A typical week for model, actor and photographer Mark Reay – a debonair, six-foot-three 56-year-old – is spent shooting at New York Fashion Week, appearing in Hollywood films and attending gallery openings. He has been snapped for Vogue. He has played a wealthy playboy in Sex and the City and an agent in Men in Black III. He has worked with Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese. At the end of each day for the last six years, Reay has returned to his smart East Village apartment block – not to a flat inside but a tiny tarpaulin “nest” on the roof.
Reay is homeless. The reality of his glamorous world saw him sleeping tucked up in an eight-foot by three-foot makeshift shelter, only accessible by climbing on to and over the ledge of the five-storey building. He shaves in public toilets and irons clothes at his local YMCA, yet on the surface he is the epitome of a wealthy silver fox.
Born in New Jersey, Reay’s life has been chequered with highs and lows: after graduating from university, he spent a decade modelling in Europe for Versace and Moschino – sporadic work with poor pay for all but the elite models. Then, after his modelling career slowed down, he took a series of dead-end jobs before turning his hand to photography.
Reay decided the only way he could get by and still pursue his dream of working in fashion was to sleep rough
Finding that commissions are hard to come by, while New York rents climb skyscraper-high, Reay decided the only way he could get by and still pursue his dream of working in fashion was to sleep rough.
His unusual background has been documented in a film directed by Thomas Wirthensohn, called Homme Less, that follows Reay’s daily routine. His story shows that anybody can be affected by homelessness – and appearances can be deceptive. The Big Issue spoke to Reay about a life most extraordinary…
We know the stereotypes aren’t true but you certainly do not look ‘homeless’.
I call it my ‘well-dressed man’ disguise. We’re very aware of the people we see on the street or on the subway but a lot of homelessness is hidden. How many people are couch-surfing or staying in a hostel? I know a woman who sleeps in her car. Being a tall, healthy, white male gives me a lot more breaks. People aren’t suspicious when I’m crawling about on a rooftop at two o’clock in the morning.
How did you end up in a situation where sleeping on a roof was your best option?
Perhaps my mistake was to narrow down my career path to modelling, acting and photography – three professions that have a highly improbable success rate. But in today’s economy, with so much insecurity and a lack of affordable housing, so many people are living pay cheque to pay cheque. You could be a lawyer or an accountant or a salesperson in a store and in two or three months you might very well be in the situation I found myself in.
Lots of people face the choice of following their dreams or taking a job that will make them a living.
Right. I have no idea how I could make a living in a cheaper area. My family lives in the countryside and there’s absolutely no need for a model, an actor or a photographer out there. I am prepared to make sacrifices in order to be in the city I love.
There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.
Is the money and glamour of the fashion world just a myth?
I managed to achieve one of my goals and live in Europe for eight years. Even if it was hand-to-mouth, it was still a wonderful experience to learn about art, pick up languages and eat good food. When I was in Milan there was a guy who had to sneak out of the apartments the models lived in because he couldn’t even afford that. He started sleeping in Parco Sempione. The next thing you know he landed a $30,000 Scotch ad, which answered a lot of his problems.
The way you look and dress projects a certain image. Is that something you picked up from your modelling days?
My modelling background taught me a sense of style. When I started I was not fashionable, except for being a devotee of the English punk and New Wave scene. Just a side note, I was backstage with Bono one time. I thought I would love to talk to him but had nothing to say, then I looked down and I was wearing a 15-year-old Buzzcocks T-shirt. I went up to him and said: “Hey, remember them?” He said: “Oh man, I remember telling the band when we were young, ‘Let’s send it to the moon like the Buzzcocks do!’” Getting back to your question, in the acting world I realised my type is ironically a successful, powerful person because that is the opinion people have when they see me on the street.
It’s definitely not a recipe for success but it was a recipe for survival
Yes, the wealthy silver fox?
If you saw me on the beach in a bathing suit most people would probably think that guy has a nice job – I bet his life is really interesting and good. My life is really interesting and good but not financially so.
It reinforces that it is never wise to judge a book by its cover.
Right, categorising. Everyone’s life story is interesting if told properly. Speaking of books, there are two I found myself connecting to that you may know – Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and George Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris. I see how they struggled in their artistic endeavour. Not that I’m comparing myself to these great artists – my pursuits aren’t anywhere near as lofty.
Down and Out shows that times change but issues such as homelessness remain the same.
It’s like that old joke – what do you call a musician without a girlfriend? Homeless… Even when economic times are great there are people who are pursuing their passion and are not finding artistic success.
Crime and addiction often accompany homelessness. How did you avoid that?
There’s also mental illness. Depression is sometimes a good sign. If you’re depressed it might be a message – hey, maybe I need to change my lifestyle. At one point I felt very bleak towards the world and my existence – why don’t I have a career, why am I not supporting myself, why am I not even having a regular sex life? I started getting angry and detached. Then one day, I said to myself: Mark, you have felt lost since the minute you stepped out of university. You’ve had trouble having romance – just give up on that being in your future. Within a few months I became calm and much more content. It’s definitely not a recipe for success but it was a recipe for survival.
A lot of advice is about how to live your dreams but a lot of people struggle just to make it through day-to-day life.
That’s how I felt. And I live by that philosophy even now. I really don’t expect good things to happen to me, I just expect things to happen to me.
You’ve appeared in many films but now there’s a documentary all about you.
In movie-speak, it’s a story about a man who has a lust for life but is lost in life, a struggle to live in the city he loves and a struggle to live with himself.
How have things changed since making Homme Less?
Today my net worth is $20. I had to borrow a razor at the YMCA last night for an interview today. People say go out and buy one, it costs a buck or two, but generally you can’t buy one, you have to buy a pack: that could be lunch or dinner for me.
But you are not living on a roof any more, are you?
No, but to tell you the truth I wish I still had that option. I liked keeping money in my pocket rather than my landlord’s. People living on the street are so vulnerable – I was safe. No one was going to beat me up, urinate on me, set me on fire. I always felt secure – other than climbing out on a ledge, of course. It’s awkward seeing someone on the street asking for money. I want to help but I’m just as broke. I’m a great believer the best way to aid homeless people is through organisations rather than through direct donations.
Encouraging people to engage with services that could help with the issues that led them to being homeless in the first place is something we try to do at The Big Issue.
Yeah, I modelled in London from 2000 to about 2005 and so The Big Issue is something I would encounter. It dawned on me I have a really nice collection of photography and I decided to invest in making a 20-page magazine that I will be selling myself at the movie theatre at the end of every showing of my film. It’s like I’ll be selling my own Big Issue! And I can guarantee 100 per cent of the proceeds are going to a good cause – me!
Do you still feel lost in life?
After making the film, I have to say I’m reinvigorated in terms of pursuing my work. I’m not lost any more, I can see a few faint signs leading towards home.