I spoke to Ben late one evening as he called from an undisclosed location in New York. Thoughtful and considered in his responses, his uninhibited Southern charm only served to enhance this natural born raconteur’s tales of his early days in New York, and his musings on the current state of the industry. As one of Models.com’s Industry Icons, his portfolio of blue-chip campaigns and editorials is extensive and the envy of any aspiring model.
You’re originally from Georgia, right?
I was born in Athens, Georgia and I grew up in a small town called Washington, a lot of people don’t know that, they think I’m from Sugar Hill where my mother lives. I return as often as possible to spend time with her and my family when I can. Unfortunately the pandemic over the past year has meant less visitation as I did not want to risk their health.
When you were growing up was modeling a career you considered?
It wasn’t something I thought to do whatsoever. I wanted to be an actor, and I am still studying toward that goal. I did the college thing—I went to Augusta State University—and then I did an apprenticeship program at Georgia Tech when I was working for an electrical company as an industrial electrician. I started off doing an engineering program before realizing it wasn’t for me. After doing that, I picked up everything I had and moved to New York to try and become an actor.
Is that where you were discovered or did you pursue modeling once you arrived?
Well, that’s the funny thing. I always hear people’s discovery stories and I think, I really don’t have one. The fact is, when I moved to New York—like everyone else—I was struggling to make ends meet because it was very expensive . I moved to the border of Washington Heights and Spanish Harlem on Amsterdam Ave. & W. 151st St. That area had a lot of culture and I experienced so many things I would not have had the opportunity to experience in Georgia. It opened my eyes and heart to a much bigger world.
I made friends with the locals, and I had two roommates who were modeling, one of them was Swedish and the other was South African. While I was taking acting classes and auditioning, I noticed that they would go out and they would talk about how they made enough money in one day to last for six months while I was beating the streets. Eventually I put acting on the back burner, and the jobs are few and far between. I needed to make money so that’s how it started. I called all the agencies that I could find and started going to open calls. Quite a few people turned me down until two very commercial agencies took me on but I wasn’t under contract as they wanted to see how I did first.
I was 220 pounds at the time—I was a big guy—so I decided that I was going to have to get in model shape to get signed to a fashion agency and to start making money like these other guys. I lost a lot of weight, and then I went to Next Models in New York and they suggested I try shooting down in Miami. They were my first real agency and I spent a season down there where I met the iconic photographer Bruce Weber.
When you met Bruce was it to shoot for Abercrombie & Fitch?
I went to see him for another project he was casting. It was stressful for me because I was told that he could make or break your career at the time. I met him and I got along great with him—he is a dog lover, as am I—and he booked me for Abercrombie, and things took off from there.
Was there a point that you realized that you had made it?
When I shot Abercrombie I realized this was something that I had potential to succeed with. Right after that I booked the Polo Blue fragrance campaign with Doug Pickett and Lonneke Engel. They didn’t run my images but it was a blessing in disguise because I did the Chaps campaign right after that before things started to slow down for me.
So, what happened?
I was optioned for so many projects but I just couldn’t seem to get a confirmation, it was really strange. I am not a person that ever gives up; if I start something I’m going to finish it. I had agents telling me I was too this or I was too that and I discovered it was because they didn’t want to hurt my feelings or scare me away. I have heard umpteen excuses, but I believed in myself and I found a few agents around the world I could trust my career with and get positive direction from.
So what do you attribute your longevity to?
Persistence. There are so many people that will tell you in your life that you can’t do something, that you are not good enough, or you are too this or you are too that, and I don’t accept that as an answer. That’s an excuse, not a solution. I can hear excuses forever on out, but in my mind, it still doesn’t tell me what the main problem is, in this case why I wasn’t working. Instead of listening to whatever everyone else was telling me I started listening to myself. Everyone seems to have an opinion in this industry, and I respect that, but I also realized the only opinion that really matters is my own and the way I feel about myself. If I am happy and I am confident with myself I can take direction well from those who have earned my trust.
That’s a very healthy and balanced outlook to have. Models are often treated as a commodities— particularly the females—there is no concern for their well-being.
The thing is, I always used to tell myself that I can hear these things, and I can do these things, and the fact is—if it is a business—then it is my business and I am the one that is self-employed and ultimately the responsibility lies with me. I started helping a lot of other models as well by sharing my experiences. The funny thing is that I was actually really good at giving advice to the other models, and putting them at ease, and getting their confidence up. Then I decided to apply all the advice that I was giving to all these guys to myself. I did, and miraculously I started to work again.
How do you feel about modeling today compared to when you first started?
It seemed like it was a lot harder to get into the business at that time as standards for models were quite different than they are today. The industry has changed quite a bit. Social media has pulled back the curtain and the mystery and allure has turned imagery into content intended for likes and not imagination and creativity.
Do you feel like it was a more creative time in fashion?
It was definitely a creative time, but there was a lot of hardship. Back in the day it was all film, it wasn’t digital. Digital photography didn’t really start taking off until about 2004. During that time, of course, the lure of our industry was pretty big, and we were very restricted on what we put out there because we were still wanting to keep things timely, new and exciting. Photographers and other creatives no longer have the freedom they used to have, and models no longer have the time to develop to become “super” and many times are replaced by real people, social media stars, or clients who are always wanting to move on to the next best thing to validate their lack of creativity.
I think, particularly now, modeling is very much an aspirational career. If we go as far back as America’s Next Top Model it planted a seed and shaped what people thought modeling was.
Yes, and the perception of everything changed. If you roll it back to 2008 when Facebook came out, and you think about when the Kardashians started to become popular on TV, that’s where people started to follow rather than lead; everything has become homogenized. The goal is likes and followers to get bookings rather than your look or career status. Luckily, I have been in this business long enough to be able to collaborate with some of the best photographers and designers, and sadly, that type of work is no longer appreciated as the fashion is fast and knocked off, and print has been replaced with a scroll on your phone. I think the pandemic has encouraged us to slow down, take a look at the pace we are moving and how we are living, and social unrest and injustice has brought a greater focus on inclusivity. I hope moving forward that inclusivity will not be just a trend but a part of our DNA no matter what your race, age, or gender is.
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