Stephen James, Modeling’s Favorite New Hardbody, Is Really a Big Softie
To excel in the modeling industry requires an innate understanding of one’s body, which serves, in the modeling industry, as both your calling card and your instrument. And when it comes to unforgettable bodies, few can compete with rising star Stephen James.
A former pro soccer player, James’s sculpted physique is covered in intricate designs, from photorealistic portraits of art icons to swirling geometric patterns, religious idols and various memento mori. More than a blank canvas for ink, James has also built a reputation as a formidable presence in front of the camera for such brands as Calvin Klein and Philipp Plein. Signed to Storm modeling agency in London, the Hammersmith, London–bred James has quickly become a bona fide male modeling sensation. And the fact that he has followed in the footsteps of Insta-celebs Kendall James and Gigi Hadid hasn’t hurt either; he has personality built up a dedicated online fan base that currently numbers in the millions.
Though he’s in the midst of a “moment,” James insists he’s still a shy guy who’d rather be at home listening to the Smiths. And while on the surface his soft-spoken persona seems at odds with the hard-edged image he often portrays in photo shoots, we’ve come to realize that James has never been one to play by the rules. We caught up with the next big thing to talk about the transition from pro sports to fashion shoots and what he owes his fan sites.
Recently, you hit the million-followers milestone on Instagram —was social media something you were always engaged in?
I first got started, it was kind of a joke. I was friends with a few
guys who were really big on social media and they encouraged me. Getting
used to sharing so much was different for me since I’d never had
Facebook or Myspace, any of that. I’d had Instagram for a couple of
months when I got offered the chance to be in a music video for a
Russian singer, Victoria Daineko. From that moment I saw the power of social media; it has the pull to
bring in jobs, income, to let people discover you. After that, I started
putting in the effort and taking it seriously as a platform.
It slowly builds: One day you get 10 comments, another you get 100, and suddenly you find you’ve built a following. I don’t get to reply to every comment anymore, but the people I try to stay in touch with are [my] fan pages, because at the end of the day I’ve gotten this far thanks to their help. It’s a good feeling to think that people can devote their time and energy in that way. Sometimes they find photos that I haven’t even seen before; they’re incredibly helpful, and it is just nice to know that there are people from all over the world who are interested.
The first tattoo was a Star of David on my right elbow. I got that in Prague. When I was playing soccer, I had friends who were tattoo artists, so I used to spend a lot of time in tattoo shops, but my friends would never give me a tattoo. They’d always tell me that I’d regret it, so I got my first tattoo at a random shop. After that, my friends were fine tattooing me; I think they just didn’t want to do that first one.
There are several notable people etched on your body—Morrissey, Salvador Dalí, Queen Elizabeth, Frida Kahlo
I’ve been modeling for two and a half years, and it’s funny because I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve seen a real change in the way tattoos are perceived in the industry. When I first started working in Spain, the market was very close-minded when it came to tattoos. They don’t like a lot of edgy stuff, so I had to prove myself two or three times over. Now I find going to jobs is so much easier and tattoos have become the norm, but the neck tattoos and tattoos on the hands and on the head were hard for people to accept, especially for the more conservative brands.
Right now I’m focused a lot on fitness—I was just able to do my first Men’s Health cover [in Spain], and that was a big deal for me. I’d love to one day create my own fitness label and get more involved with that industry as well. Three weeks ago I had a chance to attend the Mr. Universe competition, which was fascinating. Right now that industry is dominated by a lot of guys who are heavily on steroids . . . it would be great to challenge that perception and show that all it takes [to have a career in fitness] is hard work.