Jeans-Genie – The Lecherous Legacy of Those 80s Levi’s Ads

Mark Simpson on how we’re all living in Nick Kamen’s Launderette now

Another fondly-remembered part of the 1980s finished its last cycle last week. Nick Kamen, real name Ivor Neville Kamen, the Essex-born much-gasped-over star of the famous 1985 Levi’s 501 male striptease ‘Launderette’ TV ad, checked out.

He was just 59. Sadly, this was more than a decade before his Biblically-allotted threescore years and ten was up. But, self-centred as ever, I couldn’t quite stop myself from thinking: ’59!! How did that doe-eyed young buck in his boxers get to be SO OLD??’ In other words, even older than me.

Ads nowadays are almost invisible rather than cultural moments, and young men taking their clothes off on TV is completely commonplace today, so it’s difficult to grasp now the sensation that this ad and the others in ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s (BBH) legendary 1980s Levi’s campaign caused at the time. Ironically, that’s because we are all living in Nick’s Launderette now – though it’s under new management and changed its name to ‘Instagram’. We’re utterly blasé about male tartiness. We’ve seen it all, dear.

I (over-)analysed the impact of these ads and Kamen’s exhibitionism in my 1994 book Male Impersonators, emphasising how they presented the young male body as a voyeuristic pleasure (for the audience) and a passive pleasure (for the male model) that had hitherto been mostly associated with male homosexuality – along with the way the product (the jeans) is carefully fetishised by association with the phallus. Softcore gay porn became a prime-time hard-sell. Commodified cock for the unwashed masses.

All to the plaintiff, pleading strains of a classic soul song about a man sexually competing with ‘another guy you loved before’ (‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’).

Just look at the way the button-fly of the 501, once the very symbol of it’s trad dadness, is turned into an unwrapping, fingering oh-so-modern tease. The male desire to be desired unleashed.

And let’s not forget, he’s doing his own washing. Where is the mum or the ‘little woman’ in his life that until then in ad land should be doing it for him?

Likewise, the young man working out in the 1986 follow-up Levi’s ad ‘Bath’, as the camera lovingly caresses his muscular body to the strains of an innocent 1950s love song about longing (‘Wonderful World’), stretching the seat of his jeans with squats, as the camera zooms in for an extreme close-up on his arse, is apparently living by himself – and flagrantly taking himself as his own love-object.

The photo of the young woman he looks at before slipping into the bath in his ‘shrink to fit jeans’ (with the camera zoomed in on his crotch) doesn’t straighten things out – it merely emphasises his horny availability to the predatory eye of the viewing public.

Not only are these mute, humpy young men and their packaged packets available for our queer viewing pleasure, they could also themselves be queer. Either way, BBH made it clear that they were definitely ‘TBH’.

Tom Hintnaus, working Times Square

BBH’s pimping of the male body was undoubtedly inspired by the great success of Calvin Klein’s first men’s underwear campaign in 1982-3, which saw handsome, smoothly-sculpted and oiled-up American pole vaulter Tom Hintnaus, snapped by manophile photographer Bruce Weber in Mr Klein’s pricey pants, towering over (the then gloriously seedy) Times Square – like a high-class, Olympian hustler. But BBH’s Levi’s ad campaign went one better – and brought Times Square into the living rooms of mid-1980s, prime-time Britain.

BBH didn’t invent male objectification, but they pretty much patented it in the UK. ‘Launderette’ is metrosexual Ground Zero – and clearly left an indelible impression on the 10-year-old David Beckham. Come to think of it, isn’t that him playing one of the kids closely observing Mr Kamen?

A young David Beckham takes notes

Levi’s, previously an ailing ‘dad brand’, was resurrected and remade uber cool by BBH’s male striptease. By 1987, Levi’s 501 sales figures had gone beyond firmed, or even tumescent, and grown to a whopping 8x what they had been before Kamen & Co. started wearing them – or rather, pulling them off. Sales of boxers also went through the roof.

Full, unsolicited disclosure: as a measure of my young impressionability, I myself wore boxers for years after being exposed to those ads – despite the fact they were not very sexy, or practical, especially in tight jeans: they had a way of strangling your baubles. Funnily enough, it transpires BBH only put Kamen & Co. in boxers because they weren’t allowed, by the guardians of televisual mores, to show them in their Y-fronts. In doing so, the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre sentenced millions of young men to CBT.

‘Launderette’ might have been a UK ad phenomenon, but its influence ‘went ballistic’. Top Gun, the definitive 80s movie that everyone likes to now regard as the ‘gayest movie eva’, was released the following year, directed by the British adman (and brother of Ridley) Tony Scott. The earth-bound sequences of the fantastically phallic movie had the same kind of overtly sexualised treatment of man-boyish Tom Cruise as man-boyish Nick Kamen in ‘Launderette’ – with the same warmly reassuring 1950s, Ray-Ban-ed, sepia-tinted, faux nostalgia aesthetic. But this time in an all-male launderette. With added steam.

Tom and the boys at the Top Gun Launderette, waiting for their underwear to dry.

So perhaps you’ll understand why I wrote an only slightly tongue-in-cheek essay back in 2008 called ‘How Eighties Advertising Made Everyone Gay:

It also succeeded in making even straight women “gay”… it encouraged women to look at the male body with the same critical, impossibly demanding, carnivorous eye that gay men had used for years. In fact, so much have all our expectations been inflated that Nick Kamen’s ‘fabulously hunky’ body as it was described back then by the tabs, today probably wouldn’t get past the audition stage – he’d be told to go back to the gym and inject some horse steroids.

Pre-1980s there wasn’t much gay lust in ads or, for that matter, Britain. I remember as a kid spending most of the 1970s watching an Old Spice ‘Mark of a Man’ commercial, which featured a surfer riding a vast, spuming wave in very long-shot, to the climactic strains of ‘O Fortuna’ from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The number of times I waited for that ad to come on as a kid, hoping, praying that this time the camera would move in closer.

In the 1980s, my prayers were answered, and the lens moved in, big time. Since then, it’s never moved back. It has zoomed ever closer, until now we’re looking at the mitochondria on the walls of men’s small intestines.

Maybe I’m an incurable romantic/masochist, but I sometimes find myself missing the aching, blurry, long-shot tease of 1970s’ Old Spice masculinity. Because it never quite delivers, it never disappoints.

(OK, I lied about missing 1970s Old Spice masculinity.)

By the way, on the subject of Kamen’s ‘hunky body’ not being buff enough by today’s standards – it turns out it nearly wasn’t at the time: Kamen was only given the role on the condition that he lose weight.

Madonna had no reservations however, and was famously so enamoured with what she saw she gave Kamen a breathy pop song, “Each Time You Break My Heart”, which went Top Ten in the UK. Further success in his home country eluded him, however. His teen girl fanbase were terribly fickle and cruel. According to the journalist and TV presenter Kate Thornton, a schoolgirl at the time:

“There wasn’t life for Nick Kamen after Levi’s because he broke the rule…he talked!… We just liked looking at him. It was as simple as that. He was a model and he just had these smouldering beautiful looks… but fundamentally he was to be looked at and lusted over, and never to be taken seriously…”

It’s lucky that 21st Century feminism has conclusively proved that only women can be objectified, because otherwise Nick would have been horribly objectified, way back in the 20th Century. (It’s also noteworthy that almost none of the media pieces on his death I saw included a photo of middle-aged Kamen.)

James Mardle, ‘Bath’ 1986

I have to say though that Nick, lovely and historic as he was, and definitely not someone I would have kicked out of my bedsit, was not my fave. If I was Madge, I would have sent my spare song to the lad in the second ad, ‘Bath’. Not only is he, with his home workouts, more proto sporno than proto metro (and has an arse), he’s also got the most incredibly romantico face; lit here like a proper homme fatale. But after his prime-time tease he seems to have faded back into obscurity without even a one hit wonder to his largely unremembered name (James Mardle).

Actually, I’m such a slut that even in Nick’s own ad I always found myself thinking about the young lonely Marine in uniform loitering outside the ‘Laundromat’ promising a ‘power wash’. And clearly, I’m meant to: he’s the curtain-raiser, the first person we see in the ad, as the camera pans tantalisingly past (Nick walks quickly behind him face turned away from the camera).

To the Unknown Marine

What or who is he waiting for? A ride? A sweetheart? A john?

By the time we see the street from inside the launderette he’s already gone. Perhaps the driver of cruising Buick in the opening shot has finally picked him up. Perhaps Bob Mizer was behind the wheel, whisking the jarhead to his Physique Pictorial photoshoot.

Or Maybe it was just Madonna again.

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