In journalism, I’ve always felt this sense that there is a hands off decorum in the interview process: The subject is there. I am here. My questions are a bridge between us; but, really, there’s less of a camaraderie and more of an air of a research facility. I’m just gathering data.
Tyson Beckford, the first black male supermodel and the face of Ralph Lauren Polo Sport, threw this entire idea on it’s head by minute one of the interview. He is the fictional everyman come to life. I quickly realized that my idea of who or what this man is was really just the desperate cope of a 30 something who wasn’t a ladies man in grade school. If you’re like me, you know the feeling: you just assume the beautiful people take an escalator up to greatness; whereas the frumps and muggles take the barbed wire covered rope, dipped in oil AFTER the Navy Seals buds test.
Beckford makes it clear (In a non-cringe “struggle raps” sort of way) that this is not his story. Outside of having a face made for magazine covers (if only we could choose our parents ahead of time, throw on some Keith Sweat and encourage a little after hours fun…), Tyson did not just land in New York City with a butler and Ferrari in tow. He built a solid foundation out of the brick and mortar that is willpower and attention to detail. He’s a student of the game, not only in modeling, but in life.
Born in the Bronx to parents of Chinese, Panamanian and Jamaican descent, Beckford grew up in Jamaica when his mother moved the family back. While on the island, which has been made so idyllic in the Western mind, he saw the hardships of gang culture which included his own affiliation with the Shower Posse, a gang that earned it’s moniker by “showering it’s enemies in a hail of bullets”. Luckily, Tyson was able to keep his head above water and avoid the fate of many of his friends before moving to Rochester, NY to attend school.
Let me pause here for the kid in me who still thinks the pretty people just run amok in life with zero tether to reality: Tyson was picked on for his looks as a child. Yes, as odd as it is, he really wasn’t the class president, high school quarterback, “Mr. Steal-Your-Girl” from the beginning. He was sometimes the butt of a joke but he seems to have taken it all in stride. Speaking from experience, people that have taken the cruelty of children to heart have an air about them…like an aspiring curmudgeon or…a kicked dog. Tyson, instead, remains lighthearted and curious.
After graduating from Pittsford, he came back to New York City and found himself not really sure of his direction in life, although the initial plan was to get into acting; but a chance meeting moved him off that particular square.
“Someone by the name of Erik Lauren Counsel, looked out, gave me something to do with my life. Before I thought of modeling, I was interested in acting. I was going to acting school; but you have to do many years of playing the game before you can get in. Erik saw me and got me working for The Source.”
The Source, a hip hop magazine that would quickly become a behemoth in all things hip hop/black culture, gave Tyson his first taste of modeling and the start to a portfolio and some connections toward a storied career.
“The Source kept recommending people for me; and then I went to see Bethann Hardison who is Kadeeem Hardison’s mother (Kadeem is an actor on A Different World and The Cosby Show), and she recommended me to see a photographer by the name of Bruce Weber. I had an appointment to go to Ralph Lauren for a casting. They told me I was a little too muscular for suits but come back next week. We got this new thing we want to try you out for…”. The first ad came out in Vibe Magazine, and was followed by GQ, Details, etc. “A lot of people know me from a Goose down coat company called First Down. That was my first real job. I was making good money. Then I did small jobs until I locked down the Polo job.”
However, this is a little succinct for how his career actually got off the ground. Mixed in with these life changing wins were plenty of closed doors and dejected moments. See, Tyson Beckford represented a lot of new ideas in the world of modeling. He’s black, he’s highly athletic and muscular; and the look that ruled the industry at the time was extremely lean white men that barely filled out a suit jacket.
“I damn near quit everyday. A lot of times I would go to these castings. It would be just me and 30-40 white guys just sitting there. It was just like…some days they would call for blonde guys, some days brunettes, then I would show up and the whole room would look at me, like ‘what the hell is he doing here?’ But eventually, they were like ‘Oh, man, it’s Beckford. None of us are getting the job now.”
He says this without any sense of gloating or satisfaction in besting others. Not even a chuckle. It’s all matter-of-fact. He seems to see a natural ebb and flow to life writ large: “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first”. Maybe it’s as mystical as I’m trying to make it seem; or maybe his influences made his determination stronger than his fear. He had his eye on the models that came before him that represented his niche.
“I looked up to a bunch of different guys. Vladimir, who did a huge Jean Paul Gaultier ad, and Djimon Hounsou…before he was an actor, he was a model and he did a Janet Jackson video. I got a chance to meet both of those guys early in my career. They were muscular black guys doing what I wanted to do. And they encouraged me and helped me.”
Tyson also seemed to recognize that you have to organize your mind differently to do great things. At one point in the call, he said “ You have to look at yourself in the mirror and say ‘I’m a model’ and then go do the things you need to do”; and I could see this sort of “ritual” ala Tony Robbins being the kind of thing that merged his life path to one where the jet set high profile life of a model is just…normal. Just another day at the office. You had a bad day? So what. Clock in tomorrow. If you love it, you’ll keep going.
But it’s also not such a…cliche American work ethic thing. Tyson had a team of dreamers surrounding him and they leaned on each other. “Me being a kid on the street, I just knew to ride the wave while it lasted. I just kept my nose down and kept pressing forward.”
That tenacity led to him becoming the face of Polo Sport; and, eventually, modeling for just about every big brand you can think of (and a few you can’t).
This is largely how his life continued to unfold. In fact, it seemed like the bigger jobs didn’t even really phase him. Challenging Ralph Lauren to an ab pose while ribbing him about whose abs were better was just what these two Bronx kids do. And The Gap? “Oh man, they were so good to me. Really respectful people. We had a good time…”. It sounds like how I would describe my last company picnic. He’s appreciative and grateful but he’s not shaken. He mentioned a moment that finally landed with him…a true pinch me moment.
“Billy Woodruff, he was an A&R for LeFace records. He said look, I got this video that I want you to do with this artist by the name of Tony Braxton, and I was like ‘YEAH, of course I know who she is!’ So he says, I got this song I want you to be in on…And he plays ‘Unbreak My Heart’. He’s pitching the video to me. You’re on a motorcycle, you lose control, break your back and die! And I’m like ‘No, Bro! I don’t want to die!” (Tyson has a laugh about this) “He said, ‘No, it’s just for the video!’ So then he explains that the rest of the video is a flashback to us being in love and making love in the shower; and I’m like ‘OK! LET’S DO IT!’ So he sends me and Toni to dinner and she’s got her Porsche. So we go driving around Malibu and we’re getting to know each other because we have to do these scenes where we have to act like a real couple! So we get out at this beach and we’re looking at the ocean and the stars…and that’s when I realize ‘Wow, I made it!’”
I really cannot emphasize enough how carefree and “child-like” he is with his expression and storytelling. True to form with his own take on being a “street kid”, he’s really just enjoying the ride while it lasts. All the while he remains the quintessential professional. He knows he’s blessed. He knows he’s worked hard for what’s in front of him; but he’s in the moment. It doesn’t go to his head. So, of course the designer labels and fast paced lifestyle aren’t the stereotypical pinnacle moment you’d see in a Hollywood movie. It’s being on the beach, looking at the stars and the ocean.
His pinch me moment was in something that you can’t buy: A View.
It felt like this could’ve just as easily been the view on a beach in Jamaica and he would’ve been just as content; but this moment meant something very special. It was the culmination of an insanely clean diet of most veggies and fish. It was the culmination of 300 sits up, push ups, and air squats everyday, just to chisel a body that spells vitality and power. It was the culmination of so many doors slammed in his face…followed by a handful of just the right doors opening. It was the culmination of him “getting it”.
And “getting it” is exactly what he recommends to aspiring models who want to do what he does.
“Everyone calls themselves a model now. It’s what you see on instagram. See in my time, people didn’t call themselves a model until you were with a reputable agency so you could do real shows and shoots. Just because you do local fashion shows doesn’t make you a model fully. You need to be with an agency. They need to get you a job that pays money so you can make enough to have a real career. Like, for me, I say I’m an actor now because I’m a member of SAG. You have to actually get out there. Go on actual castings. Be in magazines. Tell yourself everyday, these are the goals. You need to get out there and land the jobs.”
Tyson isn’t playacting. In a world of “fake it til you make it”, it seems like his motto would be “Just make it”. Don’t tell the world what you are. Show them.
I sat after this interview for a long time, contemplating my own life…recalibrating, questioning my own commitment and my own approach. His words…frankly, his mentorship during that call reminded me of a favorite zen koan:
There was once a wandering monk, renowned for his wisdom, who used to travel the country carrying a small bit of luggage with him in a satchel. Once, an aspiring devotee came across him and asked him for advice in the way. He asked ‘What is the purpose of Zen?” Wordlessly, the wandering monk put his satchel down. The devotee asked “So what is the goal of Zen?” The wandering monk picked the satchel up and walked away while happily humming a tune.
Don’t dodge the hard work; but don’t beat yourself up about it either. Keep a light heart, put your nose down, do the work.