Interview with Thomas Knights
Where did the inspiration for RED HOT come from?
Being a redheaded male myself, it’s close to my heart and a very personal project. It amazed me how our western culture holds redheaded women to such high regard, almost the “ultimate” female, and redheaded males in such low esteem, emasculated and de-sexualised in film and TV and literature. I don’t think any other hair colour has this polarised opinion between genders. If you think about it, there are hardly any Hollywood leading men with ginger hair, and no superheroes or action stars. Actually, it’s almost laughable to imagine a ginger action star—we have been conditioned to think ginger men are ugly and weak. I wanted to flip this on its head and present the redheaded male as the “ultimate” alpha male. I thought if Flora, which is essentially a box of fat, can present itself as a health product—Flora “Active,” “lowers your cholesterol,” “run for life” —then I can make the ginger man the “ultimate man.” Essentially, ginger boys desperately needed a re-brand and I felt like I was in a good position to do it.
So, it was in my head for a couple of years, then I read an article in The Sunday Times Style with the caption: “What is our new obsession with hot ginger men?”—name-checking Damien Lewis (Homelands) and Prince Harry—and boom! I knew something was changing. Hot ginger guys were so taboo they were exciting. The fashion world, often being at the forefront of popular culture, was already on to it and I knew that RED HOT was going to work. The next week, I shot the first few guys and it snowballed from there.
How did you find the models? What models were you looking for?
When I read The Times article I phoned every big model agency in London, and every single one seemed surprised to discover they actually didn’t have any redheaded guys on their books. I was quite shocked, too—there obviously wasn’t the market for them yet. Then I discovered AMCK, who had four ginger models, and I shot them all, which kickstarted the RED HOT idea. I then found a number of guys randomly—in clubs, walking down the street, recommendations, Facebook. Then about a year later, I went back to all the big agencies and each of them had one or two ginger models. So, obviously things were changing.
Having shot the models, what has been the best/most surprising thing to come out of it?
Most certainly the personal stories. I wanted to make sure there was heart at the centre of this, so next to each image at the exhibition there is a caption with a quote or anecdote from the model. Many of the guys can now walk down the street with self-confidence, but it’s taken years for them to get there. Often bullied at school, some of them have had to go through years of self-hatred, and often they ended up dyeing their hair—and for some, completely concealing their true identities. This is not the case for all of them but it seems like a recurring theme. It eventually leads to a sort of “coming out as ginger” moment. This is the same path I went down, so I can completely relate. It might seem ridiculous to some people but this is the effect our culture has on ginger boys at the moment with no positive role models to aspire towards or hold in your defense. So I contacted the Anti-Bullying Alliance, who are fully on board and a brand partner with RED HOT. They are very excited, as this is a big bullying issue in schools and is not taken as seriously as racism, sexism, or homophobia, but has many of the same effects to those on the receiving end. It’s not perceived as racism, as people with pale skin and ginger hair are not classified as a race. If all gingers came from the same place and had a culture of their own, the persecution would be classed as racism and would have never been allowed to fester for so long. It’s simply a technicality. All appearance-based persecution ultimately should be treated with the same level of seriousness in my opinion.
What do you want people's reaction to be when they see the RED HOT exhibition?
I really want people to have a great time, first and foremost, and feel flustered by all the hot men staring at them from the walls. But I ultimately want them to go away with a sort of mind shift. I want them to consider their own possible institutionalised, conditioned restrictions on what is a sexy or “hot” male. I’ve found that some people are surprised that hot ginger guys exist, while some whisper “well, I’ve always had a fetish for ginger boys,” as if it’s something to be ashamed of. But really, I want a level playing field. The gay community and fashion world has long embraced men with ginger hair—especially in the last few years. But there is still a long way to go with the wider public. RED HOT aims to appeal to a broad audience in order to have maximum impact. I want women to want to have a ginger baby— not feel ashamed of it. I want straight men to think of ginger guys as equals, and I want gay guys to adore them in equal measure. I don’t think fetishisation is the answer—it can be counterproductive. An equal platform to everyone else is what we are gunning for. But for that to happen, RED HOT has to change a whole culture. It will take time. If anything at all, I would love to create a conversation about it. I would love to make a difference to the kid at school being bullied for the colour of his hair and freckles. I would love him to be proud of it right now, and stop him from having to go on the same journey of self-confidence many of the guys went through. That would be an achievement.
Why RED HOT?
“Guys with red hair don’t have the positive role models that girls do, in our culture. A male with red hair is not seen as aspirational, with very few leading men, heroes, action stars or heartthrobs played by men with red hair in Hollywood or on our TV screens. Also, the more laddish culture of banter – that maybe is not so prevalent in female friendship circles – creates a fear of speaking out, based on the concept of ‘it was just a joke’. While many people may argue calling someone a ‘ginga’ or any other ‘fun’ words for people with red hair is just witty banter, for some of those on the receiving end, the impact to their self- esteem is felt much more deeply and can have lasting, detrimental effects at school and way into their adult life. Red Hot is my response to this.”
Do you think the exhibition is successful in showing how attractive redheads can be?
I wanted to create really in-your-face, clean, fresh, advert-like fashion images. I initially tried a few colours but it was clear that the blue background set off the different shades of red and generally light skin. It was also really important for me to brand RED HOT, to have a continuity with the main portraits, so if you Googled it, it would be clear what is a RED HOT picture. Everyone’s face has a unique reaction to light so it wasn’t totally standardised, but I feel like the portraits do have an honesty and a fresh, new, feel about them. The films are important at expressing the other— and more important—side of attractiveness: character and personality.
The guys (a lot of whom have emailed me directly to take part) often had a strong, confident persona which really shines in film. I think this is a response to feeling marginalised in their youth. Many have grown up questioning themselves and ultimately hating who they are. They change this by dyeing their hair, then eventually they become self-confident enough to be true to themselves. They therefore, in my experience doing this, tend to be much more self-aware and confident, savvy individuals as adults, which I think can make someone more attractive.
ABOUT THOMAS KNIGHTS
Thomas Knights began his career as a music producer and performer and quickly realised he also had a talent behind the camera. Inspired by underground visionaries like James Bidgood and Pierre et Gilles, and the greats like Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Guy Bourdin, and David LaChapelle, he has a dark, cinematic yet “pop” approach to photography, film, and music.
His many music videos for the likes of Marina and The Diamonds, Willy Moon, Karin Park, and Maya Jane Coles have amassed millions of views online, and his photography has been featured in Marie Claire, InStyle, Dazed & Confused, and Vogue Italia.