Nigel Barker on super-skinny models: "That’s just not who the customer is"

"The Face" host talked to Salon about his photography, the fashion industry, and getting baby seals to "smize"

Published August 13, 2013 6:29PM (EDT)

Nigel Barker    (Oxygen/Lorenzo Bevilaqua)
Nigel Barker (Oxygen/Lorenzo Bevilaqua)

In this post-Warholian age of instant stardom, the biggest test of your cultural relevance is not how many Twitter followers you have, or whether you have your own Wikipedia page, but if white suburban teenagers have named a viral video dance craze after you.  If this litmus test is to be accepted, then fashion photographer Nigel Barker, the former judge of "America’s Next Top Model"and current host of Oxygen’s "The Face," has made it. According to a YouTube demonstration, “the Nigel Barker,” as performed by a cast of marginally coordinated teen boys, involves pumping your arms up and down while bending your knees repeatedly.

The Nigel Barker currently has 24,000 views, a drop in the bucket compared to those of other dance memes. Yet its mere existence speaks to the level of Barker’s celebrity outside the fashion industry, a world that, a decade ago, would have been closed off to the kinds of suburban teens who post goofy videos of themselves on YouTube. Thanks in large part to shows like "ANTM" (which Barker starred on for 17 cycles before being fired by creator Tyra Banks last year), the formerly insular world of high-fashion photography is now accessible to anyone. And that’s exactly how Barker likes it.

Barker has devoted his career to making high fashion and photography accessible to the masses: In addition to his hosting gig on "The Face" (which will start filming its second season this fall) and his stint on "Top Model," he’s served as a spokesperson for Nine West and Sony; he also wrote a book, "Nigel Barker’s Beauty Equation," which offers tips on celebrating your “inner beauty.” Now, Barker is taking his quest for accessibility to the next level by partnering with, where he’s selling more than 275 original prints for as little as $39.99. The collections include Barker’s high-fashion photographs as well as photojournalistic works, featuring photos from trips to Haiti, Morocco and an (adorable) harp seal population off the coast of Newfoundland. Salon chatted with Barker about diversity in fashion, celebrities in the high art world, smizing and — of course — the Nigel Barker.

I need to ask you this really quickly, because I just discovered this and I’m really excited about it. Are you aware that the first thing that comes up on a YouTube search is a bunch of guys doing a dance named after you?

(Laughs) Yeah. I do. It’s funny – I dunno if it’s the first thing that comes up. It might be the most recent thing that comes up. It’s really bizarre and random. Not to mention it’s now being copied by a bunch of different people. Now there are a group of girls who are doing it from some other place inspired by these guys, and there’s an Indian family with young children and kids doing it in their house, and there are videos of them doing it as well. So my big plan is to spoof it sometime soon and try to do the actual Nigel Barker dance.

What is it based on? I’ve never seen you do that dance on "ANTM." 

I have no idea. I’ve never done anything like it in my life. I don’t think I’m coordinated enough to do that, as uncoordinated as that looks. I actually tried to do it, and it’s quite difficult to put your legs in one direction and your arms up and down in the other.

To shift gears a bit: I’ve been thinking a lot about how "ANTM" was sort of a game-changer in the ways it reflected different types of bodies and it was racially diverse, and I’m wondering whether that’s reflected in the actual fashion world, or if reality TV has been more progressive than the fashion world, in some ways. Are they keeping pace with one another, so to speak?

Good question. And actually, yes and no, is the answer to that. When I first started, we were only being courted by Wal-Mart and Seventeen magazine and those were the sponsors of "America’s Next Top Model," and everyone else sort of pooh-poohed us. By the end of it, we had the editor-at-large of American VogueAndre Leon Talley, as a judge, and Italian Vogue was the magazine sponsor. So things really shifted in that decade, and it was interesting because Conde Nast, while they were perhaps on the slow side to pick up initially on that whole world, but now of course everybody’s gonna have their own channel and is busy, like everyone else, making videos, making TV shows, making Internet content, and is bigger than the magazine. It’s very interesting how that whole world has changed.

But the business of fashion itself, as far as the models are concerned: There are more modeling agencies than ever before, and there are more people fascinated with becoming models than ever before. And for better or for worse. I think people have to be careful. Sometimes "Top Model" makes people believe that anyone can be a model. And I love the idea of it – I love the idea of equality and all the rest of it – but obviously there are certain paradigms with the fashion business that are not so much to do with you having to be perfect, but it has more to do with much more pragmatic things. Designers simply can’t afford to make dresses in 10 sizes for a sample. They really want to make one size that’s a sample size, and for whatever reason, they decide it’s gonna be a 4, or if it’s a large size, it’s gonna be a 6. Quite often it’s between a 2 and a 4, and it fits a girl who’s around 5-foot-9, and that’s their look. That’s what happens – that’s how the industry is controlled. So it’s often harder for full-figured models or petite models or very large, tall models to break into the business. That’s not to say there isn’t work for them now when there wasn’t before. What I mean by that is that certain agencies like Wilhelmina and Ford have full-figured divisions because there actually is work for them. It’s just not gonna be of the same frequency, perhaps.

My impression is that it’s a step-back, two-steps-forward kind of thing. 

It could be quicker. I’d love to see it quicker. You know what I’d love? I’ve said this enough times, but I would love it if a designer, a really big designer, would do a show at New York or Paris or Milan Fashion Week and design a collection for women of all shapes and sizes and colors and creeds and dress them and have them walk the shows. Just to show them, guess what, I can design dresses, and I’m here to dress all women, because that’s really who they sell to. They don’t sell to women who are 5-foot-9 and size 4. That just is not realistic, and especially the show girls, who are 5-foot-11 and weigh 100 pounds. That’s just not who the customer is.

It’s ironic to watch a dress on a mannequin or a model on a catwalk who’s not anything like the person that’s going to buy it. And we buy into that. I think the true test for a designer is to send a collection of women down a catwalk, of all different sizes and shapes and colors, and say, “Look, I’m as good as I say, because look how wonderful my dresses look on you and the women who are gonna buy them.” And I’m afraid it’s never really been done.

This is the first time you’ve sold your work commercially to a wider audience, aside from selling at galleries. Can you tell me a little bit about how you chose to collaborate with, versus selling to the more limited kinds of audiences at galleries?

First of all, [I chose to work with] for obvious reasons. It’s the leading art seller in the world, funnily enough, more than anybody, and obviously it’s a brilliant name, They got it early. Internationally, this is the place where people go to buy art, especially accessible art. That’s one of the things I love about it. Now, my career, if you look at what I’ve done, I’ve really set out – when I first started working on "Top Model," over a decade ago – to break down the barriers of the fashion industry, which is a very exclusive industry. I wanted to make it available and make it accessible, which we succeeded in doing pretty well. If you look at where the fashion business has gone from 10 years ago to now, many more people are interested in it, and there are lots more people who are knowledgeable about the subject. There was no such thing as a fashion blogger – there was no such thing as bloggers, funnily enough. And I loved the idea of accessibility, especially when it comes to things like art.

On the website, they have this feature where you can see how the photographs will look at various rooms in your home, which you don’t get if you sell something at a gallery or shoot a spread for a magazine. It kind of makes it functional to the consumer, in a way, almost like a utilitarian object.

That’s one of the great things about the Internet, and especially the way they’ve done it as well. Yes, you’re quite right: The look of the photograph in the room, in various frames, in various options, the fact they do it all for you.

The whole courtship with me and started over a year ago, so we certainly vetted each other and had lots of conversations about how we wanted it to work, and what would make it accessible. One of the things I was keen on doing was opening up my archives to images I’d taken in the past 10, 15 years that were some of my favorites. Many of the pictures in these galleries are pictures that actually hang in my house, or that I’ve gifted to people and sold as fine art, limited-editions, so it really meant something special to you.

Does your photojournalistic work in Haiti fall into that category? Those images are pretty striking, especially if you’re only familiar with your high-fashion work, or your work on "Top Model."

Absolutely. Thank you. Yes, I’ve been very lucky in that way, because I think having the opportunity to go to places like Haiti – and that was pre-earthquake, FYI, it was 2008 when I went down there and took those pictures – but interestingly enough, when I took them, we had a huge art gallery exhibition of those prints in New York City in the Milk galleries and the photographs were selling for thousands of dollars and it was a very limited exhibtion which Ivan Shaw, from American Vogue, curated, and after that that was it. It ended. And I thought, these pictures still have a beauty and social value. It’s great to offer them at a much lower price point – obviously, on different paper, but still on great paper, when before it was only available to you if you were in New York at the time, so they get to see a curated-by-Vogue show in their apartments. I think that stuff’s great. Oftentimes, that doesn’t happen until the artist dies.

Have you gotten any pushback from more traditional elements of the art world? It seems like with and Amazon Art, online galleries have opened up – well, reopened – the conversation about the commodification of the art market, which has been on the receiving end of some pretty scathing critiques recently.

I mean, the thing is that as I was saying earlier, it’s kind of what I’ve done my whole career. I don’t think anyone is interested in pushing back too much on me because they know that’s where I stand on all of this. I’ve pretty much always tried to be the person who was one of the pioneers in breaking down the barriers in terms of the fashion business, and I’m the same way with photography. There are a lot of photographers out there who were upset about the digital revolution and the fact that everyone has a camera on their iPhone or their cellphone and is taking pictures and Instagramming, so you could just erase the picture, you weren’t actually burning film. I come from a film era, but I burnt print and shot on film 20 years ago when I started. And I’ve always said, “Look, embrace the technology, it’s not going anywhere else, this is where it’s headed,” and actually I’m thrilled everyone is into photography and Instagramming and what have you, because all that means is there’s a greater appreciation for the art form itself, and people are much more intrigued by photography, because it’s something they can actually do. It doesn’t make everyone a photographer – obviously it gives them the ability to take pictures and be a photographer in that form, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be successful. The same way that we give kids pencils and it doesn’t make them all authors. Or paintbrushes: It gives them the ability to enjoy and understand the craft, but it doesn’t necessarily make them painters.

Right, [the digital revolution] has sort of democratized photography, in a way, without making it so anyone can Instagram a picture of food or something and instantly get famous.

So with this it’s the same way, and I’m not threatened. I’m actually part of the bring-it-on, the more, the merrier [school of thought]. I love the – accessibility is always key for me.

We’ve been talking a lot at Salon about the intersection of celebrity and the art world – like with Jay Z and Marina Abramovic, Lady Gaga, etc. As someone who straddles both worlds, so to speak, what are your thoughts on this? Do you think the art world and pop culture are closer than ever before, or has it been relatively unchanged since you’ve been in the business? Do you think it’s necessarily a good or bad thing?

I think, first of all, it’s always been close in many ways. No matter who it was, even if you go all the way back to ancient Greek times – sort of Michelangeo, for example – they would make sculptures of famous individuals who were celebrities of their time. Even if it was drawing Christ on the wall – Christ, or God, being the ultimate celebrity everyone worshiped – there was an element where I feel that art has always followed what people are interested in, or tried to steer them in that direction.

Nowadays – sadly, in many respects – people are all too obsessed with celebrity and the desire to become a part of it. You see the art world following suit, and sometimes it’s clear that art and pop culture is all really one. How you’re gonna translate that is another thing, and certainly there are some artists who’ve made their living from celebrity, whether it be from Andy Warhol, for example. But I don’t think that whole -- where celebrity and the art world are sort of merging is the fact that – I guess the Internet has done it – with the endorsement factor of art. Where people have become – celebrities themselves have – whatever they wear, whatever they do, people are fascinated, and they themselves almost can become an art form. Obviously Lady Gaga is a perfect example of that.

Do you think it’s easier for photographers to gain a foothold in the world of celebrity, for whatever reason? I feel like photographers like Dave LaChapelle, Annie Leibowitz – they have this glamorous ethos about them that other artists in other media don’t necessarily have.

Certainly in certain ways. Not all of them. There are many people in the fashion business who are incredibly prolific in their artwork, but you don’t necessarily know them by their names. Dave LaChapelle, I think, is an exception to the rule. He stands out. There are certainly people who have wanted to be like him, and have tried, and there are perhaps more now, potentially, because of the Internet, but LaChapelle was big and famous anyway prior to that being around, because of his outlandish photography and his ability to also market himself as a part of that.

I remember back in the day, when I started working on television, it was a gamble. People were saying to me, “Listen, everything you’ve built to this moment has the potential to be dashed, because the fashion world doesn’t like it when you become prime-time or too commercial or those sorts of things.” As does the art world: They’d like you to be exclusive and very special. But for me, I was interested in a different, accessible art, and an accessible fashion, and breaking down barriers and walls, so for me it was a right way to go. Luckily for me, too, with the Internet taking off as it has in the past decade, everything’s moving into being accessible and everyone’s fascinated with fashion and celebrity and modeling and all of those things. It worked in my favor. But for me, it was definitely the right track.

One last really quick question, and then I’ll let you go: in your collection, there’s a series of Ice World photos of seal pups, from your trip to Newfoundland. They look like they’re smizing! How did you get them to smize?

You know, they are the most adorable little things you’ve ever seen in your life. Some of them are really obnoxious, some are really chirpy, some are scared or skittish. They’re just like little puppies, or quite frankly, even like your own children. I have two little kids, and they both came out completely different, with their own personalities. They’re not scared of you. They’ve never seen a predator. They’ve just been born and, really, they’re the perfect color to be camouflaged on the snow, with that white fur. They literally just come right up to you and they’re very intrigued as to who you are, because they’ve never seen their mother before, so they look at you and they’re like, “What have you got for me?” I’d just lie there and they’d come up and snuggle and bark and talk to you. Their natural look is that really delighted smile in their eyes.

By Ej Dickson

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