Pin-up exposed: why Marky Mark is taking the rap: The man wearing Calvin Klein's pants could be undone by his shady past and unguarded remarks. Will apologies save his skin? Mark Simpson reports

Mark Simpson
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:43

HE HAS a boy's face, but a man's body. He is a rap star, but he's white. He is street-tough, but the world's first male supermodel. He is adored by teen girls and by gay men. He is Marky Mark - and he is in trouble.

People wouldn't believe it at first: this fresh, modern icon, just 21, has a criminal past and a deeply insulting attitude towards his fans.

Marky Mark's rise to fame seemed as effortless as his impish grin. He launched his pumped body at the world only two years ago; his debut album, Music For The People, reached No 1 in the American charts.

Determined to be taken seriously, he had dropped out of the teenage band New Kids on the Block just before they hit the big time, to concentrate on rap. But despite the success of Marky's Music and the patronage of black groups such as Public Enemy, his brother Donnie's continued involvement in New Kids meant respect still eluded him. He could not escape the 'teeny-bopper' tag.

He was dismissed as yet another Vanilla Ice, a middle-class white 'wannabe' rap artist, when in fact his background was as blue-collar as Budweiser beer. His father drove a pick- up truck and his mother was a nurse. After his parents' divorce he became the archetypal bad boy: drinking, smoking, playing hooky and getting into trouble with the law.

'I don't want to go on about how hard I am,' he said recently. 'But I know about life on the street. I've been there.'

Perhaps his pigeonholing as a teenage heart-throb is what drove Marky to drop his trousers on stage and grab his crotch for the cameras. The poor boy might be forgiven for hoping that this would drive away the pubescent fans, or at least upset their mothers. Not a bit of it. His eagerness to show the world his manhood just increased the interest of the shopping-mall girls; in the age of the Chippendales, the male body is about as threatening as a spangly posing pouch.

In Britain, readers of Smash Hits made his 'boy-Chippendale' status official by voting him Best Dance Act and Sexiest Man of the Year. Marky's erotic cabaret quickly became his trademark - and then his trade, as the media world beyond the pop magazines turned its lenses on his pneumatic flesh.

Last year Interview commissioned the photographer Bruce Weber to serve up choice cuts of Marky Mark to its readers, announcing that it was cool to gape at this urchin's pecs. Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Penthouse soon followed suit, and Gap exploited his now familiar features to promote its clothes. His 'respectable' fame spread to Britain, taking him out of the teenage market and on to the cover of the style magazine The Face.

His rap career was by now eclipsed by his modelling. His second album, You Gotta Believe, released without great success last year, was just a hook on which the glossy magazines could hang his body for the eager inspection of their readers.

Marky Mark may be a rap star manque, but his narcissism - and old- fashioned business sense - soon reconciled him to his macho status. Last year he stepped up his own sexploitation, releasing a book of photos of his body by Lynne Goldsmith, dedicated 'to my dick'.

All this 'in-yer-face' sexuality prompted The Face to call him 'the Madonna of Rap'. 'He looks brilliant,' says Sheryl Garratt, the magazine's editor. 'Plus he's got such wide appeal: young women and gay men.'

It was the gay interest in Marky Mark that was to fuel the final stage of his launch into the media stratosphere. David Geffen, mogul of the gay media, suggested to Calvin Klein, whose business has long benefited from the spending power of gay men, that he sign up Marky Mark to promote - what else? - his line of men's underwear. It was a marriage made in heaven. Calvin Klein received devoted brand loyalty from the 'pink dollar' and priceless free publicity as the campaign became the most talked-about in years; Marky Mark got only dollars 100,000 for his sessions, but his image appeared on hoardings and television screens across the United States, making his body the most famous male torso since Michelangelo's David.

Interviewers began to ask 'street tough' Marky Mark what he made of his phenomenal popularity with gay men, and his answers were liberal enough: no problem, he said, although he personally preferred the attentions of women. But eventually the ambiguity of being a rap star with a gay following proved too much.

Appearing last December on an edition of Channel 4's The Word, he refused to join the presenter in condemning a statement by his fellow guest Shabba Ranks that gays deserved to be 'crucified'. Instead he went on to perform with the Jamaican reggae star and to praise him for his 'candour'.

As news of this blunder filtered across the Atlantic, American gays began to sense that they had been robbed. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) protested to Klein about his use of a homophobe to sell men's underwear, and threatened a boycott.

But worse revelations were to follow. The Committee Against Anti- Asian Violence (CAAV) revealed something Mark had been strangely bashful about: two convictions, dating from his mid-teens, for harassing black schoolchildren and assaulting two Vietnamese men.

Photographs of a demonstration by GLAAD and CAAV under the Calvin Klein poster of Marky Mark in Times Square appeared in the New York Times and prompted a jittery Klein to issue a statement condemning homophobia and racism and offering the assurance that his model was 'a reformed young man who has grown way beyond his years as a result of a particularly difficult childhood'.

Watching his powerful sponsor squirm helped Marky Mark to grasp that - ironically for a rap star - a reputation for homophobia and racism could spell the end of his career. He issued an apology: 'Asian Pacific Americans, African Americans and all people have the right to live free of violence and harassment. I want to make it clear that I condemn anti-gay hatred and violence.' He also announced that he would work with GLAAD and CAAV 'to help spread the word that bigotry and violence are wrong'.

While he may have satisfied the protesters and preserved his current Calvin Klein contract, Marky Mark may not have saved his career. As a court appearance a fortnight ago on a charge of breaking a man's jaw underlined, his breezy narcissism no longer looks so innocent, his smile no longer so cute, and his body no longer so friendly. The case was settled out of court; while Marky Mark denied the charge, he agreed to pay damages because the case was becoming a 'major distraction'.

'As far as his public are concerned, judgement is suspended,' observes George Wayne, the New York style chronicler who interviewed Marky for Vanity Fair last year. 'They're waiting for him to convince them he is not a homophobe or racist who's taken gays and blacks for a ride. I think a lot hinges on his Calvin Klein contract being renewed.'

But Klein may be an unwilling probation officer: his spokesman refused to comment on Marky Marks's future role with the company.

(Photographs omitted)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments