Cape Town teen goes from best man to global model

(This article was published in the Weekend Argus, a regional weekly newspaper in Cape Town, in the Western Cape province of South Africa, on Sunday June 1 2014.)

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Being best man at a wedding has led Eugon McNeil, 18, from Kraaifontein to the fashion runways of Milan, Paris and New York in little over a year.

McNeil, named one of New York’s top black male models this year, still lives with his single mother though in Scottsville, Kraaifontein.

“There’s gangsterism and drugs where I live. You hear gunshots. I didn’t get involved in that because I went for friends who aren’t into drugs and gangs. We would hang out and play video games,” says McNeil.

Young model Eugon McNeil went from Kraaifontein to Milan, Paris and New York. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

Young model Eugon McNeil went from Kraaifontein to Milan, Paris and New York. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

It is a life that is worlds apart from the modeling career path he is now treading. McNeil said this week in Cape Town, in between shoots for GQ and other clients, that he was en route to Paris Fashion Week.

After that it’s back for Cape Town Fashion Week and then New York for at least two months of work.

McNeil recalls signing a modeling contract last April after putting together a portfolio of photos that he took to a few local agencies.

“Four months before that I was best man at a wedding. One of the guys, who was at the wedding, looked at the pictures and asked me to do some photos wearing the clothes from his vintage shop. He then showed it to me and I was a bit shocked,” says McNeil.

“Then we worked on a model book. I went to different agencies. Some said they would call me later but one took me on immediately. After that they phoned me and said I had to go to Milan. That’s when my career took off.”

McNeil says he was writing his mid-year exams when his agent told him he had been booked for Milan Fashion Week.

“The day I went to Milan I wrote my English paper. My flight was at 12pm. I went to school early, wrote my exams at 8am, finished at 10am and then rushed to the airport. And I still passed,” he says.

Milan was his entry into the global world of modeling. Paris and New York followed.

“I had never done runway modeling before but people just told me that I have the walk. I trained myself how to walk. I also watched Youtube videos of how others walked on the runway. Then I was walking with supermodels,” recalls McNeil.

“You need pace, stability and be focused. You need to exclude everyone and do your thing. It’s all about believing in yourself.”

Modeling has been a wake up call too for the youngster.

“I was 17 when I traveled to Milan alone. I was young and complained to my mother and my agent that I wanted to come home. But it grew on me and I started to love it,” says McNeil.

“Traveling alone and modeling is a lot of responsibility. You need to be mature when taking it on. You can see what life is and you need to grow up. You have to work.

He adds: “So many things have happened in a year. I was in Milan for a month and did different fashion shows. In January my agent sent me to New York.

“I was nervous and it was my first time there. But I met so many people who are my age and they are modeling. They are doing it full time and earning a lot of money.”

And modeling comes with its challenges too.

“It can be difficult because there are millions of models around the world. It’s very competitive. I went to a Gucci casting in Milan and there were hundreds of models,” says McNeil.

“You learn that clients want someone that they like. But that makes models put on a fake face. I’d be sitting and talking with models at castings but when they do their audition they pretend to be someone else.”

McNeil says he prefers “just being myself at castings because that sets you apart from other models”.

“Clients love our (South African) accents. And if I just tell them I’m from South African then they just want to talk about Nelson Mandela. Then I feel ‘Ah, bonus’,” says McNeil.

“In Cape Town, we also have different features because we are mixed. People can never tell where I am from. When I went to New York people asked me if I’m from France. Others think I’m Dutch or Swedish because of the way I speak, and when I talk to them in Afrikaans.”

Regular exercise and eating healthier is now the norm for McNeil as “you need to keep your image up to date and stay healthy”.

“You need to sacrifice fast food. If my friends order burgers I order a salad. I try to always eat something that will benefit me. You can eat like a normal person. You just need to watch what you eat and how much you take in. You could eat less. Anyway, it makes you feel good,” he says.

“We usually just eat whatever comes our way, especially when it’s time to celebrate. The one thing I can’t say no to though is curry. But I eat that only once or twice a month. That’s my cheat meal. I have to be on a healthy eating plan.”

He adds: “I had to sacrifice a lot for modeling. You get a casting or booking immediately and you have to be prepared for anything that’s going to come your way. I can’t always go out on weekends.”

Being a hurdles racer with the Belleville Velodrome athletics clubs has kept him in shape throughout high school though, he says.

“Now I do cardio training in the morning and do some exercise in the evening. I need to exercise everyday to keep my body ripped and toned. You don’t want to get too buffed for modeling. In Paris, they love skinny models. They’re all skinny in Paris,” he says.

“In New York, the designers want bold models with six packs. In Europe, it’s in between. In South Africa, models have a lot of muscles.”

Coming home after being on TV, in magazines and newspapers has also been interesting for the Scottsville local.

“Everyone was calling me ‘Eugon the model’. People in my community come up to me and take a picture with me. But I’m surprised because we grew up together. It’s like I’m a celebrity when I’m there,” he says.

“A few months ago I was just a normal kid. Being on TV and in newspapers and magazines has made a difference because that’s what the community sees. But I’m not going to let these things go to my head. I’ll still eat curry and gatsbies. People from my community can still come up to me and we can talk.”

McNeil says he’s looking forward to getting back to New York “because there’s a diversity of people. Everybody comes to New York. It’s not Paris or Milan.”

It’s also crazy: “In New York, restaurants and clubs invite models. They want beautiful people there so that other people can also come there. That’s how it works in New York.”

McNeil now wants to keep pushing the modeling career while doing a “few workshops on TV presenting”.

“I want to pay for my studies. I have a single mother and I’m her only child. I don’t want her to pay for anything. When I’m 21, I want to at least be known everywhere. I want a have at least one big campaign. Then I’d like to be a TV presenter,” he says.

“We’re young and we need to do something that we love. Just grab it with both hands.”

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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