Words by Mr Jonathan Heaf, features director of British GQ
Imagine, if you will, a televised modelling competition called "The Face". If the hit show, The Voice, is all about singling out a pure, undiscovered vocal talent - irrespective of looks, age, gender, facial hair or zany dress sense - then how about a modelling competition that is its complete antithesis: a competition that is entirely about the superficial. No talking, no thinking, just walking. And pouting.
Hang on, before you race to file a show treatment to the network boss, it goes without saying that such a show already exists, going on behind the fashion industry's closed doors day in, day out: ambitious young girls and guys are shown into to a room full of experts, in which a casting director will make a snap call based almost entirely on whether or not a girl or guy has a suitable face/body/skin tone to sell whatever it is the client is trying to sell.
I got grief from my male friends back home, who thought my job was to walk around in a thong the entire time
Of course, you know all this already. That's what modelling is, right? Not according to supermodel and judge on Britain & Ireland's Next Top Model, Mr Tyson Beckford. "Yes it's about looks," he explains, "but without a semblance of a personality you're not going to get very far in the fashion game. Think how many models are out there trying to get the same gig. You need something else that'll make you unique. You need a 'thing'."
Mr Beckford's looks are the sort that cause women to quiver and men to burst into tears. But he's also fantastically amiable; his chatty candour entirely refreshing in an industry that often prefers its stars to stay silent. "On Next Top Model, I always try to be as honest with the contestants as I can. There's no point leading them on. Sometimes you forget the cameras are there as you're talking so freely, so I need to remind myself not to be too offensive."
Mr Beckford is celebrated as one of the most successful male models of all time, although he too faced rejection and disappointment when first starting out in the early 1990s. "As a kid I had bad teeth and crazy hair. I was as skinny as a rail. I remember going to castings, walking in, and the man at the front desk informing me, 'Deliveries are round the back.' That sort of racism was fairly common. Of course I also got grief from my male friends back home, who thought my job was to walk around in a thong the entire time. But then the ads started coming out: rocking up in a Ferrari tends to shut people up."
Mr Beckford's first big campaign was with Ralph Lauren in 1993: "The fashion industry was so different back then. I guess it was all so new and so extravagant. The budgets were enormous; it was certainly a lot more fun. The parties were out of control and because no one had a camera phone and there was no Facebook or Twitter, you could do whatever you wanted with whoever you wanted." Does Mr Beckford remember what he spent that first big pay check on? "I love motorbikes. I bought a Honda CBR F1 - it was a chick magnet."
In the 1990s there was no Facebook or Twitter; you could do whatever you wanted with whoever you wanted
I ask him whether he's ever been paid too much money for a job. "Yes! I once walked in a fashion show - literally, just walked - for no more than a minute or two and they paid me a silly amount of money." Define "silly", I ask. Sillier than Ms Linda Evangelista's famous $10,000 a day to get out of bed? "Yes. $40,000. I was like, 'Really? You don't have to give me that!' You know when Linda said that it set the bar for every other model - everyone just upped their day rates. It was hilarious. All the models - women and men - were like, 'Remind me to send Linda flowers!'"
Some supermodels have famously inflated egos. So has Mr Beckford, a close friend of Ms Naomi Campbell, ever flounced off-set himself? "Yes, I've done it before, just because of artistic differences. The photographer wanted me to put a sweater over my face or something. It wasn't cool." Has he ever witnessed Ms Campbell's own brand of ill-tempered democracy? "You know Naomi is one of those people - she's a perfectionist. Things need to be done a certain way with her. Sometimes being perceived as a mean person is all about the delivery. And sometimes Naomi's delivery is a little off kilter."
Although now dating Victoria's Secret model Ms Shanina Shaik and living in Brooklyn, working with beautiful women is just another cross that Mr Beckford has to bear. "The first thing some straight guys say to me, guys that think they're tough is, 'Oh you're a male supermodel - that means you're gay.'" They have it totally wrong, let me reassure you. I might have met maybe three male models that are gay. It doesn't make any difference to me what sexual preference people are but the majority of guys in this game like girls. And we get to work with some insane-looking girls. I used to come off shoots and my girlfriend would ask, 'Why did you have to kiss the model in that campaign?' My line is always the same: 'The photographer made me do it!'"
A new series of Britain & Ireland's Next Top Model will air this summer on Sky Living.