The Real Deal New York

From selling underwear to selling real estate

March 01, 2013 11:00AM
By Guelda Voien

Christopher Austad of Douglas Elliman

Many New York sales agents have come to the business of real estate from a wide range of other professions. In an ongoing series, TheRealDeal.com will profile brokers for whom selling properties represents a major career transition.

Real estate requires a willingness to “put yourself out there,” as almost any broker will tell you. So what better practice than doing so, uh, literally? Former underwear model Christopher Austad, 31, recently sat down with The Real Deal and explained his transition from modeling for “Vogue,” “GQ” and Old Navy commercials, to brokering rentals and sales at Douglas Elliman’s new Long Island City office. So how does real estate, erm, measure up? Well, let’s just say you get to keep your clothes on.

Where are you from?

I grew up in Bellflower, in Southeast L.A., a small little working class suburb.

What did your parents do for a living?

My dad worked for Exxon Mobil. He started out digging ditches, and worked his way up. My mom was a stay-at-home mom, and she [later] went back to work at the local high school cafeteria.

How tall are you?

Almost 6’1”.

You attended the University of California at Irvine but didn’t get the basketball scholarship you had hoped to. What did you do?

I had two friends in the military and I figured I would do the air force ROTC like them. I got a full scholarship; I thought I had my life made. But then I got medically disqualified, due to psoriasis. … I was working at my weekend job, valeting cars at Irvine Spectrum [a mall], and I got scouted to model. … [The scout] said, “How old are you? How tall are you?” He didn’t even have a card — he wrote his number on a receipt he had in his pocket.

There were red flags?

Yes. He also always had all these kids around him, presumably models. But a couple months later he came back and I decided to give him a call. He ended up being legit.

What underwear campaigns did you do?

Calvin Klein. Where I really took off was when [notorious Abercrombie photographer] Bruce Weber wanted to shoot me. Abercrombie was interesting, because shooting with him could really make or break your career. My first shoot, I was 19, in Philadelphia. I had never been on an airplane before. I was more excited about being on an airplane than I was to shoot for Abercrombie. They had overbooked the talent, and it’s basically like, they weed through and finalize who they will use for the catalog. But [the hitch was] also you have to be okay with doing nude stuff.

Why?

The powers that be like to have you nude. They came into the locker room and said, “Who is okay with being nude?” I was so green, I was like, “I’m not doing it.” So they sent me home. I figured I had lost my big shot. … Then I had the opportunity to shoot for Abercrombie again … I knew the drill by then, and I signed the waiver that said I was ok with nudity. I ended up being the face of their campaign.

Was it hard to finish college?

I didn’t finish. I left my fourth year. But now all my friends are doctors and dentists, so… What really helped was, I did “Fear Factor,” won $50,000 and bought a condo [in downtown Los Angeles], which is what started my love for real estate.

Did you win “Fear Factor”?

Yes. It was the “models” episode.

What did you have to do?

I was swinging on these rings from a helicopter over this lake; I had to eat all these maggots and roaches and beetles. The last stunt, I had to go down in this tank and put these rings on these hooks. It was pretty hairy. I don’t really remember coming out of the pool, I just remember choking up all this water. I damaged my ear drums a bit. When [host] Joe Rogan was telling me I won, I couldn’t really hear him. But I didn’t care how much pain I was in — I won $50,000.

It was prescient to buy in Downtown L.A. then. What’s an equivalent neighborhood in New York City?

Maybe where I am now, in Long Island City. A lot of people are like, “It’s gritty, there is no retail.” But it’s coming.

You live there and work there now?

Yes, our office is there on Vernon [Avenue], and I live in one of the waterfront high-rises.

And you have a family now?

My son is 8 months and my daughter is two.

How did you end up in New York?

So in 2007, 2008 I wanted to hit New York hard again. I [was the face of] a fragrance with Hugo Boss. I did a Sean John campaign, and did the Hugo Boss thing — the biggest I’ve ever done. You kind of aim for a fragrance.

That’s because it’s international?

Yes, and it pays the best. So I was able to afford an apartment here and one in L.A. and it was getting tough to see my now-wife, so, in 2008, I moved her here with me. I was doing well, but the economy crashed and a lot of my clients stopped shooting and she didn’t have a job. You are used to a certain lifestyle and all of a sudden it just stops.

Real estate people would understand how that goes.

Then Hugo Boss did not renew the third year … so there goes a few hundred grand. And there was no pride or arrogance, but I didn’t come to New York to [do things other than model]. So I decided, “I like real estate.” I got my license and [joined] Citi Habitats, and it’s … sink or swim. I was trying to do both [modeling and being a broker], but you know how it is.

I imagine you can’t do both.

I had a hard time getting in with the politics at that office, the Upper West Side Citi office. All these firms are hiring, but there is huge turnover. I started doing okay, but I knew it was small-time, and I didn’t know how to do anything bigger. I went with a [now-defunct] boutique brokerage called Royalton, for a while, but it was a joke. I went back to modeling, and was a stay-at-home dad. But I couldn’t travel. And running around on castings with a baby… some clients loved it. But it was tough.

I can’t believe you brought a baby to a shoot!

Yeah, it was hard. … [Eventually] I met Rick Rosa [the head of Elliman's Long Island City office], who was my neighbor, and I signed up with Douglas Elliman. It took a few months to get going, but some big opportunities came, and now things are going so well that I am completely done modeling and my wife doesn’t have to work.

Why Elliman?

All the resources that it provides. Having the development and marketing team at DE behind you. There is also structure. … [In modeling] you are used to selling yourself. It’s another job interview every day. They are judging you. So what separates you? You have to walk in and really connect. With real estate, I know when I need to be patient, let people speak, when I need to do the speaking. I know when to not talk about myself — I know I’m talking a lot about myself here. [chuckles].

So you want to stay in Long Island City?

Yes. Maybe I make my money and roll it into moving to L.A. I miss the beach, and I miss being tan. But — and I don’t want to plug them too much — but I really love DE.

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