A dancer by training, Alton Mason has over the past few seasons made a number of memorable appearances on catwalks and elsewhere in fashion – so memorable that he’s been named male model of the year by Models.com for 2020 and become the protégé of Naomi Campbell and Virgil Abloh. For his next trick, Mason will be playing the role of Little Richard in Elvis, Baz Luhrmann’s new film, slated for 2022. Could this be the prelude to a musical debut?
Three backflips and he’s off… gone viral. Since helping to close out Louis Vuitton’s autumn-winter 2019/2020 fashion show, by Virgil Abloh, Alton Mason has made acrobatics his specialty. His sculpted face and lithe figure have graced catwalks and fashion campaigns the world over since 2016. At a mere 23 years of age he’s already become one of the most visible models on the planet. But however bright his prospects as a male model, Alton Mason is already branching out, successfully, into other domains – or rather returning to his first loves: acting and music. In Elvis, the forthcoming film from director Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliette, Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby), due in 2022, he will be playing the rock’n’roll pioneer Little Richard. He performed no backflips during his interview – a few days after a photoshoot, in full Berluti, for Antidote – but he definitely put on a show, regaling us with skillful impressions (rather than caricatures) of certain personalities, never without a tender word for each. The performance revealed a keen eye, vigorous memory and mastery of gesture: three qualities that make Mason a talent to watch.
Alton Mason: Jacket, turtleneck and pants inspired by artworks by Lev Khesin and shoes, Berluti.
ANTIDOTE: Your mother being a former model, did you consider a career in fashion early in life?
ALTON MASON: As a child I rather dreamed of becoming an English teacher! I love to write, pull ideas from my imagination and watch others do the same. Part of me is like a sponge: I tend to reproduce what I see. First I wanted to play basketball, like my father, then to teach, because I loved one of my teachers. In fact, I’m very close to my family, who have always supported me in my ambitions. I’m especially close to one of my little brothers, who I call my “twin” in my Instagram stories, because we look a lot alike and are now about the same height. He’s the one who ended up pursuing basketball. Me, I had to stop so I could continue with theater.
Now that you mention it, where does your passion for the theater come from?
I’ve loved that world since I was five, at least. Much of the way I interact with people and dress nowadays comes from my time at a theater school. I’ve always loved the idea of transforming myself. It’s exhilarating to be able to become someone else. My first time onstage I played Oliver Twist at a school in Greece, near Larissa, when my father was playing there. He was very young when I was born. When I returned to Arizona for high school some of the excitement of living in Europe dissipated. In Europe I was always having to adjust, learn a new language, take up some new way of life… But acting enabled me to get back that sense of adventure and expand my imagination. I got on well with my teachers, and I loved to stop by the room where the theatrical costumes were stored and show up to class in full disguise. After high school I went to the university to major in theater and took dance classes on the side. I had no idea what I wanted to do later on. And here I am today a model! It wasn’t anything I really planned. But I’d very much like to go back to school later, to study business and psychology.
« I still can’t believe what’s happening to me. »
Before fashion, then, you almost had a career in dance?
I’ve loved dancing since I was little. Whenever we had guests over my mother would have me dance little numbers for them. In the past, in the Czech Republic, my father played basketball with one of the choreographer Laurieann Gibson’s sons [Gibson has worked often with Lady Gaga, editor’s note]. Much later, when I was in Los Angeles, he called my father and told him that his mother’s team was looking for an intern. I applied and gave it my all, because she’s a renowned artist. She was the one who choreographed P. Diddy’s number for the BET Awards in 2015. It was so fascinating to see how that whole project was organized, from beginning to end – to see Lil’Kim, Jadakiss and Ma$e in the studio. Watching them rehearse, I got to know the choreography by heart, and they ended up offering me a spot onstage. So I got to play a little part in the show, during Puff Daddy & The Family’s “Finna Get Loose,” featuring Pharrell Williams. I was so stressed at the idea of being onstage under all that media attention! It really helped boost my confidence.
Alton Mason: Turtleneck and sweater inspired by artworks by Lev Khesin, pants and shoes, Berluti. Key ring, Berluti x Jorge Penadés.
How did you make the transition to modeling?
I was short of money back then. My family couldn’t afford to pay for my schooling, so I worked a lot. My schoolmates were always telling me I should be a model, so I ended up going to a few casting calls. But all the agencies in Los Angeles rejected me. I was 18, but I looked about 14! And then one day I happened to run into the photographers Jalan and Jibril Durimel, the two sons of the environmentalist mayor of Pointe-à-Pitre, in Guadalupe, who asked if they could take my picture. That no doubt helped get me known on Instagram, because that’s how I was discovered. Thanks to that, I set off for New York to meet with some casting directors. But every failed meeting made my situation worse. At the time Kanye West was holding an open casting call, and with Yeezy going gangbusters the line was out the door! I went in anyway. It was actually while standing in that line that I met the model Dilone, and we hit it off. One of the people in charge of casting came down the line to have a look at those of us still waiting and pick some of us out. I was lucky enough to be one of them. It was super intimidating, because they hardly speak to you. They take a few pictures and send you on your way with a word of thanks. I left not knowing whether I’d made the grade, not until they called two days before the show! The next day I was in fittings, crossing paths with the whole Kardashian family. It was like entering another world. So I took part in this fashion show, and my career took a whole new turn!
What was your relationship to fashion before you started modeling?
I’ve always loved it! My parents are so stylish. They were always attentive to my clothes when I was a kid. I’d often wear clothes that matched my father’s, for example. With my mother I’d watch The Devil Wears Prada and Sex and the City. I’ve always been fascinated by the way clothes help us assert our identity and play someone else. Like theatrical costumes, obviously. Clothes help you slip into a character’s skin. So I’ve always viewed fashion as a sort of game. And since I didn’t have a lot of money I sought out a lot of secondhand clothes, which compelled me to be creative and resourceful.
“I always get the same questions on diversity and inclusivity in fashion, and I don’t mind responding, but I’d like those questions to be asked of the white people in the fashion industry as well. Especially of those who occupy positions of power. Because they’re in a position to either change things or put racism in check.”
You travel a lot for your work. How has that affected your personal life?
The nomadic way of life comes rather naturally to me, because I grew up following around my father, who also traveled a lot for work. We made our first move when I was two, to Belgium, and stayed there for four years. That’s where my brother was born. Then we moved to the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Greece, Bosnia… It’s my turn now, and I take it as an honor. It makes my family proud. I still can’t believe what’s happening to me. My friends can’t, either. I just work as hard as I can and try to seize every opportunity that’s offered to me, hoping to represent and inspire other people I don’t even know.
After signing an exclusive contract with Gucci you became the first black male model to take part in a fashion show for Chanel, in 2019, when the house was more than 100 years old. That’s made you into a sort of symbol. Is that unchosen responsibility sometimes a bit of a burden?
It’s helped change perceptions of my modeling career. I’ve never much felt I was doing it for me, but rather to meet my family’s needs and contribute to representation. It can come to seem like a kind of pressure, or rather responsibility. I’m not perfect, obviously. I’m human. But people project so many expectations on you as a model that it can become a very heavy burden. [Quoting the Bible] “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” I have a hard time believing I’ve gotten here merely by chance and through a series of coincidences. So I do my utmost to serve as well as I can in every situation given to me.
Alton Mason: Pants and bag, Berluti.
Do you think the industry can or should do more in terms of minority representation and social justice?
I always get the same questions on diversity and inclusivity in fashion, and I don’t mind responding, but I’d like those questions to be asked of the white people in the fashion industry as well. Especially of those who occupy positions of power. Because they’re in a position to either change things or put racism in check. Do they get questions on the industry’s endemic nepotism and white supremacy?
Your career took off a few years before the death of George Floyd, whose effect has reached all the way into the fashion industry. Have you noticed that there’s a before and an after George Floyd? Do you think the change will be enduring or transitory?
When I started out I would sometimes be the only black model, or the only black person – even counting the staff – backstage at a fashion show or on a campaign. It’s fantastic to work with creatives each more talented than the last, but it’s also a shame to feel alone sometimes, to be the exception that proves the rule. Every day I’d pray for that to change, and it’s fortunately starting to happen.
We shouldn’t have to wait for someone to film a black man’s killing by a policeman to begin thinking about the structural lack of opportunities. It’s horrible to think that that event helped shine a light on certain talents. Models aside, though, where are the hairstylists, make-up artists and art directors of color?
Growing up I really admired the model brothers Fernando and Armando Cabral. I met them recently, and they were so charming and humble that I love them even more now. I grew up hearing that I’d have to work twice as hard to get even half of what others get more easily, as the editor-in-chief of Vogue UK, Edward Enninful, recently reminded me. That puts pressure on me and pushes me to persevere. I prefer to look at this demand that I aspire to be exemplary and great at what I do as an opportunity. But I don’t feel like I’m being exploited. Black people who succeed in this field truly deserve their success. They haven’t gotten to where they’re at through opportunism. We contribute a lot to culture, even in fashion. Getting a little recognition for it is the least that could happen.
Alton Mason: Coat inspired by artworks by Lev Khesin, shoes and bag, Berluti. Key ring, Berluti x Jorge Penadés.
You’ve just mentioned prayer and often allude to God in your interviews. What’s your relationship to spirituality?
I don’t know where I’d be, or even who I’d be, if I didn’t believe in God. I was raised to be spiritual. I believe in karma too, and that positivity can attract positivity if you’re sincere in your behavior, expecting nothing in return. I don’t act in hopes of earning a reward. I’ve lived through so many situations where my family and I had nothing left… I don’t wish that on anybody, and I seize every opportunity to prevent it from happening again.
« I’ve lived in different European countries where I had no choice but to search within myself for a sense of home, to find a place for myself. »
Speaking of opportunities to attract positivity, how did Baz Luhrmann come to offer you the role of Little Richard in his next film, a biopic on Elvis Presley?
I was in Australia to receive the Model-of-the-Year Award, and at the same ceremony Baz Luhrmann was receiving the Film Icon Award. We ran into each other at hair and make-up and started staring. I said to him, “I just love your hair,” and he replied, “I just love yours!” That’s how we started getting to know each other. After the ceremony, at the after-party, as I was having the time of my life on the dancefloor, I suddenly spotted my mother talking to him. I was afraid she’d embarrass me! Then she comes up to me and says that Baz wants to talk to me. So we go off to the side together, and he asks if I’m a professional dancer, and if I can sing, and then says that he’s delaying his flight the next day so he can take me to his favorite movie house. That’s what we did, and that’s where he suggested I audition for the role of Little Richard. It was an incredible chain of events! I’m utterly grateful, because I’d never dared to dream of doing such things. It’s beyond me how it happened!
What does Little Richard, who lived from 1932 to 2020, represent for you, who were born in 1997?
Little Richard opened the way for guys like me. Men who are versatile, fluid and daring with their image and expression. Guys like Prince, André 3000 and Childish Gambino. He inspired so many artists with the way he didn’t give a fuck what anybody else thought! His career and personality are a great inspiration to me. Filming a feature is clearly not easy, but there was something oddly familiar about it. I felt both at ease and outside my comfort zone. It was great!
Alton Mason: Bomber, turtleneck, pants and hat inspired by artworks by Lev Khesin and shoes, Berluti.
You also describe this paradoxical feeling – between strangeness and familiarity – in the short film Rise in Light, made in Lagos by Amarachi Nwosu. There we hear you talk about your origins in voice-over. Could you tell us about that?
As an African-American of Jamaican and Haitian descent growing up in the United States, I’ve always dreamed of going to Africa. I’d talk about it from time to time with certain friends, who were full of prejudices because they didn’t know anything about the place. Many of our fears come from ignorance and the unknown. I’ve lived in different European countries where I had no choice but to search within myself for a sense of home, to find a place for myself. That played a big part in my self-esteem and sense of fulfillment, despite our many moves. And it’s also what helps keep me balanced today. My first trip to Nigeria changed my life. It was like an illumination. I felt that I was reconnecting with my roots, which I didn’t know anything about, and potentially treading the same ground as my ancestors. That’s what I recount in the short Rise in Light, which helped raise funds to help local populations deal with Covid-19.
In that three-minute video we also hear you sing a song of yours, called “Gimme gimme.” Are you getting ready to make a debut in music?
Who knows? Maybe I’ll do something else, like make my own wine, or launch a brand of furniture. Music is integral to my life, yes. I need it to help me feel confident and in phase with myself. I meditate a lot, pray every day and often call my brothers and sisters, who are an enormous inspiration to me. I also love to play sports and especially dance, of course. I also write spoken word, and songs, with the aim of creating a universal music. I play a little drums and piano, but I’m not a musician. My first public musical production, “Gimme gimme,” which serves as the soundtrack to Rise in Light, is more of spoken word than a love song. But I’ve recorded other things with more singing. So, yes, maybe I’ll put something out soon…
Speaking of love songs, what’s going on in your love life at the moment?
Ah, well… [laughs]. All I can say in that respect is that I’m a very romantic kind of guy, who falls in love easily. But I have to stay focused, because I really don’t have time for a love affair. If one happens to come along, though, I’ll do what I can to make it work.
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