Scott Barnhill was part of the group of American models that dominated the runways in the nineties along with Mike Campbell, Jason Fedele and Jason Shaw. He has fronted campaigns for Versace, Yves Saint Laurent, Dolce & Gabbana, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Valentino and Gucci in addition to appearing on the cover of Italian Vogue. I called Scott to find out what he’s up to these days and to reflect on his 20 years in the business.
Let’s talk about how you were discovered.
I was 17 working in construction and living in Florida. I went to Pleasure Island for my birthday where my brother got me in with a couple of friends. I was scouted by Cindy Cooper who gave me her number and asked me to call her.
You’re originally from Chicago, correct?
Yeah. One day after I got off work I went home and turned on VH1 and there was a fashion award show. I caught it just when Tyson Beckford was winning Model of the Year. I thought, that doesn’t look that hard, I’ll give it a try. I sent Cindy some basic 35mm photos and she set up a test shoot. I went down to Miami to shoot then I drove back to where I lived and they made contact sheets. Cindy set up appointments for me to go back down.
I went to Page Parkes Model Agency with that contact sheet and met Rob who was on their men’s board. He took me on and then I moved down to Miami. I was still doing construction work and I found a part-time job working in a stockroom. Nothing really happened for me on the modeling side. I did do a couple of editorials for teen magazines. Nothing financially came out of it so after six or seven months I decided to try to get my old job back.
My position was filled so I was just looking for a job. I found one working at a gas station pumping gas at a full-service station. After a few months of doing that I got a call to come down to Miami for a casting for Diesel. I didn’t know much about it and that’s when I met Ellen Von Unwerth. Two days later I got a call saying that I had booked the job. They were going to pay me for my driving time, plus my day rate so I said sure.
Before we started shooting Ellen asked me if I had any other surfer friends. I did and showed her a picture of my buddy. She asked me to go drive back up and get him so I went. I picked up my buddy and did the shoot. It was the first time I was in my underwear on the beach.
Would you say that was the pivotal moment that changed the direction of your career?
Oh yeah. Two weeks later I was in New York. My photo had been sent to all the photo reps. Steven Meisel picked up on me and that was the end.
It’s a theme among models that once Steven gives his seal of approval their careers take off.
Yeah, it went from that to shooting Versace. I went back to Miami to do catalogues for a while. I worked with a lot of German sports catalogues. I would work 12-15 days with them at a time and then it was back to Steven. I went back to Miami and went to a casting at the Raleigh Hotel. It was early and I was in the lobby trying to figure out where to go. I met this guy in the lobby and he wanted to know if I would shoot with him. I didn’t know him so he told me to go to my agents and tell them that Mario Testino wanted to shoot me. My agency called him and that opened up a whole other thing. From there it went to more photographers and non-stop for a few years.
You won the VH1 Model of the Year award. From watching Tyson win to you winning must have been surreal.
Yeah, it was.
What was that like winning the award?
I was never in the public eye before. Models now have training. I had no guidance from a PR stand point. When I won it I didn’t know what my voice would sound like. I was on stage at Madison Square Garden and nobody told me that there would be a five second delay in my voice. It was very off putting.
You were a part of the pre-internet era. You won this award, you were in a high-profile relationship. How do think all of that compares to now in terms of social media and coaching? Did you feel that you had more privacy.
Well it wasn’t just privacy. Even now when I walk down the streets in New York people still recognize me. What I needed was guidance. Now we have Project Runway and other reality shows. The whole profile is completely different. It’s been bogged down creatively. It’s two different businesses now. It feels a lot more contrived. It’s really about selling now as opposed to a creative market.
Do you feel that the industry is more contrived now?
It’s all about money management. I think now it’s like here’s the budget, we need a look book. We don’t need someone to steam the clothes we can retouch the photos. One person has to now do so much. There was a time when I was on set that all of that was done. The picture was taken and it was taken a couple of times. Exactly what was on set was what was shown with maybe a little bit of color correction. The only thing that was really done was the cropping. Now everything is Photoshop and Illustrator. Anybody with a digital camera has the opportunity to become somebody great if they have the right connections.
One of the concentrations at Soul Artist Management is to bring back the male supermodel. How do you feel about that? Is it something that is achievable?
Yeah, I think so. The thing is now it could easily be achieved especially with all the marketing outlets that are available but you also have to have substance to back all of that up. You really can’t create a household name based on gimmicks.
How do you feel about shows like The Face and Project Runway? Do you think that they give an accurate portrayal of the industry?
It can only go so far from that venue. If Steven Meisel or another great photographer is going to shoot the winner from America’s Next Top Model it’s not going to do anything for the photographers to shoot them. It’s not going to help sales of the cover of Italian Vogue or American Vogue or anything like that. I don’t think that a winner of a show is going to change the industry.
What would be your biggest take away from your 20 years in the industry.
Follow your path. Don’t take anything for granted. Stay and follow the endeavors you believe in, not just in the modeling field but life in general. Everyone is so young, they don’t know what they want in life. My life changed when I started modeling. The whole world literally opened up. At 20 I wanted to do music and be famous but it’s not going to happen unless you really want it and are willing to work really hard at it. We make it look easy but there was a road to get there.
How did you deal with the pressures and scrutiny of the industry. Was it difficult for you?
I just went with it. I was easy. I remember being at Pier 59 shooting a campaign. I had my skateboard and we were in a huge studio and I just started skating because there was so much smooth concrete. I just lost myself. There was no pressure for me.
At one point I got a phone call from my agent that heard I was being difficult on a job. I was in Paris staying in a hotel and I had just been in three or four different countries in one week. I was in Paris, Jamaica, Italy, Germany and then back to Paris and I was tired. It made me think, are you serious? The agent was in Miami the whole time just doing his daily routine and I was out here busting my ass traveling around being happy-go-lucky and pretending everything is great. I broke down that night. My nerves were shot. I had nobody there with me, nobody to call, nobody to depend on. At that point everything was emotional.
I had my ups and downs following that. I have nothing bad to say about my 20 years in the industry. Just mad respect for the opportunities. I’m so grateful to have worked with such great creatives that allowed me to feel I was being creative. I was a part of their process. That felt good.
What are you doing now? What are your plans?
I play music and I also have a custom handmade bow tie line I’ll be launching soon. On a day-to-day I custom build and I fabricate. Right now I’m standing in a coffee-house that I built from the ground up for a client of mine. They just got the lease for the space next door so what we’re going to do is convert the place into a brunch, coffee-house and wine bar. The last event job I did was for Absolute Vodka. I built them a tunnel in the shape of their bottle. Before that I did an office build-out for a casting director in New York. We custom-built 13 desks and a conference table and their whole kitchen area. I’m trying to get away from the building which is why I’m launching the bow ties. I’ve had them for two years and now I’m ready to take them into small spaces and shops. I want to play my music and take the modeling jobs as they come. I just did a Haider Ackermann presentation in Paris.
Scott is represented by Major