In the words of Nigel
Barker, former model, acclaimed fashion photographer and longtime judge
of the reality competition “America’s Next Top Model,” a beautiful
model is “just a facade if she doesn’t have that special something that
makes you warm to her”—a quote that not only speaks to his concept of
beauty, but also serves as a fitting introduction to the man himself.
For fans of “Top Model,” Barker is the picture of an English
gentleman—unfailingly well-spoken, dignified, handsome, kind. And yet
it’s what lies beneath his charming television persona that makes him
most likeable and knowable. A committed philanthropist, the author of a
new book about inner beauty, a loving husband and a father to two young
children, Barker speaks about his charitable involvements with passion,
his fame with humility, his family with unquestionable devotion, his
adopted hometown of New York City with enthusiasm and pride. As it turns
out, it’s not so difficult to warm to Nigel Barker.
is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and you recently collaborated with
Nine West for the Runway Relief initiative. Can you tell me about that
project, and why it was important for you to get involved?
year I shot an ad campaign for Fashion Targets Breast Cancer, which is
the CFDA’s (The Council of Fashion Designers in America) charity of
choice. And they approached me again this year, and Nine West, who is
collaborating with Fashion Targets Breast Cancer, also approached me,
and I said, ‘Absolutely, I’d love to keep this going.’ My wife’s
grandmother died of breast cancer, so the issue hits home hard for us as
a family. And I was asked to shoot the campaign, but also to lend my
celebrity to it to give it more exposure. So we decided to also shoot a
commercial, and in the ad campaign we shot three advertising pictures
and streamed the photo shoot live on the Internet. I think it’s
important to make a difference whenever you can, even in small ways, and
I want my children to see that actions speak louder than words. It’s
all well and good to say you’re going to do something or teach them that
it’s the right way to do it, but they have to actually see you doing
You’re also known to be a committed animal rights activist and a spokesperson for the Humane Society.
the spokesperson for the Protect The Seals Campaign and the Protect The Sharks
Campaign for the Humane Society. For me, it’s not about being an
activist— I feel like I’m an activist of life. I’ve always felt that you
only have one life, but if you live it well, one should be enough. And I
have delightful young children and I want them to have a great life, so
I do it for myself and for them, and because I think it’s the right
thing to do. These issues come up, and I apply myself to them not
because I have this huge thing for animals, but because if I see an
injustice, I’m not going to ignore it, I’m going to approach it head-on.
And as a photographer in the fashion industry, things like the anti-fur
campaign are serious to me, so it’s all the more poignant to me to be
Do you find that this is a difficult stance to take in the fashion industry?
definitely difficult, and for me it’s not so much that I’m anti-leather
or any of those things, it’s really the methods we use. We have rules
and regulations about how we kill livestock and the way we do things in
our lives. The ways that seals are killed on the icebergs in Canada are
horrific. So I went up to the ice, stayed there for three weeks in
subzero conditions with my team to film the documentary “A Sealed Fate,”
purely to say, “Let’s just see.” It was a labor of love; we were up on
the ice watching the migration of the seals down to the Gulf of Saint
Lawrence to give birth, to 12 days later when the hunt begins. The seals
are like puppies; they have no fear of humans and they come right up to
you. And it’s a real tragedy to see it happen. It’s been banned in the
U.S. since the ‘70s so it’s kind of preaching to the choir here, but in
Canada unfortunately they trade with Europe, China and Russia. However,
last year we managed to get a total ban of imported seal products in the
European Union, which is huge.
How did you meet your wife [model and Cover Girl spokesperson Cristen Barker]?
was staying in Italy and I photographed my wife the day I met her, and
afterwards I called my mother and said, “Mom, I’ve met this young girl
and I want to marry her.” And my mother was like, “Oh, come on. You just
met her.” I said, “She’s half Chinese, she’s from Alabama, she’s
lovely, and she’s a kind girl.” My mother thought I was crazy. She was
like, “There are cultural differences—she’s from Alabama and you’re from
London and half Sri Lankan, can’t you see it’s not going to work?” But I
was determined. I was in Italy for a week, and I left and came straight
back, because that’s where she was staying. And we ended up being in
Italy for a year together. And then she decided that she wanted to go to
Paris, so I followed her to Paris, and then she wanted to go to New
York, so I went to New York. I was following her around the world, so
she knew I meant business;%uFFFD there was no way to shake me off. And
after about seven years we got married, and this is our 11th year of
marriage on October the 16th.
Tell me about your kids. What do you love about them at the ages they are now?
one of those things where you love every moment of your children
growing up. Jack will be 5 November the 28th, and Jasmine will be 2
December 7th. Jasmine is just learning to speak, learning to
communicate, slightly frustrated that she doesn’t know how to get it all
out at once and how to say certain things. But it’s a precious moment
when she goes, “mahhhh!” and you know what she means. Jack will
translate for us; they already have this slightly secret language that
only siblings share.
Does your son have an understanding of what you do?
does; he’s very aware of what I do. He in fact just recently said he
wanted to save the animals. And I haven’t said too much about it, but
he’s aware that I care about animals. He said he wants to save the
chickens—he came up with that himself. So I said, “Okay, you can save
the chickens.” He came up with a website called AnimalKing.com; he
picked out the name, and he’s like, “Dad, can we go on the Internet to
make sure that Animal King is available? I want to make sure that no one
else has taken it.” I didn’t even know that he knew that that was
something that can happen. So we got Animal King, we have to build it
now. He’s also very into film. He’s started looking at some of my
cameras, and no matter where we are in the world, he has started
directing the photographs and placing people in positions. So he’s quite
a little man already.
So you see him gravitating towards being behind the camera as opposed to in front of it?
think he’d be happiest behind the camera; he’s certainly a photogenic
little boy; he takes after his mother, he has her beautiful eyes. But my
daughter is more the ham for the camera. For some reason when she looks
at the camera she says, “Cheese!” Which is not something I’ve trained,
you will not find me telling anyone to say “cheese” in my book. But she
says “cheese,” and it’s adorable when she does it. As much as I’d like
to take credit for how my children are, they come out their own ways;
they just are born, innately different and wonderful. What I try to do
is to impart good values to them, but how they translate that or how
they react to that, or whether they’re going to be quiet or loud or
whether they’re going to laugh or not laugh, it’s just who they are.
lived all over the world, so you have some amazing cities to which to
compare New York. What do you love about the city as your hometown?
love New York. I became an American citizen a few years ago and I joke
that had I had the opportunity to be a citizen of New York, I would
have, because as much as I love America, and I do, New York is very
special to me. It’s a total melting pot of people and cultures and
types, and it’s such a cultural city, with great intellectual
conversation, and of course it’s a great fashion capital too.
How do you feel about raising your children here?
I actually thought it would be difficult to bring up children here, but we have not found it that way at all. Obviously, the living
situation is harder. It would be lovely to have a big house and a
garden, and we don’t have that, but we have things that are equally as
amazing. Here, my kids are members of the Museum of Natural History.
They love the science and space exhibits, they can go to theatre and the
ballet. It’s a very family-friendly place to be. If you live in the
suburbs, yes, you’ve got a great garden, but if you need a diaper at 1
a.m. and you haven’t got any, that’s it!
America’s Next Top Model began its 15th season this year, making it one of the longest running reality shows of its kind. How do you think the show stays fresh?
a great recipe. When you go to your favorite Italian restaurant and
always order the Bolognese, you don’t want them to change it. It’s
become something you love. And with TV, it’s about getting it right.
It’s like “The Price Is Right,” or any show that’s been on forever, it’s
kind of a perfect idea. And of course the ingredients change, with the
girls every season, they bring their own originality and uniqueness to
the set. And we raise the bar and shake it up. One of the things about
the show is that we’re looking for a diamond in the rough. And as a
result, young girls all over the country see themselves in the show.
It’s become an international phenomenon; it’s in 146 countries around
the world—that’s more than “Sesame Street!”
remember the episode in Cycle 5 in which your mother came to speak to
the contestants, and it seemed like a proud moment for you.
my mom on the show was great. It was fun for people to get to know me
better and who I am and where I’m from. My mother has always been an
integral part of my life. I’m one of six children, so we had to
share—you only got so much of your mother’s time. But with that being
said, I never felt that. My mother was a model and a beauty queen, and
she won a Miss Sri Lanka competition in the early ‘60s. And when she got
a modeling contract, she brought her family to England and worked very
hard as a model and as a singer and actress in the ‘60s and early ‘70s
to look after them. So it’s an important message—even when my mother was
doing something as frivolous as being a model, she was doing it to
benefit her whole world.
What was the inspiration behind your new book, “Beauty Equation?”
The idea of
the book is that I wanted to clear up that what I consider to be
beautiful isn’t being a model—it’s the person you are, and the book is
all about that. I broke it into 10 chapters, like Spontaneity,
Confidence, Honesty, Charm—things that you might not think are
photographic things, but they are. They translate—you could have a
beautiful facade, a model walks in with a perfect shape and look, but if
the person inside hasn’t got that special something, there’s nothing to
make you warm to them. At the end of every chapter I challenge the
reader to photograph themselves to see themselves transform as
they go through the book. We created a website called BeautyEquation.com where you can upload the photos, videos and the written
challenges and make an online portfolio which you can then share with other people doing the book. And there’s another part
of the website called Be One, which is a global community. We’re trying
to start a global discussion on beauty from all over the world, and to
inspire people to feel better about themselves, and to realize that they
may not look like a model but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t
equally as beautiful, equally as valuable and should feel great about
who they are. I get emails every day from young girls who want to be a
model, who think that being a model is being beautiful, and they’re so
wrapped up in this concept, they don’t look to see what they do have to
offer, which is who they are.
Many of our readers are busy city moms. Can you give one piece of wisdom from your book that speaks to moms in general?
of the chapters in this book is Compassion. And the reason that it’s in
there is that through the humanitarian things that I’ve done in my
life, I’ve grown in confidence, grown in strength, grown in direction.
And I think that for any mom, if you can do anything outside your home
that’s charitable, whether it’s working at a soup kitchen once a week
for two hours or helping in the community, you feel good about that, and
it’s an incredible sign for their children to see their mothers working
in the community, and knowing their mother is a beautiful woman, as I
do mine. It was through my mother’s behavior that I grew to be the man I
am today. And that’s something to feel beautiful about, something to
feel strong about, and something to feel proud about. It’s about
realizing who we are and what we have.
Photography by Josh Lehrer