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.

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.

The fact that Zombie Boy—someone who until recently would have been dismissed as a carnival attraction—is now modeling very expensive clothing and serving as a pitchman for mainstream products like Dermablend coverup (Genest appeared on a giant video screen in Times Square with his tattoos completely erased by the makeup) says a great deal about what we currently consider freakish, what we'll accept as normal, and what we deem beautiful. The question is hardly a new one; it was addressed head-on by Diane Arbus (though she ultimately left it unanswered) and recently photographer Phillip Toledano did a remarkable series of portraits of surgically altered subjects, A New Kind of Beauty. In a brief introduction on his website, he asks, "Is beauty informed by contemporary culture? By history? Or is it defined by the surgeon's hand?...Perhaps we are creating a new kind of beauty. An amalgam of surgery, art, and popular culture?"

Genest's tattoos, most of them inked by Montreal artist Frank Lewis, are so exquisitely drawn that Zombie Boy is indeed unexpectedly quite beautiful, an accidental objet d'art. The crawling insects, spider webs, Grim Reaper portrait on a bicep and the biohazard symbol square in the middle of his chest help unite his overall anatomical illustration into an editorialized narrative of death and decay. (He holds two Guinness World Records; one for the most insect tattoos at 176 and one for the most human bone tattoos at 139.) From a purely design point of view, the work is lovely in its overall composition, coherent repetitive structure and elaborate patterning. The high contrast of black ink against Genest's pale skin appeals despite the disturbing imagery.

At a Fashion's Night Out party held at the Nicola Formichetti pop-up shop in New York last fall, there was something surreal about watching Genest walk around and talk to people, as if a character from a video game or monster movie broke through the screen and appeared in the 3-D world. He looks almost fake; a theatrical character run amok. Other guests approached him with some trepidation—what do you say to a zombie? Yet he's polite, relaxed, sweet and soft-spoken: hardly a monster. Many interviewers have delicately broached the question: Have you thought about what you'll look like if you gained a lot of weight? (imagine a fat skeleton!) What about when you're an old man? He consistently replies with a shrug, along the lines of "I have no time to even begin to think that far down the road." His carpe diem attitude is perhaps the only philosophy that fits such an unalterable choice made early in life, one that closes the door to all but a few career options.

As a canvas for a self-created, new kind of beauty, Zombie Boy holds a mirror to some of our more puzzling values regarding looks and aging, normalcy and otherness. His tattoos present a blunt image of what we fear most; his deathly visage runs counter to the permanently youthful appearance our culture so desperately seeks. We manage to accept and even enjoy him as part of the colorful, noisy, glamorous and distracting sweep of the fashion world, refusing to see any direct reflection of ourselves in his stark face.