Augusta native and 2002 Cony graduate Shari Katz hugged a dirty-looking stranger in New York City and ended up with free tickets to the Super Bowl — and a brief spot in a commercial.

Katz, 29, an actress and Zumba instructor in Manhattan, said she doesn’t normally hug random strangers, particularly those like the homeless-looking man she and her friend Michael Fatica came across last week. The man was holding a “free hugs” sign in Madison Square Park and Katz and her friend came upon him while they were on their way, they thought, to a commercial shoot.

“This big, dirty-looking guy, with a cardboard ‘free hugs’ sign, comes up to us and says, ‘Hey guys, how about a hug?’” Katz said Tuesday. “We look at each other like, why not? We gave him a hug and as we’re pulling away, all these people with cameras come out and they tell us, ‘You’re getting two free tickets to the Super Bowl, courtesy of Frito Lay.’ I did a little victory dance and twirled around, which ended up in the commercial.”

Katz and Fatica were among 50 people awarded tickets in the Frito Lay promotion, which secretly recorded New Yorkers put in awkward situations, and rewarded those who chose to “be bold” in their response.

Katz said she loves to hug, a trait she got from her late grandfather, Bennett Katz, former majority leader of the Maine Senate.

“Grandpa Bennett taught me, and it stuck with me, to never be the first one to let go in a hug,” Katz said. “It was a running joke with us, we’d hug each other and neither one would let go.”

Shari Katz is the daughter of Birdie and Sen. Roger Katz.

In addition to the free hugs scene, other people were awarded tickets for helping an elderly woman complete her online dating profile, racy pictures included, and allowing a sketchy-acting, clumsy hairdresser to give them a haircut.

Their responses were filmed and made part of an online commercial that ran just after the Super Bowl.

The ticket winners were all seated together at the game behind the Denver Broncos’ end zone in a triangle formation wearing bright orange coats they were told to put on as the game started.

Together in the stands, they formed what the company said was the world’s largest human Dorito chip.

To many of their fellow fans, the large group dressed in orange just looked like Broncos fans, as the teams colors are orange and blue.

Katz said with the Broncos getting blown out of the game by the winning Seattle Seahawks, other fans, seeing her dressed in all orange, said they felt sorry for her, not knowing Katz is a fan of the New England Patriots, not the Broncos.

She said she’s not nearly as much a football fan as others in her family are.

“Frankly, the entire time, I thought of my dad, that he’s the one who should be sitting here,” she said. “My dad, my brother, should be here. I FaceTimed (connected via online video and audio) with my dad in the fourth quarter so he could be at the Super Bowl that way.”

Her father is excited for his daughter to have the experience even if, perhaps, he’s also just a wee bit jealous he didn’t get to go along.

“It sounds like she had the time of her life, and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person,” Roger Katz said. “I just wish she could have taken her father.”

Shari Katz said the whole thing started when her agent sent her to an audition, telling her only it was for a major brand and would be improvisation-based. In the audition very few details were provided, though they were asked how they respond to strangers.

They ended up booking a shoot for the mysterious commercial.

Katz went to the audition with another friend and actor, Judah Frank, but he was working out of town the day of the scheduled shoot, so her friend Fatica went with her instead.

They met who they believed to be the production assistant for the commercial at a deli last week, who told them they’d be filming a few blocks away. While walking to the purported shoot, the production assistant excused herself while they were walking in Madison Square Park and stepped away. That’s when the dreadlocked “free hugs” man approached them while, unbeknownst to them, they were being filmed for a clip referred to in the commercial as “Bold Test #2, The Hippy Hugger.”

Shari Katz said the face value of her ticket to the game, in row 16, was $1,500.

She said she especially enjoyed the halftime show, as she is a fan of both Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the bands that performed at the New Jersey stadium.

She was told not to say much about the commercial before the game, which was easy because the promoters didn’t share many details about it. She told her friends and family she was going to the game, but not much else. Afterward, however, she told everyone about the experience. The best part, she said, was walking into the stadium and taking it all in — that she was at the Super Bowl.

“I’m still walking on air, not believing it happened,” Katz said. “All for hugging a stranger.”

Keith Edwards – 621-5647kedwards@centralmaine.com