Tyson Beckford 1994

The New York Times
Black, Male and, Yes, a Supermodel

THELMA GOLDEN, the curator of "Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art," the new exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, sounds more like a college cheerleader than a cultural critic on the subject of Tyson Beckford.

"All I want to do is talk about Tyson," she said. "He's the only model in my book these days."

Ms. Golden has a somewhat surprising explanantion for her enthusiasm.

"He's phenomenally gorgeous," she said. "Why else?"

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PH: Bruce Weber

But she also has a scholarly interest in the 23-year-old model, whose most famous print advertisement so far is a Polo Sport shot by Bruce Weber in which he wears a bright red sweatshirt with "USA" written on it.

"Ralph Lauren has used black models here and there, but nothing has ever been as daringly black as that Polo ad," Ms. Golden said. "Tyson looks like a brother on the block. There is a quality of ultrarealness about him. What's important about him is that he is so masculine. There is a fear of masculine black men, but many more types of black men have to be used as models before people begin to see black men in many different roles."

Ms. Golden said that the advertisement, which first ran in August, "located Ralph Lauren in another sphere."

It also propelled Mr. Beckford into another sphere -- the supermodel universe, where a black man has never before dwelled.

"When I see the word 'supermodel' connected to me, I think, no, Naomi is a supermodel; Claudia is a supermodel," said Mr. Beckford, whose surname, like any star model's, has become superfluous. "I never thought a man could be a supermodel, but I guess we can."

When the Council of Fashion Designers of America put together a poster for its "Fashion Targets Breast Cancer" campaign, Mr. Beckford was one of two male models to be included (the other was John Rawlinson, who is white) alongside the pre-eminent female models of the moment -- Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Claudia Schiffer, Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington. And he was named to "the new supermodel army" by the British magazine Arena Homme Plus, which put him on the cover with four other male models.

"It's mind-blowing, baby," said Bethann Hardison, whose 10-year-old agency, Bethann Management, has been representing Mr. Beckford for 15 months. "I can't believe the number of calls I get for him. I mean, it's almost like a girl."

His appeal, she said, is due to his being emblematic of a generation. "He's typical of what's going on in the cultural mode of young black men today," she said. "He represents them. He's the real deal -- this ain't no Memorex."

Stefan Campbell, the former fashion editor of Vibe, the glossy hip-hop magazine, concurred. "Tyson is not, of course, your traditional black male model," said Mr. Campbell, who has worked with him several times. "Other successful black models weren't as dark, and they had straight noses and thin lips and curly or processed hair. He represents a beauty that people weren't willing to acknowledge before."

Ms. Golden views Mr. Beckford's success symbolically. "It's a kind of Jackie Robinson, break-the-barrier thing," she said.

Richard Phibbs, the senior art director at Carlson & Partners, who worked on the Polo Sport campaign, recognized that using Mr. Beckford was verging on radical chic.

"We took a bit of a chance with him," Mr. Phibbs said. "He's such a strong-looking guy. He looks like nobody else."

Mr. Beckford's features have not always met with such acceptance.

"In school, kids used to make fun of me," said Mr. Beckford, who was born in the Bronx, lived in Jamaica until he was 7 and attended high school in upstate New York. His paternal grandmother is Chinese, and his maternal grandfather is Panamanian.

"They used to call me Mr. Chin because of my slanty eyes," he said. "I used to want chubbier cheeks so I could hide my cheekbones, but I could never put on weight, which seems to have paid off."

Even his agent cannot predict how big the payoff will be, though she expects him to earn about $100,000 this year. "Guys make less than girls," Ms. Hardison noted. "But if everybody's freaking out" over him, she added, "then he should be making the money like the rising of a Naomi."

Mr. Beckford showed up at Bethann Management in TriBeCa on Sept. 1, 1993, having been discovered that summer in Washington Square Park by an editor from The Source, a hip-hop magazine, who asked him to model.

"When I first saw myself in a magazine, I was like wow!," he said. "I thought, this magazine is in 50 different states. People are seeing this in places I've never been. I should do more of this."

Friends told him to find an agent, so he sought out Ms. Hardison because he had once heard her son, the actor Kadeem Hardison, talking about his mother's agency on Arsenio Hall's television talk show. He recalled their meeting the way a gourmand describes a meal at Taillevent or an opera fan a performance by Callas. "I think that was the best day of my life," he said.

"It's like she's the mother and I'm the son, so she watches over me," he continued. "Just like a father would go watch his son play a football game, she comes to watch me walk the runway."

Like a stage mother whose heart is linked to her bank account, Ms. Hardison is strict and loving with her male models. "I'm treating them like I'm an agent from L.A. with a cigar in my mouth," she said.

He is grateful for her guidance and said he doesn't know what he would be doing if he hadn't found modeling. "I would like to say I'd be in school," said Mr. Beckford, who left college after one semester with notions of getting into the music business. "But you never know, I could be dead or in jail."

Ms. Hardison still worries. "This is a strange moonwalk for him," she said of the fast-living, free-spending fashion world. "You just pray that you can stay on their behinds, stay strong on their backs and help them get through it."

Mr. Beckford seems to be adjusting. Mr. Campbell, who had a problem working with Mr. Beckford before he joined Bethann, said his "attitude since then has been flawless." And he's got better at his craft. "He's learned how to be charismatic in front of a camera," Mr. Campbell added. (Maybe it's the acting classes he's been taking. Like most New York models, Mr. Beckford is already talking about being in movies as well as directing music videos.)

Jim Moore, the fashion director of GQ, which recently photographed Mr. Beckford in suits for its January 1995 issue, was also impressed by his charisma and charm. "Plus he looks terrific in clothes, and he's so damn elegant," Mr. Moore said.

The people at Polo agree, and Mr. Beckford is slated to appear in the '95 spring/summer campaign, said Mr. Phibbs, who just returned from working with him in Arizona. "He's such a nice, cool guy. He's dealing with success very well."

With success comes the inevitable responsibility of being a role model.

"I believe I'm setting a good example," Mr. Beckford said last week before leaving for a job in Morocco with an Italian magazine. "The Polo ad says that I'm not a basketball star or a rap star, but an all-American type. It separates me from those stereotypes, which is good."

Ms. Hardison says that she and Mr. Beckford feel a responsibility to the black community. "We do a lot of things because it's good exposure and we're paving the way," she said. "When you're pioneers, you sometimes have to take the shorter end of the stick. But the purpose is to get the work and get the imagery out there."

Mr. Beckford seemed especially excited about being photographed for the February cover of Essence, the black women's magazine. "It's an honor because February is Black History Month," he said. "I called Bethann to come down to the shoot, and she said: 'I was coming down to see you anyway. You're making history.' "

"I never thought that a man could be a supermodel, but I gues we can," said Tyson Beckford, whose advertisement for Polo Sports, inset, has helped turn into just that.

"He's the real deal -- this ain't no Memorex," Bethann Hardison said of the model Tyson Beckford. Black, Male and, Yes, a Supermodel

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