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?"