Glass exclusive – Changing gears: Glass interviews Tyson Beckford

Changing Gears – The world’s first male supermodel Tyson Beckford on shifting perceptions, building your brand and why it’s time to act like you run the world

TYSON  Beckford is calling from Miami and explaining why he’s made the city his new hometown.
“My relationship went south so I went south,” he jokes, only half kidding. “I was in a situation that wasn’t healthy for me,” he elaborates, “so I literally moved out of New York and down to South Florida.” He’s calling from a repair shop while he’s waiting for his Dodge Hellcat to be checked out, and it’s clear that change has been on Beckford’s mind lately, both literally and figuratively.



Tyson Beckford by Ssam KimTyson Beckford. Photograph: Ssam Kim


It’s been almost three decades since the chiselled aspiring actor was famously scouted by an editor from The Source, and launched into fashion superstardom. Along the way, the Bronx-native fronted campaigns for everyone from Gucci to Guess, and became the highest-paid male model in the industry, the pinnacle of which was reportedly a record half-million-dollar contract with Ralph Lauren. The ads for the All-American brand made Beckford a household name, a position further cemented by his appearances in Toni Braxton’s video for Unbreak My Heart, and Britney Spears’ TRL [Total Request Live] staple, Toxic.

Tyson Beckford by Ssam KimTyson Beckford. Photograph: Ssam Kim

These days, the 46-year-old is still highly in demand – he has just finished a tongue-in-cheek residency with Chippendales in Vegas while simultaneously walking in New York Fashion Week – though he’s starting to write the blueprint for the next phase of his career as well.

Tyson Beckford by Ssam KimTyson Beckford. Photograph: Ssam Kim

The modelling industry has changed, and while many of the things that Beckford fought for in his career – diversity in castings and on the runways, for example – have improved, the path to success is no longer paved in sweat. “Back in my day, you had to work to work,” Beckford says. “You couldn’t just call yourself a ‘supermodel’; your family couldn’t just buy you into the business.

Another change: the rise of social media, which Beckford calls out for promoting a fake relevance, based more on “social climbing” and posturing, than actual talent.

“When I look at these young models,” he sighs, summing up his thoughts, “I just think we worked in an era that was a lot more real.”

Tyson Beckford by Ssam KimTyson Beckford. Photograph: Ssam Kim

Beckford’s longevity in the industry can be attributed to a lot of things: good genes (Beckford has Jamaican, Chinese and Panamanian ancestry); a natural talent for performing in front of the camera; and perhaps a little bit of divine intervention as well. (In 2005, the then 34-year-old survived a car accident that left him with severe head trauma and swelling. “I still wake up every morning and thank God I’m alive,” he says.)

But the main key to the “Beckford brand”, it seems, has always been remarkably simple: “No matter what happens or what I do,” Beckford states, “I’ve always tried to remain open and positive.”

Being “open” has meant diversifying his career outside modelling. In addition to his music video appearances, Beckford has starred in a number of movies and was a host for two seasons of the Bravo reality show, Make Me a Supermodel. These days, he’s hoping to add producer credits to his CV, while simultaneously pursuing a clothing line as well.


Tyson Beckford by Ssam KimTyson Beckford. Photograph: Ssam Kim

A huge speed freak (the model spent his first big pay cheque on a Honda CBR motorbike) Beckford briefly considered professional auto racing, after the folks at NASCAR offered him a chance to drive, upon hearing he was a fan. Beckford’s manager quickly put that discussion to an end. While a male supermodel-turned-NASCAR driver may have seemed far-fetched, it’s just another example of how Beckford has bucked convention and defied expectations throughout his career.

In many ways, it’s a by-product of being a biracial person of colour. Speaking with Beckford, you get the sense that he’s always had to earn his way into acceptance, whether from peers in the industry, in relationships, or even among friends. Because he didn’t fit in, he’s had to work harder to stand out.

Tyson Beckford by Ssam KimTyson Beckford. Photograph: Ssam Kim

“I was in the Asian club in high school and everyone thought we were nerds ’cause maybe Asian kids were smarter,” he shares. “But I was teased because I had Asian eyes, yet I looked black. The kids were like, ‘You’re confusing’.”

Then there are the multiple stories of Beckford being the only person of colour at castings, and rumours that he once almost lost a job because the front desk thought he was a delivery man, and sent him around the back instead.

Beckford, who has an 18-year-old son that is “German-Spanish-Jamaican-Chinese”, says he’s learnt to deal with the discrimination, though it’s been harder to see the increasingly divided times his son is growing up in.


Tyson Beckford by Ssam KimTyson Beckford. Photograph: Ssam Kim

“My parents always taught me to love everyone,” he says, offering some respite. “Talk to your neighbour; have a conversation with someone from a different race or income class; befriend someone who is not like you.”
“As Americans, I mean, as humans,” he emphasises, “it’s the human thing to do.”

It seems as though Beckford has always been an agent of change, from the way he defended his Asian Club friends in high school to the way he set the tone for diversity on runways and campaigns. These days, as he’s starting to really understand the scope and impact of his career, he’s hoping to change a few minds as well.


Tyson Beckford by Ssam KimTyson Beckford. Photograph: Ssam Kim

“When I was doing my TV show (Make Me a Supermodel), I realised that my peers and millions of people were watching, and I couldn’t let them down,” he says. “The decisions and movements you make are an opportunity to educate your audience.”

It’s a lesson Beckford hopes to instil in his son and in those who follow his career. Could it also apply to another fellow former reality star, one that’s now in higher office?  Beckford is pointed, not political, but ends our conversation with this, “You don’t have to be the ruler of the free world,” he says emphatically, “but you do need to act like one.”

by Tim Chan

Photographer: SSAM KIM

Taken from the Glass Archive issue 31 – Patience. To make sure you never miss out on a copy of Glass, please visit here to subscribe


Photography assistant: JOHN ELLIOTT

Production coordinator: DANIELLE CURRE

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