Monday, July 23, 2007

This year's model

By Lisa Armstrong

Such is the efficiency of modern myth-making that when I meet David Gandy I fully expect to be confronted by a crotch of Brobdingnagian dimensions, topped by a brain the size of a microbe. I'd like to think that responsibility for this blatant stereotyping lies squarely with Dolce & Gabbana, in whose current arresting perfume campaign Gandy's crotch so unambiguously stars, and Hollywood, whence emanated Zoolander, the very silly, highly enjoyable and oddly memorable tale of a dumb, wellendowed male model played by Ben Stiller. But the truth is that the seeds of prejudice were in my mind long before the ad and film saw the light of day.

Male model. A combination of words as richly steeped in ridicule as Spaghetti Junction, David Brent or Pot Noodle. More, in fact, since Pot Noodle has acquired a sort of postslacker ironic chic. Whereas the male model well, as Charlie Porter, GQ's associate editor, says: "I tend not to take much notice of them at the shows. I look at the clothes but rarely get as far as the head". When pressed, Charlie and I between us can name only half a male supermodel. Marcus Schenken-thingy (berg, as it turns out), the 1990s It boy-turned-actor from Sweden. And were in the business of knowing.

That's how much resonance male models have thus far had.

But maybe, just maybe, perceptions of the male model are altering. For one thing, the frenzy of appreciation (11 million internet hits and counting, many of them from overexcited females) that has greeted his Dolce appearance suggests that this is not only a gay phenomenon. For another, notions of what constitutes an acceptable level of male vanity (the main obstacle to male models finding anything other than a nice fan base) have palpably altered, even since Zoolander days. Thirdly, as Gandy points out, friends his age (27) "are generally pretty laid-back about their careers. You do a bit of this, a bit of that. If you can make some money modelling, then fine".

He does concede, however, than many of his peers, when pressed about what they do, say that theyre in marketing. Still, it was friends who got him into this position, by posting his photograph to Richard and Judy, who were running a Find a Male Model competition. At the time he had a job delivering cars to a car magazine a nice but undemanding gig that ended when he won the contest. He was taken on by Select Model Management, one of the country's leading agencies, and spent the next five years toiling away in relative obscurity, doing Look-Books (no-fuss pictures in which the clothes are the star, which get seen mainly by the trade) and catalogue work.

It was marginally diverting - he took 60 flights last year - marginally eye-opening (he got to wear white face paint at Vivienne Westwood, practised "bringing personality and a bit of humour to a shoot" and learnt the art of gently rebuffing male designers who made passes at him). The money, although peanuts compared with the girls earnings, more of which later, wasnt bad. And no, he wasnt really bothered about the Zoolander jibes "because if you heard some of the conversations backstage youd know it was pretty accurate".

But there are only so many ways to bring personality and humour to a shirt catalogue shoot, and "at the shows you all get treated like s**t. You stay in crappy apartments, never see your friends, turn up for castings to find 500 hopefuls already there, get ordered to wear a T-shirt that 300 sweaty guys have already worn and told to walk to the end of the catwalk in a pair of tiny Speedos". Which you try to do with humour and personality.

Once or twice he thought about packing it in because the fashion for thin, waifish boys, initiated by the hugely influential Hedi Slimane, until recently menswear designer at Dior, and popularised by Pete Doherty, meant that Gandy was pigeonholed as commercial rather than creative. But then he asked himself what else he would be doing ("I wasnt very academic and I got kicked out of art school").

Anyway, Slimane left Dior, the trend for weeds abated, and along came Dolce & Gabbana, Mario Testino and a print and TV advertising campaign that has become as much a part of this summer's water-cooler cosmos as it has of Times Square, where a 50ft David Gandy can currently be seen. Cue media coverage and, with the pleasing discovery that far from being some Latino hunk from Palermo, Gandy was born and raised in Billericay, a new, albeit geographically incorrect tagline - Dagenham Dave. Gandy joins a wave of Britons who are making a big impact, models such as Jamie Dornan from Belfast, now the face of Aquascutum, are in demand from companies seeking more personality and less beefcake.

Although he is from Essex, Gandy is rather posh, very polite, his intonation more akin to that of Giles Wemmbley Hogg, Marcus Brigstocke's slightly quizzical, good-natured fictional toff on Radio 4 than to Ian Dury's. His father, a self-made entrepreneur with five businesses in property and haulage, is "very well-spoken. The Essex boy thing is a bit baffling and slightly irritating, if I'm honest", he says, looking baffled but not remotely irritated. I think he's enjoying the ride immensely.

Encouraged by his mother, who was the first to recognise the potential impact of the Dolce ad ("I thought she'd be appalled but she thought it was great"), he has just bought himself his third car. He now has a 1960s Porsche, a Lotus Elite and Audi T2. "She said, you never really spend money on yourself - and, anyway, it's not like any of them are new".

Did I mention that he is ridiculously handsome, seems not that bothered about clothes, is wearing faded jeans, shirt and old brogues, does a crinkly, twinkly Hugh Grantish thing with his eyes and that, yes, although he goes to the gym four times a week and runs the other three days, he limits his other preening to the occasional squirt of moisturiser and is far more animated and engaging than the narcissistic-looking stud in the ad?

One imagines that the combination of Porsche, Fulham drawl and looks is a fairly irresistible package, but he maintains that apart from a three-year relationship with a fellow model (and what a nightmare that turned out to be, what with their clashing schedules - but at least he got to see how much tougher modelling is for the girls), he is resolutely single. "I keep asking my two flatmates (both female) why girls never chat me up". Intimidated? I suggest. More sheepish brow-furrowing. "Yeah, that's what they both say - suffice to tell, the most attention I've been getting since the ads is from night-club bouncers". But we digress. Because the car, the lonely single status and the slightly sheepish, old-school apology for flashing a bit of cash aren't really the point. The point is that last week he worked with David Bailey, and before that shot a cover story in Rio with Testino. In the world of male modelling it doesn't come more creative and prestigious than that - especially as Testino is so markedly enthusiastic.

"David has something of what the 1980s supermodels have", he phones me one night to explain. "He radiates health and positivity. I think he has what it takes to be very big. It's exciting because it signifies a real shift in men's fashion. That whole skinny, decadent look is very limited. The male model world is changing. I think that's partly to do with people's sexuality blurring. The girls really get him as much as the boys".

Ah yes, the gay thing. One cannot delve too deeply into the male modelling world without coming up against it. So what, you may ask. Surely this cannot still be an issue. Not in 2007? Not in fashion? The answer is yes and no. Or, as Charlie Porter puts it, "designer brands rely heavily on the gay market, yet at the same time they're frightened of acknowledging it too much in case it alienates mainstream markets, especially in the US, especially in the current retail climate".

GQ, for instance, although one of the country's leading men's magazines, would never put a male model on its cover. Even Dolce & Gabbana, a label that has managed to make a commercial virtue out of high camp, particularly in its catwalk shows, where male models recently plodded past the front row in white spacesuits, placed a hot-looking female under Gandy in the television ad, just to dispel any lingering doubts. The ambivalence is evident in the fact that, according to Gandy's booker at Select, until a few years ago 99 per cent of male models were gay. Now they are not, but if Gandy can, so to speak, straddle these two demographics, then he may indeed hit the jackpot.

But the other issue is that, until now, men have generally reacted to male models in a way that is fundamentally different to how women relate to female models - that is, they don't want to be them or even particularly identify with them. That makes male models vastly less influential than female models but also less pressurised, not least because the stakes are lower.

According to TNS World Panel, a research company, men account for only 32 per cent of the £27 billion that was spent on clothing and footwear last year globally. Less work equals less kudos equals much smaller pay packets than for the girls. And for the past few years there has been added competition from male actors who might once have spurned a modelling contract but are now happy to take the money and bask in the glory of being shot by a top photographer.

Burberry, again photographed by Testino, has set the benchmark for this genre and made a virtue out of not using professional models, in the same way that many film directors prefer working with nonprofessional child actors to trained ones. "It's not deliberate", says Christopher Bailey, Burberry's head designer, "but it's very important for me to feel the character and attitude. If we happen to meet somebody on the morning of the shoot, it is not unknown for us to ask them to join in a picture".

Good news, unless you're a male model. A relatively successful one told me that when he starred in a famous designer's advertising campaign last year he received €800 (£539). A female model might expect £15,000. According to Gandy, many male models supplement their salaries, which can range from £30,000 to £300,000 a year. To put this into perspective, Forbes magazine has just estimated that Gisele Bünd-chen's earnings last year topped $33 million (£16 million).

Still, the boys bumble along in careers that can span 30 years. "It helps", says Simon Chambers, director of Storm, Kate Moss's agency, "that they are generally more relaxed". They start their careers later. They don't see modelling as the be-all and end-all. Quite a few do it for a gap year or use it as a way to make money through university. Until the Hedi Slimane thing started a craze for very thin male models, it was unheard-of to find 15 or 16-year-olds in the business. We've never had problems with boys dieting. But they've definitely got younger.

Kat Hencken, at ICM Models, agrees that it is easier to manage male than female models. "The girls need far more mothering - but then they're much more vulnerable. We did get boys watching what they ate when the craze was for skinny, but the men who are very vain don't get very far. And let's face it, they have a simpler time in some respects: the criteria for what makes a man attractive are still much broader than for women". Plus they generally dont have to wear fruit bowls on their heads, as Lily Cole did in one recent show, or be carried off the catwalk in a lung-restricting 16in corset, as Erin O'Connor was, although they need to turn up early for hair and make-up.

That said, Charlie Porter once found himself on the other side of the catwalk when the Japanese designer Junya Watanabe recruited him for a show. But he was retired halfway through."It turned out that I was too big for some of my outfits - I must admit that made me feel weird to be larger than the other models". Welcome to our world, guys.