Sunday, November 22, 2015

Exclusive Interview: Rafael Valentino

While having his sexual orientation wrongly labeled was bothersome at first, Rafael's concern now has more to do with its undertones of racism.
It’s a cloudy winter day in New York City, the type that blends the streetscape into a gray blur of coats. On the corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street, a tall young man swaggers toward me, impossible to miss among the hurrying muggles. "I'm Rafael," he says as he extends his hand.

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.
I’d like to think I know better, but a handful of tired “male model” associations were at the front of my mind when we met — post-meal vomit sessions, late-night coke binges, shady photographers, and, yes, I figured he must be gay. Rafael may be relatively new to the modeling business, but he’s amassed plenty of experience debunking stereotypes about models.
While having his sexual orientation wrongly labeled was bothersome at first, Rafael's concern now has more to do with its undertones of racism. In his experience, male models of color (his heritage is African-American, Puerto Rican and Egyptian) are generally assumed to be gay, almost as a matter of course, but the same isn’t true for white male models. "Kanye West dealt with that for a long time, because he was so into fashion," he explains. "Justin Timberlake is also into fashion, but I personally haven't heard rumors on that same level."
And that's where things get tricky. Photographers are among the ones who make these assumptions, which forces Rafael to walk a fine line when dealing with some wholly unprofessional propositions. "If a photographer wants you to come to their apartment at 1 a.m., that's one thing," he says. "If they want to grab a drink at 11 p.m., that's another."

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.
But for now, Rafael and I are sitting in a burger place in the full light of day. He opts for a house salad that amounts to little more than mixed greens and a sliced tomato, but supplements the iconic model’s lunch with a basket of fries and a Coke. It’s comforting, if not empowering, to know that someone whose weight had been an obstacle to breaking into the modeling industry would veer off menu and inquire about the possibility of beer battering those fries.
"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.
   His journey into the fashion industry began in late 2010. After graduating from Temple University, where he played basketball, and landing a job in the mayor's office of his native Washington DC, Rafael's mother arranged for a surprise photoshoot to kickstart his career in modeling — something she had been urging him to do since high school.

"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.
"I started to get messages from people saying, 'If you want to model, you should send your pictures up to New York and see what happens,'" Rafael explains. After a quick Google search, three of the top 10 agencies had his pics. One responded. "I was heavier at that time," he continues, "My grandmother used to cook meals for us, and I had a routine of eating late at night — eating whenever I wanted to." In addition to dealing with the heartbreaking loss of steak, popcorn and Utz potato chips, Rafael embarked on a Rocky-style workout routine: 45 minutes of morning elliptical training clad in a trash bag suit, followed by an evening jump rope session. "It got to a point where I didn't want to take off the bag until I got into the shower because it was that full of sweat," he recalls.
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."
The usual flock of fashion girls with black leggings, oversize sweaters and disheveled ponytails were fussing around in the back among rolling racks of clothing and a hand steamer. The owner of the store, who was moonlighting as the day's photographer, was moving at a frenzied pace. "What about shoes?" he asked, almost rhetorically, as if he already knew that the only sample on hand to shoot with every look was too small for Rafael's size 12 foot. Rafael took out the insoles, crammed his feet in the shoes and came out in the first outfit — a gray T-shirt and a pair of jeans that they both acknowledged were a bit big for his lean frame. They snapped a photo anyway.
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.
Later that evening, I received a text message from Rafael. The usual 11 p.m. model dinner at Meatpacking’s latest see-and-be-seen restaurant, Catch, was a no-go, and he didn't see the point in hitting the club if there was no food involved. Apparently, stereotypes are just that — stereotypes. And in turning them upside down, Rafael may just be solidifying his place in the modeling industry as someone with the distinctive ability to combine good looks with good judgment. At the very least, he'll be around to make his mark on Fashion Week, which begins today.

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