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Nigel Barker: A Man Among Models

The photographer and TV star opens up about America’s Next Top Model and discusses his new show, The Face

Less than a year after being fired from his 17-season gig as a judge on America’s Next Top Model, pop-culture and fashion phenom Nigel Barker is making a major comeback. The 40-year old father of two is the new host of Oxygen’s forthcoming series The Face, a model-competition-reality-show (it premieres February 12). And while starring on TV now seems like a natural fit for the British-born fashion photographer, it once almost threatened to end his career. Barker opened up to DuJour about his struggles during the early years of America’s Next Top Model, how the industry has changed, and why he’s confident The Face will be a hit.

It seems like everywhere you turn another model or celebrity is joining the reality TV world. What was the industry attitude like when you started years ago?
When I was approached about Top Model, my career was on a real upward spiral—I had just done a bunch of great editorials and was getting calls from the likes of Jil Sander and Versace. It crossed my mind that if I joined the show, it could be considered selling out. I knew there was going to be an element of risk and an element of exposure. And for a while there, it was tough. A lot of people wouldn’t go near me.

So immediately after you joined Top Model, is it true that designers and magazines stopped hiring you?
The Vogues and various people – they wouldn’t touch me. They wouldn’t even look at my book. But what happened in the process of me being on the show for a decade is that obviously the fashion world changed.

In what way?
The whole world became digital. Things really took an enormous shift. Mass market became mixed with high fashion magazines. All of a sudden we had André Leon Talley, the editor-at-large of American Vogue on the Top Model panel. It’s a different time right now… the more exposure you get and the more the general public knows you, the better.

People are inevitably going to think of The Face as a Top Model spin-off. Are they really that different?
They actually are. People who watched America’s Next Top Model would always ask me what really goes on in a model’s life outside of the television show. Top Model is all about the craziness. The extreme. But I think it was always designed to show the most outrageous and extraordinary and flamboyant side to fashion. That doesn’t happen [for models] on an every day basis. The Face is a much more true-to-the-business. It’s almost like an exposé with a competition side to it.

How does the competition work?
Every week you have these three teams going up against one another to try to win a real contract from a client. One week the girls will do a story for W Magazine shot by Patrick Demarchelier, and at the end, [W editor-in-chief] Stefano Tonchi decides which team wins. And it’s an actual story in the magazine that gets published. On any other show, the judges pick the winner. On The Face, the winner is picked by the clients. That’s the real deal.

You worked alongside Naomi Campbell, Karolina Kurková and Coco Rocha, who each mentor their own group of girls on The Face. What were their teaching styles like?
You only need a very basic knowledge of these girls to know that they have very different viewpoints, and come from different places in the industry. Naomi is still at the top of her game after 30 years and doesn’t take no for an answer. You have Naomi, who is almost twice the age of the contestants, and Coco, at 23, is exactly the same age as them. And then there’s Karolina—one of Victoria’s Secret’s most famous angels—has babies of her own, so she’s a mother and a coach with a maternal instinct. It’s a very interesting dynamic; an interesting cocktail of ego and style and method.

With all the female energy, was there ever any drama on set?
Of course. It was my job to referee and mediate between them all. And when anybody needed a man’s shoulder to lean on I was the only one there. I got both the tears and the laughter. We had explosions and we had clashes and arguments. I was getting only 3 or 4 hours of sleep a night for 37 days straight, and when you have Naomi doing the same thing…and Coco and Karolina, you end up getting to see everything.

With the premiere getting closer, how nervous are you?
It really felt like we were having a baby while making the show [laughs]. We’re all very proud of it, and at the same time we’re all somewhat interested and anxious about how it will be received. The pressure’s good. We all thrive on pressure.