The Reinventions of Charley Speed

September 1st, 2017

“I was lucky. I could be shot to look handsome!”

Charley Speed was discovered – almost by accident – in his teens when a friend submitted a book of photos to a TV show with the premise of finding the next big thing in modeling. Charley won, was plucked from obscurity and become a sensation, featuring in the most prestigious titles, modeling the world’s leading brands. Famously, Charley modeled for Calvin Klein alongside the supermodel Kate Moss. His look defined a moment – he became the face of ‘heroin chic’ and his rise continued. In 1997, he won Model of the Year at the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards. Then, almost as quickly as his rise to fame, Charley seemingly fell out of favour with the industry that made him a star. He changed direction and re-emerged as a panelist of Britain’s Next Top Model. Now, with the attributes of a pioneer, Charley is reinventing himself again and embarking on a new career, where he is both in front and behind the camera.

In this exclusive and candid interview, Charley reveals what really happened behind-the-scenes and shares his passion. For loudspeakers…

Speed and Kate Moss for Calvin Klein
Kate Moss and Speed for CK.

Hi, Charley. Please describe your early career, coming out of nowhere to international recognition?

“It all started when a friend of mine sent pics into a competition. I had nothing to do with it. It was a TV programme called “Massive” I think. I won and was then immediately taken on by Models1.

They told me I could do it full time and thought I could ‘do quite well.’ I was signed when I was 15 and doing Milan, Paris and New York by the time I was 16.

It all happened so quickly. Within a year, I was in a Calvin Klein campaign with Kate Moss. This would have been ’96 and she was already very big then. I was just 16.”

Did life on shoots force you to grow up very quickly?

“Yes, pretty much although I always had a mature head on me. Travelling on my own was lonely at times.”

You hadn’t intended this career?

“No, not at all. In fact, I had zero interest in fashion. But there’s no sob story. I went to a great school, paid for by my parents. Their funds went into that so there weren’t the excesses of things like Air Jordans. I got very accustomed to wearing cheaper, bland clothes. So I very quickly switched off to it (fashion), and in a way, that was a blessing. I’ve never been desperate to have the latest, best thing all the time. Actually, from a very young age, my music was more important to me than my image.”

You turned your back on your Art and Design education?

“Yeap, I don’t think I had intended that to be my career though. I got good grades in Art and was enjoying myself on the course. I loved doing sculptures.

I actually wanted to design loudspeakers when I was a child! I was obsessed with them! My father bought me a book on loudspeaker design when I was 10 or 11 – on purpose probably. It was just physics and mathematics and a lot of theory, so I got put off!

Then I was plucked from obscurity. It was probably a good thing! But I had no idea what I was getting into or just how many people went for any given job.”

Did you represent a ‘breakthrough’ for male modelling?

When I got involved, the male Supermodel already existed. Yes, the girls dominated the era but there were icons like your Mark Vanderloo, Marcus Schenkenberg, Tyson Beckford – to name but a few – who were recognised, male Supermodels. Saying that modeling is a pretty insular industry. You can be famous in your bubble. I guess I was pretty ‘famous’ for three or four years.

Even though male supermodels existed, there was a huge difference in pay, dominated by the girls. I guess at the time it was one of the few industries where this was the case.

I slipped into the industry and became a thing. I had the right look at the right time.”

Speed for Helmut Lang.

You pioneered male ‘heroin chic?’

“To be honest, I didn’t even know that was what was happening at the time. I look back on those shots and sometimes I loathe what was taken. I was mentioned in a post just this morning, showing a shoot I did for Helmut Lang and I hate the images. I had dopey eyes and they accentuated them with makeup. They used to do that a lot with me.

At the time, I turned up and did what I was asked to do. I was more interested in doing the acting part of modelling and just didn’t pay attention to how smacky they were making me look. Now I look back, I realise that while it wasn’t every shot, it was many of them.

I didn’t pioneer the look; it was simply in vogue at the time and I was it’s face.”

How did the career unfold - the meteoric rise?

I did four Calvin Klein campaigns and I became ‘the new face out there’ and boom! Everyone wanted to shoot me; everyone wanted to book me for anything.

The high fashion editorials fuelled high fashion campaigns and then… it’s was an upward circle to the catwalk.

I smashed the show seasons, working for the best designers. My attitude was mostly good – I wanted to be civil and just get on with stuff.

It all came so quickly. I never realised that everyone else had done the graft – the rejections – day in and day out.”

The rejections? You mean at castings?

“Yes. Once I had the CK work in my folio, it got easier. And I was versatile, I could do classic suits or edgy street urchin… That helped me a lot.”

Tall though?

(Laughing) “Yeap, too tall for M&S. I’d see them all the time and they’d say, “You’re just too tall, Charley.”

I had to treat it like I was just a product. I was either right for the job or not. I very quickly had to develop a thick skin. And I guess I was fortunate I’d just fallen into it. Other models had a passion for fashion, the clothes, and the brands, so getting knock-backs was harder for them. Busy models might be at five or six castings a day. You have to expect to be rejected.”

Did you become more interested in fashion and invest time building relationships with brand leaders to ensure more work?

“No. And to my detriment, really. I just didn’t think like that as I was so young. Easy come and easy go. I didn’t realise how quickly it would end.”

Was it your choice (for the high end fashion career to ‘end’)?

“I guess that when you burn bright, you’re also extinguished pretty quickly. Was I over-exposed? Possibly.

Towards the latter part of that career, I can remember hanging out with some younger models and they said, “dude, you’re a nice guy!” I asked, “Why would you think that I’m not?” The answer I got was something I started to hear a lot. “Because we thought you were a bit of a smack head.” I figured that the rumour was going around, possibly exacerbated by the way I’d been photographed. But also because I’m just chilled out – and naturally skinny!

Basically, if you piss off the wrong person in the industry – and I think I know who it was – they have so much power within it, they can just say, “fuck him, don’t work with Charley anymore.” In hindsight, all these years later, with a wiser head, I think I did that.

Having said all that, maybe I’d just had my time. Given the way that fashion changes, the more extreme your look, the shorter it lasts. Cool looks – the edgier – were being used by fashion brands like Prada but the looks fluctuated all the time. I only lasted as long as I did because of my versatility.”

Speed in Arena Magazine
Speed for Arena magazine. Credit: Arena.

You’ve described a shot you don’t like; is there a particular shot you do like?

“Here’s the thing. My period was analog. I wasn’t the best at keeping my work. Mum was quite good. She’d buy The Face and Arena magazines and any others I’d remember to mention. I didn’t keep any of it.

I am fond of the shots taken by Ellen Von Unwerth; black and white, grainy. Good, moody editorial – although there is a fine line between appearing to do a Blue Steel pout (Zoolander) and being genuinely edgy!

When I’m given the opportunity, I like to act. In a weird way, the act of male modeling has always felt a bit odd so as soon as I’m given a motivation or a story, I can pretend to be acting. Like “what the fuck is going on here?” I can really get into it.

My favourite shots? The big editorials with a story. The huge shoots with Winnebagoes in the streets of New York. It was bonkers!”

Charley Speed in Britain's Next Top Model
Speed and panel of BNTM

After a period pursuing commercials jobs, you hit our screens as a judge on Britain’s Next Top Model, sat alongside Elle MacPherson?

By 2001, I wasn’t as busy. So I started doing drama classes in Camden. I was fortunate to sign with Emma Bloomfield (acting agency). I said, “take me on for commercials and lets see what happens.” But again, I would get to casting and people would say I was too edgy, not safe enough. Models1 was always affiliated with BNTM and when they were changing the panel, I was asked if I wanted to meet them. They were looking for someone who had lots of experience. I screen tested but they choose someone else, much more flamboyant and stylishly dressed.

A year later, they came back and I got the job.”

Did this start the reinvention of Charley Speed?

“Yeah, it was a really big chance for me. I hadn’t been in the industry for some years and hadn’t been thinking about fashion at all. However, I knew I could be good on camera and I understood the young hopefuls’ passion for it (modeling). It did concern me somewhat – that desire – because I knew the reality of how hard models have to work, the constant rejection. I sold it to myself that I could give the girls a reality check, nurturing them. I helped them and made it clear, they’d have to be strong.

I did two years. Now I make my own TV programmes.”

Charley Speed with Russ Malkin
Speed and Russ Malkin on shoot for Road Rivals.

Let’s talk about that. You’re making a new series, reinventing yourself yet again?

“I want to be behind the camera – as well as in front of it. I want to make content that is entertaining, that gains an audience and that satisfies our clients and sponsors. Inspired by a series I co produced and presented a couple of years ago, we are making a new series with similar energy but with a different format. Essentially, it’s a fun travel show which showcases, as the title suggests, some of the best adventurous experiences combined with some of the most luxurious experiences you can have in a given country. For this first series, we’re in Thailand and experiencing everything it has to offer. I’m primarily focused on the luxury content while my mate Russ Malkin is all about the adventure. Should be a blast!”

Seven in Sevens

Sense of style?

“It fluctuates. I just make do with what is in the wardrobe. My wife finds it hard to spend on cars – the repairs in particular – and likes to spend on fashion. I’m polar opposite. I’ll spend on old loudspeakers. I’m an old fart really and I love that. I don’t really have a sense of what is cool in the moment – or what influencers are wearing – that’s just not how I want to live. I wear what I want to wear.”

And you probably pay for your own stuff now?

“You know what, when I probably could have had piles of free stuff, I forgot to ask!”

A funny shoot experience?

“I lost the keys to a McLaren supercar on a shoot once. Turns out I’d left them in the Gents having given a potential thief a good thirty minutes to procure themselves a new ride. The client wasn’t particularly amused!”

Favourite shoot location?

“Pier 59 in New York, where I shot my first Calvin Klein campaign. It was early days and such an overwhelming experience.”

Icons and influencers?

“I have to admit that I don’t really have any. I do hold my friendships dearly. Even when I exploded, I’d still hang out with my ‘normal’ mates back home. I guess my biggest influence is probably my old man. He worked in the film industry. What he did always excited me.”

Good luck carrying them, Charley!

Apart from your wife, what one valued thing would you take to a desert island - loudspeakers?

“Yeah, I was thinking which pair. I still have an obsession with loudspeakers, even to this day. eBay is the bane of my wife’s life. My dad had a friend who, at the time, was technical director of Tannoy and I grew up with a pair of Super Reds in the lounge. Every recording studio had a pair of Super Reds.They’re ugly but fabulously functional. When he (Charley’s father) died eight years ago, I went and bought a pair – found on eBay – from a guy who lived in the middle of nowhere in Wales. Years later I sold them after damaging my hearing – to Pete Townsend – on eBay! If they were still around – and even though they are fucking massive – I’d take them. It’s the 80s thing, a quality thing and the affiliation to my father.”

Still in touch with the friend who sent in your photos to that TV show?

“Hmm, yeah, loosely. It all worked out OK in the end (laughs).”

We'd like to thank Charley for taking time out of his schedule to hang out with us and wish him all the best for a great month shooting in Thailand. Charley's new series - with a working title of ``Adventure or Luxury?`` - should air before Christmas, 2017. Charley is represented by Mark at Established Models.