Meet The Man Famous for Trying to Make Junk Food Sexy

A conversation with Chris Applebaum, the director of those Carl’s Jr. commercials with Paris Hilton and Kate Upton.


In 2005, Chris Applebaum was working as a music video director when an ad agency approached him about an upcoming campaign it was working on. “We want to do a Carl’s Jr. commercial with Paris Hilton,” their reps told Applebaum, whose biggest video credits include Semisonic’s “Closing Time,” Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom,” Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.” “If you have any ideas, let us know.”

His idea — a wet and soapy Hilton biting into a massive burger as she seductively washes her car to the tune of Eleni Mandell’s sultry cover of “I Love Paris” — has become one of the most recognizable ad campaigns of the last decade (thanks to a mix of ubiquity and infamy). It’s also become Carl’s Jr.’s sales pitch ever since — the It Girl(s) of the moment (e.g., Kate Upton, Nina Agdal and Charlotte McKinney) chomping down on the chain’s signature offerings in as filthy of ways as the fast food itself.

Applebaum has directed between 30 and 40 commercials for Carl’s Jr.; he also plays with food and seduction in EATS, a new series of short videos that he shares on Instagram. The particulars are definitely reminiscent of his Carl’s Jr. commercials. Three prime examples: Barrett Sharpe, wearing a leather jacket over black lingerie, tries to catch a piece of cotton candy in her mouth; Kara Del Toro, in a red bikini, sticks her finger deep into a donut to scoop out the filling; and Lauren Young chows down on a plate of spaghetti to “That’s Amore.” But they’re both more fun and seductive.

MEL recently spoke to Applebaum about why he can’t shake his food fetish, his own unquenchable desire for nachos and how grease and carbs can be the new standard-bearer of erotic eating.

What did Carl’s Jr. and the ad agency think of the Paris Hilton ad when you were making it?
The whole time we were filming, the agency was like, “I don’t know if people are gonna like this.” And Carl’s Jr. kept saying, “We’ve got to think about it.” After I edited the commercial, they both said, “This is too hot for TV. We’ve got to cut this back and make it less salacious and less sexy.” I agreed but asked, “Can I still have my director’s cut?”

Eventually, I put it up on my website and went on a location scout for a movie I was going to direct, where I didn’t have any cell reception whatsoever. I guess someone saw it on my website, uploaded it to YouTube and it exploded. CNN and MSNBC picked it up, and it started becoming a huge news story: “Isn’t this shocking and outrageous?”

At the end of the day, I came off the location scout, went to the hotel and listened to my voicemail. I had several messages from the head of the agency. At first, he was screaming at me: “You motherfucker! How dare you upload your director’s cut to your website? That’s the last commercial you’ll ever do. I will ruin you.” But by the end of the day, the messages softened. He was like, “Hey, I’m dying to talk to you. I love you! Give me a call.”

How did Paris react? Did she have any reservations before or after the shoot?
Not at all. I think the only reservations I’ve ever had from people are when a lot of people get involved. Like sex, eating is really intimate. You don’t want to have a lot of people in the room talking to you while you’re having sex; you want to get lost in the moment. Eating is the same way.

With Paris, I learned to create intimacy. It had to be a conversation between me, her and the camera. That’s why I’ve always fought to have as few people on set as possible. When we shot Kate Upton, it was late at night. There was nobody there; it was just me and her on set. Same thing with Nina Agdal. We were down on the beach with a splinter crew, and there were 25 people in a nearby house watching it on closed-circuit TV. I just don’t know why all these other people need to be there. If you want to get somebody really lost in the moment, you can’t have a lot of people around or a lot of distractions.

You got a fair amount of criticism for the commercials — not just because of the subject matter but because a lot of people believed they objectified women. Does that bother you?
The idea for the Carl’s Jr. commercial came after watching Cool Hand Luke. There’s a scene where prisoners are behind a fence. A girl comes out and washes a car in a sexy way, and she’s doing it to drive the guys crazy. There’s nothing they can do about it, because they’re on a chain gang, they’re behind a fence and the warden is there. This woman takes her sexuality and uses it to drive the men wild. Feminists never had an issue with that particular film, because when the woman is in control, when it’s apparent that the ideas of displaying sexuality are coming from a woman, it’s not objectification.

The formula is simple: We need to know that the girl is in on the joke, and that she’s a willing participant. I was always clear about that in my commercials. The girl, signaled by a smile or a wink to the camera at the end, is clearly saying to the audience, “I’m the author of this. I’m allowing myself to be viewed in this way. I’m a willing participant.” By doing this, the women are inviting you to enjoy them and their sexiness.

That said, some people still don’t like what I do. Some people don’t want to like what I do. As a director, I’m not Coca-Cola. I don’t appeal to everybody. I’m okay being hated or criticized because I do what I want to do and I’m happy with it.

Do you have a similar explanation as to why food (and junk food in particular) looms so large in your work?
When it comes to girls and burgers, it was an accident that we rolled into. I had this thought about the eating of a burger, and the visceral connection between a primal urge to have sex and the primal urge you feel when you’re hungry. It was kind of an experiment in social behavior. I just had this feeling that all you need to do is sell desire and seduce people, and they will link the pleasure they had from watching the commercial to the pleasure they’ll receive when they’re eating the burger.

There’s a lot of food porn on Instagram, where people post shots of their dinner and whatever other food they think worthy of a like. How does EATS relate to that?
I love food, and I love food porn. I noticed how much food was being shared on Instagram, and how people have become connoisseurs of food and the dining experience: Plate it, present it and take a photo of it. That indicates to me that people fucking love food. I wanted to have something that was more participatory. That’s why I wanted to do video instead of photos. I want viewers to experience the food the way these girls do. Food looks great for a second — sort of how models in a porn look great for a second. But that’s just at the beginning. Once everybody starts having sex, the makeup gets smeared and there’s sweat. The food gets devoured, and at the end, the plate doesn’t look as pretty as it does at the beginning. But isn’t the experience and journey more fun anyway?

What kind of direction did you give the women during the shoot?
The first thing I wanted was for them to start eating. Then, as things progressed, I would give them some direction as to where to put their hands or how to orient their body so it was visually appealing. Honestly, I didn’t have a plan of attack. When it comes to performances, you need to work within a person’s natural ability and within the scope of how far they want to take it.

Which items of food did the women bring?
Brittny Ward chose Lucky Charms. Rachel Cook ate apple pie. To really inhale food, to really enjoy it, it needs to be something you want. Rachel Yampolsky brought some kind of food, but then she came in and said, “It’d be awesome if I were eating a taco. If I was really ready to chow down on something and really ready to get into it, the things I like most are tacos.” I was like, “There’s a Del Taco on the corner.” My assistant ran out and got some tacos, and we did it that way.

While you’re shooting and editing these videos, do you start craving the foods the models are eating?
Absolutely. That’s the criteria by which I use shots. If it doesn’t all angle toward having that desire and your mouth watering, it goes on the cutting room floor.

If you were filming yourself, what would your sexy food be?
I would pick something I’d get really into, like nachos. When I’m sitting with a plate of nachos, I’m digging in with my hands, and just going for it. It’s not nice. It’s not pretty. But it’s probably my favorite thing. Whenever you’re thinking to yourself, “I must look so gross right now,” that’s usually when things look the sexiest.