Proving that an underwear model can be more than one dimension, Chris is also a determined, award-winning author.
How old were you when you started modeling?
I was 22 when I walked in to an agency for the first time and booked my first job (a Cosmo editorial) the same day.
Was it awkward removing your clothes right away?
I’m certain that when I began modeling (in 2007), I thought twice about it, but once you’re involved with something for so long, it becomes like anything else; routine…you seem to become desensitized to certain elements of it, insecurities among them.
When you did think twice about it was that because of insecurities or other personal convictions?
I think perhaps a bit of both. I was born in Manhattan but I grew up in a small suburb in North Jersey. It was unusual for me to go from that setting to suddenly being on a rooftop in Chelsea in my underwear.
In terms of insecurities, I know I had them growing up, and I don’t know when the exact moment was that I made the conscious decision to forget about them, to not care what others thought about me. I know that I must have felt tied down in the sense that I knew in the back of my mind that I would never get anywhere, never accomplish anything, if I let my actions and confidence be controlled by how others perceived me, physically or otherwise. As such, I have marched to the beat of my own tune since elementary school.
Sounds like you were a pretty strong-willed kid.
Yeah, I think I’ve always carried a chip on my shoulder. I was born two months and two days premature and I was used to people (even my own parents) telling me I couldn’t do certain things, particularly physical things (like football or track, for instance). I carry that with me in everything I do.
What else motivates you?
When I was working as a journalist at the Star-Ledger in the evenings and modeling and acting during the day, time motivated me. I had to fit in as much as I could in the time I had because I had another job, another kind of life, and I was always rushing, so close to being one step behind.
To return to the “chip on the shoulder” mentality, I think what motivates me is proving people wrong, and also proving that anything is possible, if you work hard enough. Perhaps that kind of mentality stems also from my childhood, because my parents are both immigrants (Cuba and Poland), and they grew up with not many opportunities except for the opportunity to do great things, which I think everyone inherently has.
Was there a specific instance that pushed you to change their vision of you?
I’m not sure about a specific instance, but I think I became pretty tired early on of having to rely on things like an inhaler to breathe better or even glasses to see. I don’t know exactly what happened biologically, but I outgrew my sports asthma in elementary school, and when I began wearing contacts in junior high, I just felt like I could do anything I wanted, at least physically.
What does your family think of your success now?
I am very close with my parents, but I’m really not sure what exactly they think about my success. They certainly don’t dote on me—and I’m glad—because I’ve always wanted to prove something to them and everyone, which is what makes me stay hungry.
You mentioned becoming desensitized to modeling…is that a compromise you had to make? Was it more routine or realization?
Well I acknowledged it, so it was certainly a realization, but I also think that it came from the routine of doing it every week. You start to not put so much emphasis on shooting in your underwear once you do it with such frequency; I think that goes with everything. I think ABC was cognizant of that when they offered me a few shirtless and underwear-only under-5 (under-5 lines) roles on All My Children and One Life to Live. I don’t know many actors or actresses that would take so easily to being on national television in that kind of situation, at least with a few days notice.
Have you ever had a photoshoot with a fellow model who was uncomfortable with his/her body?
It is hard to tell but I have gotten that vibe before, and it makes everyone, from the photographer to the art director, uncomfortable.
Models sometimes have an unfair rap and are seen as just beautiful and one-dimensional. Have you ever had to prove to anyone that you’re not just a model?
I think I am proving that right now, regarding my first novel, Going Down. In that story—as well as in real life—I definitely experienced odd looks and confusion from multiple people, whether at the newspaper or at photoshoots and castings, when they learned of my dual professions and interests. I think that kind of Hellenistic ideal—physical beauty and mental beauty—is something that is somehow absent from our society, not that it isn’t there, just that we don’t really look for it anymore. I have always tried to reconcile this.
Can you tell us a bit more about your journalism background?
I worked in newspapers my whole life. I began writing for The Record, the second-largest newspaper in New Jersey, when I was in high school. While I was at Lehigh, I worked as a Sports Copy Editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, for three months in the summer. When I graduated from college and began modeling and acting during the day, I worked as a Sports Copy Editor and writer for The Star-Ledger. I didn’t have much of a social life for awhile…
You now have a food blog, Spooning In The City, that you write with your girlfriend. Obviously, you love food. Do you have to discipline yourself, or were you blessed with a good metabolism?
When I began modeling, I was very serious about my eating habits. Now, I laugh about it … I can’t explain it but I suppose my good fortune is genetic. My mom and dad joke that I was born without a gene that processes fat because I was born two months and two days premature. I think food is one of the most important things in life, and also one of the most underappreciated things in this culture. I take what I put in my body very seriously and I enjoy the sensual pleasures of food.
What does your girlfriend think about you modeling underwear?
I just asked her to get a specific answer and she laughed. She is not someone who gets jealous easily, and I think that certainly helps. Everything I do is for my writing anyway, and she understands that all of these experiences are enriching, no matter what they are, and so they are important to me.
You were recently awarded the the Academy of American Poets Prize and spoke during the ceremony at Lincoln Center. Tell us about that.
I started writing poetry before I wrote a word of fiction. In the second grade, actually, when my abuela died, I wrote a poem for her, so it is extremely rewarding for me to have my poetry acknowledged in this way and on this level so soon after receiving news of the book deal for my first novel, Going Down (Aignos Press, 2013).
If I may take a brief moment here to plug that (laughs), that would be great, too. It will arrive in bookstores and be available online in advance of the holiday season, probably by October or November. It’s a coming-of-age-story based on my own experiences in the fashion industry. One of the things that the protagonist (also named Chris) says toward the end of the novel really resonates in my own life, especially in regard to self-confidence: “‘The important thing is to always remember who you are … And never give any part of yourself to something other than that thing.’ … That is it, he knew. And it is everything.”
What would you say to other young men and women who are struggling with insecurities?
I really think insecurities are the worst thing we can have, and yet we all have them. They are inevitable, but what we can control is how we let them affect us. I was very conscious of them from an early age, and at the same time, I knew I couldn’t let myself be shackled by them. I think so many people in today’s world have this inferiority complex. I’m not saying to be arrogant or conceited or anything like that, but I think it is important to love yourself; all of you, especially the faults.
Also, a large part of confidence comes from self-realization. I never could truly synthesize all of the things I was doing—whether it was modeling, whether it was writing and editing for a newspaper, whether it was something else entirely—until I wrote it down, until I wrote it in. It is too easy to become disheartened over a job, social status, relationship, appearance … anything that contributes to a (mis)conception of self-worth. But I found what to other people might seem self-evident, or else hardly acknowledged: it is who you are, not what you do, that makes you fully-realized.
Watch Chris’ Academy of American Poets Prize acceptance speech, here.