The Tragedy of Harry Uzoka

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But within the past decade, as brands have started trying to appeal to wider markets, many have been eager to cast more diversely. “The industry has realized, through the Black influence on social media and pop culture, that money can be made from Black people and Black art,” Philipp Raheem, a photographer who has shot for Kanye West and the designer Virgil Abloh, said. “Before, they thought Black people weren’t their audience and Black models couldn’t sell.” An ascending generation of designers of color, combined with mounting criticism of all-white shows, helped turn the tide. “It was a perfect storm that allowed another standard of beauty to rise,” James Scully, a former casting director, told me. “London is really where it all began, and Harry fell into this world.”

At the same time, Instagram was disrupting the industry in unprecedented ways: Would-be models in the outer districts of London were using it to reach out directly to labels and casting directors, without having to go through agents. Or if they already had agents, hustling models could aggressively promote themselves and draw the attention of new clients. “Harry was an early adopter of Instagram and naturally good on it,” Kennedy, the veteran talent scout, told me. “Beautifully managed, and he’d always thank the brands and give credits — kind of old-school in the best way.” Casting directors now routinely scout for unique faces both on the streets of immigrant neighborhoods and on Instagram. “Casting has exploded, especially street casting, using social media,” Kennedy told me. “People are getting themselves out there and getting a ton of followers.”

As the culture evolved, young men like Uzoka seemed to no longer view modeling as incompatible with their masculinity. Succeeding in an industry that valued beauty required male models to show aspects of themselves that could make them uneasy, like their femininity and vulnerability. But making money off your looks became a flex, a skill that could garner fame and access to the same luxuries more conventional celebrities had. And so two at-times-conflicting ideas lay under the hierarchy of male modeling: beauty and the openness it required, and a conception of manliness that still prized dominance and swagger. “Today being a male model is like being a rock star,” Egbon-Marshall said. “It’s becoming a thing disadvantaged Black boys think they want to do to get out of council estates,” he said, referring to British public housing. “Some of these kids have no passports, they’ve never done anything, they’ve all left school. But if they’re beautiful, there’s a chance they could do this thing.”

Many who met Uzoka thought of him as sensitive and generous. (I began piecing together his life in 2019 from interviews with friends and colleagues, as well as court transcripts.) He didn’t need to project machismo. Boys by Girls called him a “lovely, calm human being.” He enjoyed talking about African history and love and metaphysics, describing himself as “a free flying soul, not bound by his physical body.” During a photo shoot early in his career, Uzoka pulled out his favorite book, Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist,” a novel about following your dreams, and gave it to the photographer to better understand him. He had not yet traveled abroad — Manchester was the farthest he had gone for vacation — and he had an evident curiosity, almost innocence, about the world. He loved horror films, was fascinated by crystals and spirituality and hated showing his feet to Leomie Anderson, a fellow model and his girlfriend at the time.

In the community of Black male models, others looked up to Uzoka. There was now more demand for Black men in fashion, but there were still only a small number of them regularly working. “I really admired models like Harry, and I watched him,” Leonardo Taiwo, a London-born son of Nigerian immigrants who followed Uzoka into the business, said. “I wanted to be recognized as much as he was. Everybody respected Harry,” he told me. “He was a world-changer.” During the time Uzoka dated Anderson, Black fans found their relationship inspiring: They embodied a dark-skinned beauty not often found in fashion. “To the creative Black community, Harry was not only a model,” the stylist Akanbi told me. “He was the living representation of possibility.”

George Koh found his way into fashion not long after Uzoka, and he had a remarkably similar background. Born in Liberia, he immigrated to Britain with his family when he was 2. His mother was a retired chef, his father a security officer. As a teenager, Koh also got caught up with law enforcement: He was arrested for drug possession and assaulting two police officers. After high school, he studied business economics at college and completed an internship at a media agency, but he didn’t know what he wanted to do.

While Koh was still a university student, a talent scout approached him on the street. At first, modeling seemed like a way to make money and try something new. “I thought maybe I could do some traveling,” he later said in court. Dean Cleary-Patterson was the first agent to sign Koh, to his agency d1, in November 2013. “He was one of our top guys,” Cleary-Patterson said of how sought-after Koh became.

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