From Funny Face via Absolutely Fabulous to The Devil Wears Prada, the fashion world has long provided prime fodder for parody. But nothing, it seems, is more entertaining than the mere concept of the male model. Paramount Pictures, the powerhouse behind the long-awaited sequel to cult comedy Zoolander, which opens in cinemas around the world on 12 February, is banking on it, following a steroid-injected promotional push that began even before a single scene had been filmed.

The film’s lead characters Derek Zoolander (who describes himself, humbly, on his Instagram profile as “#1 MALE MODEL IN THE WORLD”) and Hansel, as played by Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, were the talk of le tout Paris when they crashed the fashion capital’s Valentino show in March 2015, not to mention the Interweb: the stunt swiftly went viral, garnering more than 100,000 comments on Instagram in an hour. More recently, Stiller has landed four actual fashion magazine covers, both in role (giving his best Blue Steel) and as himself: US Vogue (February 2016) posing alongside female lead Penélope Cruz, UK Esquire (March 2016), L’Uomo Vogue (January 2016) and the 35th issue of V Man.

Fictional though he may be, Zoolander is the first male model on the cover of US Vogue

Fictional though he may be, Zoolander is the first male model to land a prestigious  spot on the cover of US Vogue. Indeed, only six men have ever appeared there in the magazine’s 124-year history, and all alongside women: From Richard Gere with then-wife Cindy Crawford in 1992 to Kanye West nuzzling Kim Kardashian, none have been models, per se.

Yet when the most powerful fashion magazine in the world reveals a soft spot for Zoolander and its editor in chief, Anna Wintour, gives a cameo performance in the new movie, it surely begs the question: is the male model really a joke? And who exactly is the character based on?

Boys and girls

The clue perhaps lies in Zoolander’s name: Derek’s moniker was reportedly inspired by major ’90s model Mark Vanderloo  and former Calvin Klein model Johnny Zander.

While the world is still on first-term names with Cindy and Naomi, most would be hard pushed to name their male equivalents

Alex Badia, men’s fashion director at trade fashion daily Women’s Wear Daily, says the emergence of male supermodels such as Marcus Schenkenberg, Alex Lundqvist, Tyson Beckford and Jason Lewis in the ’90s was a ripple effect of the ongoing female supermodel phenomenon, albeit with less impact. While the world is still on first-term names with Cindy, Naomi et al, the average Joe would be hard pushed to name any of their male equivalents. While Hollywood women battle for equality, the modelling world has been a female realm since its beginnings in the mid-19th Century.

“They tried to build the team of male supermodels but, while there were major male models who defined the beauty of the moment in the ’80s and ’90s, they didn’t achieve the crossover effect of their female counterparts,” adds Badia. Madonna was an important influence on bringing male models to public attention, he notes, referring to Tony Ward – who starred in a number of her videos, including Erotica (1992), and her controversial SEX book (1992) while dating the singer in the early ’90s – and Cameron Alborzian, who starred in the Express Yourself video (1989) but reportedly turned down the Queen of Pop’s advances. The Calvin Klein empire did its bit to bring male modelling into the mainstream, pairing then-aspiring rapper Mark ‘Marky Mark’ Wahlberg with a teenage Kate Moss in 1992, while Levi’s’ iconic 1985 Launderette TV commercial almost made Nick Kamen – whose debut single Madonna co-wrote – a household name. (Stripping down to one’s undies works the same wonders for male and female models’ careers, it seems.)

Swing those hips

Until the ’80s, the male modelling scene was pretty lacklustre, according to Tanel Bedrossiantz, whose catwalk career kicked off in 1985. Known for his distinctive, hip-swaying walk, Bedrossiantz – the longtime muse of Jean Paul Gaultier – is credited with paving the way for the androgynous look that eventually caught fire in the ’90s. “When I started out in modelling, all the guys were these strapping Marlboro Man, all-American types: very muscular with perfect faces. Their walk was so normal, with the whole hand-in-the-pocket thing, very classic. When I arrived – it sounds very pretentious to say this – it was like a bomb going off in the industry because I was totally unique, with my different face and special [bowl-cut] haircut,” he says.

For role models, Bedrossiantz, who is of Armenian descent, looked instead to female model friends such as Inès de La Fressange, who was highly expressive on the runway. “I understood that if I wanted to stand out, I had to be different,” he says. It worked, with major brands from Yves Saint Laurent to Yohji Yamamoto clamoring to book him, as well as top photographers Peter Lindbergh, Steven Meisel and Jean-Baptiste Mondino. Now Gaultier’s casting director, Bedrossiantz credits the late stylist Ray Petri – father of the Buffalo collective, who actively crafted the ’80s rude-boy aesthetic – with strongly influencing the menswear and male modelling scene, as embodied by muses Nick Kamen and brother Barry. 

Rewinding to an earlier incarnation of the male model that possibly influenced Zoolander, fashion writer Tim Blanks – in his V-Man feature History of the Male Supermodel – says the character pays tribute “in its own backhanded way” to the “semi-golden age of male modelling, when the goalposts shifted and when the myth was almost made flesh”. The inspiration there, he says, was Bruce Weber’s iconic 1978 SoHo Weekly News editorial shoot with polo player Jeff Aquilon, which defined a new ideal for male models. “Until Weber shot Aquilon, male models were men like Joe MacDonald, square-jawed paragons of unambiguous masculinity. Weber proposed a different kind of male ideal – ambiguous, submissive, sensuous – and the unabashed homoeroticism of this proposal flipped the lid on the hidebound way men were depicted in the media,” writes Blanks. “Man as sexualized object was the lynchpin of gay porn, not mass culture. Weber legitimised the notion for the mainstream, amplifying narcissism as the soul of male sexuality, gay or straight.”

I think that after the ugly, skinny boys, some beauty was needed – Karl Lagerfeld

By the late ’90s the male model aesthetic moved on again: designer Hedi Slimane cleansed the buff ’n’ bronzed supermodel palette with his pick of skinny, androgynous teens. In 2009, Karl Lagerfeld – who reportedly turned down requests to appear in Zoolander 2 – expressed the need for fresh meat: “I think after the ugly, skinny boys of Hedi’s days... some beauty was needed, but new beauty.” He likened his own ideal, Baptiste Giabiconi, to “a boy version of Gisele: skinny but with an athletic body – good for clothes and great with no clothes.” Giabiconi is the face of all three brands under Lagerfeld’s skinny belt – Chanel, Fendi and his signature label – and has embarked on a music career, releasing a debut single in 2010 and starring in the French version of Strictly Come Dancing. So far, so Zoolander.

New model army

But, according to WWD’s Badia, an entrepreneurial new breed of male-model superstar is carving out their own take on the business, essentially “running their own brands”. The idea of the male model being dumb, self-centred and superficial is very outdated, he says. The new generation of male models “understands the power not only of being a good-looking guy but of having a major following, connecting with their fans.”

For Badia, there’s a “very clear leader” who is rewriting the rules of male modelling: Lucky Blue Smith. “It started taking off around a year-and-a-half ago. He started to have a strong following on Instagram and other social-media platforms and when he came to Paris, for the Spring/Summer 2015 season, he started posting where he was going to be next, for example: ‘I will be walking Sacai, come and see me outside if you want to take pictures of me and get a selfie with me,’” says Badia. “So what started out like a joke, before you know it there were hundreds, even maybe a thousand girls – and some guys – outside the show. And when Lucky Blue would come out of the venue they would scream like teenagers screaming for a lead singer of a band or an actor.”

While many may still associate the trade with Zoolander types, their millennial fans “know that male models are lead actors in this kind of fashion movie that’s sort of like The Truman Show,” insists Badia. “Fashion is not a subliminal universe, fashion is a leading show in the world that we live in right now – and it has nothing to do with clothes. The moment you have a runway show that is ‘closer to market’ – look at Burberry, their shows are going to become consumer-related and not trade-related events – those models who walk on the runway, they are going to become megastars if they are not already.”

An out-of-touch Zoolander should probably take note of Lucky Blue’s all-inclusive attitude. While posing with Hansel in the windows of the Valentino flagship in Rome recently, for the world premiere, he Instagrammed: “What are you looking at lady We are just two totally normal supermodels who are totally at the height of our game And no you CAN'T take a selfie!” That’s no way for the #1 MALE MODEL IN THE WORLD to behave, in this day and age.

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