How a pimply Canadian farmboy rose to conquer the runways of Paris and Milan, then fell into a downward spiral of days-long drug trips, perpetual partying and a very public breakdown.
“I showed up to a casting call on acid once,” he says with a dry smirk. I’m talking to Matt Gordon, a male model who’s worked the runways from Paris to Milan. “I had this friend who was a trust fund girl. She came to Paris fashion week with a book of acid. We decided to do fashion week on acid.” They agreed to drop it with his roommate, a fellow model who had never tried it. “I remember him looking in the mirror and screaming ‘I’m a monster.’”
The next morning, Matt was woken up by his agent on the phone.
“You’ve got a casting call in an hour.”
Matt got himself dressed and headed out the door. As soon as he walked outside, he realized he was still tripping. “Everything looked beautiful,” he says. “All the colors were so vibrant.”
The casting call was filled with the usual mix of tall, slim boys with high cheekbones. Matt was asked to walk for the designers: “Walking in a straight line was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
To Matt’s surprise, the designer asked him to try on some of the clothes. He recalls everything looking exquisite: “I just remember telling the designer how beautiful the clothes were, that the feel of the fabrics was amazing.”
Apparently his tripped-out enthusiasm was enough. His agent called him up the next day to tell him he had still booked the shoot. “I just called my trust-fund friend and giggled.”
However, Matt grew up far from drugs, parties and high fashion, in Alberta, Canada on a farm outside the small town of St. Paul. The farm was fully-functioning, so he and his seven siblings milked cows in the morning and butchered meat in the evenings. “We had our own organic produce and meat. Some days I would just get on my horse and ride through the countryside the whole day.”
As a teenager, Matt says he was tall and awkward. “I never really saw myself as good looking,” he says, describing himself as “pimply with braces and painfully shy.” When he was fourteen, his parents split up and he moved with his mom to Edmonton. He began to realize he was gay and started driving up to Calgary to go out clubbing.
“There was this one guy that was basically the alpha gay of Edmonton. He was a pretty successful hairdresser and he drove a Mercedes and I just thought he was so hot…he would drive me up to Calgary wearing cowboy boots and a leather vest.”
At 6’3″ with cheekbones like cliffs and bright hazel eyes, Matt definitely attracts attention and nowhere was this more true than at the gay bars in Calgary. But still –the idea of modeling had never crossed his mind.
One night he was at a gay bar in Calgary during Stampede, a big cowboy party that takes over the town. The bar, filled with guys in boots and cowboy hats, was big, dark, and smoky. Out from the fog, someone walked up to Matt and asked “Are you a model? I’m a model scout and you have a great look.”
“I thought he was coming on to me,” Matt recalls. “Just trying to seem powerful and important. But then he gave me his business card.”
Still, it took Matt a year to actually consider modeling. By then his skin had cleared up and his braces had come off, leaving him with the smooth complexion and winning smile that would become his bread and butter. He decided to go and check out the agency the guy had told him about. When he showed up, towering and thin, the modeling agency signed him straight away.
They started out by sending him on local jobs. Matt’s first shoot, in his own words, was “horrible. I was incredibly self-conscious. I still am, but I had no idea how to be in front of a camera.” His first runway show was in a mall in the city a few miles from where he grew up. “I was surrounded by teen girls, shopping with their grandmothers,” Matt recalls with a touch of embarrassment.
Soon though, Matt started to find more success, and with it, more confidence in his ability. He was doing so well that his agency decided to try him out on something a little bigger: Australia. The country is a common “next step” for models who have promise but aren’t quite ready for the high stakes of Milan or Paris.
Matt was twenty-one and it was his first time leaving the country: “I went from minus forty degrees to plus forty degrees in twenty-four hours,” he recalls. The night he arrived, his boyfriend who went with him took him to a massive New Year’s Eve party near Sydney Harbor. He slipped Matt a little pill — his first taste of ecstasy. Soon enough, euphoria was spreading through his veins as he danced ‘til dawn: “It was the best night of my life.”
In Sydney Matt rented a small flat with a couple of other models. There was “the hyper-masculine straight guy” a Valley girl who “used to sit in the living room and do pussy farts for us,” Matt recalls, laughing.
Matt found himself flung into two brand new worlds: the madness of fashion modeling in a big city, and the insanity of Sydney’s gay party circuit. “I partied a lot,” he admits. “Poppers, E, everything. It was wild.”
Matt explains that the agency system worked “like an alien pod” — his “mother agency,” the one back in Canada, would connect him with other agencies around the world who would send Matt out on castings. After two and a half years earning his stripes, he was finally ready to do Milan.
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“Milan was so intimidating,” Matt says. “It was like a cattle call with every model in the world. You’re trying to feel special, to be special. But everyone there is more good looking than you are, more experienced than you are.” Matt recalls just running through the streets of the ancient city from sunrise to sunset, going from one casting call to another, doing up to eight in one day. Rejection was a constant — designers and casting agents often barely glancing at the models before dismissing them. With literally hundreds of models competing for just a few places in the top shows, competition was everywhere. And unlike in Canada or Australia where he was working with small, lesser-known brands, Milan is home to big names, like Gucci or Prada — the kind of brands that make or break a career.
Yet it wasn’t just the pressure of modeling Matt found difficult: as he spent more time with fellow models, it soon became clear to Matt that the entire model world was. “not just closeted, but actually very homophobic.” There is a certain contradiction in the male modeling world where male models are expected to be not only beautiful and elegant but also masculine and strong, so Matt says there is a feeling that being gay or feminine is somehow antithetical to modeling. The result? A lot of models overcompensating by acting tough and hyper-masculine. On top of that, Matt says they would often criticize the gay men they were surrounded by, even the ones who were casting them. Matt was always being told to “act straight,” even by his own agency.
“I remember there was this one casting for some alcohol brand, I can’t remember which, and the casting call actually said ‘no homosexuals.’” Compared to the friendly, fun atmosphere of Sydney, this new world was a harsh contrast.
The pressure of work coupled with the homophobic attitudes of other models was too much and Matt soon left Milan, thinking he was going to quit modeling altogether. A Brazilian photographer invited Matt on a road trip, and he jumped at the opportunity. They went everywhere from the hills of Tuscany to sex clubs in Venice. But as the cash ran low, Matt headed back to London to give it one more shot.
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When Matt got to London, he was something of a small fish in a big pond, and had difficulty booking anything. Money started running out, and knowing he couldn’t ask his parents for help, Matt started stealing groceries to get by. London was cold and grey and damp, adding to Matt’s low spirits. He started to think that this was the end of his modeling career.
But then Matt booked Ben Sherman — his first major campaign. Ben Sherman lead to Calvin Klein, and before Matt knew it, he was back in Milan for fashion week.
With renewed success came the high-fashion parties, and soon Matt was back to partying. At one point he was so stoned, he missed the casting for a Gucci runway show with the designer – Frida Giannini.
Creative director of Gucci from 2005 to 2014, Giannini is tall, fierce, and utterly intimidating — this is one powerhouse in the fashion world you do not want to cross. Now this budding young diva had done just that. “She called my agency in Milan and yelled at them,” Matt recalls. “She said they were never going to work with me again. Then the agency called me.”
Next thing he knew, Matt had an angry Italian woman screaming at him on the phone saying: “that was your shot and you fucked it up.” He was promptly blacklisted by one of the most important women in the industry. Racked with guilt, Matt did the only thing a small-town kid with an angry woman on his hands can: he bought an enormous bouquet of flowers and delivered them personally to Giannini apologizing.
The gesture was, surprisingly, enough. Giannini called Matt’s agency and asked to see him again. He not only booked a spot, he opened the entire show and went on to be featured in the entire campaign.
Matt was suddenly booking the biggest shows in Europe — money started pouring in as fast as the Champagne that came with it. “I kept waiting to wake up, for it to fall apart,” he says.
It did, soon enough.
Kicked out of London because of visa issues, Matt moved to Paris, where big labels continued to book him. Then came the big one: Matt was called in to audition for Paco Rabanne, one of the most recognized fashion labels in the world. “The casting was intimidating,” he says. “I wasn’t given much notice when they told me I had an appointment to meet with the whole team of Paco Rabanne.” He drove out to their head office to meet with the casting director.
On Floor 7, he entered a boardroom with a long wooden table surrounded by twelve or so people, including the casting director, creatives and the producer. They asked him to give a presentation about himself, then asked him to dance to a Justin Timberlake song. “I guess all those years at gay bars paid off,” says Matt. He booked the campaign, making him the face of the fragrance for several years. Fragrance is one of the best gigs you can get as a model, because you become the single face for an entire campaign. Fragrance campaigns can last for years, and all the while the featured model is paid royalties.
Suddenly Matt was seeing his face on bus stops and billboards. “I was continually flabbergasted,” he says. “I was living this dream I never knew I had.”
But even dreams have consequences. “It doesn’t matter how down-to-earth you are,” says Matt, “when people are paying you a lot of money to dance around, you lose touch with reality.” Matt was earning big bucks, and the money started wrecking havoc on his ego.
He started being picky about which castings he would attend, choosing only the shoots that offered the most money for the least amount of effort. When Matt didn’t feel like working, he simply didn’t work.
Rolling in cash and fame, Matt tumbled deep into the fashion festivities. “I loved the scene,” he says. “Everything started getting more expensive, but I didn’t care.” He started acting up at parties: he recalls one time being at a fashion party in Paris and, as he walked out, flipping a tray of Champagne off a water’s hand for fun, the sparkling liquid spilling all over the floor. “Looking back on it, that’s when my drug addiction really started,” he says, admitting he was going out most nights of the week, taking acid, cocaine, even crystal meth. He started showing up to casting calls high on drugs, or missing them altogether. On one occasion, he was in New York booked for a Michael Kors runway show. He had already been fitted for the show, but the day he was supposed to show up, someone invited him to a party at the Standard Hotel on the Bowery. He ended up partying for seventy-hours hours straight and missed the whole thing.
Matt had also stopped taking care of his one asset: his body. “I stopped making an effort because I assumed I was the shit.” He says he would show up to a shoot stoned or hungover, knowing the glam team would be able to make him look good with makeup. He was almost shocked by how easy it became to still find success without giving a fuck. People kept telling him how great he was, and he felt like a king. “Everyone’s out of touch with reality – you’re in this rock star mentality.”
But as he neared his thirties, things started to change. His diva attitude meant he was booking less work. Paco Rabanne was everywhere, but it came at a price: being so prolific meant being recognized, and labels wanted a fresh face. “I suddenly realized I was nearly thirty and all I had was my face. I hadn’t gone to college, I had no real skills besides posing in front of a camera.” He found solace in more drugs and alcohol, giving in to the circus.
In 2012, Matt moved to New York and tried opening a bar/café in Brooklyn with Jules, another model, and Rachel, a chef he had met. He threw himself into this project, devoting hours and hours of work.
Ultimately, this young inexperienced team started to crumble – the money soon ran out and the bar never opened. Not long after, Matt posted this on Facebook: “I still have a broken heart over the death of my bar. The death of my creation, of my vision, a true expression of my soul and it hurts. And maybe I just needed to scream, cry, and post my naked ass all over Facebook under a full moon to feel better.”
Indeed, Matt started to have a very public breakdown. He began posting pictures of himself on Facebook with long rants about the fashion industry. He posted a photo Terry Richardson had taken of him and wrote that Richardson was a “child molesting misogynist.” (Several other former models have made allegations of sexual misconduct against Richardson, who has denied the accusations.) He posted pictures from the Paco Rabanne campaign with captions like: “I’m tired of being a lie, I’m taking back my image.” Someone from his agency had the photo taken down. Then of course there were the naked photos with Matt giving the finger to the world. He went home one night and spray-painted his entire room with devil-worshiping images. His roommate left the next day and moved back to California. “I had to let everything out because it was killing me,” Matt says. “I realized I had a completely depleted spirit. I had spent my life selling happiness and confidence to people, but never expressing myself. I lost my soul.”
Not long after the failure of the bar, Matt’s ninety-four-year-old grandmother got very sick. He went to visit her up in Canada, near the picturesque Lake Louise. He wrote about it on Facebook as “a lake, frozen over, and pure white with powdery snow, untouched by man, surrounded by evergreens at the base of a giant boulder.” In vivid detail, he wrote about his dying grandmother: “I look down at her hand in mine, at the beauty of age. There is only a thin veil of flesh left, a transparent curtain of silky skin through which you can see every vein and every capillary. She squeezes harder, harder than I imagine possible for this frail wilted flower and she cries out “Help me! Oh please heal me!” And I stare back into her suffering eyes and begin to cry.”
A few days after that post, Matt’s grandmother passed away. The stress of the failed bar coupled with the death of his grandmother and his worsening drug addiction proved too much. In mid 2013, Matt had a full-on mental breakdown and checked himself into hospital. He was getting spinal taps and hormones — “everything to bring me back to life.” Matt’s brothers flew in to pick up his stuff, and his Dad had to come to chaperone him home. “I could barely walk.”
Matt woke up from his nightmare in Salt Lake City, Utah, where his family now lived. He stayed with his mom in a small gated community where “all the houses were in neat little rows and all looked exactly the same.” Matt found the peace of suburbia incredibly calming: “I just gave up and let go of all my darkness.” After several months of treatment and soul searching, he finally recovered. Last year, he decided to move back to New York.
Back in the big city with a clearer head, Matt is considering re-entering the modeling world, but says he is now “at peace with it.” He lives in Queens, joined AA and found a spiritual awakening in yoga and meditation. He views modeling as a good way to make money, but still sees it as fundamentally lacking any real human impact. He is grateful for the opportunities that fashion afforded him, but he’s also looking into various charities to support with the money he still makes from the industry. His diva days long behind him, Matt is focused on his writing and staying sober.
“I never felt like I belonged,” Matt has said. “Now, I feel like I belong anywhere.”
Yet still, the ghosts of his past haunt him. With a shy smile he admits that “when I moved into my apartment I took down all the mirrors. I couldn’t look at myself.”
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Oscar Lopez is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and theater director. Oscar’s writing has been featured in Newsweek, New York magazine and Musée magazine.
Brad Horrigan, a contributing editor at Narratively, is a photojournalist and multimedia storyteller based in Queens.
Marco Gallo is a New York City based Art & Advertising student, an illustrator, and a design intern with Narratively.