Where the Boys Are
By Al Weisel
US Magazine, June 1996, pp. 90-98, 117-118
Male supermodels don't throw tantrums, give attitude or make movies—yet. They're hot right now, but how long will they last?
Imagine you're walking down the street in New York City on a beautiful sunny day when suddenly you notice something strange: People are being nice to you. They're smiling at you. Strangers say hello as they pass. Women lower their sunglasses; men stare into your eyes. This is no dream. You're supermodel Joel West, and everybody wants you.
"I don't think I will ever quite accept the attention," says West, 20, who signed a one-year, seven-figure contract with Calvin Klein last August. "People whispering, talking about me. The acknowledgment of society knowing who I am wherever I go." Of course, West's predicament is not news. Supermodels had been treated like celebrities long before West was launched into the world by the band of his Calvin Klein underwear. What is news is that West, thanks in part to those Calvin's, is one of the first male models to become an international sex object.
Not long ago, the idea of male models as sex objects was almost laughable, if not suspect. Men's fashion represented just a fraction of the industry, and men who worried about their looks were considered, somehow, less masculine. Male models, in turn, were treated as mere props and background-anonymous walk-ons who made far less money than their female counterparts. But changing attitudes toward male beauty - reflected in and even propelled in part by Klein's advertising campaigns-have empowered men in the only profession (besides, perhaps, the world's oldest) in which they had been second-class citizens.
FASHION WEEK IN NEW YORK: AT CALVIN KLEIN—THE MOST prestigious of the New York menswear shows—models listen in rapt attention as Klein recites his pre-show instructions. "Don't look serious," he says. "But no big smiles. You already look like you could wear a $2,000 suit, so you don't have to try to look proud." Klein makes a quick exit, then returns just as quickly. "I just thought of something else," he says. "If there's one word to describe the feeling, think sex."
One of the sexiest models isn't here today. Tyson Beckford, who made history last year as the first African-American male to ink an exclusive deal with a major designer, is prohibited by his contract with Polo Ralph Lauren from doing other designers' shows. So it's up to models like Alex Lundqvist, 24, a sweet-faced Swede with long blond hair and a wispy mustache and goatee, has compelling eyes, clear and blue. Fellow Wilhelmina model Mark Vanderloo is a trim Dutchman with spiky blond hair. At 27, he's the world's highest-paid male model, with an annual income of more than $1 million.
Across the room, Jason Olive, a volleyball player who graduated last year from the University of Hawaii, displays his massive chest. But he's not just showing off—he says he'll be wearing a turtleneck in the show and doesn't want to mess up his makeup. "Why don't you parade around shirtless like Olive?" Lundqvist is asked, and he snaps back, "Because I think it's tacky." Then he reconsiders. "Well, maybe if I was as big as him..." Olive isn't the only model who makes Lundqvist envious. Looking over at Joel West, he whispers, "Did Joel tell you how much money he makes?"
It's natural that West would be the source of jealousy among other models. Last August the small-town boy from Indianola, Iowa, was plucked from obscurity and vaulted to the top tier of male supermodels when he signed on with Calvin Klein. Apparently, though, there is trouble in paradise. "I'm not doing many shows this year," says West, sighing. Last season he was Klein's star model. Now, he says, disappointed at his placement in the show, "I'm 57th."
IN THE LOBBY OF BOSS MODELS, A GIANT BLOWUP OF THE now infamous Calvin Klein underwear ad featuring Joel West looms: "It makes me proud," says West, who has stopped by the agency to pick up his fan mail—all of which turns out to be from men." I wish some girls would write me," he says plaintively, quickly adding he doesn't mind having so many male fans. Later, West confesses, "I'm a very trusting person." Which might explain why he wasn't fazed when a photographer approached him at the Mall of America Dairy Queen in Minneapolis while he was eating a Blizzard on an outing with his church group. The photographer asked West, 17 at the time, to model for him. West's mother, Jan Gipple, was more wary, having "heard things about the fashion industry," he says, and insisted on accompanying him. "We had a five-hour drive to get him to [the shoot]," says Gipple. "It's in this abandoned warehouse, and I'm thinking, This is great; we're just going to leave you at an abandoned warehouse with this stranger. I wonder if you're going to be there when we pick you up." The photographer turned out to be aboveboard, but Gipple, 42, a veterinary technician who herself grew up in Indianola, still wasn't convinced West would make it: "In Iowa, what are the chances of your getting anywhere in modeling?"
West, however, with his otherworldly beauty—lithe, defined body, pouty lips and exotic eyes—soon became familiar to anyone who picked up a magazine. But he had no idea just how familiar he would become. In October 1995, a couple of months after he signed on with Calvin Klein, West was propelled to instant notoriety with a controversial underwear campaign featuring him spread-eagled and clad only in his Calvins. The advertisements' sexual frankness made them ripe for attack (especially coming after Klein's much-assailed ad campaign featuring teen-age models a few months earlier), and West became nightly fodder for tabloid TV shows, which camped out in his family's yard in Iowa.
West's father, Rob West, 41, who operates a backhoe for a construction company and hasn't seen much of his son since divorcing Joel's mother when Joel was 14, says, "I. was happy he was making the money, but I didn't really like the ads. They were risqué." Gipple, on the other hand, had a more practical view: "I said, 'It's pretty hard to sell a product if you're not going to show it."' The strongest reaction, surprisingly, came from Linda J. Wachner, CEO of Warnaco, which owns Calvin Klein's underwear division; she publicly excoriated them. "This ad which appeared with this gentleman's legs spread apart was not approved by Warnaco," she said. "There are no plans to use that shot again."
West was shocked by the controversy. "I didn't understand where they were coming from," he says. "I took it very personally." Meanwhile, he had to deal with instant celebrity. "I've lost a lot of my privacy," he says. "There were a few months of adjustment where I was in limbo. I wasn't happy." He denies media reports that the pressure made him flee New York for Iowa. "I love New York," he says. "I purchased a home in Iowa to be close to my family." West shares his new house—with its circular driveway, pillars and fountain in front—with his maternal grandparents, who take care of it when he's away. "It's like something out of Gone With the Wind," marvels his mother.
West's mother and stepfather, Michael Gipple, a fleet mechanic for the Mid American Energy Company, live just down the road with Joel's 17-year-old brother, Jake. West has nicknamed Jake "Deviant" because of his penchant for mischief—like trying to break into West's laptop. Joel's father, who grew up in and still lives in Indianola, says, "Joel looks like me and takes after his mom. Jake looks like his mom and takes after me. Jake's more wild. Joel's more laid-back."
West's high-school teachers have nothing but nice things to say about him, which isn't surprising since he was voted biggest brown-noser by his class. "Joel always had a ready smile," gushes his chemistry teacher, Irene Bertsch. "He was a very hard worker." She wasn't shocked by the ads. "I saw Joel at several swim meets, and actually there was more covered in the ad than there was in the tiny little Speedos they wear," she says.
But things in Iowa are not quite the same. "I have a lot more friends and family members," West says cynically. "People coming out of the woodwork." He says that people who once thought he was "a geeky bookworm" now think he's "cool," including his girlfriend, Joy Ashbaugh. She ignored West when they attended high school together—"She was in the elite, the cool girls who hung out with the cool guys," he says—and started dating him only after he became a successful model. "I've stayed the same," he says. "The only thing that's changed is the people around me." His mother, however, has detected some changes in West. "He may be more leery of people than he used to be," she says. "Since I'm not familiar with the media, Joel kept telling me, 'Don't tell them everything, Mom, because things get twisted.'" But she also thinks "it made him very worldly. He acts a lot older than any 20-year-old I've met."
Otherwise he's the same kid she raised. "He's possessed to excel in everything he does," she says. "He drives everyone crazy being an overachiever." But there's also another side to him. "He's the biggest romantic," she says. "For his girlfriend at Thanksgiving he filled his room with balloons, had a candlelight dinner and cooked this gourmet meal. I'm thinking, Most guys would just pull up, honk, and you run out."
ONE MIGHT THINK THAT BEING AN OBJECT OF DESIRE WOULD make it easy to find a mate. But most models say maintaining a relationship is one of the difficulties of the job. Tyson Beckford, who has dated Chilli from TLC, says that in addition to the fact that "you're never home," jealousy can be a big problem. "I've dated girls, and they'll be like, 'Oh, she was looking at you,' and I'll be like, 'No, she wasn't. She was just being nice.'" One of the best things about the woman he recently started dating is that she's not jealous. "We went to a pre-Grammy party, and all these girls were coming up to me, but she was cool about it," he says.
Some models end up with the people who best know what their lives are like: other models. "Another model knows what you have to go through," says Vanderloo. "And they aren't the ugliest girls in the world, either." Ask Alex Lundqvist. He dated supermodel Nadja Auermann for more than a year (although the relationship ended in February).
For models who aren't ready to settle down, there are plenty of opportunities for fleeting pleasures. "One time I was dog tired and went out to a club for a drink," recalls 24-year-old Jason Lewis, who has been modeling for three years. "A woman recognized who I was and basically offered to go to bed with me. I said, 'That's great, but I'm really tired,' and walked out." And when he's not so tired? "I've certainly had relationships with women that lasted an evening," he says, "but I don't screw around that much. I don't want anyone greeting me with bulls---, and I don't think it's fair of me to do the same."
Of course, women aren't the only ones who have crushes on guys like Lewis. The top male models, however, don't seem either publicly or privately to identify as gay. Not that they're homophobic, either. "I've had men have crushes on me," says Atlanta native Mark Fisher, 20, who is currently appearing in the new Polo Sport campaign. "I treat them the same as anybody else."
"TEN YEARS AGO, THE STANDARD MALE MODEL WAS PERFECT face, perfect body. Boring, really," says casting agent Leslie Simitch. "I think now there's a much wider range of what we consider attractive in a man." In the '70s, the elegant, square-jawed GQ look was in. In the '80s, renowned fashion photographer Bruce Weber popularized more-athletic bodies with pumped-up pectorals and chiseled abdominals. "Many male models now are scrawny," says Simitch. "And a lot have long hair."
But the idea that men can be just as sexy as women—and that male models can be marketed as sex objects—whose men's division is the largest in the world—and his New York director, Jason Kanner, have been doing everything in their power to cultivate this phenomenon and make it last. One of Kanner's first assignments when he joined the agency in 1991 was to manage Marcus Schenkenberg, now 27, who was soon to appear in a 116-page advertising supplement for Calvin Klein photographed by Bruce Weber. In the most famous shot, Schenkenberg is naked in a shower, his ripped torso dripping wet, and holding jeans in front of what he modestly refers to in Swedish-filtered English as his "fireman." Kanner had a radical plan for promoting Schenkenberg: Market him like a female model. The agency raised his rates, from $3,000 to as much as $20,000 a day, and was more selective about the jobs he took." He'd do three or four campaigns instead of 12 but get more money," explains Kanner. "This was done with women, never with men." The strategy worked: Schenkenberg was in such demand after the campaign, his rates went up, which helped increase rates for other male models as well.
One February afternoon, Kanner is looking through a sea of photographs spread out before him. He's just returned from scouting in Milan, where he chose five of the 500 men he saw. Kanner points out the attributes of the men he selected: the "sunken cheekbones, ivory skin and jet-black hair" of one, "the perfect nose, full lips and great jaw line" of another. Then, sounding like a high-school misfit getting revenge on the popular guys, he sizes up the rejects. One model "looks like a schoolteacher," he says. Of another he complains, "There's way too many odd things happening on this guy's face." Kanner knows he has an advantage over them. "When I'm 60," he says, "I'm still going to have a job."
Looks aren't everything, though, even in modeling. Jennifer Starr, who was Bruce Weber's casting assistant for four years before going free-lance recently, says that she looks for qualities that are more than skin-deep. "At first it's the physical look," she says. "But after that it's all attitude. When I find someone on the street and take a Polaroid of them, I'm looking to see how they react to me and the camera- if they're stiff, how they hold themselves. You have to be comfortable with who you are." But not too comfortable. "Sometimes after you've been in this business awhile," she says, "you've got it down, and that's not interesting to work with anymore. That spontaneity is gone."
THE STANDARDS OF BEAUTY, LIKE THOSE OF FASHION, DO change. But some models, like Tyson (Beckford is his last name, but like some of the female supermodels, he eschews his surname), are so stunningly beautiful that it doesn't matter if their look is "in" at the moment. Although he's 6-foot-1, Tyson looks smaller in person than in photographs, but his face is even more breathtaking, with Asian eyes, full lips and silky, dark skin. When he smiles, he can look as gentle as a kitten; when he frowns, as mean as a rattlesnake. Before shooting a commercial for Polo, Tyson changes clothes, taking off the baggy B-boy jeans he prefers and dancing around as he struggles to pull tight jeans over his massive thighs. Then he takes off his shirt, revealing jaw-dropping muscles as well as something one never sees under the tailored suits he wears so elegantly—a rebellious streak. After he signed a Polo Ralph Lauren contract for a reported $550,000 last year, Tyson covered his arms with tattoos.
Dragons are etched on his biceps. Both forearms have Chinese inscriptions. He translates the sentence on his right forearm, a tribute to his older brother Patrick, who was murdered in a mugging four years ago. But Tyson declines to decipher the message on the other arm: "It's a secret," he says, "for me and my homies. We all got the same thing." The tattoo illustrates why he will probably survive no matter what happens to him in the treacherous waters of the fashion world. In English it reads, "Don't trust anybody."
While watching a comedian in New York's Washington Square Park in the summer of 1991, Tyson was approached by an editor for the hip-hop magazine The Source who offered him a modeling job. "This guy goes to me, 'You got pretty eyes,'" Tyson, 25, recalls. "I'm thinking, Must be some porno magazine:" But then the editor said something that piqued Tyson's interest. "The opportunities," he said, "are endless:" Two days later, Tyson had his first gig. But because he really wanted a job in the music industry, Tyson drifted out of modeling. Patrick encouraged him to pursue it. "In modeling," his brother told him coincidentally, "the opportunities are endless."
Tyson was born in the Bronx, N.Y., but the family moved to Jamaica when he was just a baby. His mother, Hilory Dixon, who once won third place in a Miss Jamaica contest, moved them back to New York when Tyson was 7 after separating from his father. She later married Lloyd Dixon, who worked for a collection agency and was always calling people up saying, "You owe us money," Tyson remembers. "I grew up not really having a father image," he says. "I used to think my stepfather was the meanest man in the world." Tyson resented being forced by Dixon, who now works for Citibank, to learn how to do taxes for the money he earned from his paper route when he was 13. "I said I'm never gonna need to know how to deal with that," he says. "But now I'm dealing with it. I didn't understand when I was a kid. He's still in there with me today. He means a lot to me."
When Tyson first moved to New York, the other kids made fun of the way he looked and talked. "I was this dark-skinned Chinese kid with an Afro who spoke with a heavy Jamaican accent," says Tyson, whose paternal grandmother is Chinese. "If you think about it, it's kind of funny. They called me Mr. Chin." Because he spoke Jamaican patois, he says, "I had to take classes to learn to speak so-called English. Since I couldn't speak too well, I had to stay back a year." After graduating at 19, he attended a community college but dropped out after one semester. Then, in August 1992, Tyson's brother Patrick was murdered. "I got in my own shell and didn't want to do nothing," he says.
A year later Tyson saw actor Kadeem Hardison on The Arsenio Hall Show talking about his mother Bethann's modeling agency. Recalling his brother's words about opportunities in modeling, Tyson went to see her.
Hardison was impressed with Tyson but cautious. "You never know who's going to take off, because you have such racism in the industry," she says." Most fashion people don't know the beauty of blacks, so you don't want to encourage someone too much. "Hardison herself was a model—and as one of the first successful black models in the '60s, a pioneer. With dreadlocks down to the small of her back and a radiant smile, she's stunning, and as tough as she is charming. When she was 19, Hardison dropped out of fashion briefly to become a corrections officer after being "inspired by The Snake Pit [the 1948 film about mental illness]," she recalls, laughing. Breaking barriers is a mission for Hardison, who with Iman co-founded the Black Girls Coalition, which lobbies the fashion industry to employ more people of color.
Hardison sent Tyson to Weber, telling him only that the photographer was important and warning Tyson that Weber would ask him to take off his shirt. "He looked like Santa Claus," Tyson recalls. "He was so sweet I was ready to jump on his lap and ask for some toys." Weber recommended Tyson to Ralph Lauren, whose offices initially intimidated him. "I was like a little B-boy sitting in this office with all these guys in suits," Tyson says. "I'm like, Aw, man, I shouldn't even be here. This was like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and here comes me, a little street kid:" Surprising everyone, Lauren made Tyson the centerpiece of his campaign. Giving a black model such a high profile was a courageous act in an industry where courage is usually something you knock off a competitor and sell at a discount. Of course, the publicity didn't do Lauren any harm.
Tyson, who was named male model of the year at the VH1 Fashion & Music Awards last December, has reached a level of celebrity unparalleled by other male models, becoming a hero to minorities who are not used to seeing their faces in fashion ads. Stopped at a traffic light on Wall Street, where he promised a friend of his mother's he would go to meet her love-struck co workers, he is momentarily startled when a macho black bike messenger reaches in the window of Tyson's Land Cruiser, taps him on the shoulder and asks for his autograph. But his celebrity has a price. "Sometimes I'm scared to walk down the street," Tyson says. "People try to set you up. They make jokes and say, 'I'm gonna jump under the wheel of your car so that I can sue you and get paid."' He prefers to stay home at his new house in suburban New Jersey working on his Kawasaki motorcycles.
Despite his success, however, Tyson still has to deal with racism. When he was looking to buy a new car a few years ago, several dealers refused to sell him one, no matter how much cash he had for a down payment. When he finally was able to purchase a Land Cruiser, he then had to contend with police who were suspicious of a young black man driving an expensive automobile with dealer's tags. "They pulled me over in Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn, accusing me of stealing the car," he says. Tyson isn't the only model up against racism. Jason Olive, whose father is African-American and whose mother is German-Jewish, Irish and Chippewa, was one of the few models of color at the men's collections during fashion week. "I think it's f---ed," he says angrily." I don't see why I should be the only black model in a show." Kevin Louie, one of the few Asian models in the business, says that a major-department-store representative told his agent that they didn't use Asian models. Louie, who refers to himself with mordant humor as "your ethnic quota for today," wonders why some designers don't realize who buys their clothes. "Every time you go to these designers' stores you see hordes of Japanese, Koreans and Chinese coming out with six bags apiece," he says. However, his success has inspired others. Backstage after a show, an Asian woman comes over to him, raises her fist and says, "Asian power."
MILAN (NICKNAMED "VIET MILAN" BY THE MODELS FOR ITS brutal pace during show week) is a mecca for young men who hope to make it in modeling. It's also where models get their first taste of the good and the bad the business has to offer. "Milan is crazy," says Olive. "You have guys flying in from all over the world. You feel that's all that city does: eats, drinks, sleeps fashion." It's a combination frat party and A Chorus Line audition. Fisher, who shared an unheated hotel room with two other models, arrived last January to a scene of total chaos: "They had a big party the night before," he says. "There were liquor bottles on the floor, cigarette burns everywhere, beds off the springs. I was pretty scared when I walked in to all this craziness."
During show season (in January and June), the streets are packed with male models rushing to appointments with designers, magazine editors and photographers. Casting calls can last until the wee morning hours; hundreds compete for a place in shows that have only three or four openings. At night, the models invariably end up at Club Hollywood. Fisher, who was discovered at the club by a Boss scout, says that like many cash-poor models, he ended up "dancing for dollars" there. "You get paid $150 to dance on a pedestal," he explains. "I'm not proud of it, but it paid the bills."
The fast lane in Milan has no speed limit. "A wild Italian party is like a party anywhere in the world, but there's more of it," says Olive. "There's pretty girls, but there's more of them, and they're prettier. There's drugs, but there's more drugs, used heavier. Parties last way into the morning in the most unbelievable settings. These houses are like palaces. Drugs, free sex, free everything. There's nothing you can't have."
ALEX LUNDQVIST LOOKED "LOST" IN MILAN, ACCORDING TO his pal Jason Lewis. "With all the good in this business, there's also the bad, and my first impression of Alex was that he couldn't discern between the two," Lewis explains. "That's not a comment on his intelligence. Alex just has the nicest heart. That made us want to look out for him."
Nothing like the dour Swedes in Ingmar Bergman movies, Lundqvist is walking on air. He just moved to New York, and he thinks it's the most wonderful city on Earth. He's "having a blast" with his new friends Jason Lewis and Mark Vanderloo and their Wilhelmina agent, Sean Patterson. And now that he makes thousands of dollars a day to stand around and look fabulous, he's got even more reason to smile.
Three years ago Lundqvist was making a lot less money and working much harder as a tank commander in the Swedish army. "We had this one week where we didn't have anything to eat except a banana a day," he says in his soft Swedish accent. "We had to break a hole in the ice and wash ourselves at 5:00 in the morning:" He uses his army name tag as a money clip "to remind me not to complain," he says. When he was discharged, he rebelled by growing his trademark long hair, mustache and goatee.
Lundqvist grew up on an island on the outskirts of Stockholm. In the winter he ice-skated to town like Hans Brinker. His father is a dentist, and his mother assists his father, which might sound like a good plot for a horror movie, but Lundqvist has never been on the other side of his father's drill, because he's luckily never had a cavity. He was unusually prone to accidents, though, and has scars to prove it on his forehead (he fell on the ice when he was 2, and hit his head building a treehouse), wrist (he put his hand through a glass door in high school) and back (he got stabbed in the army by one of the locals who frequently skirmished with the soldiers stationed in their town), plus assorted mementos from bust-ups on his Harley. Ten years ago his scars might have nixed a modeling career, but he had the good fortune to enter the business at a time when flawed beauty is actually an asset.
Lundqvist is seeing designers in New York to be fitted with the clothes he'll wear on the runway. He has just run into Jason Lewis at the high-tech sportswear designer Nautica. Embracing Lewis, he exclaims, "This is my new roommate," then puts him in a headlock and wrestles him to the floor like a rambunctious teen-ager.
As he walks down Fifth Avenue on his way to his next appointment, Lundqvist is so giddy you check to see if his feet touch the sidewalk. Suddenly, he spies a picture of Vanderloo on a telephone booth and stops dead in his tracks. He walks up to the poster, punches the picture at Vanderloo's shoulder and says, grinning, "Hey, buddy!"
LUNDQVIST HAS EVERY REASON TO BE ON TOP OF THE world—he started his career just as the male-supermodel phenomenon took off. The question now is, Will it last? Michael Gross, author of Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, isn't convinced it will: "I don't believe that if you go to a mall in Indiana and ask a beer-swilling teen-ager the name of the kid in the Calvin Klein commercial, he's going to know it. The male supermodel is a marketing phenomenon that will not take hold with the masses. I hope they make a lot of money, don't get spoiled and can live real lives after living in this false bubble."
But the models have a more pragmatic view. "At the end of the year, the women always come out ahead," says Vanderloo. "But I'm not upset about it. They deserve it. I can only look into my own pockets, and I'm not unhappy."
Of course, there are always post-modeling career options. Lundqvist is saving his money to study advertising. Tyson and Lewis are talking about film careers. Hardison says she's already refused some movie offers for Tyson because he's "not ready." Tyson, however, is getting restless. "Some models eat, drink and sleep modeling," he says. "I just want to get my money and get out."
Not a bad idea when you work in an industry where one day you're hot, the next you're not. Earlier this year, during fashion week, West's relationship with Calvin Klein was modified. While he would still model for the designer's fragrance and eyewear ads, he would no longer be Klein's underwear supermodel. Replacing him is Antonio Sabato Jr. (Melrose Place). "Calvin Klein is always searching for new talent," says a Klein spokesperson dispassionately. Leslie Simitch, who worked on the casting for Klein, says, "We were looking for a good body, and we were also looking for a personality."
Boss' director of communications, Paul West (no relation to Joel) isn't going to admit defeat, however. "[Joel] is the hottest f---ing supermodel in the world," he says. "Walk down the street in Chicago or Houston and say the name Joel West and the name Tyson, and see which one they know."
After fashion week in New York, Joel West immediately flew back to Iowa, where he stayed a few days before setting out to Hollywood with his best friend since the fifth grade, Cory Sinclair, an actor, to test the waters out there. Back at Boss' office, the blowup of the Calvin Klein ad that hung in the lobby, which just three weeks earlier had made West so proud, has been removed from the wall, like the painting of a crown prince toppled in a coup d'état.■
Al Weisel is the co-author, with Larry Frascella, of Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause, being published in October 2005.
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