Health & Family

The hunk of Brawley School Road

It's just another miserable afternoon on Brawley School Road, with traffic backed up in both lanes because of construction, when all of a sudden a sexy-looking man with a big straw hat and a small backpack jogs by.

The temperature is nearly 100 and the asphalt shimmers with heat, yet the runner keeps pounding forward, sweat glistening off his naked chest. Even from across the street, you can tell that his biceps are beautifully sculpted. What you can see of his face beneath the brim of the hat has an exotic Latin look about it, with a slight mustache and a stylish stubble.

Ryan Reynolds may be People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive, but he has nothing on this guy dodging roadblocks and orange cones at a crisp 6 1/2-minute pace.

The runner has become such a familiar presence during the daily commute that motorists roll down their windows and call out: Where are you running to? Or: Where'd you get that hat? What are you listening to?

But there's one question nobody has asked:

Who are you?

The man running down Brawley School Road in torn cargo shorts is not just another fitness fanatic. Slip off those baggy shorts and you'll discover a body that women and men around the world salivate over. The things they write about him on the Internet would make his step-mother blush.

His name is Richard Lima, and he's famous in fashion circles as the first Latino man to appear in a Ralph Lauren underwear ad. Of course, it's not the skivvies people remember about that photo shoot. "You are Absolutely Beautiful !!!!!!! " a fan wrote on Facebook. Another blogged: "Two words - ageless, and wow!"

It's a wonder he hasn't caused a traffic accident.

Some gorgeous men are obsessed with their bodies. That's not why Richard Lima runs down Brawley School Road. He's not showing off. A well-disciplined body is his livelihood, and how much money he makes depends on how good he looks.

He runs 13 miles a day. He works out in a spin class. He boxes against a heavy bag in his garage. He jumps rope.

He's been an athlete since he was little. He starred in football in high school in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, and dreamed of playing for Arizona State, then going pro.

But Richard got in trouble when he was 15. He had been the golden boy who didn't drink, didn't smoke and came home before curfew. Then he got his girlfriend pregnant.

His father kicked him out of the house.

No job, no diploma

It was 1987. Richard dropped out of school and found work cleaning tile and operating a backhoe to help support his new family. He was an expert at the backhoe. He had been groomed, his mother said, to take over the family's heavy equipment business.

"Richard came from a family with means and had a lot of stuff given to him," said his wife, Andrea. "So when he put himself in that situation, and his family did not approve of it, all that was taken away. You're either going to sink or swim, and he chose to swim. He had to pull himself up, do what he had to do to become the man he is today."

After a couple of years, Richard and his girlfriend split. He said he remained close to his daughter and paid child support. In 1994, he was living with a new girlfriend when the Northridge Earthquake struck the Valley and destroyed their apartment. They fled California to her hometown of Minneapolis, where Richard found work on a snow removal truck. Afterward he couldn't find another job. He was 23, with no diploma and few options.

Why don't you try modeling? the girlfriend suggested.

He was so desperate, if she had suggested acting, Richard might be starring on Broadway today.

El hombre bello

His father couldn't understand why anyone so skilled at the backhoe would want to be in fashion. He predicted Richard would never make a career out of modeling, which is all it took for Richard to make a career out of modeling.

He approached an agent, signed a contract and was as surprised as anyone when Target hired him. Several months later, he was living in South Beach, Fla., and modeling for fashion photographer Bruce Weber. Bruce Weber. His work for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie & Fitch and Banana Republic propelled advertising to new levels of sensuality and sexuality.

Weber's provocative photographs of Richard awakened an eroticism in the athlete's body. A few years later, Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez burst onto the music scene, and Richard's career took off. The Latin look was hot.

Two photo shoots by Weber stand out among many extraordinary shoots. In one, Richard models an art deco necklace Cartier crafted in 1928 for an Indian prince that has so many diamonds it hung down nearly to his Richard's navel. The photograph is in Weber's book, "Cartier I love you."

In another, Joanne Gair painted a pattern from a Versace shirt onto Richard's body. Gair is the make-up artist who painted a suit on Demi Moore for the August 1992 cover of Vanity Fair, and has painted swimsuits on models for Sports Illustrated. Unlike those works, which are so realistic the models appear to be wearing clothes, the painting on Richard doesn't hide his body parts.

Lilac and yellow flowers spill down his chest. A bright sun beams off his right shoulder. Graceful blue flowers twine around his left arm and green leaves encircle his legs. Over his loins, a swath of royal blue paint hangs like a beauty queen's sash from his left hip, across his penis and down his right leg.

It took Gair 16 hours to paint Richard's 6 foot 1 inch body, and his wife watched part of it. Andrea is a straight shooter, and her impressions often sound like commentary from a Greek chorus. "He's standing there buck naked," she said, "with somebody painting under his unit, in the middle of a huge room, where people were just walking by and he's just naked as a jaybird. That's fashion."

Weber photographed a version with Richard wearing black Versace briefs, and one without.

A big heart

If you haven't seen Richard running lately, that's because he was in Texas last week modeling for JCPenney and Staton Wholesale. Most of his work is for conventional businesses. Belk. Dillard's. Macy's. You may have seen him in life-size cut-outs in Target stores, in window displays at Gap and on Fruit of the Loom packages.

Richard doesn't earn the millions that super models like Heidi Klum command, but he makes a decent living. He said he works a few days a month and averages $1,500 to $4,000 a day. In a busy year, he said, he earns in the low six figures.

"He's a little bit unusual because he's first of all half Hispanic, half Caucasian," said Wendy Rightsell of Directions USA in Greensboro, one of the agencies representing Richard. "The silver salt-and-pepper hair works for a lot of clients. He is young, but that hair sets him apart."

Richard survived the recession, she said, not because he's beautiful. Most models are. He survived because "he's a super hard worker and has a good personality on the set." He doesn't primp while workers lug in equipment. He helps carry it.

Ask his family and friends if he is as nice as he seems, and the answer is always: Nicer.

"Sometimes it's annoying," Andrea said. "It's frustrating. I tell him, 'Gosh, you're just too freaking nice.' And he thinks everybody else is nice, too! He's got a big heart."

'This is home'

They met in 1996 when Andrea managed a gym in California where Richard worked out. She's a runner too. She competed in track for UCLA and trained for the Olympics until she injured herself. At the gym, she said, someone came up and said: "You're a Christian, right? Richard's a Christian. You should meet him."

Six months later, they married. On each of their back left shoulders is the other's name tattooed in Japanese.

Richard commuted to the East Coast their first years together, then they decided to move closer to his work. After a fashion shoot in New York City in 2004, he headed south to find a place, stopped at Charlotte Motor Speedway, discovered Lake Norman and, like many newcomers, looked no farther. They lived in their RV at a KOA campground for nine months while their house was being built.

"I'm never going back," Richard said. "This is home. I have more friends here than I had in California. I have awesome neighbors. I love it here."

Andrea sold real estate for a while, then enrolled in nursing school. She starts work this month in the intensive care unit at Iredell Memorial Hospital. Their daughter, Alyasia, 14, is a rising ninth grader at Lake Norman High. Richard's oldest daughter, Brittany, lives in Texas and has two children, which makes Richard a grandfather at 39.

Staying grounded

This grandfather wearing torn Mossimo cargo shorts can sit cross-legged on his sofa after a 6 1/2-mile run and talk about how much he enjoys cooking and cleaning house and, without trying to, look sexy. He doesn't have to unbutton his shirt or pout seductively or perform any other moves he learned for the camera.

When he talks about modeling he is so understated, he might as well be talking about operating a backhoe: "It's what I do. It's not a big deal. I don't let it go to my head. When I go to work, I go to work. When I come home, I'm a husband, a dad and a grandfather. It doesn't matter what I'm doing, I give 100 percent."

Four months ago, he picked up a part-time job. He was restless between modeling gigs, and paying way more than he wanted on private health insurance. He knew the manager at Ollie's Bargain Outlet, and she offered him a job unloading trucks and stocking shelves.

Yes, Richard Lima - the man described in 1999 as the "current hottie of the male-model circuit" and recently as "the silver fox" - is unloading boxes of upholstery cleaner, nose trimmers and Lord knows what else at a surplus warehouse. And get this: He enjoys the work. He was raised on manual labor. "Ollie's," he said, "keeps me grounded."

When you see him on Brawley School Road, he's running 6 1/2 miles to Ollie's or running 6 1/2 miles back home.

Are you famous?

After lunch break one day, he strides to the front of the store, fills out his time card on the computer and tells his boss he's going to the stockroom to sort boxes. He is wearing camouflage - his Ollie's uniform: a red polo work shirt neatly tucked into the waist (size 33) of his black khakis, with work gloves dangling from a rear pocket. On his left wrist, he wears a runner's ID bracelet that says: "Dedication: Never Give Up."

A woman stops him. She asks a question, and he points to an aisle. He flashes his fabulous smile. The woman doesn't pause. Even if you're preoccupied with finding the Banzai Cannonball Backyard Inflatable Splash Pool on sale for $29.99, how can you possibly not notice Richard Lima?

It's possible. When an Observer photographer arrives to take pictures of him, one of his co-workers jokes, "Richard are you famous and we didn't know it?"

She looks surprised and says, "Well, I could tell he's good-looking, but ..."

A lot of men are good-looking. George Clooney. Cam Newton. Richard's father, Louie Lima. What makes one good-looking man a model?

"The perfect storm of opportunities came along," Andrea said. "Here's a regular Joe from L.A. who found his way there accidentally on purpose. You meet the right people. You walk into door No. 10. All that stuff has to line up right."

More than any one fashion shoot, and there have been many, Richard said he's most proud that he's been able to make a living as a model for 17 years and is still in demand. "A lot of people have success at the beginning of their careers, then fade off," he said. "I haven't faded. That's why I work so hard, running and training and working at Ollie's. You have got to be tough in this economy. You've got to keep on your game."

I know you

Now that Richard has lived in Mooresville six years, people around town have begun to recognize him.

He and Andrea were out in their neighborhood two weeks ago, walking their dogs. Murphy is a small black poodle, Rusty is an Australian Cattle Dog and both came from a shelter where Richard and Andrea volunteer.

A man in a Lexus pulled up beside them, got out and said he knew who Richard was and he was excited to meet him:

You're the guy who runs down Brawley School Road!