Even hidden behind his black Ray-Bans, he stands out. At 6'2" and more than a few hamburgers shy of what most guys weigh at that height, Rafael Valentino is clearly a model. He’s also my lunch date.
The relentless social demands of a model’s life make these assumptions more than just passing misunderstandings. With innumerable weeknight options for getting wrecked at any given club in the Meatpacking District, it's painfully clear that the afterhours temptations that are part of the fashion business are the very things that can crush a model's ability to succeed in it.
"They said that my body was too soft, even though I wasn't fat," Rafael says matter-of-factly. "I needed to harden up my abs and my face." Shedding nearly 30 pounds is serious stuff — especially when, by almost any measure, you're already a normal weight. But modeling isn't normal, and neither is Rafael.
"My mother has always been into beauty and fashion. She has always been one of those women who are kind of diva-ish," Rafael says with a half-joking grin. He posted the photos on Facebook, where his list of friends included more than the usual number of cyberspace-exclusive acquaintances. Most of them had been collected as a result of his public exposure on the Temple basketball team.
Once a month, Rafael would snap a post-workout photo and send it to the agency to update it on his progress. "I would take it in the mirror myself. They don't necessary want doctored, professional photography. Good photographers can make you look smaller or bigger," Rafael tells me as he reaches for his iPhone to show me an example. Featuring him in nothing more than briefs, it definitely had the Craigslist-y vibe of an ad for something other than IKEA furniture. But he looked good, and it got the point across. Six months later, Rafael found himself couch surfing in New York.
What would typically be an uphill battle in an over-saturated industry in an over-saturated market is compounded for male models. "I tell all my friends that male modeling is the WNBA, and women's modeling is the NBA. If LeBron James walks in here right now, everyone is going to say, 'Oh, sh*t! It's LeBron James!’ If Lisa Leslie walks in, you're gonna say 'Oh, that's Lisa Leslie.’
"There are times in which being multicultural or even a minority makes it a little bit more difficult to be seen in certain castings and book certain jobs," Rafael says without a shred of disappointment in his voice. Perhaps this is because there are instances when being multiracial has actually worked to his advantage. Rafael’s most significant spread to date — a Levi's campaign that debuted in fall — featured a diverse array of mixed-race models. Still, he’s too savvy to think he’s always going to have it easy. "Obviously, there are difficulties being a minority in a world that's dominated by those who don't look like myself."
Facing forward, turning to the side in a slightly awkward, running-like pose and finally finishing with a backside view of the garment. The process repeated itself for about an hour. Rafael looked over at me a couple of times as if to say that he found the whole thing mind-numbing, too, but it was an admittedly easy 40 bucks. And in New York, that’s almost half a monthly subway pass or an electric bill.