Nigel Barker’s Beauty Equation03.30.11
We know him. We love him. And yes, occasionally drool over him too. Famed, sexy photographer Nigel Barker penetrates 100 million homes every week across the globe with his significant role on the wildly popular reality TV series America’s Next Top Model. He’s a model-turned-photographer-turned-fashion icon. His overnight success has been 20 years in the making – photographing and judging some of the most beautiful women in the world. If anyone understands how to recognize true beauty, it’s Mr. Barker. In a candid interview with Cotton Candy, Barker reminds us that real beauty comes from the inside out.
Cotton Candy: Which girls do you like photographing more? ANTM or regular models?
Nigel Barker: I don’t like one more than the other because as a photographer, each subject I have I take it as a joy and also as a challenge. It’s not for me to prefer to shoot one or the other. A model who is in the industry and who is already a success is ultimately already trained in front of the camera, so there is an ease to it. The girls on America’s Next Top Model are learning how to be models. It’s a very different thing. When I’m shooting [the girls for ANTM], I’m there to help train them. I’m there to guide them. When I’m doing a regular photo shoot, I’m not there to guide the models. She is being paid $10,000 a day in order to know what to do. So, it’s a very different kind of idea. But I enjoy it all, and I feel very lucky. For me, no matter who I am photographing – whether it is a child in Haiti or an actor or athlete or a model on America’s Next Top Model – no matter what I’m doing, I’m always trying to find the story. I’m trying to create the narrative in the picture. Certain people are better at that. Sometimes I find that even the girls on America’s Next Top Model, I can find it easier sometimes than with a model who is meant to be a pro because [ANTM girls] have come from quite interesting backgrounds. They’re backgrounds can be quite complicated sometimes.
CC: In your book Beauty Equation: Revealing a Better and More Beautiful You, you say, “We all know people who are pretty but who are not beautiful.” Explain what you mean.
NB: Well, first of all, one of the reasons I wrote the book Beauty Equation was to bring up this: to be a model, it isn’t necessary to be beautiful. Modeling is an industry, and people are hired to be a model in order to sell clothes. To be beautiful is to live your life in a manner in which you are living it to your fullest and you’re also making a difference in the world around you. It’s the same way as when you pick your friends; you pick them because you like them, not because they’re the most attractive people around you. So, truly, being pretty is one thing. On America’s Next Top Model we joke about the word pretty. We rarely want to say, “Oh, she’s a pretty girl.” It’s almost an insult on America’s Next Top Model. A lot of people would say, “Oh, well if you say someone is pretty, it’s a compliment.” It’s a given that they’re pretty. The people in the modeling industry almost expect a model to be pretty, but what you’re looking for is a model to be an inspiration. You’re looking for them to hopefully become someone’s muse. And, that is when you become beautiful – when people are motivated by what you have to say.
CC: What do you hope people will take away from your book, Beauty Equation: Revealing a Better and More Beautiful You?
NB: Personally, I’m looking for people to feel their best and to feel beautiful. I think it’s quite complicated these days when people read magazines and see the photographs of retouched girls and retouched models, and they aspire to be like them. And the models themselves aren’t actually like the photos in the magazines of themselves. And I really wanted to discuss what I am truly looking for as someone who has been in the business for over 20 years [who’s working] to create a beautiful picture. It’s not enough for you to be a model. Quite frankly, it’s all the other aspects and attributes that add up to creating an iconic picture or timeless photo, and even more than just a photo, living a timeless and iconic life. I wanted to inspire people to say, “Look, to be a role model is far more important than to be a fashion model.” … I think by being a role model, you have the opportunity to make the most of your life, feel fulfilled and have a beautiful life.
CC: Do you think you make the girls on America’s Next Top Model really nervous?
NB: (Laughs) I’m sure I make people nervous every now and then. I know that some of the contestants have been watching the show maybe for almost ten years and have grown up watching it. And finally they’re there standing in front of you. I try not to intimidate. I’m there to guide them. I try to help them. Sometimes when I critique, it can sound quite harsh, but there is a thing as tough love as well. … We are giving them the unabashed truth, straight to their faces. And if you don’t want to hear it, that’s fine, but it’s hard to learn unless you hear about the good and the bad. If you’re smart and you’ve got thick skin, you can deal with it. The modeling business is like many businesses. It’s full of rejection. Most models do not book every job. They are lucky if they book one in ten, if that. So, you’re going to be turned down all of the time. What we are saying is this: when you go to an audition and a casting, if you don’t get the job, you’ll just find out you didn’t get the job. Most employers aren’t to say to you, “And this is the reason – we didn’t like the way you dressed; we didn’t like your attitude; you didn’t make eye contact.” They’re just not going to tell you. What we are doing is tell you why you didn’t get the job, and what you could do to get it next time. That’s what being a judge is all about. It’s not about giving them a point score; it’s trying to help them.
(Dolls, click on the photos below.)
CC: On ANTM, the girls are always nervous being judged by you. But do you ever get nervous thinking about there are 100 million people watching you every single week all over the world?
NB: You know, I don’t. You don’t really think about it that way. It’s not as if all 100 million eyeballs are there staring you down. (Laughs) And I do, now and then, do live performances and live events. Of course, when you are up on the stage in front of big crowds, one does get nervous. It’s not as if you become totally [numb] to it. That’s one of the things I try to tell the girls [on America’s Next Top Model] is, “I know you’re nervous. I know it’s hard. I know there are cameras following you. What you have to do is try to harness your nerves. You can channel them. .. .They can be used to be exactly what you need to make you special.”
CC: Nigel, where’d you learn how to shoot photography?
NB: I’ve really been shooting all of my life. It’s one of those things where, as a kid, I got a camera when I was about 9 years old. And I just started taking pictures. I was not formally trained anywhere. I knew that I enjoyed the process, and I’ve always been very intrigued with the arts. As a boy I was studying tailoring, dressmaking and fashion design. … I was always very interested. I started taking pictures in school, at high school. As a young model, I grew up always watching the photographer, and I was more fascinated in what they were doing – the lighting, how they treated people on set, how they clients related to them, how they sold their photographs to the clients, what was going on in front of me. I was soaking it up like a sponge. So, when I finally transitioned from one side of the lens to the other, I had worked for many hundreds of photographer by the time I got to that position.
CC: So, how have you managed to evade being overshadowed by Tyra Banks, instead becoming a celebrity who’s famous enough to build your own brand?
NB: I think it’s not a question of being overshadowed or not. We all are there to do our jobs. I’ve always just approached it, as I approach anything, with the [attitude] of, “This is my job. I’m going to do my best.” And if I get overshadowed by someone, I would hope it’s because they are more talented than I, and they are doing good just. And therefore I would be proud in their presence. I never think of myself as better than someone else. I just do the best that I can do. I understand that there will be better people [at their jobs] than myself and there will be lesser people than myself. That’s just the way the world is. And I think it’s an important lesson to learn as well. I have two small children of my own, and it’s something I have to instill into them. It’s not a question about being the best; it’s about being your best.
CC: Jack and Jasmine are the names of your children, right?
NB: That’s right.
CC: How old are they? And do you and your model wife, Cristen Chin Barker, plan to have your children model or be part of the fashion world?
NB: Jack is five, and Jasmine is two. We don’t plan to put them in modeling, but we don’t plan not to either. We certainly would have words of advice, and we have experience in that world. And I know that my son is definitely interested in photography, and he’s already mentioned many times that he wished to be a movie director. (Chuckles) So, at a very early age he’s decided that. Of course at that age, I wanted to be an astronaut, a zoo keeper, and God only knows what else, as a kid. So, who knows? That might change. (Laughs) My little daughter has somewhat of an attitude when she wants to, so who knows. Maybe she’s a little top model in the making. (Laughs) I think it’s a fun career, and it’s a great way to see the world. If it’s for them, great. I certainly am not going to push them in one direction.
CC: You do a lot of charity work. How do you know what charity to represent and what is a good fit for you?
NB: We are asked my many different charities all of the time to do things. To be honest, we try to do as much as we can, whenever we can. There are certain organizations that sort of organically work well because I have a particular interest or it’s fashion related or I’m affected because I know someone who has been affected by it. I have friends in Haiti. It’s one of the reasons I got involved with a Haitian initiative and created a documentary Haiti: Hunger & Hope. In fact, I just got back from Haiti about ten days ago. We filmed a new documentary out there, which will be out in September 2011. To be honest, as for how we pick these organizations – they kind of pick us. I know Cotton Candy is all about empowering women. Well, I just became the latest United Nations Foundation ambassador for their new initiative called Girl Up, a campaign of the United Nations Foundation. I’m the only male champion at the moment. And that’s all about empowering women also, specifically by encouraging American girls who have so much going for them and are lucky to help others girls in other parts world who are less advantageous, especially in the third world.
CC: Who’s your favorite girl from ANTM that you’ve gotten to shoot?
NB: I’ve seen over 200 contestants. (Laughs) So for me to just choose one wouldn’t be fair. … I don’t think I actually have one. I like different people for different reasons when I photograph. Someone who’s always a pleasure for me to photograph is Tyra Banks.
CC: Do you ever talk to any of the past winners or contestants?
NB: All of the time. Actually, yesterday, I was with Katie [Cleary], from season 2. She came to a book signing of mine. And I actually went to a party in New York for Kim Cattrall [from Sex and the City ] and her new movie, and there was Kim [Stolz] . And she was there at the party. After almost ten years and hundreds of contestants, you get to see them in all the facets of the industry. … I just shot CariDee [English] for my latest book, Raw, that I’m working on. And there are 12 different girls from America’s Next Top Model in Beauty Equation. And I’m friends with many of them still. Naima [Mora] is a good friend of mine. We’ve hung several times. April [Wilkner] is a good friend of ours as well. Specifically it’s the girls from the older seasons. They were a little more accessible to us.
CC: You’re a worldwide sex symbol. Do you ever feel the pressure to maintain that status?
NB: (Laughs) Do I ever feel the pressure of my sex symbol status?! (Laughs, really hard.) I don’t feel pressure for my status. (Chuckles) I perhaps try to do my best for my wife so that I can keep the flame burning. (Laughs) I’m a lucky guy because there aren’t that many men on the show. So luckily I was staffed into a good situation. I feel honored. And I hope that people perhaps find me attractive for what I’ve got to say and what I’ve got to do. Not just because I’ve got a bald head. (Chuckles)
CC: We say it’s all of it that makes you attractive.
NB: (Laughs) Well, thank you.
Written by: Nicole Donielle Smith
See more photos of Nigel on Facebook.com/cottoncandymagazine.