Nick Kamen: Masculinity Redefined
Updated: May 16
The death of Nick Kamen from cancer at just 59 has had me reflecting on his influence and legacy. Here was a man who burned brightly for a short time 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 Burmese, Irish, Dutch and English heritage, what he represented felt fresh and ground-breaking at a time when 80s masculinity was generally defined as white, testosterone driven and power suited. The symbolism of a mixed race man - the outsider - stripping this down to a pair of white boxer shorts - being vulnerable - was not lost on me either as a teenager.
Nick Kamen was no Sylvester Stallone or Tom Cruise, he offered an alternative representation of masculinity which did not need to be labelled (the only label was his 501s). Whilst his impact was mainly visual, he subtlety challenged normative expectations of masculinity, which other more mainstream 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 did not seek overt validation or approval. There is a nod to Brando and James Dean here but there is none of the showiness and drama of their personas.
In the Levi’s 501 advertisement of 1985, 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 is a feminist, LGBTQ and ‘new man’ message all rolled in to one. This felt fresh and subversive at the time, yet the rebelliousness never unbalances the creativity or playfulness 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 often 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 influence was acutely felt for hundreds of years after his death. His beauty represented a masculine version of fertility and sexuality, normally associated with female goddesses.
Transgressive figures have the ability to facilitate change. They can be viewed as a danger to accepted norms, yet they often have no agenda, the revolution is quiet.
Nick was part of a British 80s music and fashion scene which has become 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 (Nick’s brother), the model Felix Howard and a young Naomi Campbell. The attitude was all about self-expression, the look arty and ‘London’ but accessible, European trends such as Paninari and BCBG 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 not a provocateur, his music boiled down to just a handful of tracks, 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 still strive to achieve today, but few have eclipsed his impact.
Ivor Neville ‘Nick’ Kamen 15th April 1962 - 4th May 2021.
‘You were always such a kind, sweet human and you suffered too much’ - Madonna
Nick Kamen - Nick Kamen. Album WEA, 1987