My week at the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s (NCAR) Undergraduate Leadership Workshop was underway and I was building my professional repertoire for the future. Just as this program was coming to a close, another opportunity opened up – by interrupting. The phone call was from the marketing department of the Wisconsin Foundation Alumni Association (WFAA). I was informed that they were looking for Great People scholarship recipients to publicize the new eighth edition of the Red Shirt and wanted me to send head shots for modeling. The opportunity immediately attracted me, though I was skeptical that they would actually want me to model for them. But I decided that I wouldn’t let any distractions rain on the NCAR parade. I had to put the WFAA on hold until I got my head out of the clouds and back to Madison.
Upon my return to Madison, I began to entertain the abstract idea of modeling. If the WFAA was looking for photogenic, highly enthusiastic, and – above all else – fun people, then I was obligated to disclose the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. My Facebook profile had profuse examples of my trademark face, capitalizing upon a particular peculiarity of my character that is conveyed best in person. A photograph simply could not entirely capture the essence of my eccentricities. Any of the comments on these pictures would support that claim. But now these images – what others had labeled as “awkward”, “immature”, or “unappealing” – became comical, light-hearted, and intriguing in the eyes of the recruiter. My honesty paid off. I was going to be a model for the Red Shirt campaign!
Even though I was permitted to participate in the scholarship fundraising crusade, I still felt apprehensive about the whole ordeal. I wasn’t exactly the most spirited Badger. I didn’t own any Badger gear, I only recently learned about “Varsity”, and I have never been to a Badger football game. So Badger Pride clearly wasn’t my priority, but I was inadvertently contributing to the campus community in other ways. So maybe I wasn’t the traditional UW-Madison student, but that is exactly what this campaign demanded: unconventional originality. And I knew about unconventional.
Capturing a glimpse of a wild Kai in his natural habitat
Photographs courtesy of © Copyright C&N Photo
After my performance modeling the Red Shirt, what was originally an offer to act as an amateur model extended to an encore with the video production company to highlight my career thus far at UW-Madison. I was starting to believe that if my investment with the sciences did not work out, then my flirtation with modeling and film might have future prospects. Events were falling into place and plans set into motion. With childlike dreams for fame and fortune, I would anxiously await for the adults to decide the fate of my poses and finalize the future of the Red Shirt.
The image seen round the world.
August 4th, 2015. The release date of the photos. I had been informed that this would be the launch date, but I was ignorant of the indirect impact it would have on my life. I felt like Harry Potter. Through some strange sorcery, I was becoming popular in real-time. The message my face delivered had been transfigured from “oblivious bystander overstepping personal boundaries” to “shamelessly awkward ownership of true character”. People were falling under my spell and under the influence to open their wallets to purchase the merchandise I was sporting. This wasn’t some illusory experience. This was real. And it was me for once.
I had stepped into the spotlight and was captivated by a 24-hour period of fame. A week ago, I was unaware that my face would take center stage on the UW homepage. Now it felt like a far-off memory. My time had passed. It was time to share the spotlight and make room for other stories and other people. Life carried on regardless of what I did. So whether I liked it or not, I had to step out into the darkness and exit stage left.
An introductory acting experience – featuring signature lip bites, subtle gestures, and a self-proclaimed weirdo
Video produced by © Copyright Backflip Films
The inconvenient truth of my socially awkward identity was that I was merely an undiscovered resource, waiting to be tapped and harnessed to its full potential. I discovered a place that would utilize my overt extroversion and channel my boundless energy. I had more Badger Pride than I had previously thought, and the homepage was evidence of that fact.
My earlier interpretation of my self-image fixated upon my interpersonal relationships, but I realize now that I should have directed my attention towards an intrapersonal dialogue as well. The Red Shirt campaign triggered an introspective investigation into the social aspect of my life. It taught me that I should just embrace all of my character because I had been hiding the best parts. Standing in the spotlight illuminated this secret for me and enlightened my understanding of myself. I felt needed for once, but I didn’t need a Red Shirt to invoke those feelings or even enable this side of my personality. I could be that guy on the front page all the time. I am important, I do matter, and I embrace the quirky reputation that I hold. And it didn’t matter what anyone else thought.
It is true what they say.
The Red Shirt is the only shirt that gives back.