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Meet Hunky Santa: Brawny guy, mall savior

Each year, right about now, the story of Hunky Santa emerges — and according to tradition, that story is supposed to be straightforward, decadent and giggle-inducing. In short, we all tuck in for a tale of ripped abs, unfathomable gorgeousness and ogling onlookers at an L.A. mall.

This year, though, Hunky’s story took a turn for the serious when one of his fellow mall performers — a 26-year-old female aerialist — plunged three stories in front of hundreds of horrified spectators and landed on a video projection cube on the mall’s first floor. Hunky Santa was the first person to rush to her aid.

Miraculously, the aerialist survived Saturday’s disaster with injuries to her wrist and pelvis, and she’s recovering nicely. Which leads to an inevitable question: When will it be OK for fans of Hunky Santa to relax, take a deep breath and start drooling and giggling again?

James Ellis, 29, the fitness model tapped to bare his chest this year in Hunky Santa’s signature wide-open vest, said the answer to that question is easy: Right now.

“We’re all happy that she’s doing so well,” Ellis said of his injured colleague, whom he’s been visiting in the hospital. “I told her yesterday, ‘You’re my hero.’ ... We all know she’s OK ... and the result of that is, you know, the show must go on.”

And what a show it is. Ellis, or Hunky Santa, dons his barely-there, faux-fur-lined vest, travels down the escalator of the Beverly Center mall and waves to the crowds while sexy Candy Cane Girls dance around him. Then the Candy Cane Girls suspend themselves in the air inside the mall and do acrobatic tricks. At the finale of each 15-minute performance, Hunky Santa is raised up, up and away inside a big steel sphere — and then he poses for photographs.

Now in its ninth year, the show has proven to be a huge hit with mall goers. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings throughout the holiday season, people crowd along the mall’s balconies to get a glimpse of the handsome heartthrob and see the death-defying acts.

The next performances — scheduled for 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 p.m. on Friday — are to include additional safety precautions. (Sunday’s performances were canceled after Saturday’s accident.) Mall managers and show producers are on edge, hoping nothing else will go wrong between now and Dec. 24, when the show wraps up for the season. After all, in a down economy, Hunky Santa and the Candy Cane Girls help draw shoppers to the mall.

“We’re excited to bring the show back and make everybody’s shopping experiences more interesting,” Ellis said. “People run to see it because they hear it starting — it’s a really neat feeling. I know all the Candy Cane Girls feel the same way.”

Working out seven days a week
So how does a guy get to look like Hunky Santa, anyway? This may not come as a surprise, but it doesn’t happen by accident. Not by a long shot.

Ellis’ description of his seven-day-a-week workout regimen brings to mind scenes of Rocky Balboa training for his next big boxing match.

“My typical week is: Mondays I do chest; Tuesdays I do back; Wednesdays, legs and forearms; Thursdays, shoulders and traps; Fridays, bi’s and tri’s; and then Saturdays legs and forearms again; then back to chest again on Sunday. I just continue to go through that cycle.”

In addition to body-building in the gym for as many as three hours a day, Ellis also pursues other forms of exercise to “keep things from being so boring”: surfing, rock-climbing, hiking and running four to five times a week.

He also loves skiing — something he used to do a lot while growing up in Indiana but that he hasn’t been able to do while pursuing his modeling and acting career in sunny Southern California.

“I’m very crazy on skis. I’ll do anything on skis,” Ellis said. “I want to get that on film someday!”

As for his diet — well, it’s about as disciplined as his workout schedule. He’s big on lean proteins such as chicken breasts and fish, as opposed to fattier red meats. And with a workout regimen like his, he knows he needs carbohydrates for energy. He’s just strategic about when and where he includes those carbs in his diet.

“It’s a matter of taking in carbs at the right time,” Ellis said. “Breakfast is the most important meal of day. That’s when I get the most carbs in, because I have all day to work them off.”

Ellis said he loves the role of Hunky Santa because it lets him encourage people to exercise, eat right and get enough rest.

“Being Hunky Santa is, to me, an opportunity to be that fitness role model,” Ellis said. “Clearly traditional Santa — no one’s asking him for tips on how to stay in shape. Hunky Santa is the guy you want to look like.”

Beverly Center Los Angeles Hunky Santa 2009. (PRNewsFoto/Beverly Center)

(By the way, the standard jolly and rotund Santa Claus appears at the Beverly Center mall as well; Hunky is just a bonus.)

When people at the mall ask Hunky how he does it, he has a simple answer for them: Friend me on Facebook.

“I get the same exact questions all the time,” he said. “So I tell people, ‘Facebook me. My name is James Ellis, and I can answer your questions there.’ ”

The ‘Hunky fraternity’
If just one Hunky Santa is enough to leave onlookers breathless, imagine three of them being buddies and hanging out together regularly. That’s actually the case with Ellis and two past Hunkies: Eli Wilhide and Greg Plitt.

“Oh yeah, Eli and I work out together a lot,” Ellis said. “He got an LA Fitness membership so we could work out together more. ... And Greg lives right up the street from me.”

The Hunky alumni have been doing well for themselves after landing their high-profile roles at the mall: Wilhide is just finishing a movie called “Captured,” and Plitt is featured in Bravo’s “Work Out With Jackie Warner.”

The three Hunkies have helped each other land modeling jobs and other work in Los Angeles.

“We’re kind of a tight-knit little group,” Ellis said. “Rather than be competitive with each other, we try to help each other out. ...

“I hope one of my friends gets [the Hunky job] next year so we can keep it going!”

Looking aheadAfter he hangs up his red pants, black boots and sexy vest on Dec. 24, Ellis hopes to keep landing jobs as a fitness model and actor — and he’s really keen on the idea of securing a contract to promote vitamin supplements.

At the moment Ellis is appearing in a TV commercial in Europe for Danish retailer Fleggaard. The ad features brawny men in different scenes; Ellis plays a sweaty, shirtless construction worker.

More than 400 men tried out for the Hunky Santa job this year — and Ellis is grateful that he nabbed the spot and the exposure that comes with it.

“This is a huge opportunity for me,” Ellis said. “I’m on three billboards here in L.A. and I’m on one in New York and one in Vegas. ... It’s just huge.”