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:
"I want the determination of Caesar the Great, Napoleon, Honda and all the 'greats' together in one monumental man. I want to absorb all the great qualities of kindness, charisma and grace."
Also, he will be "the most celebrated entertainer of all time."
Where does all this intensity come from? Anthony Robbins, is the short answer. A book by the self-help king, called "Unlimited Power," is the long answer. It's all about focus and goals, judging from Burck's summary description. Those were two essential ingredients when Burck dreamed up the Naked Cowboy in 1998, a day after busking, fully clothed, on Venice Beach in California.
"I sucked," he says. "And this photographer who had been shooting me for Playgirl said, 'You should play in your underwear.' "
Soon, Burck was crisscrossing the nation in his new persona. He'd arrive in a city, look in the phone book for all the local TV stations and call in a tip: There's a guy playing guitar in his underwear at such and such place.
"It worked every time," he says.
He has Naked Cowboy-themed saloons in mind, a chain of them. Plus a recording career, which he's already kick-started with an album of frat rock. He pops the CD into the car stereo, cranks up the volume and sings along with himself.
"Best song ever!" he shouts.
The lyrics are a little too racy for this newspaper.
Country music isn't his style, but his performances aren't really about singing, anyway. Mostly, he's flirting with the ladies who gingerly approach for photos.
Mars won't comment about the lawsuit, though it released a brief statement implying it'll pay the guy something. "As a good corporate citizen," the statement read in part, "Mars will handle this matter accordingly." It already pulled the Naked Cowboy-like M&M off the video billboard. But watch the guy coo at the ladies and you figure: If the company melts in his hands, it will hardly be a first.