It’s a Monday morning in Times Square, and the place is bustling. Throngs of selfie stick-toting tourists weave in and out of the paths of costumed cartoon characters looking to pose for photos in exchange for tips. Meanwhile, taxi drivers and double-decker tour bus operators lean on their horns in unison, cursing the bumper-to-bumper traffic. The backdrop of flashing neon lights and larger-than-life billboards looms above it all.
In the center of this sensory overload stands one man in tighty-whities, with Jesus Christ tattooed on his left bicep and the devil featured on his right. Unfazed by the surrounding chaos, he strums a strategically placed guitar that creates the illusion of being nude.
Welcome to Robert Burck’s office.
Burck, a Greenhills, Ohio native known by the moniker “The Naked Cowboy,” has been a Times Square fixture since 1998. He is often referred to as one of New York’s top tourist attractions.
Burck estimates that he earns $150,000 a year from busking—although that figure does not include corporate sponsorships, private appearances, or sales from his three albums and book. “I’m really unemployed. I mean, this isn’t a job for me,” says the 48-year-old one-man show. “It’s not work, it’s just what I do. I’ve been an attention freak since day one.”
“He’s the greatest self-promoter of all time,” says his dad, Kenny R. Burck. The elder Burck, a devoted churchgoer, was initially embarrassed by his son’s lifestyle, but now fully supports him.
“When he was little, he said he was going to be rich and famous, and that’s just what he’s done,” Kenny Burck laughs. “In fact, after he graduated from the University of Cincinnati, he went back for a visit and was escorted off campus because they deemed him to be an oddity. Later on, they ended up featuring him in the alumni magazine.”
While Burck may not consider spending nearly 365 days a year over the past 20 years entertaining a “job,” he has intentionally and successfully managed to parlay his outlandish behavior into a global brand.
It all began in December 1997, when he was visiting Venice Beach, California for a Playgirl shoot. Decked out in cowboy apparel, Burck made his way to the boardwalk, guitar in hand, to perform and drum up some extra cash. He was largely ignored.
“The photographer from the shoot suggested I go back the next day and play in my underwear. I mean, by that point, I’d been a nude model, a stripper, and a dancer in gay bars wearing a pair of Daisy Dukes, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ That day I made 100 bucks,” recalls Burck. “The photographer called me ‘his little naked cowboy’ and that’s when it all started.”
I meet Burke at his house in Queens an early morning in August. After he whips up a plate of scrambled eggs to share with Patty, his wife of six years, it’s time for a workout before heading to Times Square.
Burck grabs several pairs of freshly painted underwear from hangers in his living room, explaining that the summer heat often means multiple costume changes in order to remain fresh throughout the day. He also takes his signature cowboy hat, boots, and his Naked Cowboy journal, where he makes notes of everything from his schedule to mantras and affirmations. Burck, who has read Tony Robbins’ book Unlimited Power 38 times, writes down his daily “blueprint for action.” He also records it into a portable dictaphone and plays it back to himself during his commute.
One would think a man who spends the majority of his life practically naked would have a healthy body image, but Burck admits to struggling over the years.
“As a teenager, I was anorexic. My dad was always a big guy and my mom constantly weighed herself, and I got into the habit of doing it too,” he says. “I would get on the scale with the goal of being lighter every time.”
In an effort to help, his parents sent him to see a psychiatrist. The skinniest kid in high school with big dreams of being a doctor, lawyer, or president of the United States, Burck says he later became interested in bulking up when he noticed his friends had started going to the gym. “Suddenly, I was eating like 25 Whoppers and 25 cans of tuna at a time and I gained 100 pounds in one year,” he says.
After a brief workout—which includes 600-pound leg presses—Burck kisses his wife goodbye. We head to 7-Eleven to pick up a protein bar and a pre-packaged set of grilled chicken breast skewers that Burck eats while he drives to Manhattan.
“I weigh 185 in the summer and 215 in the winter,” he says. The internet measures his frame at 6-foot-4, but according to Burck, “I’m 6-foot-2 with my boots on.” He calls himself a clean eater: “I’ve eaten steamed chicken and broccoli takeout for dinner practically every night for six years.”
A cowboy meets his cowgirl
Food is what led Burck to his now-wife, Patricia Cruz, originally from Mexico. In 2003, at the age of 14, she crossed the Mexico-United States border with her sister and lived undocumented for years.
In 2008, while working in Times Square’s Cranberry Cafe, then-19-year-old Cruz met Burck, who had come in to grab some sushi during his lunch break. Cruz had seen photos of The Naked Cowboy back in Mexico, and now here he was in the flesh, so to speak. She was impressed. “She said, ‘Hi papacito.’ Not knowing much Spanish, I replied, ‘Hi mamacita,’ and that was that,” says Burck, smiling.
The couple got married in 2013. Soon thereafter, at Patty’s urging, Burck gave up his $50-a-night room at the Royal Motel in Secaucus, New Jersey, where he had lived out of a suitcase for a decade. The newlyweds moved to Woodside, Queens near where Patty also worked as a belly dancer.
Patty’s sister and her 3-year-old niece live with the couple, as evidenced by the baby dolls in the bathtub and a pink bicycle with training wheels in the living room.
“She said, ‘Hi papacito.’ Not knowing much Spanish, I replied, ‘Hi mamacita,’ and that was that.”
Today, Patty, who is now a permanent resident of the United States, works alongside her husband as The Naked Cowgirl. She is part of his ever-growing franchise that includes nearly a dozen other “naked” entertainers.
Unconventional marketing methods
“You’re famous!” one excited young man squeals, only moments after Burck has parked his car in a garage near Times Square, undressing behind the vehicle to change into his barely-there outfit. “You’re the guy in the car commercial, right?” the man asks, wide-eyed.
Music to his ears, Burck flashes a toothy grin, strums his guitar and treats his fan to a few lines of the jingle from the local Queens car dealership commercial he stars in. He pulls out a promotional postcard from his guitar, autographs it, and hands it over to the man, who walks away delighted.
Today, there’s no downtime for Burck, which is how he prefers it: A group of giggling, middle-aged women approach him and ask for a photo; a handful of young men on a scavenger hunt stop and pose for the camera; and husbands laugh as Burck lifts their wives into the air (something he says he does at least 100 times a day), hamming it up for the shot.
Unlike other buskers in the area, Burck doesn’t actually ask for money or sell anything, though most people push a few dollars through the hole in his guitar as a thank you. On a slow day, he says he’ll make around $150 in tips, but he also has days where he walks home with $1,000.
Once Burck returns home, he dumps the day’s cash onto the floor of his living room. Every dollar is then stamped by him or Patty with the words “Naked Cowboy” in red ink. This intentional act on their part has led to various internet threads discussing where these bills have turned up.
Way before Burck was stamping his name on dollar bills to garner attention, he was anonymously calling the cops and press to report “a naked man with a guitar in public.”
“I’d report it and then head out to wherever it was I said I was and wait for them to show up. Got my picture in the paper and wound up on TV,” he says with pride.
It’s clear that Burck no longer has any trouble getting attention. He has come a long way since his days of taking Greyhound buses to odd jobs only to return home destitute a few weeks later. Burck has starred in Chevrolet and Guinness commercials, made numerous movie cameos, appeared on Law and Order: Criminal Intent, and is an ordained minister who has officiated several weddings.
He has even attempted to run for office twice—once, in 2009, as mayor of New York City, and again in 2012, when he traded in his signature long blonde locks for a conservative haircut and dressed in a suit to announce his plan to run for president of the United States. His platform was “Do More With Less.” As a man who makes his living wearing nothing but underwear and cowboy boots, it’s an idea he is clearly familiar with.
If you go
You can find the Naked Cowboy in Times Square on most afternoons, rain or shine, all year long.