How Did 'Zombie Boy' Become a Fashion Icon?

Rick Genest tattooed himself into an image of death—and infiltrated a culture that worships youth.

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The bar for shock value has been set high in today's fast-paced visual culture with its steady stream of outrageous and often appalling images. Yet Zombie Boy (26-year old Canadian model and artist Rick Genest) has easily vaulted over it, with room to spare.

People used to seek out freak shows to gawk at the 400-pound man or the tattooed lady. But when the morbidly obese and the heavily inked became routine sights in everyday life, such individuals lost their power to impress. Genest, however, manages to be startling at a time when that's very difficult to do. He has designed himself into a living Dutch still life or an especially brutal memento mori: Instead of inanimate objects meant to remind us of mortality (a stopped clock, a snuffed-out candle), or things already dead (a skull), Genest takes it one step further and chooses to be a vital young thing whose beautiful yet sad appearance forces others to acknowledge the reality of death. A person to person conversation with him can be unnerving; his wide hazel eyes stare steadily out from an image of a grinning skull, the top neatly sawn off, the brain nestled within.

The fact that Genest serves pitchman for mainstream products says a great deal about what we currently consider freakish.

Genest rose to become something of an underground darling in fashion circles over the past few years as a distinctly morbid trend surfaced in couture. In 2010, Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy showed a stunning fall collection whose main motif was the skeleton—appliquéd in lace, rendered in Swarovski crystals, or embroidered in gorgeous clots of crystals, lace and pearls on the back of a double-silk duchesse satin jacket. When Nicola Formichetti (Lady Gaga's stylist and the current designer of Thierry Mugler) spotted a photo of Zombie Boy on Facebook, he promptly whisked him away to Paris to walk the runway in Mugler's men's and women's wear shows. An appearance in Lady Gaga's video for Born this Way soon followed, and Genest was recently photographed in LA by Terry Richardson for the just-released promotional materials for Gaga's 2012/13 tour. After hitting the shows this January at Berlin's Fashion Week, Zombie Boy was spotted last week in the front row at Duckie Brown and Nicholas K's New York shows.

Perhaps it was inevitable that a real-life zombie would make his way to the forefront of the visual landscape. Zombies began infiltrating media culture in full force starting in the early 2000s, eventually edging out vampires as the monster of choice. Genest's face—actually, his lack of one—is his fortune.

But there's something transgressive about his growing fame. People who undergo plastic surgery are running from aging and its inevitable conclusion, death; Genest has taken control of his looks in nearly the opposite manner by running full-tilt towards death. In a sense, we're looking at flip sides of the same coin: attempts to address the ravages of time through body modification. One approach represents a denial, the other a direct confrontation. Our shifting ideal of physical perfection now includes surgically altering ourselves into shapes and proportions that are abnormal, even frightening. The faces and bodies of plastic surgery aficionados often become ever more freakish and distorted after repeated procedures in spite of the intention to restore or create beauty.

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Angela Riechers is an art director and writer specializing in design, media, and the visual arts. She received an AOL Artists 25 for 25 grant for her multimedia project Sites of Memory.

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