Naked Cowboy Wrangles an M& M In Times Square

Robert John Burck has filed a trademark-infringement lawsuit against Mars Inc. for using his likeness in an ad.Video by David Segal/The Washington PostEdited by Kelly Martini/
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 21, 2008

NEW YORK -- Strictly speaking, the Naked Cowboy is neither naked nor a cowboy. Behind that strategically placed red, white and blue guitar, a pair of tighty-whities are wrapped around what he proudly calls his "striated glutes," with "Naked Cowboy" scrawled on the back side. And he hails from Cincinnati, which is rarely confused with the O.K. Corral.

Woefully Underdressed Ohio Guy, of course, isn't as zippy. But truth-in-labeling issues aside, Robert Burck has created a brand: He is the ripped blond dude who strums, sings and preens, seven days a week, hour after hour, on the sidewalk in Times Square. There he was yesterday, hamming it up in the frigid winter weather.

"Buck in the gee-tar," he said to one tourist after another who wanted a snapshot with him. They complied, each one pushing a dollar bill through a slot in the top of the gee-tar.

If you've been following recent events in the career of the Naked Cowboy, you might assume he'd ease up on his schedule a bit. Last week Burck filed a lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan against Mars Inc., the candy goliath, demanding more than $6 million on grounds of trademark infringement. For months, according to Burck and his lawyers, Mars used a cartoon character based on the Naked Cowboy in a video billboard outside its M&M's World store on Broadway, just three blocks north of 45th Street and Broadway, Burck's performance spot of choice. The round little light-blue fella, unnamed, carried a guitar and wore a Stetson, cowboy boots and nothing but skivvies. He appeared to be singing in Times Square.

"This guy came up to me a few months ago and said, 'You've got to come see this,' " Burck recalls. "At first, I was elated because there I was, on a billboard. I always knew I'd be on a billboard."

Burck, 37, says this while sitting in the front seat of his black Cadillac Escalade, in an underground garage where he parks every day. His lawyer, Scott Rothman, is in the back seat. The two have been consulting about the lawsuit and Burck is about to drive him back to his office. Burck's wingman, Steve, who helps collect money on some days, is in the back seat, too.

You think, Escalade? The Naked Cowboy drives an Escalade?

"Oh, yeah," he says. "Look, I've got thousands of dollars in the bank. I've got no bills, no operating costs. I park for free. I live with my girlfriend in Secaucus. I've got my suitcase in the back. Nothing but cash coming in. Here's my schedule."

Burck takes out a notebook in which he has mapped out the next month or two of his life. It's a constant procession of Times Square dates and working trips to places like Panama City, Fla., Nashville and Daytona Beach, where either he'll collect a few hundred an hour in tips or earn a personal appearance fee, which he says can range up to $10,000 a day. He flips to a handful of drawings that he made with a color pencil -- his financial goals, rendered in sketches. There's a yacht, a private jet, a home in the Hollywood Hills, a mansion that he plans to build in Weehawken, N.J., of all places, and a penthouse apartment in Panama City Beach.

That's right, homes all over the place. The Naked Cowboy might seem like a modest, no-overhead enterprise, but Burck sees himself as the living engine of a merchandising machine. A merchandising machine that always draws a crowd and always brings in money, because -- here is the key part -- the Naked Cowboy is the most brilliant marketing concept in history.

Burck, who is what you'd get if you could cross-breed Fabio with a double shot of espresso, will tell you this with total authority. Then he will reach into the driver-side door pocket and take out a thick stack of typewritten pages, worn around the edges, which turn out to be a sort of personal manifesto.

"This is what I've read, every day, for like literally 12 years," he says. It's a collection of personal goals for just about every facet of his life, including his hair, which will be "stunning, gorgeous, sexy long" and his lower back muscles, which will be large and flexible. He reads aloud:

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