Without doubt, it was the advert that defined the Eighties — and made Nick Kamen one of the most desired men on the planet.
Girls swooned, and boys hit the carpet to do press-ups, as the then 23-year-old Adonis stripped down to his crisp white boxers in a that launderette in ‘that’ Levi’s 501 advert of 1985.
It launched the shy, working-class Essex lad into superstardom, and reportedly boosted sales of the jeans by a huge 500 per cent.
Tributes poured in yesterday for Nick, who died on Tuesday, aged 59, following a secret battle with bone cancer.
Boy George called him ‘the most beautiful and sweetest man’. Comedian Matt Lucas summed up his status as one of the era’s most memorable sex symbols by tweeting: ‘If you didn’t have a crush on Nick Kamen in the 80s, you probably weren’t there’.
Alison Boshoff reveals Nick Kamen’s death aged 59 isn’t the only tragedy linked to the man who made launderettes sexy
But behind the immortal beauty of that advert, shot to the tones of Marvin Gaye’s Heard It Through The Grapevine lies a sad tale of too many lives cut too short, too early.
For Nick’s brother Barry, another handsome model, to whom he was very close, also died young, in 2015, suddenly at his photographic studio. Photographer and stylist Ray Petri, who launched the brothers’ modelling success, passed away in 1989 due to complications from AIDS.
And Roger Lyons, who directed the Levi’s ad, died aged only 41 after falling off a cliff while trying to create the perfect shot in a film.
Nick died in his flat in Notting Hill, West London, on Tuesday. His brother Ronald, 65, revealed he’d suffered from cancer for two years and was being nursed by his girlfriend, Lucinda. He said: ‘His breathing was very shallow and he knew what was coming. He did fight it very hard.
Girls swooned, and boys hit the carpet to do press-ups, as the then 23-year-old Adonis stripped down to his crisp white boxers in a that launderette in ‘that’ Levi’s 501 advert of 1985
‘I was with him a few days ago. We have been able to see him, but only one at at time due to the pandemic. That made things a lot worse but he did have the cancer before all the lockdowns.’
Ronald said his younger brother had undergone a full blood transfusion as part of his treatment.
Neighbour Tchaik Chassay, 62, said: ‘I last saw Nick about four months ago and he said it was a miracle he was still alive. I was delighted to see him going for a walk with Lucinda but he barely managed to stay on his feet.’
He added: ‘Nick was a wonderful man and everybody around here knew him. He didn’t speak much about his days as a singer and I wasn’t that interested — I just liked him for who he was.’
Of Burmese, Irish, Dutch and English extraction, Nick was born Ivor Neville Kamen in April 1962.
The advert which launched Nick into superstardom also reportedly boosted sales of the jeans by 500 per cent
He grew up in Harlow, one of eight children. In his late teens, he and Barry had Saturday jobs at a clothes shop in Covent Garden.
There they met Petri, a photographer and stylist, who would come in to borrow clothes. He and Barry became muses for Petri, and they formed the nucleus of the Buffalo collective — an influential fashion movement of the Eighties. In 1984, both of them were on the cover of magazines including i-D, The Face and Blitz.
Among their band of pals was Naomi Campbell. Barry remarked: ‘She was just a kid. She was just this nutty girl aged about 14, but she was part of the crew.’
Nick got the Levi’s job after being sent along by Sarah Doukas at Storm (she would go on to discover Kate Moss). Boys were asked to arrive in jeans and a T-shirt. Nick was originally supposed to be the ‘Boy in the Bath’, which was the other commercial, but, at the last minute, producers swapped him in. So, Nick doing his laundry was actually an accident.
The Levi’s ad was shown in the UK on Boxing Day 1985 and propelled Nick into superstardom — as well as seeing sales rocket.
The advert is linked to various tragedies with people dying young – including Nick’s brother Barry, another handsome model, who died young, in 2015, suddenly at his photographic studio while photographer and stylist Ray Petri, who launched the brothers’ modelling success, passed away in 1989
Within a year, he had launched a pop career, his true ambition, thanks to a leg-up from admirer Madonna. She said: ‘You know, he’s got so much charm and charisma and there’s something there in the eyes, and that inspired me to write for him.’ He was Kate Moss’s great unrequited crush: ‘I’ve wanted to marry him for years,’ she said. ‘But he’s always been with that ****ing cow… whatsername.’ Whatsername being Amanda de Cadenet, whom he dated between 1999 and 2001.
De Cadenet said Kamen was so swooningly handsome that she would ‘stare’ at him while he slept. ‘There is never a time when he doesn’t look good,’ she said.
However, his sweet nature and shyness made life in the spotlight awkward. He was wary of being exploited and forced into cheesy cover versions like Kylie Minogue, who sang for Stock, Aitken and Waterman. He found that having become famous as a model, it was difficult to garner credibility as a musician. ‘All through my modelling career I was involved in music, I played the bass guitar, I was involved in bands,’ he said.
Tributes poured in yesterday for Nick, who died on Tuesday, aged 59, following a secret battle with bone cancer (pictured: the Levi’s ad)
‘I guess because of the advert, people recognise me, and then it’s hard then to be accepted as something else. I kind of understand, because that happens in many other professions. You’ve kind of been boxed in. I’ve still been very fortunate.’ He mused that some were perhaps ‘envious’ of his public profile but was reduced to stammering embarrassment when asked if being so handsome was a problem. ‘I think we’ll pass on that,’ he said.
His debut single, Each Time You Break My Heart, was a big hit in 1986. The album, Nick Kamen, was mostly cover versions and released in 1987.
The Madonna connection helped him to get coverage in the pop columns of the time, in which Kamen gave a string of rather unlikely sounding quotes about Sean Penn being too cold for ‘passionate’ Madonna (in reality, everyone was rather afraid of Penn who once attacked songwriter David Wolinsky in a club in 1986 after he was seen getting too close to his wife!).
During this period, Madonna twice sang backing vocals for Kamen, including on Tell Me, the lead single from his second album, Us. He fell for the German model Tatjana Patitz, who was in the video for the song. Released in 1988, it was a big hit in Europe, but his career in the UK was stalling.
Roger Lyons, who directed the Levi’s ad, died aged only 41 after falling off a cliff while trying to create the perfect shot in a film (pictured: the Levi’s ad)
His last chart entry in Britain was in 1990, for the song I Promised Myself. His fifth album, Whatever, Whenever did not make a dent on the charts.
He was dropped by his record label, WEA. He then disappeared, quite deliberately, from view.
For a few years, he worked only as a painter of ‘quite abstract’ works. It was around this time that he dated Amanda de Cadenet. Another girlfriend was the model Talisa Soto.
He dabbled in a return to modelling with a couple of shoots in the 2000s and re-released one of his singles in 2004.
Around ten years ago, he set up a video company in London with friends but that never got off the ground sufficiently to even file accounts. Home was his flat in London’s Notting Hill. He’d also spent time living on a farm in Morocco. He remained close to a small circle of friends, mostly the models he had met on the 1980s scene, such as Mitzi Lorenz and Howard Napper.
DJ Gary Crowley remembered him yesterday as a ‘lovely, gentle guy.’ To those who never met him, but remember him so clearly, Nick will always conjure up an image of perfect youth. The years may have claimed him, but to so many women, now in their 50s and beyond, he is immortal.
Nick died in his flat in Notting Hill, West London, on Tuesday. His brother Ronald, 65, revealed he’d suffered from cancer for two years and was being nursed by his girlfriend, Lucinda (pictured: Nick Kamen two years ago after cancer diagnosis)
My date with Nick, my Essex dream boy
By Liz Jones
The scene was the bachelorette pad in London I shared with my sister Sue. It was 1985 and we were watching Channel 4.
That’s all I can remember about the evening because suddenly, there he was. Nick Kamen. Everything else dimmed.
We were transfixed: firstly, strangely enough, by the soundtrack: Marvin Gaye’s I Heard it Through The Grapevine: its opening beat echoed the pounding of my heart as, enter stage right, this beautiful young man who slowly removed his jeans to reveal crisp white boxer shorts.
He had seductive eyes, a shock of slightly Elvis black hair, a beauty spot, a smooth chest, cafe au lait skin and, to two Essex girls, he was utterly divine.
I remember my sister screaming: ‘Why didn’t you press “record”?’
The use of classic soul was ground-breaking, but so too was the fact the ads — for men’s jeans — were aimed at women: we wanted our men to look like Nick Kamen (hell, we wanted our men to be Nick Kamen) and the brand clocked the power of the purse.
Liz Jones said the Levi’s ad gave them the licence to lust while the idea chimed perfectly with what was happening in society (pictured: Nick Kamen)
What was also a first was the licence the ad gave us to lust. The idea chimed perfectly with what was happening in society. I was working on Company, a feminist magazine, and as well as shooting power suits with shoulder pads we were publishing articles on self-defence, ‘reclaiming the night’, career advice and even how to get a mortgage (I got my first mortgage in 1983; my dad had to be guarantor).
Women were portrayed as powerful, and so along came Nick Kamen, doing his own laundry. A boy-man, who was completely unthreatening. We could own him, like a pet.
I set about trying to meet Nick and his younger brother, Barry, an artist and model for The Face.
It took five years, but in 1990 I met them at the office of Nick’s publicist, Barbara Charone, who looked after Madonna — who’d also taken a shine to him (witch!) and given him a leg-up in his brief career as a pop singer.
I remember sitting in the office, in a Kamen sandwich, feeling a very lucky lady indeed.
Within a year of the Levi’s ad, he had launched a pop career, his true ambition, thanks to a leg-up from admirer Madonna (pictured together)
They were both Essex boys: confident, cocky: I imagine if they took you to the cinema, they’d be all hands. Barry was stocky, cerebral, quieter. Nick oozed confidence and charm.
You could feel their working-class parents’ control from afar, instilling good manners and a strong work ethic. I had my article laminated. Of course, neither contacted me again.
Then a weird thing happened. In October 2015, I dreamed Barry came to my house. The dream was incredibly vivid.
I woke up the next day, still thinking about him. I fetched my phone, scrolled through Twitter. Barry had died aged 52. And now Nick has gone too.
Two lovely down-to-earth lads who were perhaps too nice for fame. If I hear Marvin Gaye these days, I’m taken back to the 1980s, when anything seemed possible.
My heart still pounds.