52 Minutes With Stephen Thompson

Photo: Danny Kim

Stephen Thompson, the face of Givenchy’s spring 2011 collection, has oculocutaneous albinism type 1. This form of the condition, he explains, results from the inheritance of two recessive genes that prevent the body from changing the amino acid tyrosine into pigment and, as in his case, can cause vision loss—he’s blind in one eye. Standing on the corner of 59th and Lexington, illuminated to near transparency by the winter sunshine, he gestures down the street in the direction of the Lighthouse, a center for the vision-impaired. He still works there, as a preschool aide in a mixed class of sighted and vision-impaired children, several of whom also have albinism. “I’m with the kids in the morning, and it’s a grounding thing—they don’t know that I’m a model, and that’s an awesome feeling.” Since he booked the Givenchy campaign and walked in the brand’s Paris show, though, his schedule has gotten tricky. “It’s just crazy, ’cause I don’t have any time for myself anymore—on the weekend I’m doing modeling stuff, and on weekdays I have to wake up at six o’clock for the kids. I don’t know, it’s just different.” He stubs out the last of his hand-rolled cigarette, and we head down to the 6 train. He’s due at Jack Studios, where he’s doing a shoot for Wallpaper.

Thompson has a low voice and talks in abbreviated sentences; as he speaks, he bends toward me in the way that some tall people—he is six foot two—do when they are trying to make shorter people feel comfortable. He and his twin, Lincoln (who does not have albinism), grew up in downtown Brooklyn. “I’ve been through the wringer of people looking at me when I walk in the streets. You develop a certain tough skin,” he says. “But also—I had friends when I was young—it’s my personality. It’s almost like what Martin Luther King says, you judge a person by their character, not their skin color.” He was discovered when he was 17. “This guy just came up to me, ‘I think you have a cool look, here, think about it.’ ” He thought about it, called, and shortly thereafter booked a shoot with Spin, during which he first met Riccardo Tisci, now Givenchy’s creative director. That was followed by a W shoot featuring Thompson and a bikini-clad Camilla Nickerson in the backyard of her upstate home. Now 29, he’s been working on and off since.

Inevitably, some have compared Thompson to Shaun Ross, the African-American model with albinism who walked during New York Fashion Week in 2008, when he was just 17. Both are part of a trend that has Establishment fashion directors casting outside traditional archetypes—see transsexual model Lea T for Givenchy last year and Andrej Pejic for Marc Jacobs this season. At 28th Street, the automated conductor advises us to stand clear of the closing doors, and Thompson shifts to make way for more passengers. “For the most part I’m not in it for the money. I’m in it for the art of it,” he says. As we get off the train at the next stop, he tells me, “My real passions are for making my own art—with my paintings and with my music.”

Thompson’s album Track Team was released in 2007 under the name Lu…Rreals. “Lu” is for Translucent, that being Thompson, who is one half of the emcee duo. “The hip-hop stuff was an extension of my writing in general. I got really into it, because performing my lyrics is kind of like me developing my own musical notes and is like me soloing, as if I were a saxophonist or something.” He pauses, producing papers and a pouch of Drum, with which he rolls another cigarette. Music, he says, is “in the family; that’s how I got the bug.” His mother plays the piano, and his paternal grandfather, perhaps also an albinism carrier, was a jazz composer. “I basically learned how to teach myself blues and rhythm-and-blues and boogie-woogie and fast jazz music. Because of my lack of vision, I’ve had a better ear for music.” He’s now working on a solo album, Albion. He’s pretty excited about it. “There are a lot of dubstep rhythms going on—I don’t know if you know dubstep—I sing a lot, it’s not strictly pigeonholed in one genre of music.”

We realize we’ve turned the wrong way on 26th Street. Backtracking, Thompson rolls a final cigarette—impressive while walking into the wind whipping off the Hudson. His preference for music has to do with the lack of control he has as a model, he says. “Although I’m a part of the artistic process and I’m the person you’re looking at, I’m not necessarily the director of what’s going down.”

We reach the studio, Thompson’s brown Doc Martens suddenly standing out among the sleek people and black cars. He’s thinking about why people find him compelling. “I think people wanna be rebels in a society that’s very funnel-like, where everybody becomes a lawyer. People wanna be rebels, they change how they look. And you can say about me, I’m just a born-natural rebel. I mean, the fuck, my genes are rebels—I’m sayin’, my genes are rebels.”

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52 Minutes With Stephen Thompson