Nigel Barker on Spornosexuals, ‘America’s Next Top Model,’ and the Most Beautiful Faces in the World
It’s hard to tell what Nigel Barker has been more famous for over the past decade, his photographs or the undeniable sex appeal he brought to reality television. On America’s Next Top Model, Barker was the straight man, both sexually and in how he played off the show’s more colorful characters.
Now, Barker, who has a new show, The Face, is out with a photography book documenting as a photographer his loves of the runway: Models of Influence: 50 Women Who Reset the Course of Fashion. Barker, the son of a Sri Lankan model and a former model himself, has come up with 50 women whom he believes not only transformed beauty, but were also representative of the times and culture in which they thrived. It includes past greats like Lisa Fonssagrives Penn and well-known contemporary faces like Kate Moss and Gisele Bundchen.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Barker opens up about what models mean to our society and our sexuality, about the future of men’s beauty, and about his “dog pound” fitness group. (The following excerpts have been edited for length.)
What makes a great model?
The models that we selected to be the 50 were not just supermodels, but models who transcended the job of being a model, and entered pop culture overall…If you look at the most famous names in history in the modeling business, they are all models who inspired designers, magazine editors, and photographers and helped shape what that entire generation looked like. And it’s not just that they had a certain look already, because they really are chameleons that transform into these various looks.
Whether it be a Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista in the 90s, or a Kate Moss, or Amber Valletta of the mid-’90s grunge movement—these are models who don’t just epitomize a generation and define an era, but they stood for so much more, they stood for the way we were feeling. They stood for the fact that after the end of the glamorous end of the ’80s, early ’90s, there was an element where we really wanted that raw authenticity of what it meant to be a normal person. That’s in many respects where the Kate Mosses and Amber Valettas with their grungy, heroin chic-y look came in.
Were there any hard choices in choosing the 50 models?
A lot of hard choices. When you write a book like this, you want to do 50. I really wanted to stick to 50. So, there’s me sitting at my wife’s house in Alabama, which is where I like to sit and read and write—I wrote my last book there too—and I came up with a list of over 150 women who in many respects deserve to be mentioned. Then you start to really nail it down, and when it comes to the final 50 it really became a list of “Who was the first?” Not just who did it well. Who did it first? Who was the true pioneer?
I try to find the ones who really broke out and did things like the first license deal, the first multimillion-dollar campaign, the first woman of color on the cover of Vogue, or whatever it might have been. Who shook up the industry? So there’s, for instance, Sophie Dahl, who is the first plus-size model to do a major high-fashion campaign and in the nude no less. The whole way through it’s a book of firsts and people who took risks.
Was it fun going back and look at some of the more historic models who might not be as well known today?
It was a lot of fun. The whole thing was fun, to be honest. It was a trip down memory lane, but I also learned a lot more than I knew already. When you hear their stories, there are stories that are magnificent but there are ones that are also tragic in the book—especially certain generations. There were some of the models from the ’40s and ’50s like Dovima, who was one of the most celebrated models of her time. Think of the pictures that Avedon took with the elephants with Dovima in the middle, which is one of the most celebrated and most expensive photographs you can buy of fashion photography. She ended up at the end of it all with nothing because models at that time didn’t make much money. She spent the end of her days as an old woman working as a hamburger waitress in Florida. And yet she was one of the top supermodels of her time.
So the book tracks how [the industry] has changed as models fought for better representation, fees, and all the rest of it. Many of the model agents were actually models who turned into agents. That all happened in the mid-’60s. A lot of that opulence from the ’50s changed, and it was a time of protest, a time of rebellion, free love, and self-expression. So the book discusses all of that through these women.
Obviously, female models are not as poorly paid as they were once were. Why are they not only more famous, but also significantly better paid than their male counterparts?
That is really simply because women are more interested in fashion. That is changing as men are becoming more aware and more attuned. Still, women purchase much more fashion, even for the men in their lives than the men do themselves. It is predominantly a women’s business. You can even sell men’s things to men through women, but you can rarely sell things to women through men. The business at large, if you’re talking about fragrances, accessories, all those are really purchased by women. It’s a multi-billion industry run by women, and controlled by women. It’s definitely a women’s world.
You’re in the public eye as a part of this industry, so you’re well aware of the negative press on the issue of body image. Where do you think the industry is at in terms of that?
I think that it’s changing. There is no doubt that we, the fashion industry, should be responsible, and have for way too long showcased really only very slim models. There is no doubt about that and we all accept that. But if you look at the history of the business, it hasn’t always necessarily only been that way. It sort of happened in the ’90s.
One of the things for you, as a male model, was that all the males around you were getting slimmer.
Well, absolutely. What happened was in the ’50s and ’60s, you’ve got Marilyn Monroe, who was curvaceous and not that tall. Twiggy was skinny, but it wasn’t about the skinniness, it was about the boyishness that women at the time were really into because they wanted to not be a stereotype.
What happened with it was in the ’90s. Before, it was all about these decadent supermodels and their “I’m not getting out of bed for less than $10,000 a day,” and over the top Versace. It seemed like everybody had a lot of money in the late ’80s. And then everything kind of collapsed. The Japanese market collapsed. The world rolled into a bit of recession. Grunge movement moved in. It was a sobering time. Like I said it before, it was almost an apology the fashion industry had for its past excesses. Out of that came this super skinny, child-like model that really represented many teenagers and kids feeling depressed about their life, and it was being mirrored in the fashion industry. And of course, we got a lot of flak for that. Politicians and world leaders stood up and said, ‘This is terrible, I don’t want my daughter looking at a magazine and seeing a really skinny little girl in there—it’s unhealthy.’
But what’s happened is now, with models like Sophie Dahl and various others, you have a very unusual time right now. Never in fashion has there been so many different looks, from so many different parts of the world. Social media is playing such a heavy hand in who is picked and who is selected, who is a success and who is not. Never before has a designer been able to do an advertising campaign, put it on the model or celebrity’s social media platforms, judge how it does before even launching it on billboards and televisions to check how successful it’s going to be and vet which pictures to use. It’s changed dramatically. Now more than ever, we the people are in control of who is going to be the next superstar by the number of likes, by who we find interesting, and who we follow. It’s up to us now more than ever to demand who we want to see in the ads by following them and liking them because that’s who everybody is paying attention to. Just look who is getting on the covers of Vogue and causing controversy. That’s why!
What did you think of the Kim cover?
Anna knows exactly what she’s doing—these people have never been more en vogue. What does being en vogue mean? It means they’re the hot couple, the hot people, or right on the tipping point of what people are interested in. Right now that’s exactly who they are. I don’t know exactly what she’s doing, but these people have never been more en vogue…Quite frankly, they’ve already been around a long time, longer than a lot of people would have imagined. Partly because, despite whatever you might think of their private life, there is an element of honesty and rawness to it all because it’s just so in your face. You can’t sugarcoat it, because it isn’t sugarcoated. Models and these sort of celebrities have become the new reality television stars of social media.
You are probably best known to the average reader from reality television. What do you think it takes to be a good reality TV judge?
[Laughs] Well, coming from the person who is the longest standing judge on America’s Next Top Model I think it boils down to being yourself. It boils down to staying an expert in the field and continuing to be an expert in that field. I am a photographer, was a photographer, have always been a photographer, so when you’re talking about whatever you’re talking about, it helps to still be doing it. Sometimes people stop doing it when they get a taste of television and become a television star, and that’s it. I think that affects the overall performance. On Top Model for example, myself, the two Jays, we all worked in the business and we all were ourselves. Off-camera you will find Miss Jay is the same as on camera. Tyra’s the same way.
How do you feel now looking back about how it ended?
I think it was blown out of proportion to some extent. It was definitely abrupt, the way it ended. Did I want it to end? No. Was I lucky enough to jump into something else? I was. Hopefully people saw that I had the talent and fan base to do something else, because I was very lucky because within one week I got The Face. So for me there wasn’t a huge gap between the two. It took us a while to shoot it and get it on air, so it felt longer for the public. But from our perspective internally it wasn’t such a huge deal. Could it have been handled differently? Maybe. But it’s difficult. Television is what it is, and the media gets hold of things. It wasn’t like we were fired. The reality is we just weren’t rehired. It’s semantics, but at the end of the day every actor has contracts, and when the contract is up, they either renew it or it doesn’t get renewed, it doesn’t mean you’re fired.
You’ve had RuPaul on your show. Who’s a bigger diva, Ru or Tyra?
Ru is a hilarious, amazing man, and someone who I’ve known for many, many years. Actually he’s very down to earth once you get to know him. Not necessarily what you might expect.
You’ve been on shows with heavily gay audiences and work in a predominantly gay industry. While you are married to a woman, do you get mistaken for being gay?
I don’t necessarily think I’m mistaken or not mistaken. I’ve never really worn my sexuality on my sleeve. I don’t think of it as a playing card, so to speak, or a factor someone should judge me on. I work in an industry that is predominantly gay or female. There are a few straight males and a lot of them are photographers no doubt. It’s never really been an issue to me. Quite frankly being English, working in fashion, and being on television, pretty much 90 percent of everyone thinks I’m gay. I hear it on a daily basis. People are like, “My God, I thought you were gay!” And I’m like, “No.” So what? It doesn’t really matter because I’ve got a wife and kids. It’s all irrelevant at the end of the day to me. It’s a non-question for me, to be honest.
Are you familiar with the new term spornosexual?
I’m not. What does that mean?
It’s essentially metrosexual but more muscular, but you still use all the beauty products and are well-dressed.
I just call that being a man.
So it’s coincided with a rise of interest in men’s beauty, both in terms of how that industry has grown and in culture. Have you been surprised by how quickly it’s grown?
No, I’m not at all. A long time ago it was reported as being the fastest moving area of beauty there is. Women’s markets are saturated completely, and it’s very hard to invent a new product. Whereas men for the longest time have been like cavemen, where having to wash themselves in water was a big deal. Forget about using product. It’s like, “Ugggggh, what am I going to do now? Shave my head?” It’s been so little in fashion and in everything, it was just a wash.
The fact that men are all of a sudden going, “Huh, I can put a soap on? That has a smell? Wow!” OK, cool, that means we have the next million products we can put all over men. We just have to package it differently. “No, this isn’t blush, this is bronzer!” “Oh, bronze sounds good!” It’s still so stupid with men, they don’t even realize they are using the same damn products. We just sell it, sometimes even more expensive than the female products, that’s how dumb we are. Really there’s a Saturday Night Live skit in there somewhere. It’s one of those things where I’m not surprised at all. It’s a huge market, and it’s just a matter of time before mainstream makeup for men is seen out there. You know, where it’s like, “Here’s eyeliner, here’s something to get rid of bags under eyes!” And it’s not an unusual thing. It will have another name, but it will do exactly the same thing as for women but will just be more transparent and sheer. Tinted moisturizers are going to be commonplace, all that kind of stuff.
You started out as a model, and have aged well. What has changed for you in terms of taking care of yourself?
Earlier on, when I was a kid and I started modeling it was different—you’re young, everything comes easy, you’re naturally slim. I had worked out a lot, I was a rugby player when I was a kid, well built, I could eat whatever I wanted. I had long hair. I remember when I became a photographer I remember just radically changing the way I looked because I wanted people to take me seriously and knew that if I had the long hair, and looked like I had before when I modeled, it would be harder for certain clients who had seen me before to accept me. So I shaved my head, in a way to literally say, ‘That’s not me, this is another time.’
For a while there I didn’t take too much care of myself. Again, I was young enough that it was OK. But it wasn’t a focus. Now, in my 40s, I’ve had a sort of revelation, you can call it a mid-life crisis if you want. I’ve got really deep back into my working out. I work out six days a week, 5:45 in the morning with a group of guys known as the “Dog Pound.” I work out with Hugh Jackman, Colin Dwyer, who’s an Olympic athlete, Matt Target, who is a three-time Olympian, and Tom Farley, who is the president of the New York Stock Exchange. There’s a whole group of us guys. It’s been enormously invigorating because it’s a bunch of guys in their 40s who are all really ambitious, really have a lot of direction, and from all different walks of life. We’ve created this group of guys and it’s changed my whole ethos. It really gives me an enormous amount of drive, and if you’re getting up that early it makes sure that you behave yourself a little more the night before.
Do you think you’ll ever get [plastic surgery] work done?
I don’t think so. It’s not really me. I understand other people and why they do it. If something gets broken you want to fix it. It’s not the end of the world. For me, it’s the concept of whether you think something is broken or not. Actually, I’m more of the shabby chic kind of guy. I like things to have a roughness around the edges. I like the reality of what a wrinkle says. I look at people and at their faces as a photographer, I can tell if they’ve been a happy person or lived a hard life, I can see it in the lines of their face. It’s a part of their story. To eliminate that is to remove, in many respects, your history. Some people, they want to remove that, but for others I think they’ve lived a great life, so why not have those marks on your face as a sign of what you’ve achieved?
You’ve photographed a lot the women mentioned in the book. Have any of them been your favorite?
I think probably one of my favorite girls to photograph is Coco Rocha. I photographed her many times. I think you can see why she’s such a successful model. It isn’t just because she’s got great social media numbers and all those sort of things. I’ve rarely, if ever, come across a model who can move the way she can. There is something about her. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve photographed her and I’ve found myself whipped up into some sort of furor and sweat. And I haven’t stopped shooting, and she’s literally looking at me going, “You want to stop now?” And I’m just like, “Uh!” Out of breath, panting with sweat pouring down my eyes to the glass of my camera. You can’t stop. Other models, they go through a routine, or have a thing, and you take the shot and you’re done. But with her you’re terrified to put the camera away for a second, because you might miss something that’s different and new. She’s a freak of nature in that way. I can see why people cannot get enough of her.
The book includes some of the current models like Karlie Kloss and Cara Delavingne. Do you think they are as game-changing, glamorous, iconic and long-lasting as their predecessors?
I think it’s hard to tell. Obviously hindsight is 20/20. In this situation, yes, I included Karlie Kloss and Cara Delevingne and a few others whom I list as my potential supermodels of the women who come before them, their predecessors. It’s hard to tell fully if they will last or not. A big part of that is to see how they’re affecting people right here, right now. Everyone I’ve mentioned in that chapter, has something very special or unique about them, whether it’s Liu Wen, who represents an entire marketplace of Chinese models, and almost Asian models, where there have been so few in the past. It seems ridiculous that that would be the case, but even in China, Singapore, Hong Kong, and places like that, they’re very used to having Caucasian models represent them in beauty campaign. It’s only just recently where their own native stars and models have become fashionable enough to be in their own ad campaigns. There’s an enormous emerging market. The world is closing in on itself, and we’re all getting a chance to weigh in and refreshing. We’re going to see women who are more full-figured, and I think it’s an exciting time.