The fashion photographer who was homeless for six years

When I graduated from the University of Charleston, I didn’t foresee myself living homeless for a large period of my adult life. To begin with, it started out as wanderlust. After I graduated, I decided to backpack around Europe. I’d always wondered if I could become a model, but it wasn’t until I headed to Brussels that I got signed. So began a four-year stint modelling around Europe. This was 1984. I walked for Versace, Moschino, Missoni, designers like that. I did French Vogue, too. I was OK, but I wasn’t the cat’s miaow. But it instilled in me a new sort of lifestyle, living hand to mouth, absorbing different cultures.

I moved back to New York via San Francisco when I heard my father was dying. I was 29, and I had been modelling on/off for four years. I got signed to a few low-key agencies in New York and juggled this with some waitering. I also started an acting course. I had a bit of money and some savings from my modelling and moved into an single-room occupancy – a small room without running water and a communal bathroom. It looked like an Edward Hopper building from the outside, but not so much inside. Still, it was very affordable – $200 a month – and in West Chelsea before it was trendy. I was pretty happy.

From 1996 onwards I got sporadic work as an actor. I went to an extras audition for a Woody Allen film and played an art gallery owner in Celebrity. My next break was in Sex and the City as Carlo, the “fabulously wealthy billionaire boyfriend with a tiny penis”. I had a run of luck with that.

In 2000, my father died, so my need to stay in New York wasn’t mandatory. That’s when the wanderlust sprung up again, so I did the proverbial second run as a model, except this time I was in my 40s. Now I was older, with salt-and-pepper hair, but much more marketable. I moved around Europe again, and started taking photographs, to see how that went. I knew the fashion world, so I’d go to the shows and hang around backstage taking pictures. People knew me from my modelling and I got a few decent shots. I figured I might have an eye for it and maybe I could make some money from it.

I was shot for Arena, did some TV work, stuff like that. It sounds glamorous, doesn’t it? But I never got the campaigns. That’s where the money is. I foolishly believed I would make a decent income as a model – I was signed to Ford and Wilhelmina in New York; they’re both big agencies – but it’s very hard to make a living from modelling. No one really talks about it.

Film-maker Thomas Wirthensohn who has made a documentary about the life of his friend, Mark Reay

Film-maker Thomas Wirthensohn who has made a documentary about the life of his friend, Mark Reay

By this point, I was back to living on savings. I got money through work as a waiter, and I made a few bucks when I sold a photostory to a website, but I was still subletting tiny rooms in New York. I had a couple of photography projects in mind, so I went back to that. One project involved going to the south of France, where the super-wealthy hung out, and working as a photographer-for-hire. I thought it was a great idea, so I set off to stay with a friend who lived in Juan-les-Pins with just my camera and my laptop. Like a lot of my ideas, it was a good one that produced no results. After a few weeks, worried that I’d overstayed my welcome, I left for St Tropez with just my belongings and wound up sleeping in the hills.

It wasn’t so bad to start. I would store my laptop and cameras in a duffel bag in a garbage bag and hide it in the bushes. I had a small bedroll with me so I could sleep. I would get up at 6am, go to the park and head to the restaurants that had those outdoor sinks. I’d wash myself down, wash my t-shirt or shirt so it could dry in the sun and slick back my hair with water and go sit in a cafe. Because I had a certain look, no one really questioned it. I just looked like a well-off man in shorts and a T-shirt. I had the confidence to just sit there, and I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong.

So began a period of my life sleeping rough. It was pretty tiring, and I didn’t have much luck with the photos, but I stuck it out. I’ve never let the lack of money stop me having a good time, and I still had (dwindling) savings from my modelling. It was a happy time. At night I would always treat myself to a rotisserie chicken, but I always wanted a chilled rosé with it. So, in the afternoon, I would sneak into a minimarket, get the cheapest one from the shelf and hide it under the frozen peas. Then, at night, I would put on a fresh shirt and go to one of the fancy bars with my wine in my bag. Again, maybe because I had a certain look, no one ever checked my bag. I’d just go in, nick a glass off the counter and drink my wine surrounded my millionaires.

To an extent, I was inspired by George Orwell’s Down And Out In Paris and London and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. It was summer, it was OK, but after a while I’d had enough of it. I managed to cobble together the rest of my savings and went back to New York. This was 2006. I figured I’d try my hand at photographing fashion week again, so I looked through a bunch of magazines, wrote down a few names in mastheads and sent off some photographs. I was back subletting rooms or staying on friends’ couches in New York when, one day, I got an email from Dazed & Confused, who said they liked my photos and wanted me to shoot backstage for them. I couldn’t believe it. I had been an annoyance to most of the fashion week personnel when I was a nobody, and then suddenly I was on the A-list.

By this point, though, I was pretty much flat broke. My family were outside of New York, in New Jersey, and I didn’t want to keep relying on friends. With the last of my savings, I moved to a hostel in Williamsburg where I stayed until my Dazed paycheck came in. One day, I woke up covered in what I thought were bed-bug bites. I knew I couldn’t stay there. I was desperate, but I was contaminated.

You have to remember I always had the wanderlust. I didn’t think that much about having a permanent home. I just wanted to make it, through modelling or acting, so I did what I could to manage that.

I remembered this friend’s rooftop where we used to have cocktails. So, one night, I snuck into the building and went to the rooftop. I figured I’d stay there for a few days. I didn’t leave for six years. All I had were a few items of clothing and a thrift store blanket. I got a cheap poncho, which I used to cover myself so I couldn’t be seen, and I put up a tarpaulin. It was September and it was manageable. I started getting a bit more work from Dazed, but not enough to afford rent, so I figured I’d just stay there until I worked something out. I managed to renew my gym contract – I know that sounds mad, but it was $70 a month and it had showers, electricity and a toilet. Plus, I could leave my camera and clothes in there safely. I used to wash my clothes there – I had a few shirts, a pair of trousers and socks – and dry them under the hand dryers.

That was my life. I’d get up, transform myself and go off to shoot these beautiful models at fashion week or on the street. I could afford to eat basic food, the odd social night out, so I got away with it. Again, yeah, I think I got away with it because of my “look”. As long as I was clean and fairly well dressed, no one questioned me. I told a few friends, but otherwise no one. It wasn’t a pride thing; I don’t know, I just think people didn’t need to know I was living this dual life. I was taking photographs, going to castings and doing the odd role as an extra, just making ends meet.

Living on a roof wasn’t easy, of course. I remember tipping over my pee bucket a few times (it was a gallon water bottle), that was bad. But the most terrifying was when the construction workers were working overhead. I would wake up to this clanging sound, freeze and start slowly taking the tarp down before they saw me. I dealt with the cold by spending the bits of money I made on a better sleeping bag, a cheap duvet and a wool cap. I would sleep in tights, then a wool coat and a cashmere scarf, all from thrift stores. I got the nickname “the nap king” because I became pretty good at napping anywhere. New York weather isn’t ideal, but the electrical storms were terrifying – there was metal everywhere. I was constantly scanning the weather reports.

In those six years, I managed to do three seasons of fashion week for Dazed. I also shot backstage at DVF [Diane von Furstenberg], Rebecca Taylor, Lacoste. I’d do the occasional headshot for models and actors. I got some work as an extra, too. I was earning less than $30,000 a year, and you just can’t live on that in New York.

I finally got off the roof last summer. It sounds peculiar, but you have to remember I’ve always been happy travelling around. I don’t feel anything but lucky. I chose highly improbable careers; I mean, modelling, acting and photography – they’re well known for economic uncertainty. But I get that it’s a peculiar situation, and I chose a peculiar solution.

Of course, aside from having had a difficult lifestyle, romance has never really materialised. I thought about giving up any hope, and the moment I came to terms with that, I became happy. I feel invigorated. It’s an odd double life, and I’ve been alone, but I’ve never been lonely.

Author: Morwenna Ferrier



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"Don't let what other people think stop you from doing what you love." – Hitler