They say a picture's worth a thousand words. For model and artist Richie Shazam, these words would be both poignant and inquisitive, asking us to question our understanding of gender, beauty ideals, racial representation and various other social constructs that dominate the visual world we live in. Photos of Richie are paradigmatic of our time; our attraction to them has to do with the aesthetic appeal of viewing something that's as pretty as it is outlandish. It seems more fitting to say that a photo of Richie is worth a thousand conversations, prodding the viewer to lean in and listen. That said, it's easy to forget that Richie is also a person who has to exist off of glamorized sets or runways. We spoke to the New York darling about coming from the city, the importance of representation, and boundary-pushing power of imagery.
Mathias Rosenzweig: Tell me about this shoot. How did it come about in a creative sense?
Richie Shazam: The shoot was centered on wanting to document myself in my current state and give a fantasy and illusion. That's how the hyper-glam imagery came to fruition. Everyone from the hairstylist to the stylist to the makeup artist—we were all on board with transforming my identity and heightening it. The photographer, a dear friend of mine, he actually shot these images that were posted around the city, and my image was posted on Orchard Street on a building that no longer exists. They demolished it. My image was the last image on the building before it was gone, which speaks to gentrification and everything that happens in the city that never sleeps.
MR: Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with New York in general? The community there is amazing and full of resources, but at the same time, it's really expensive and can be tough for people who want to be artists.
RS: I was born and raised in the city. I'm a natural born hustler. All of my revelations about my identity and how the city has affected my whole life experience, from my upbringing to even now, has been all of the elements of sensory overload. Learning how to adapt, and how to be sensible. I definitely feel the pressure of being a young person in the city and having to constantly roll with the punches. My life in the past year has become increasingly global as I'm working and traveling. It's become my life, creatively and professionally. It's been amazing to see what's sprouting in other cities, and to be inspired—but I'm sure to always carry NYC with me, and to carry that message everywhere I go. Touching all of these places with my identity. Being brown, being femme, being queer, I'm breaking down barriers. NYC really helped me with that, and I'm so grateful for all of the queer people that have inspired my work. Their identity, their pain, the majority of their identity came from the city. I feel that more now than ever. It's all about being true to yourself, being honest. I'm connecting with people, in both IRL and in URL spaces, and that collision is really important to me and my work.
MR: There are times when models—let’s say in an ad campaign—are supposed to blend in with the aesthetic of a brand, or do whatever the photographer wants. How do you manage to keep yourself and your own voice in imagery taken of you?
RS: For instance, working with Vivienne Westwood and Juergen Teller, it was so incredible because she respected my voice, my body, my spirit. She wanted to encapsulate the beautiful diversity that exists in the city, but also globally. There are kids that look like me all over the world, and to give me that platform is so powerful. I saw eye-to-eye with her. She personally booked me for her show in Paris, and being able to walk in such a high-intensity production was something that still visibly is a part of my brain. I still have dreams about it. After the show, I met Edward Enniful, and my image from the campaign was in the new iteration of British Vogue. Just being present, and being in that specific place and time, just filled me with so much joy and excitement.
Afterward, being able to have dinner with Vivienne and breaking bread and talking ideas…so many times when you work with a brand or creatives, it's that one job and you don't necessarily connect afterward. This was so different because it's become an actual friendship. I hope to continue that dialogue, and connecting on what's happening in the world. Bringing our voices to the forefront. Vivienne is such an iconic hero of that. She inspires me. The things I put out there, the images I produce, I think about people who can't be heard or whose voices are neglected. I definitely am that individual, and once I took ownership of that, I can power forward. This rollercoaster of life is so crazy. My life, each day, I don't know what will happen. In that uncertainty, I thrive. In any creative capacity, you’re constantly moving, shaking, producing. Also just researching. I'm always finding myself looking deeper.
MR: Maybe you won’t relate to this, but I’ve found that being queer—something I hated about myself when I was younger—is now one of my favorite things about myself and even empowers my career in a way. Does that feeling seem familiar?
RS: Absolutely. I definitely identify with you. Beyond the LGBTQIA community, it’s bridging connectivity with the larger world. Having these conversations, and being comfortable in my skin and who I am. Getting people to feel comfortable having these conversations, and letting them know that we are who we are. We need exposure, we need new ways for people to see us. I'm starting to engage in projects that are larger, and focus on a bigger scope. I hope to trudge along this road of connecting people, and showing them positivity. Not only the positivity, but the dark side. The violence, the hate, the constant perpetuation and marginalization of people who look like me—whether they're trans, gender non-conforming, or don't abide by binary coding.
MR: I don’t think we should underestimate the power of images like these featuring overtly queer people. With how visually-inclined everyone is these days, you never know what impact it could have on kids questioning their own identities and the beauty therein.
RS: Absolutely, I'm so happy. For the younger generation, and through the heavy penetration of visuals that our society is so hell-bent on, it's very important for everyone here and especially the young people. Those are the people who reach out to me and ask me questions. They want to know how to get through the day, and I find myself always answering DMs and connecting with them. When I was younger, I didn't have anyone I could reach out to that gave me strength and serenity. Learning how to cope, and how to deal with the daily traumas. It's not just kids that reach out to me, it's people of all ages. I always say, "In a sea of darkness, there's always hope." There are so many people who say hateful things, but you also get people who give you praise and accolades and say thank you for existing. That gives me the strength. It's difficult, everyday, the challenges for a person like me makes me feel vulnerable. I'm not protected in anyway, and I want people to know that. However you look, it doesn't matter because someone out there will feel obliged to target you. People can hide behind their phones and computers, but we really need to be clocking our IRL spaces and how we protect one another. What are we doing today to stand up for people who are more vulnerable, like myself? That's a conversation I like to have with everyone in my life, it's something we have to do together. It's overwhelming, but it's necessary.
MR: It’s important to note that images of you wearing head-to-toe designer are glamorized, isolated moments within a life that’s more complicated and nuanced than that. You see photos celebrating people within the queer community and forget what their life is really like offset.
RS: The daily reality. That's why I'm really grateful for this platform that embraced me, and embraced my voice. Really understanding the intricacies of my life. I have a very multi-layered existence, and I'm always exploring new creative facets. I've been exploring my way around a camera, and that way of storytelling is really great. I shot a Vogue diary, which was really great. I got a lot of affirmation from that, and I want to continue documenting that experience, day-to-day. I'm going to be starring in a short film, called "External Forces" with Sebastian Sommer, and it's really cool. I'm in a queer relationship in the film, and it's really intense and complicated. It's important for someone like myself, to be on a moving screen to give that space, much-needed color. Much needed femme-ness.
MR: I'm excited to see what comes with that.
RS: We’ve been rehearsing for six weeks. We're finally going to lock it down. I'm so excited to be a part of this project. It's also being comfortable seeing myself moving on screen. I'm excited to bring my spirit to this, because I think it's important for people to see what it's like for a person like myself to be in a relationship.
Photographer: Lorenzo Fariello
Stylist: Jared Martell
Hair: Sean Bennett
Makeup: Sena Murahashi
Studio: Noah Blough & Joe Gray