The Naked Truth - The Naked Cowboy in New York City
>> The door to a second-floor room at the Royal Motel in Secaucus opened slowly Monday afternoon, revealing a muscular, brooding man in shorts and a tank top.
"Howdy," the man said, shaking my hand. "Naked Cowboy."
"You sure you want to do this, man?" I asked him. "It must be 20 degrees out here..."
"Hell yeah!" he said, "Come on in."
On Tour with the Naked Cowboy
I had made a plan earlier that day to interview Robert John Burck for the Secaucus Reporter. Burck, 34, has gained fame by standing in the middle of Times Square in Manhattan in his underwear every day, getting paid to pose for pictures with passers-by. Clad only in boots and tighty-whities, the "Naked Cowboy" commands attention with his chiseled features and tattoos. He earns as much as $1,000 a day and constantly turns heads.
But at night, Robert John Burck returns to his room in the Royal Motel on Route 3 in Secaucus, except when he is making appearances elsewhere in the country.
My plan was to interview the Cincinnati native for an hour or two, but Burck wanted me to get the whole experience.
"If you just want to scratch the surface, I guess that's fine," he had said resignedly on the phone that day. "But if you want to get deep with the Naked Cowboy, then maybe we should head into the city right now."
In twenty-degree weather? Nearly in the buff?
"Why not?" I asked. "What time and where?"
The Hotel Room
First, an inventory of the Naked Cowboy's belongings.
In his room was a suitcase of clothes, mostly underwear that had "Naked Cowboy" emblazoned in red, white and blue. Then there was his guitar, also painted like an American flag. Noticeable was a stack of papers, folders, and postcards, and a bunch of books. He picked up a book and handed it to me.
"Here," he said. "I read this book over 30 times already."
It was motivational speaker Anthony Robbins' "Awaken the Giant Within."
"It has really helped me focus, gain direction and plan out my goals," Burck told me.
"Really?" I said. "Cool. What kind of goals?"
"All kinds - personal, financial, spiritual...you name it. For instance, one of my goals is to be the wealthiest person who has ever lived."
"Huh. How's that going?" I asked.
Just then, his cell phone rang. He excused himself and answered it.
"March!" he exclaimed to the caller. "That's three months away. No telling where I'll be then."
"I see. Well, I usually get a thousand bucks out there..."
Burck flipped through a notebook. There was a hand-drawn monthly calendar on each page.
"Okay," he said. "Well, why don't you give me a call closer to the date, but it sounds good. Okay, thanks. Bye."
He slid back on the bed and kicked up his feet.
"See that?" he asked. "Those people want me to go out to Long Island and hang out at their bar. They pay me a thousand bucks, I get an open bar tab and I take my girlfriend. Sweet."
He continued, "Only problem is, they want me for March. March! I don't live like that, man. I got all my belongings in the whole world right here and in my car. Tomorrow I head to Ohio; next week I'll be in New Orleans. Two months ago I was in Japan. How can I commit to March now?"
"That's my life - open," he mused. "I am free for the rest of my life."
Just then, Burck lifted a bound stack of postcards from a pile. On the front of each was a picture of him with his guitar in Times Square. They were all filled out, addressed and stamped.
"You know what these are?" he asked. "These are for every person I have ever met in my life. My friends. I keep a list of every person I ever met, and every month I send everyone a postcard to say hello. And now you'll be on that list, too."
Suddenly I understood his local popularity. One woman at the Secaucus Post Office on Paterson Plank Road has a collection of photos of him on the wall. "He was just in here this morning," she had told me the week before. "What a nice man."
Burck continued talking about his post cards. "Check it out," he said, handing me a stack. "Over 1,400 a month. Get it?"
"Get what?" I asked.
"Look here," he said, redirecting my attention. "Have you seen the Naked Cowboy currency yet?"
He pulled out a stack of bills. Each one had "Naked Cowboy" stamped across it in light green.
"In the last eight months, I've put $46,000 into circulation," he said laughing. "Get it?"
Strangely, but slowly, I was starting to get it.
The man was branding himself. He was taking advantage of every bit of free publicity, notoriety, and acclaim he could get his hands on.
But what I couldn't figure out was if the dude was crazy or not. There was only one way to find out...
Is he crazy, or just naked?
The ride into New York City in the Naked Cowboy's truck was intriguing, to say the least.
I began with a few simple questions, the answers to which came back in a cult-like monotone, almost like a mantra that has been memorized and regurgitated over time.
"So, you mentioned goals," I started. "What exactly is th-"
Before I could finish, he said, "I will dominate the world's markets through the commercialization of the greatest product/service ever created - me."
"Oh, I see," I said. "Well, then how exactly do you plan to-"
"My image/name, message/prophecy, persona/character, and love/divinity, I will communicate so incredibly, that everyone/everything will seek to channel their missions/products through me."
I see, you ask a serious question, you get a serious answer.
"We're all connected," he continued, "and that is what I do. I connect with people, with every living thing, in everything I do."
Was he a brainwashed Tony Robbins fanatic, or just cultivating an image? It was time to mix it up a little.
"So then, do you like Star Wars?" I asked. This caught him off guard.
"Uh, Star Wars?" he said. "No, not into it. Why?"
"Well, you know, 'the force'... it surrounds us, binds us all - living and non-living..."
"Interesting," he said. "Sure, if I can use it, why not."
Ah ha! Now we were getting somewhere. If he can use it. I thought about it, and I saw his angle. Another question. "Are you a religious man?"
"Religious? Sure I am... I am God."
"Yep, and so are you. We all are. We're all our own god, and you have to believe that in order to achieve and be who you are."
"Of course." I stubbed out my cigarette. The Lincoln Tunnel (from New Jersey to New York) was straight ahead and it was time to see the Naked Cowboy in action.
Be Who You Are (especially in New York City)
Robert John Burck was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. He graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 1995 with a degree in political science. He left Middle America in search of the American dream, hoping to become a super model. Like most naive youths, he wound up disappointed and frustrated.
Burck had a millisecond appearance on Baywatch and even scored a couple of shoots in Playgirl. He still has a photo portfolio that makes him look like every star from a young Robert Redford to a modern day Brad Pitt to a prime-time Kurt Russell. But it didn't get him far at first.
He used to have various "entertainment" businesses of his own where he might dance or strip, but never prostitute, he said. He even did the gay club circuit for a while, but it was the wrong direction. One time, he and his then-girlfriend Carla, also a stripper at the time, went on the Jerry Springer show posing as prostitutes just for the exposure. But it all led to nothing.
"One day in 1998, when I was out in Venice Beach, California," he said, "I was a bit bummed out with how things had been going for me out there, so I decided to go out on the pier with my guitar. I dressed like a cowboy and played a little bit, and I made about a dollar. No one even looked at me."
Then, Burck decided to take the advice of a friend and go out in nothing but his underwear. Suddenly people began to notice.
"I made $100 and a TV crew came out and filmed me," he said.
And so it began.
Burck went back home and pondered his existence. With the help of books and singing lessons, he started to put it all together. Tours across the country and back were frequent - Vegas, Nashville, New Orleans, Daytona, Jacksonville - stopping everywhere to drop trou and play a couple ditties he wrote called "Baby I'm Crazy," "Balls of Steel," and, of course, "Naked Cowboy."
Times Square, New York
"I am going to be the greatest success story of all time," Burck said as we pulled into the parking garage one block west of Times Square. He has a VIP spot - the very first spot as soon as you enter the lot. Everyone working in there knew him, waving him in with smiles on their faces.
He hopped out of the truck and went around to the back. Within 20 seconds in a Clark Kent-to-Superman type transformation, Robert Burck went from cowboy to Naked Cowboy.
Off went the sneakers and shorts. On went the boots and hat. He grabbed his guitar and was on his way. Before we even reached the street, people stopped and gawked, heads turning, fingers pointing.
"You got to be kidding me!" yelled a woman. "Where's a camera when you need one?"
When the Cowboy arrived, a line of over 250 people alongside an adjacent Midtown theatre threw up a throng of cheers. Everyone was yelling, clapping, whistling - "I love you, Naked Cowboy!" and "You rock, baby!" Hot dog vendors, drivers and policemen stopped to look.
It was 16 degrees out, according to a flashing neon Times Square sign. (New York can be cold!)
"What about getting sick?" I asked lamely. "Don't you ever get sick?"
The Naked Cowboy looked at me and said, "Sick? Nope, I don't believe in it."
He crossed Seventh Avenue and crossed into his own immortality. The realm that existed in his own head became, in the middle of Manhattan, the world's reality as well.
New York Paparazzi
Immediately, the Naked Cowboy was mobbed by fans.
"Drop a dollar in the guitar," he directed. "You get two for a buck!" He turned his backside to the cameras, striking a pose with his head tilted back, guitar flared out, and muscles contracted, his arm curled in the air. Across the back of his tight white undies, it said, "Naked Cowboy" in red, white and blue.
With each fresh crossing of tourists, commuters and residents, his popularity built. People who have seen everything are still shocked to see a man in his briefs in the middle of Times Square.
A cameraman from the Daily News presented himself and grabbed a traffic cop to pose with him. Schoolgirls stuffed dollars into his boots, which have "TIPS" painted down the sides.
At one point, Burck momentarily declined requests for photos, reached into his guitar, and grabbed a bunch of dollar bills. He stepped into the crowd and reached out, grabbing a man and pulled him to the side. The man was homeless, dressed in tattered clothes.
The Naked Cowboy gave him the money, saying, "Get warm and stay well." The man was astonished. Twenty minutes had passed since we first stepped outside. Parts of the Naked Cowboy were turning blue. Finally, he tipped his hat to bid adieu. Still, people ran up and hugged him. "Just one more shot, please, I love you!" a woman wailed.
As we made our way back toward the garage, cars honked, drivers waved, and the Naked Cowboy grinned ear to ear.
"Well, that's one way to make living," a woman was overheard saying.
A street vendor turned to her. "Lady," he said, "I'm here every day, and I can tell you one thing - that man is a freaking genius."
Burck had earned $50 in 25 minutes. Earlier he had told me he could make over $1,000 in 10 hours on a summer day, only now I believed him.
Back at the Ranch
At the car, the Naked Cowboy hustled to get dressed.
"I've got nothing to prove anymore," he said. "When I can't feel my fingers anymore, it's time to go."
According to the Cowboy, that was day number 1,746 performing in Times Square. When I asked whether he considers himself a singer, model, actor, or street performer, he answered with none of the above.
"I am king of Planet Earth," he said.
"You have to see the big picture here. I am going to be the wealthiest man this world has ever seen. I am going to do this 'til the day I die."
He added, "I have been on Leno, Letterman, Howard Stern...I flew out to Cali last month and shot a Pepsi commercial with Beyoncé. And I tell you what, the checks are rolling in."
"You know," I said, "You need an agent, or someone to keep tabs of the royalties and whatnot that's due you."
"Nah, man," he laughed. He pulled a manuscript from under his seat as we got back in the truck. "These are the Naked Cowboy Dialogues. You can read them on my website (www.NakedCowboy.com), but look right here." He thumbed to the middle. "Here, read that."
It was his mantra about commercialization, about marketing himself, and it stated that through profiting, he would also be stolen from.
"See that," he said. "I've already made room for that in my life. It's going to happen. But that's not the way I live. I have 24 hours a day to do whatever I want. I have a car, I have a bank account, I go where I want, I have what I need."
I sat in silence for a minute as the tunnel spat us back into Jersey.
"So I get it," I said. "Eventually all those checks will add up, and you'll be a millionaire through many smaller incomes, right?"
"No, you don't get it, man," he said. "It's not about the money. It's about being happy and making others happy. That's what today, and every day, is all about."
Skeptically, I sized up the man. I wondered what all the talk was about wealth and success if it didn't really matter to him. I wondered why I saw glimpses of a regular guy having fun mixed in with the fanatical sides of motivation and ambition. I wondered why I saw signs of a mild psychosis mixed in with pure genius. And then all at once, I realized something else.
This guy had balls.
He had some act. He was hilarious, in fact. The day had been a great adventure and experience for me, and the Naked Cowboy has one of those every day. Every person we saw that day was smiling and waving hello - in the middle of Manhattan!
We hopped out of the car, and Burck dumped some CDs and postcards on me.
"Pass 'em around," he said. I could only laugh. I understood the code.
"Naked Cowboy," I said, offering him my hand, "stay warm dude."
"Keep smiling," he said. "I'm sure I'll see you on the other side."
Yes, on the other side.
Questions or comments?
Nicholas J. Zitelli
Or . . .
Littleviews' Publisher, Karen Little
This article originally appeared in the Hudson Reporter Affiliate Publications (www.HudsonReporter.com) on January 23, 2005. It is reproduced here with permission of the Hudson Reporter.com, a Hudson County, New Jersey publisher. Affiliate newspapers are: Weehawken Reporter, Bayonne Community News, Hoboken Reporter, North Bergen Reporter, Current Weekly, All About Hourses, Jersey City Reporter, Union City Reporter, Gateway Guide, PhoneHoboken, Secaucus Reporter, West New York Reporter, and the Jersey City Magazine.
CREDITS: Article and photos by Nicholas J. Zitelli, who was, at the time of writing, a Staff Reporter for the Hudson Reporter, Hudson County, New Jersey.