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  • Writer's pictureRichard Hughes

Nick Kamen: Masculinity Redefined

Updated: May 18, 2022

With the death of Nick Kamen from cancer at just 59, I’ve been reflecting on his impact and legacy. Here was a man who burned brightly in the mid-80s, both as a model and singer and made a not insignificant contribution to the visual image and concept of masculinity.

Of course, he was a good-looking man but with his mixed Burmese, Irish, Dutch and English heritage, what he represented felt fresh at a time when mainstream masculinity was defined by white, straight men with mullets and power-suits reeking of testosterone and Aramis.

Nick Kamen was no Mel Gibson or Tom Cruise, rather he was introspective, nostalgic and a little mysterious. In an era obsessed with status and designer brands, the only label he needed was his 501s. Whilst his impact was mainly visual, he subtly challenged normative representations of masculinity, which more famous artists such as George Michael and Madonna would push further in their own work.

Nick's career was built on his image. As for the man himself, by all accounts he was a deeply private individual. In his work as a model and singer he maintained an intriguing ambivalence, which needed no validation or approval. There is a nod to Brando and James Dean here but there is none of the drama of their personas.

In the 1985 Levi’s 501 advertisement which made Nick a household name, his ambivalence is towards the female gaze. Partly what is so radical about this is that there is a female gaze. Here there was a feminist, LGBTQ and ‘new man’ message all rolled in to one. This felt transgressive at the time, yet the rebelliousness is subtle and it never unbalances the creativity of the ad.

In remembering Nick, an ancient historical figure comes to mind, that of Antinous, the beloved of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. In Nick’s look, there is the same tilted head, the slightly rounded, post adolescent features, the thick mop of hair. Antinous died at the age of 20 and was made a god. We know little about him, except that his cult remained popular for hundreds of years after his death. He was undoubtedly a precursor to the Christ image. His beauty represented a masculine version of fertility and sexuality, normally associated with female goddesses. Transgressive figures have the ability to facilitate change. They are often viewed as a danger to accepted norms, yet they have no obvious agenda, the revolution is quiet.

Nick was part of a British 80s music and fashion scene which was known as the Buffalo Collective. At the heart of this was the stylist Ray Petri, who the singer Neneh Cherry remembers, ‘cast girls as boys ... kids as men ... and put tough boys in skirts ... making women fierce.’

The collaboration included photographers Jamie Morgan, Martin Branding, Roger Charity, Marc Lebon and Norman Watson, the stylist Barry Kamen who is Nick’s brother, the model Felix Howard and a young Naomi Campbell. The attitude was all about self-expression, the look arty and androgynous but accessible. European trends such as Paninari and BCBG were crossed with street culture and ball culture and designers such as Katherine Hamnett, Red or Dead and Jean-Paul Gaultier. Levi 501s, a pork pie trilby worn on the back of the head and Ray-Ban Wayfarers were essentials. Bands like Soul II Soul and Curiosity Killed The Cat and Madonna in Papa Don’t Preach made it mainstream.

Ray Petri died of AIDS in 1989 and the collective evolved into other scenes and creative endeavours but their influence continued through gay rights, the YBA art scene and ‘the London look’ all of which defined the 90s and beyond.

Nick continued to make music but his star shone less brightly. Not that he cared about that. According to friends, fame and celebrity was not something that motivated him. He was no provocateur, his music boiled down to just a handful of tracks and he rarely gave interviews, yet his influence was culturally defining. He made us consider masculinity though a different lens; ‘on the shoulder of giants’ comes to mind, what he represented 30-years-ago, male celebrities today still strive to achieve but Nick did it first.

‘You were always such a kind, sweet human and you suffered too much’ - Madonna

Ivor Neville ‘Nick’ Kamen 15th April 1962 - 4th May 2021.

Nick Kamen - Nick Kamen. Album WEA, 1987

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