The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

Tag: Nick Kamen (page 1 of 1)

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.

Stripping Down the Male Body

Disability charity Scope have been airing a cheeky ad this summer designed to encourage people to donate clothes. It’s a funny tribute to the iconic Levis ‘Laundrette’ ad of 1985 and features a very studly 24-year-old model and personal fitness trainer Jack Eyers in the Nick Kamen role. And boy, does he fill it.

Instead of stripping off to wash his clothes, Eyers denudes himself to donate to the cause. As he gets down to his white boxers we suddenly get a close-up on his hi-tech prosthetic leg, which has remained hidden until now. In terms of the way the ad is shot and structured his prosthesis is basically his penis. It becomes another way of ‘stripping down’ and ‘revealing’ the male body. Of signalling both toughness and vulnerability, passivity and activity, loss and possession at the same time.

Jack Eyers kink

And Eyers isn’t shy about it. His prosthesis is, as he says in an interesting interview with the Telegraph‘s Theo Merz here, something he likes to show off rather than hide because it looks ‘pretty cool’. It also doesn’t necessarily harm his employment prospects in an industry waking up to both the eye-catching potential and, paradoxically, the ‘normalness’ of disability. (You might also want to check out Theo Merz’s expedition to Newcastle in search of the spornosexual here – in which he discovers the man some Telegraph readers would like to pretend doesn’t exist is terrifyingly, ab-tauteningly real.)

Alex Minksy

Even less shy is US Marine vet turned underwear model Alex Minsky, who has been garnering a lot of well-deserved attention for his saucy shoots – and most particularly for the way, with his body art, sculpted muscles, styled facial and head hair, he has totally aestheticised himself, prosthesis and all. He’s also a model who clearly isn’t afraid to become a form of performance art. Splendidly kinky performance art. (Some naked selfies were leaked earlier this year – which only served to, err, enhance his reputation.)

Alex Minsky pressup

Perhaps part of the appeal of the buff, sexualised chap with prosthetic limb(s) is not just the ‘inspirational story’, but also the fantasy of total control over the body – even after something as traumatising as amputation. And of course the hi-tech, fascinating prosthesis that seems to bring ‘bionic’ powers blends with the cyborg nature of spornosexuality itself – a bodily merging with technology, in which the body is ‘machine tooled’ into something more exciting by nutritional and medical science, Technogym decline presses and Nair for Men. (Though for most this merging is done by uploading smartphone selfies to Facebook.)

Alex-Minsky-9
alex-minsky-modello-senza-gamba-6

I analysed the ‘Laundrette’ ad in Male Impersonators as a ‘seminal’ moment in the objectification of the male body – its ‘looked-at-ness’. Kamen’s strip in the living rooms of the UK in the mid-1980s (along with several other ads in that campaign, which increasingly sought to substitute the product for the model’s unshowable penis) really did mark a moment at which we woke up to the male body as a fully-fledged object of desire. Everyone in the laundrette, male and female, is having a really good look. And it’s worth mentioning he’s doing his own washing – no ‘little woman’ in his life to do it for him.

Like Top Gun, which was released the following year, ‘Laundrette’ packages this new male narcissism as ‘traditional’ and ‘retro’, when the real 1950s it is notionally located in confined this kind of fare to underground gay mags like AMG – certainly not prime-time TV.

Thirty years on we’re all still having a really good look. So much so that we require much more visual stimulation. Our gaze is more demanding, more penetrating. Back then Kamen’s body was pantingly-described as ‘hunky’, but now his slim, svelte body looks not rather coy in comparison to today’s ripped, pumped, inked and sexed-up spornos, with or without gleaming, well-oiled prosthetic limbs.

Not to mention almost a different species.

How Eighties Advertising Made Everyone Gay

by Mark Simpson

(GT Magazine, November 2008)

Why, I wonder, are gays – or at least the busybody, button-holing, milk-monitor ones – so keen on ads being nice to them, and telling the world it’s OK to be homo? Especially when this strategy frequently leaves them with mayo on their faces?

Stonewall’s apoplexy over the pulling of the Heinz ‘gay kiss’ ad earlier this year is a messy case-in-point. Excuse me, but it wasn’t a gay kiss, it was a joke: Heinz’s sandwich spread is so good, it turns mum into an ugly New York deli short-order chef whom dad pecks on the cheek before leaving in the morning. They’re not a gay couple. The fact it wasn’t a very good joke doesn’t make the sulky gay boycott of Heinz for pulling the ad look any less humourless than the literalist Christians and ‘family-values’ freaks who complained about it in the first place.

Likewise, whatever Snickers were saying in that TV ad featuring Mr T barking, “Get some nuts!” while firing candy bars at a swishy speed-walker, the much swishier response of gay groups on both sides of the Atlantic who succeeded in getting it banned sent out the entirely unambiguous message that gays don’t have any.

More to the point, who besides Stonewall and pensioners, actually watches TV ads these days? Isn’t that what the fast-forward button was invented for? Gay people, and for that matter most straights now, are too busy uploading their ‘home movies’ onto their online profile to watch TV in real time.

‘Impressionable’ kids that the gay busybodies want to protect certainly aren’t watching: they don’t see the point of TV that doesn’t turn the world into a lake of fire at the touch of an Xbox controller.

I’ll bet ready money most people only heard about these ads after the gay milk monitors started huffing, “How very dare you!” – and driving even more traffic to YouTube. It was the only place I actually saw either ad.

Gay protests about ‘homophobic’ ads today sometimes seem to exist in a virtual world, defending virtual people from virtual slights where the only thing that’s real is pointlessness. I’m old enough to remember when people did watch ads. It was a time when they were, as everyone used to say repeatedly, “the best thing on telly,” when, instead of diving for the mute button, people would turn the sound up. And it was a time when ads were doing their damndest to turn everyone gay. It was called the 1980s.

In the 1980s, advertising was gay porn – and the only gay porn generally available. Which is why it was so powerful. Now, thanks to the net, porn is porn – or rather, porn is advertising: I want those pubes/ that body/ that cock/ that orifice/ that surgery/ that lampshade.

The legendary UK Levi’s male striptease ads of the mid-1980s (inspired by the success of the 1983 Calvin Klein underwear poster campaign featuring a giant Tom Hintnaus stripped down to his Y fronts in Times Square, lensed by Bruce Weber) saw humpy young men take off their clothes off in our living rooms. It introduced the glorious notion of the worked-out, attention-hungry, proudly passive male body to an equally astonished and enraptured British public. And brainwashed an entire generation of straight boys into joining the gym and then going to gay discos and starting boybands to show off the results.

It also succeeded in making even straight women “gay”. After all, in place of cooing about “twinkly eyes,” 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 Aftershave ‘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.

You might think my take on how 1980s advertising queered up Britain and made it safe for metrosexuality fanciful, but there were lots of people who objected to the Levi’s commercials back then because they saw them as promoting sodomitic immorality. If those nay-gay-sayers had succeeded in having the ads pulled – in the way that gay groups succeed today with ads they deem to be immoral – who knows what kind of pec-less, ab-less world we might be living in?

In the post-advertising, post-gay porn world we’re living in, there’s an American website called Commercial Closet devoted to how ads treat homosexuals, which you can visit if you want to get worked up over ads you haven’t seen – most of them foreign. It has a gay grading system for each ad that, using a complicated very American formula, scores them from 0 to 100. Anything under 49 is deemed ‘Negative’, between 49-69 is ‘Caution’; 69-89 ‘Equal’; and 89-100 ‘Elton John’ (OK, I made that last bit up).

One of the more interesting contributions is a series of ads for the trainers ASICS, which ran in France this year. In them, two male French comedians, Omar & Fred, one black, one white, ‘go gay’, making passes at one another. Sans ASICS, they’re rebuffed indignantly by the other party. Avec, they go gaga for them. There’s nothing especially offensive about the ads. They resort to fewer stereotypes than gay-adored Little Britain and, more importantly, are (mildly) funny, and seem to be entirely accurate in what they’re saying about the effect that consumerism in general – and advertising in particular – have had on men.

How does it score according to Commercial Closet’s gay-friendly grading system? ‘40: Negative’.