Nestled in the tony hills of Sherman Oaks, California, the capacious two-story home has almost everything. Outfitted with “glistening hardwood floors and beautiful moldings throughout,” the house features six bedrooms, a kitchen with a sailboat-sized island and a huge Sub-Zero refrigerator, a living room with a fireplace, rainfall showerheads, a mysterious upstairs “secret room,” and just about all the other accoutrement a rich prospective homeowner could ask for. If all that weren’t enough, the property, billed as a “Secluded Celebrity Compound,” once served as the centerpiece in a heartwarming episode of Oprah’s Next Chapter. Just outside the French doors, past the “outdoor Renato pizza oven,” the pool, and above the jacuzzi, Oprah lounged barefoot with its former residents, celebrities Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka, and interviewed them about raising their two beautiful twins there.
If you were there at a showing back sometime in the early summer, peeking around the premises and thinking about putting in a $2.995 million offer for a beautiful house owned by Doogie Howser, you might have thought it was too good to be true. But when you learned that the listing agent’s name was Monty Iceman, perhaps you’d begin to feel you’d stumbled into a colorful con. NPH? Oprah? Monty Iceman? Can this be real?
In July, the house sold, so obviously the buyers didn’t have too much difficulty believing. But Monty Iceman himself wouldn’t have been offended if they did; his name has been somewhat of “a curiosity” for new people his whole life. Just a few weeks ago, in a blind meeting with potential clients, the questions came up again. “Is that a real name or is it just a real estate name?” Iceman recalls them asking. “So I had a little fun with that, and I got the listing.”
The truth is: Monty Iceman is not a crime fighter or a superhero, or even the inspiration for the character in Top Gun. He just happens to be an uber successful Los Angeles real estate agent who has a passion for finding homes that people will fall in love with—and who services celebrity clients like Neil Patrick Harris and Natasha Henstridge. Monty Iceman is not a gimmicky, money-generating nom de guerre, as many suspect; it’s just his real birth name.
Monte Irvin, a skilled outfielder who joined the Major Leagues shortly after Jackie Robinson, was his father’s favorite baseball player. The comic book hero last name? Probably just a spelling change on Ellis island. It originally began with an “e,” had an “h,” and an additional “n.”
“Well, here’s the cool thing about it: people remember the first one or the second one,” he says. “They don’t forget both of them.”
Over the years, he’s been exposed to endless questions and allusions. “I used to get The Iceman Cometh a lot,” he says. “You know, the Eugene O’Neill play? And then there was a movie with, um, what’s-his-name in it, called The Iceman. That was pretty fun. Made my phone ring.” People joked that they’d finally made a film about him: The character in the movie is based on Richard Kuklinski, a Mafia hitman. Kuklinski got the nickname “because he sometimes froze corpses to disguise the time of death.”
In an interview with Ellen DeGeneres, Neil Patrick Harris brought up the strange name of his realtor, and used it as a way to praise him. “I just moved into a house and I have a realtor, whose name I think you’ll like,” Harris deadpans. “Monty Iceman. Not only a realtor: a superhero.” Harris smiles, as the studio audience giggles at the Marvel Comics punchline.
Representatives from DeGeneres’s show called him after they taped the bit, and asked for permission to run with it. “And I said, ‘Whatever [Neil] does is fine with me,'” Iceman recalls. I hoped Harris would find a few moments in his then-busy schedule of starring in the Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch to ponder some questions about whether Monty’s name gave him any extra edge in the vetting process. A spokesperson declined to comment. “Thanks so much for thinking of Neil but this is a pass,” she wrote in a semi-polite email.
Nevertheless, Iceman and Harris have enjoyed a fruitful working relationship over the last 20 or so years, closing at least six real estate transactions. They met after an introduction by another celebrity, who Iceman couldn’t name. “Well, I’d love to tell you, but I can’t because we had a confidentiality agreement,” he explains. “I don’t have one of those with Neil. I do with a lot of them.”
Harris is also a relatively easy client, partly because Iceman doesn’t have to constantly be on the lookout for misbehaving potential buyers. “Neil is not the type of person where people take the pillow cases because they thought that’s where he slept,” Iceman says. “Or go through the drawers and take underwear.” With younger female stars, he says, he has to use more caution, or things like purses or perfume go missing. “[Neil's] like everybody’s little brother,” he says. “He doesn’t attract that element of insanity.”
Given all his connections in Hollywood and his incredible success as a realtor in a very competitive and crowded market, is it possible that his unusual moniker gave him any advantage? He believes so, even if that only means people remember him better, so he can capture repeat business or be recommended by clients to friends.
After “scouring census records from 1790 to 1930,” the authors of the book Bad Baby Names discovered such gems as Emma Royd, Post Office, Garage Empty, King Arthur, Major Slaughter, Helen Troy, Goblin Fester, Leper Priest, and “several Satans and a host of colleagues to the famed Ima Hogg (including Ima Pigg, Ima Muskrat, Ima Nut and Ima Hooker).”
Beyond memory, though, has his name provided him with a special kind of confidence or presence, a certain magnetism and charm in introductions, the kind that people are drawn to and remember him by? Iceman believes he’s always commanded this type of energy, but that it doesn’t come from his name. “I think I’ve always been that way since I was a kid and I didn’t even know what my name was,” he says. “I’ve always been a very happy person. If that makes any sense. But I did get a lot of attention because of my name because people would always say, ‘Oh, is it short for Montgomery? What does that mean?'”
ON THE HIERARCHY OF BIZARRE names, Monty Iceman doesn’t rank very high. Last year, according to Social Security Administration data, 10 baby boys were named Espn (apparently, pronounced “Espen”), after the worldwide cable sports network. Others were named Arsen, Mister, Lyfe, Jedi, Kingdavid, Bj, Dragon, Magic, Gamble, Angeljesus, Vice, and Gin.
And if Gin is fair game, superhero names seem fairly predictable, even desirable. There’s one man in Singapore whose parents took nominal heroism to new heights with Batman bin Suparman.
These aren’t the only oddities. After “scouring census records from 1790 to 1930,” the authors of the book Bad Baby Names discovered such gems as Emma Royd, Post Office, Garage Empty, King Arthur, Major Slaughter, Helen Troy, Goblin Fester, Leper Priest, and “several Satans and a host of colleagues to the famed Ima Hogg (including Ima Pigg, Ima Muskrat, Ima Nut and Ima Hooker),” according to the New York Times.
And the trend of idiosyncratic names is only growing stronger. “For the first time in history, the top 50 names account for less than 50 percent of boys born each year, and for less than 40 percent of girls,” Cleveland Kent Evans, a Bellevue University psychology professor who wrote Unusual & Most Popular Baby Names, told Psychology Today in 2012.
But will these unusual names have any observable long-term effect on these kids’ lives? It’s a very difficult question to answer. The literature on the effect of having an unusual name is inconsistent and fairly methodologically limited.
FIRST, A CONSIDERATION MUST be made here about the distinction between eccentric and completely and utterly undesirable, as the names listed above are. Much of the early literature on the topic failed to come up with a consistent operational definition of “unusual,” so there was, and still is, a lot of negative results about unusual names due to a conflation of uncommon and plainly terrible.
Though idiosyncratic monikers have frequently been portrayed as life-ruiners—as pathways to childhood “emotional disturbance” and the psychiatric ward—ample evidence to the contrary has also emerged.
In a 1983 review of the unusual name literature in Names, Guilford College psychology professor Richard Zweigenhaft emphasized the academic niche’s inherent limits. “[T]here has been a tendency among American psychologists, and among those who popularize their work, to generalize broadly and to over-simplify when it comes to analyzing the psychological effect of names,” Zweigenhaft wrote. “This has been particularly true of the claims made about ‘unusual’ names.” At the time, he concluded: “The results provide evidence that having an unusual name may have no observable negative effects, and, in some contexts and in some ways, may have positive effects.”
In an email to Pacific Standard, Zweigenhaft explains further:
My research leads me to conclude that if a person perceives his or her name as evidence of being special, then it enhances self-esteem and correspondingly increases the chances of success. Some unusual names, thoughtlessly given, might lead a child to feel odd, or weird. Other unusual names, however, when the reasons for them are thoughtfully and clearly communicated to the child, can reinforce a child’s feelings of being valued and, especially in the case of upper class families using surnames as first names (e.g., Huntington Hartford), can serve to remind a child that he or she is privileged.
In other words, the science is uncertain, and extremely context-dependent, but it seems unusual names can either have little effect or work to someone’s advantage, as long as they aren’t borderline abusive.
When it comes to personal psychology, a 1980 study by Zweigenhaft of unusually named college students published in the Journal of Social Psychology concluded that 116 distinctively named subjects scored roughly the same as their “common-named counterparts.” “[I]n fact, unusually named women scored significantly higher on a number of scales,” the authors wrote. In a second portion of the same study, 49 subjects “with sexually misleading or ambiguous names” scored the same as their normally-named comrades. Here, the sample size certainly hampers the credibility of the result, but it’s been replicated elsewhere.
In another earlier Zweigenhaft study, he discovered that, among the upper class, those bearing an unusual given name had a higher chance than their blasé-named counterparts of being listed in Who’s Who.
BUT BEYOND DEFINING WHAT unusual means, there is perhaps the largest problem: the wide array of confounding variables. Narrowing down any effect to just a name involves thorough controls on other influencers, like socioeconomic status, ethnicity, general quality of parenting, and heritable traits.
Of course, some of these can be almost impossible to account for without a random, real-world longitudinal experiment, Dalton Conley, a sociology professor at New York University who named his own daughter E and son Yo (full name: Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles), suggests. “I would say the effects totally vary by social context,” Conley says in an email. “As you note, it may be the case that unique African American names are disadvantaging. But I am guessing that for white, privileged people uniqueness may convey an advantage in terms of having your name remembered….”
Is Gin’s downtrodden existence simply a function of the fact that only the worst kind of parents—the ones that might forget to send him to school—would select that name? Or is it really because everyone’s jaw drops when he utters it? When scientists look at large swathes of data, it’s difficult to figure out what might be going on behind the scenes, past the rough basics like socioeconomic background and school performance. On the other side of the coin, are those with more desirable, but still unusual names, simply successful because their parents—who were open-minded and cool enough to come up with names that would allow their kin to stick out from the crowd—provided their children other benefits, like financial assistance or a likable personality? Again, psychologists would have to convince people to let them randomly assign names to their babies.
“I’ve always been a very happy person. If that makes any sense. But I did get a lot of attention because of my name because people would always say, ‘Oh, is it short for Montgomery? What does that mean?'”
“[T]he lion’s share of name effects we observe are probably just reflecting the differences between families who [hew] to the mainstream and those that seek out individual cultural niches,” Conley says. “Any residual effects of the name per se is likely to be small.”
Conley also believes endless questions about their names can arm kids with skills in the area of impulse control, an important predictor of future success. If you must contain your reaction to a repeated line of inquiry, you might be better equipped to hold back your impulse to crack during times of intense hardship or pressure.
WHATEVER THE CASE, THE difficulty of conducting these studies hasn’t stopped academics from trying.
In a 1984 paper in the Journal of Educational Psychology, researchers looked at the school records of 23,878 students in a Midwestern public school system and found that “the frequency or desirability of their first names” was not a significant influencer of “school achievement.” “Apparent effects were observed only when ethnicity was uncontrolled,” the authors wrote.
Socioeconomics also appears crucial. In one widely cited 2004 study by the University of Chicago professor and Freakonomics author Steven Levitt and Harvard economist Roland Fryer, the detrimental effects of a distinctively black name vanished after controlling for economic variables. “We find … no negative relationship between having a distinctively Black name and later life outcomes after controlling for a child’s circumstances at birth.”
What about life expectancy? (This is the stage where academics, I think, may be squinting a bit too hard at the space between the lines.) In a 2009 paper that appeared in Perceptual & Motor Skills, researchers examined California’s “mortality database for the years 1960 through 2004 for 6.7 million white, non-Hispanic decedents” and attempted to gauge whether there was a correlational relationship between lifespan and relative popularity of first names, which included such highlights as “Nevermore, Strange, and WoollooMoolo.” “There is no substantial or statistically persuasive evidence that people with unpopular names die younger than do people with popular names,” the authors wrote. “If there are any effects, they are probably small and likely related to ethnic, religious, cultural, and socioeconomic factors that are correlated to name choices.”
Some evidence indicates that strugglesome pronunciations may scare people away, though. A 2011 paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology addressed five separate studies that found that “easy-to-pronounce names (and their bearers) are judged more positively than difficult-to-pronounce names.” In one, the researchers found that lawyers with easy surnames were more likely to make partner. The same effect held if the analysis was limited exclusively to foreign names.
Of course, none of these studies even begin to confront the fact that an unusual name can offer even more advantages in the era of Google page rankings and social media. But these technological algorithms have already shown their own biases, too. In 2013, Latanya Sweeney, of Harvard, discovered that queries of distinctively black names were 25 percent more likely to generate Google ads “suggestive of an arrest record,” and, as Freakonomics noted, this was no matter whether the document actually existed.
ULTIMATELY, THE NAME EFFECT, if it does exist, is being out-competed by more important variables that predict success. And, in many cases, these are often ones that you’re born into, just as you are your name.
Iceman, whose business depends on repeat clients, thinks one reason people keep coming back to him is his dependability. “Well, they’re happy, and they know that the job will get done with the fewest hitches,” he says.
There’s been a special kind of experiential alchemy at work in Iceman’s success, too. At one time, he was just a 21-year-old Mississippi transplant with a Hollywood dream. For about 10 years, he struggled as a self-admittedly “horrible” actor. He scored a few small parts on Dallas, and the Jeffersons, but he mostly spent time waiting tables.
Then, one day, he waited on a casting director who had left the industry and gone into the real estate business. He told Monty about a real estate seminar, where the presenters discussed the three areas where most successful realtors come from: acting, waiting, and teaching. “You’re the only person in the world I know that was a chemistry and biology teacher, you were an actor, and you were a waiter,” the casting director said. “If you do this real estate thing, that’s going to be your calling.”
Many of the people he met in acting classes made it big, and a lot of them called him when they were looking for a house. Former restaurant customers also got in touch. How could you forget a Monty Iceman?
In the first summer, he sold 17 houses. “I made more money that one summer than I did in 10 years of acting,” he says, laughing. He bought a house of his own and a new Mercedes. “It was kind of surreal, actually.”
So surreal that, one day, Neil Patrick Harris would call him a superhero.