In conjunction with Macy’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, the department store hosted Nigel Barker– notable author, filmmaker and photographer. Barker is of English and Sri Lankan descent and credits his Grandmother and Mother for being pivotal influences in his life.
I attended his appearance at the First Colony Mall in Sugarland and had the opportunity to interview him one-on-one regarding his heritage and his successful career in the fashion industry.
“My Mother and Father were both born in India. My Mother moved back to Sri Lanka when she was a little girl. In her late teens, she moved from Sri Lanka to England and that’s really where the basis of my Sri Lankan heritage comes from and why it’s important to me and why it has been an important part of my personal life story. Growing up in England as a young boy in the 70s, there were very few bi-racial children. I was probably one of the first bi-racial children of a generation where you were beginning to see them. So growing up in England, you were constantly asked, ‘where are you from? Who are you?’ and it makes you question your identity. Then I had to identify with a place called Sri Lanka, which geographically meant nothing to me. Luckily I had my Grandmother, Mother and Aunt who lived with us, who told us about it. Even the Sri Lankan community alienated us because we weren’t 100% Sri Lankan. As a child, I remember going to Sri Lanka for the first time, seeing other children who looked like me.”
“My Mother, who had been a model (also former Miss Sri Lanka) entered me into a show called The Clothes Show in the late 80s and I was still in high school. I didn’t win. It was a televised TV show and was one of the first of its type. I got in the top three and was offered a contract and in between going to school and college, I took a year off and had a go at modeling. One year led to two years led to several years, etc.”
“I’ve been shooting now for almost twenty years and in many respects, I’ve always been interested in photography. Got my first camera- a Brownie- when I was 9 years old. Learned how to print when I was 14. It was never a career, just something I enjoyed doing. It was an expensive hobby more than anything. When I became a model was the time I saw fashion photographers at work. This was a very exciting and high-fluting type of job, or so it seemed from the outside. I was a model in a sort of special time, in the late 80s, early 90s when there was a lot of money in fashion and modeling business. When big supermodels Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista and Tyra Banks were all emerging and becoming major stars. That all changed in the mid-90s with heroine-chic and grunge and androgyny. I was none of those things, so it was the transition that I made just because I didn’t want to give up the six/seven years of experience within that business that I had. It took a couple years, but I transitioned from one side of the lens to the other.”
On Writing the Book:
“I just wanted to write the book. It was my second book and I enjoyed the experience and process of it. I’ve worked 20 years in the business with so many remarkable women. I’m a big advocate for woman’s rights and equality and gender-equality as a whole. I’m a spokesperson for the United Nations Foundation and am an ambassador for them as well for the HeForShe campaign with Emma Watson and Girl Up as well. Writing books about how these extraordinary women that I’ve worked with (models in general have always gotten a bad rap), but I wanted to talk about how so many have actually shaped the way we see beauty. As much as we have a long way to go still today, seeing people of ethnicity, shape and size and there being an equality within beauty and fashion. We’re only as far as we are today because of some of these extraordinary women and what they did, what they went through and what they pushed and stood for and made happen; not just from purely a beauty stand point, but often times from a women’s liberation stand point and economic stand point. For example, someone like Lauren Hutton who changed the hourly wage that models were getting paid in the 70s and made them get contracts for the first time. That was a huge step, as no woman had ever received a million dollar contract. Lauren was the first to demand it and made it happen. She eliminated hourly wages in modeling. To Elle MacPherson who got the very first licensed deal as a model or celebrity of any sort in 1989. She created Elle MacPherson Intimates – a multimillion dollar business that makes 65 million dollar a year today. To people like Naomi Sims who was the first black woman on the cover of a magazine in 1967. She was also the first black woman on a TV commercial that same year… having first been turned down from every single agency out there. So to talk about how they did that and those pivotal moments and why they did that and how they epitomized a moment that helped shape it, so it’s a tribute to these remarkable women. I start off with my Mother at the beginning of the book because she’s the woman who is of Sri Lankan heritage, who started modeling in the 60s and I know now how difficult that must’ve been and she certainly had a profound affect on me.”
On Why Macy’s Chose Him for the Campaign:
“Because I’ve talked about my Mother so much in previous books and on television. She’s been on my shows and I’ve brought her in to teach the girls on ANTM to properly tie a sari,etc. So that part is known about me, but not terribly well-known. Also it was because I have a new book to launch too. It was a great synergy too, to celebrate my heritage, talk about the book and these wonderful women and give a tribute to my Mother, why not…”
On Career advice:
“I think there’s no really special recipe, golden ticket or anything like that to success. I think that you have to be yourself. I think that being authentic and real and honest, hard-working. These are all the things that seem obvious but they are. It’s the reality of it. Everybody I know who is a serious success are all those things. Certainly within fashion and being in any of the creative industries, the number one thing that is important is to know when you’re done. Know when you’re finished. Know when you’ve got what you need to get. What I mean by that is that people are constantly asking me ‘would you have a look at my work? Do you like it? Is it ok? What do I need to do to improve?’ and I totally understand and I appreciate that there’s nothing wrong with asking for mentorship and having some guidance. But the turning point for when you finish being a student and when you start being a professional is when you know that you’ve done the last stroke on that painting. But you don’t need to turn around and say ‘am I done? Does it look ok?’ I don’t ask anyone what I do. If they don’t like it, it’s their problem.”
After the interview, there was a Q&A with Nigel and the audience. We also viewed traditional Sri Lankan dancing as well. The Q&A was hosted by Manesha Liyanage, who was dressed in a traditional Sri Lankan sari. One of the highlights of the session was when Manesha asked about taking a good ‘selfie.’ Nigel showed a rather saucy side (which was just for show of course) while teaching Manesha with her phone.
~ If you’ve got an iPhone, you can take it with the (+) sign.
~ Most people go really high up and shot down on themselves…DON’T… It helps get rid of the double chin, but you end up with a huge head and tiny body.
The last bit of conversation/demonstration between Nigel and Manesha had the ladies in the audience in a comical uproar and went something like this:
Nigel: “Do you like chocolate?”
Manesha: “I love chocolate…”
Nigel: “As you’re looking at me, think of a piece of chocolate in your mouth and with just your eyes, tell me how delicious it is…If you can’t think of chocolate, you can think of something else…and THAT ladies and gentlemen is how you do it!”
I mean… Let’s just say I won’t be looking at chocolate the same way again! Anyway, following another Sri Lankan dance, there was a reception and book signing for the public.
Thank you to the folks at Pom PR/Macy’s for gifting me a copy of “Models of Influence.” HUGE thanks to Nigel for the wonderful interview and for taking your time to sign my book.
Find out more information and local events at a store near you during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month HERE.