchase was required to get within reach of beauty.

It was surprising how polite, even staid, the crowd looked. After all, here was a group of people who turned out for no other reason than to meet a young man who looks good in his underpants. Director: Wayne Maser

You'd hope the mood would be Bacchanalian or at least carnivalesque. But there were no leers, no smirks. This decorous group could have been standing in line at a church supper.

Mr. Sabato possesses disarming dignity, too. If he suspected that there might be something unseemly about posing for beefcake pictures, he gave no sign of it. On the contrary, in an interview, Mr. Sabato said that seeing himself on the billboard was a dream come true. The 24-year-old actor and model was born in Rome. His family moved to New York when he was 12. As a teen-ager, he used to walk around Times Square and imagine himself up there on a billboard. In fact, his billboard perfectly captures the dreamy expression of adolescent yearning. It's the portrait of a young man longing to be what, thanks to the billboard, he has, in fact, become.

Mr. Sabato never aspired to model. His ambition was always to act. He has appeared on "General Hospital" and "Melrose Place." "Thrill," his first movie, will be on NBC this month. He takes acting classes in Los Angeles, where he now lives. The Macy's signing was his first personal appearance. He found it overwhelming, but great. "It gives me a chance to see them, instead of them just looking at me," he said.

Mr. Sabato's exercise routine is not elaborate. Three workouts a week at the Marina del Ray club. He doesn't smoke or drink. He consumes a lot of water.

What's interesting about talking to Mr. Sabato is that, in person, he is more remote than his picture. Looking out from his billboard, Mr. Sabato invites viewers to project their fantasies on his person. Fantasies of adoring or being adored, of being catapulted to fame, of making the grade on society's strict scorecard of physical appearance.

In person, Mr. Sabato asks for nothing of the kind. A guy with a dream who got a lucky break, he invites only the hope that he'll be able to enjoy it.

Photo: The new Calvin Klein billboard, with Antonio Sabato Jr., stopstraffic in Times Square. Maria Moreles has a signed copy. (Norman Y. Lono for The New York Times)
A version of this article appeared in print on May 5, 1996, on page 149 of the New York edition.


AngelLover said...

Never seen that commercial before !!!
Fantastic ! Very funny !!
We heard so much about Antonio when he began !!!
Thank you Johec !!!
:o) :o) :o)

Anonymous said...

What height is antonio sabato jr?

Johec said...

according to IMDB he's 6' 1" (1.85 m) :)

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