Chicago, Illinois native David Smith began his modeling career working for power-house brands Dolce & Gabbana, Missoni, Oscar de la Renta and as the face of Gucci Pour Homme before making the transition into acting.
After taking a step back to re-evaluate, David enrolled at Columbia University. I caught up with him as he reflected on what he’s learned about himself and the sage advice that Patti Smith offered that resonated with him.
Tell us about how you were discovered.
I was discovered by a man named Sebastian McWilliams. I was about 15 at the time and I was on the Chicago Blue Line train on my way to school. Like any teen, I was half asleep at 7:15 a.m. when Sebastian approached me on the train. Sebastian and I became good friends and he was, for many years, a pseudo-parental figure in my life. Sadly, Sebastian passed away in 2007 from AIDS. He is dearly missed by those who knew him.
You were an aspiring actor before modeling. What were your thoughts about side tracking into fashion?
I didn’t know that I wanted to be an actor per se. I had a fascination, or maybe terror is a better word, at the thought of being seen or acknowledged by others. I remember a high school English class where the teacher would make us act out scenes from novels we were reading and recite passages directly from the text. I was simultaneously thrilled and terrified by these kinds of classes. When fashion came along I experienced the same emotions only it was in a professional setting and I had people around me, like Sebastian, encouraging me.
What did you discover about yourself through modeling?
I really learned about the world through the lens (please excuse the pun) of modeling. I traveled extensively for the first time in my life and I met people who I wanted to emulate, people who made me uncomfortable, and people with whom I would make life long friendships. I also learned things on the job. I think the “job” of modeling unlocked a more subtle side of myself. To be a good model one has to be present for the camera and ideally somewhat vulnerable. Through modeling I found a more sensitive and perceptive side of myself that I hadn’t yet discovered. I was honestly an awful model and spent a few years in New York and London with little success. Then one day it just clicked. I figured out that if I was perceptive of the clothes I was wearing, the music that was played, the space I was in, then I could find these moods, these other realities that would ultimately make for a better picture. Once I became adept at finding those different moods my interests in acting began to surface again.
What challenges did you face as you transitioned into acting?
My challenges in acting stemmed mostly from my expectations. I had very lofty goals as a beginner and I was quickly brought back down to earth. As a model entering the world of professional acting I found that there was a very specific role, a very specific kind of character that casting directors wanted me to play. Once I understood what they wanted from me I became less and less interested in the process. This is a problem that a lot of actors face, regardless of physical type, but in my case the roles I was consistently asked to audition for didn’t align with my own artistic goals.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
That I’ve been arrested three times, but never did any time!
What are you most passionate about and what motivates you?
I’m going into my senior year at Columbia University so I’m very passionate about the culmination of that experience. After spending close to a decade as a model and an actor I had thought that my chance to go to college had passed. It was something that I really wanted to do, it was important to me and I put the time into making it happen. School has been a huge part of my life the last few years and it’s been a great detour into academia and something that I will never regret. I’m motivated to make the most of the time I have left at Columbia. It’s a rare place where big ideas are always on the table and the students believe they can change the world. That energy is infectious and I’m grateful that I got to experience it.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Just to be patient. When I was in my early twenties I always felt like I had to have the pedal all the way down, that if I wasn’t charging toward something I would never get it. I read a quote by Patti Smith recently that I liked too. She said that you should always protect your name and not worry about money or any of the other stuff, but that if you just protected your name and did good work, everything else would fall into place. I like that.
What are your plans for the future?
School of course, but I’m also putting more energy into modeling again. I’ve been reunited with my old agent at IMG and I’m excited to see what happens. Although I stopped auditioning for acting roles when I started at Columbia, I still hold the belief that the years I spent auditioning and working as an actor were not for naught and that something will emerge to put those skills to use. That being said I’m still trying to live by the advice I would give my younger self: Be patient and protect your name.