In our ongoing series,
A lot can change in just four months. Such is the case, at least, for Simon James, who finished up an internship teaching schoolchildren about environmental issues aboard a schooner last November and moved up to New York to give modeling a try. In the time since, he's been making the editorial rounds and opened Patrik Ervell's runway show during fashion week in February, and is now one of the stars of our suede feature from our April issue (below). But to hear him tell it, the soft-spoken, salsa-dancing young activist could just as easily have ended up working for a woodworker in New Mexico, the other option he was considering last fall. "The decision process was complicated," he says, "but really it came down to what I felt I had to do. So far it's treated me really well."
Height: 6' 1½"
Agency: Re:Quest Model Management
How were you discovered?
I was living and working on a sailboat and we were docked in Philadelphia for the Seaport Festival. I was walking around Rittenhouse Square with my sister and Karen Long from Re:Quest saw us on the street. The first thing she said to me was, "Have you ever thought of modeling?" and I had for a little while. A couple of people had told me it would be a simple and easy way to pay for college, but I was in a middle of an internship, so I told Karen it would have to wait. I took my time, came up and met the whole team, and stayed.
What were you doing on the ship?
It's an education vessel, so we took out school groups, mostly fifth grade to high school students, and taught them about environmental issues—the wetlands, the water shed, the whole nine yards.
Have you always been interested in environmentalism?
Completely. I haven't gone to college yet, but what I'd like to study is environmental sciences with a concentration on sustainable agriculture. I've always been interested in environmental issues. I've worked on farms before and I've always loved being out in nature. I spent six months up in the mountains in Monteverde in Costa Rica and I was in heaven. I do the most I can to be out in nature, so it's kind of weird that I've ended up here in New York, because it's the complete opposite.
Where were you doing in Costa Rica?
I volunteered at school for three months as a teacher's assistant and then I helped to construct a building attached to the school for the community. My junior year in high school, I did a service trip to Costa Rica and we got to go to Monteverde for one day. I knew I wanted to go back someday, so I decided I wanted to take a gap year and start there. It was the best year of my life. It was a magical time and I absolutely loved it. I fell in love, I met incredible people, I got to play lots of music. One beautiful thing about Monteverde is that it attracts not only scientists and biologists, but also artists and musicians and incredible, creative-minded people from all over the world. I couldn't have asked for a better place to be.
How did you get into music?
I started at the American Boychoir School in Princeton in fifth grade, and I was classically trained as a vocalist. It's a professional boys' choir, so we toured all over the world and I had all these incredible experiences: we sang at Carnegie Hall when I was eleven—I met Paul McCartney there—we sang at Tanglewood. I've been singing pretty much all my life, but I picked up guitar in my junior year in high school, and now I play mostly popular music. I like the old stuff: John Prine; the Band; Bob Dylan; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Peter, Paul and Mary—sort of folk.
What's the most memorable modeling job you've had?
So far it was definitely opening the Patrik Ervell show. Going into it, I didn't even know that being the first model out was a big deal. I had a little bit of adrenaline walking out onto the runway with all the lights and everything, but I've been on many stages, so it wasn't scary, it was just fun.
What's been the most surprising thing about the modeling industry?
I came in very ignorant about how this industry works, and I guess the most surprising thing was that I didn't start making money right away. I was not particularly ready for that, but that's how it works. I'm used to doing a job and either getting paid for it or getting paid in some fashion, like room and board, but here you've got to put in a lot of time and work, running around the city for castings, doing all of this, not knowing if you'll get anything out of it. I'm grateful though, because I've gotten a lot out of it so far.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?
When I was in my junior and senior years in high school, I struggled a lot because of personal and family issues. My English teacher really mentored me and helped me through some hard times, and I guess the best piece of advice he gave me was to set a goal, something to look forward to, and then put your head down and work hard until you get to that goal. In my junior year I decided to take a gap year and go to Monteverde, and just having that goal and something to look forward to and work toward really made those last two years of school bearable.
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—Jonathan Shia, follow him @JonathanShia