Naked in New York
January 28, 2002
Houston Street in New York is a major downtown thoroughfare, a fast-paced, four-laned roadway arrayed with fashion billboards plugging the world's most recognisable brands. Zipping past them in a taxi can be a dizzying experience, not unlike watching a big flick book in the sky, but a recent addition has enticed more necks to crane, eyebrows to raise and traffic to slow than any other.
It's the arresting new Calvin Klein underwear campaign, on the corner of Houston and Broadway, featuring Australian model Travis Fimmel. Clad only in his white jocks, Fimmel gazes out over SoHo like a giant Gulliver, as imagined by the editors of Playgirl magazine. Fimmel, who is 22, has been catapulted to instant notoriety. From relative obscurity, his symmetrical features, attenuated body and accompanying bulge will soon be plastered on billboards and placed in magazines everywhere in the free world, including Australia this autumn.
From a bucolic background on a farm 40km outside Echuca, Victoria, where he regularly milked cows, Fimmel has rocketed into the pantheon of international sex symbols. The coveted slot of Calvin Klein poster boy is the most illustrious a male model could snare, it's the big kahuna of the glamour profession.
So what does Fimmel make of all the fuss? "Can't take it seriously, mate. Embarrassing. Funny." And the massive poster? "I don't look at it, man."
We are seated in the blindingly white offices of Calvin Klein in New York's garment district, a short journey uptown from the traffic-stopping billboard. Moments earlier, I was advised by a minder to refrain from asking the undie sensation abstruse questions about the image-making industry. "Travis is not about that. He's about having fun. He's a real, normal guy."
Nothing prepares you for just how artless Fimmel is. He comes over like a fish out of water, a latter-day Crocodile Dundee who wandered on to a fashion shoot. He doesn't brandish a knife, but he does turn up to the interview with a bandage fixed to the bridge of his nose, which suggests a recent dust-up.
"I walked into a door," he says.
You are not inclined to press the point. Not because he's threatening, he isn't. The Calvin Klein pin-up with the penetrating glare turns out to be sweet natured, self-effacing and utterly guileless. At one point he yanks up the waistband of his underwear to prove his allegiance to the company, a year-long contract reportedly worth six figures. "I've got 500 pairs of them at home. I only have to wash about once every two months."
Garbed in loose layers of blue, with dark circles under his blue-green eyes, his shoulder-length blond hair tied back, Fimmel looks as if he's had a night on the town. He sits slumped in a chair and picks desultorily at a croissant. If brevity is the soul of wit, Fimmel is a hysterically funny guy. Most of his responses are marked by an economy of words. Quizzed on his induction into the fashion house, Fimmel says, "Everybody with Calvin Klein is awesome and so nice. Even Calvin, you'd think he'd be stuck up and he's just so down to earth. He's rich as f---, though."
To promote the campaign, Fimmel has already chalked up in-store appearances in New York and San Francisco. Hundreds of lust-filled fans turn up for an autograph, a poster or a glimpse of the Adonis in the flesh. Some ask for his signature on a pair of Calvins, which begs the question: what type of marker works best on the new compacted cotton? Fimmel smiles. "I use a Texta." Sensing the absurdity of it all, he adds, "Whatever makes people happy."
This is Fimmel's favourite expression, which he deploys whenever he prefers not to think about being a global object of desire. How else to respond to the prurient gushing of internet fans? Typical is C J from gaywired.com who writes, "I can't stop looking at this guy. I admire that gorgeous face and eyes. Then I stare at his pecs and his abs and his bulging Calvins. This guy is gonna be big!"
Calvin Klein campaigns are, in many ways, culturally significant. For one, along with movies, MTV and magazines such as Men's Health, they telegraph male standards of beauty. In the early 1980s the ads presaged the explosion of sculpted male bodies in advertising and the media, hinting at the fact that men are now just as likely to be judged on their appearance as women.
Fimmel has a slimmer, more natural look than his preening predecessors Mark Wahlberg, Michael Bergin and Antonio Sabato jnr. "We were looking for a new type of guy this time," says Sydney Bachman, former global creative director of advertising and fashion for Calvin Klein. "Travis is slimmer and boyish. Today it's not about working out in the gym and having yourself so pumped up and muscular. It's more about being athletic and slim."
As if to prove the point that models are extraterrestrial beings, beamed down from a parallel dimension to torment the rest of us, Fimmel admits his gym membership has long expired, and he eats what he pleases. "I'm the most unhealthy person in the world," he says. Fimmel lives in Los Angeles, where his routine seems to consist entirely of surfing and channel-surfing, as well as cruising around in his 1985 Bronco. He waxes lyrical about the beach at Malibu, an idyllic setting with dolphins and seals. He reserves his wrath for sharks of the human variety.
"There's a lot of people out for themselves in LA, a lot of fake relationships. Where I'm from, everybody's just good friends." Is he for real? You better believe it.
"The thing about Travis," says Chadwick model agency booker Matthew Anderson, "is he is genuinely not aware of his appearance, or he's just playing cool. It might be a mix of both."
Fimmel is the youngest of three brothers. As a child, he worked on the family farm, rode motorcycles and hunted foxes. He loved his footy and his fishing. "He's always had an adventurous spirit," says his mother Jenny. "He would disappear and camp out for the night. Even now, as soon as he gets home, he jumps on a motorbike and heads out to see what's been happening on the farm. He's always loved it here."
Fimmel left home at 17, moved to Melbourne at 18, and arrived in London at 19, where he remained for two years. The modelling seed had already been planted when, in 1998, Anderson discovered him in a Melbourne gym. "He was a bit embarrassed about it all, like, 'What are you talking to me for?'" Anderson says. "He never saw himself as being a star and I don't think he does now."
In fact, Fimmel was self-conscious as a youngster. "He was small, the little guy," says his mother, "so it doesn't suit his character at all to make a big deal about his looks. Last time he was home, he got around in a checked shirt and torn jeans and I thought, 'Can't we dress him up at all? Isn't he supposed to be comfortable wearing nice clothes?' That's not to say he isn't enjoying his lifestyle. He's making the most of it, as any 22-year-old would."
Squiring All Saints singer Nicole Appleton in London was just like dating any other girl, Fimmel reasons. By the time he arrived in LA, eager for a change of scenery, he was down to his last few dollars. So he did what anyone with his genetic lottery ticket would do. He wandered into LA Models, where booker Paul Nelson recognised instantly that Fimmel was a hot commodity.
"He had a beautiful face, a very funny personality, it all clicked. We helped him out with money, we helped him with a place to stay, we believed in him right from the beginning."
Soon enough Fimmel was playing a love interest in video clips for Jennifer Lopez and Janet Jackson, an experience he describes as "cheesy". When the time came to throw his composite card in the ring for the Calvin Klein campaign, he baulked at the idea of modelling underwear. The agency sent along his pictures anyway. A pool of suitably square-jawed and well-endowed models was short-listed for the job in New York. After the introductions to Klein and his creative team, a representative thanked everyone for coming and bid them all adieu, except Travis.
"I felt like a prick," he says, though the guilt didn't last long. "It's good, it makes a lot of people happy." Except you're not entirely convinced he's happy. You can't help but wonder whether Fimmel would prefer to be doing something else. But what?
In LA, there's the inexorable pull of acting. "There is a little pressure," he admits. "Everyone's ringing to ask. I don't have a clue what I'm doing. I might go home straight after this. I might go travelling again. My plan is to make a plan." Studying is not a possibility. "I hated school with a passion, man. It bored me to death. Modelling is so boring, too. It's meant to be a glamorous job, but you sit there for ages. Good food, though."
In the movie Zoolander, Ben Stiller plays a boy mannequin with a handful of freakazoid poses including one called Blue Steel. I ask Fimmel what his signature look would be. He ponders the question for a second. "It would be something friendly."
What about Cheeky Monkey?