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Monday, September 3, 2007
Updated: September 4, 1:47 PM ET
It's not easy being Maria

By Neil Janowitz
Special to Page 2

NEW YORK – It's a sticky summer afternoon in New York City and you're already regretting the spicy chicken combo meal you just grabbed from Wendy's. It's partly due to your half-sincere disgust at getting fast food for lunch again, but more so because you're already visibly sweating through your blue oxford and the spiciness isn't going to help the cause. You had planned to hurry back to the air-conditioned comfort of your cubicle, but as you pass Greeley Square you notice a stage erected inside. Upon closer investigation, you discover that Canon is staging a fashion show to commemorate the beginning of the U.S. Open, and the company has hired 11 Maria Sharapova look-alikes to showcase its new line of PowerShot cameras. You immediately find a table next to the stage's catwalk. This is worth the extra perspiration.

The show begins. The models are attractive, but you quickly realize you probably set your expectations too high for a fashion show featuring electronics. The show ends. Afterward, the models start mingling with the crowd and you meander into the mix, hoping to catch the eye of a faux-Maria. Instead, you notice a vaguely familiar-looking dude standing awkwardly off to the side. Curious, you approach him.

"Are you Neil Janowitz, from ESPN's magazine?" you ask. He shifts nervously, seemingly a bit surprised to be recognized, before saying yes. At your prompt, he explains that he's there on some peculiar-sounding mission to "discover the essence of Maria Sharapova." He adds that Patrick McEnroe said Maria was defined by her intensity, which is embodied in her grunt. Janowitz then does the grunt, thereby emulating McEnroe emulating Sharapova. This skeeves you out, so you excuse yourself and walk away – but you stay within earshot, hoping to find out what he's doing. Before long, he pulls four skeptical models aside and begins asking them odd questions about what it's like "channeling Maria Sharapova." You're not surprised when they don't understand him. You're not sure if you do, either.

Maria look-alikes
The day began innocently enough with a few model/actresses dressing like Sharapova ...

"Many of us are actresses, so it's second nature, pretending to be someone else," says one model, Lauren Reeves. But he persists, asking the look-alikes what characteristics of Maria they keep in mind while portraying her. At this, they say everything from "down-to-Earth" to "classy" to "powerful," with every model mentioning Maria's "intensity and dedication." Apparently satisfied with their answers, Janowitz then asks each model to take a ground stroke with his racquet, and grunt. You try to imagine what these women are thinking about the idiot in a bandana and purple T-shirt who just asked them to scream on camera. It makes you giggle.

At this point, you realize a lot of comedy could come out of this afternoon, and decide to Blackberry your boss and tell him you got sick at lunch. "Looks like the fast food caught up with me," you write, well aware that this is both a lame excuse and a harbinger of future truths. That handled, you resume following Janowitz, who has moved on to another group of Marias.

By this point his main question has changed to "How do you become Maria?" and a model named Elliott Sailors – which she has to repeat three times before Janowitz gets it – says aspiring Marias just need to be themselves and have confidence. You really hope Janowitz will point out the irony of a Maria Sharapova look-alike advising people to be themselves, but he's too busy writing down the advice. You begin to wonder where all of this is going, and if it's not just a lame attempt to hit on the models. Then you look away for a moment, and when you turn back, he's gone.

You stand around idly for a bit, alternately ogling the models and wondering why your boss hasn't replied yet, when Janowitz reappears. But now he's wearing a long blonde wig, a white visor and the same white dress as the other Marias. With his pronounced gut and tattered Vans, he doesn't translate well to dress-wearing; the dude looks awful.

Janowitz and Maria

You're not remotely sure what he's doing, so you ask. He replies that after getting advice on how to be Maria, it seemed natural to try to apply it – as Maria. You say he makes it sound logical and spontaneous. "It was," he responds. You point out that he must've had the wig with him – "right?" He gets defensive and says he was holding it for a friend. You inquire as to where he got the dress, and he answers that a Canon rep loaned it to him, along with the visor. This strikes you as especially weird, which is an impressive achievement considering the circumstances. But you back down. You figure you'll let him go creep some other people out, and you can sit back and enjoy the comedic fallout.

Except, it doesn't go that way. The models lower their guard when they see him; they open up and talk freely, laughing frequently, and you wonder if there's something to the idea of wearing a dress to pick up women. This passes. Then you watch as Janowitz makes his way to the Canon photo area, and the crowd – a mix of lunch-breakers and foreign tourists – flocks to take pictures with him. It's funny when a little Asian lady lifts up his dress, and again when an elderly Hispanic man puts his hand on Janowitz's butt during their picture, but when a large man in a suit starts yelling that he's next in line, you begin to feel uncomfortable. This is not how you saw the day ending when you skipped out on work to watch 11 tall, blonde models in a fashion show.

Just then you get an e-mail from your boss. He says he hopes you feel better.

You can't say that you do.

Neil Janowitz is an editor for ESPN The Magazine. You can reach him at neil.janowitz@espn3.com.