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Still from HOMME LESS

Meet New York’s homeless fashion photographer

As Fashion Week kicks off, we meet Mark Reay, the man who slept on a rooftop while rubbing shoulders with fashion’s finest – watch an exclusive clip from HOMME LESS here

Mark Reay was looking for a job. It was 2007 when he entered a New York newsagents, writing down the email addresses of staff from magazines on the shelf. He sent out around 50 messages with some images from his photography portfolio. We called him back. Thus began seven years of shooting for Dazed, at shows from Alexander Wang and Jeremy Scott to Hood By Air, getting up close with designers like Marc Jacobs, and models including Karlie Kloss and Lindsey Wixson. He would wake up (early), travel across town and get to work shooting shows, editing images where he could, finding a spot in coffee shops and bars to use the WiFi and send his work – such is the life of a fashion week photographer.  

Then, at the end of a long day, Mark would head back home, to a building in the East Village. He'd let himself in, careful not to make a noise, and climb the flights of stairs to the place he called home. Wrapping himself in extra layers, he would open a door onto the New York night, hop a fence (risking death with a huge drop below) and climb under a tarpaulin on the roof, nestled beneath a generator. Mark was one of the almost 60,000 homeless people currently living in New York City. 

His remarkable story is captured in new documentary HOMME LESS, filmed by friend and director Thomas Wirthensohn, who met Reay in their modelling days in Europe in the 1980s. “Mark and I kept in touch over the years and when I moved to New York we reconnected,” Wirthensohn recalls. “Catching up in a fancy bar I asked him where he was living in the city and then he told me that for the last three years he had been sleeping outside on a roof deck in the East Village underneath a tarp. I was shocked but knew right away that I wanted to make a film about his story. One week later he agreed and we started filming.”

It’s an incredible tale, so it’s no surprise that the film has drawn plenty of press – with most of the attention focusing on Reay himself. Considering his career choices (aside from modelling and photography, Reay has also worked as an actor – you can glimpse him in the background of the long-running Bleu de Chanel ad, suited and booted in Men in Black 3, or as an ‘international playboy’ in Sex and the City) the unusual nature of his story sparked news stories and TV appearances when the film premiered last month. Tabloids seized on the apparent contradictions of Reay’s life, focusing on his past modelling days as the hook for their write ups (the New York Post ran with headlines including “I’m a Model, and I'm Homeless!” and “Glam to Gutter”).

While Reay admits to having some reservations about the sensationalisation of his life, his story is fascinating no matter how you spin it. With silver fox looks that have helped to scoop him acting roles, neat, expensive looking clothes, a college education and a charisma that means he can strike up a conversation with just about anybody, he defies expectations of homelessness, and not just in terms of his appearance: his living situation arose from a conscious decision, to stay and try and make a living in the city he loves. As Wirthensohn puts it – “Mark chooses not to spend money on rent, but to keep most of the other essentials of a modern human being. He has a cell phone, a computer, a bank account, insurance and sometimes can spend some extra money on a dinner at a restaurants. If you have a family with kids your choices will be different and more limited.” Reay even manages to pay for health insurance through the Screen Actors Guild, and spends free time volunteering at a women’s shelter.

How did he end up living out on that rooftop? A failed business venture, a case of bedbugs (misdiagnosed but presumed contagious, thus rendering him an undesirable houseguest), a world on the brink of recession and – the spare key to a friend’s building in his pocket. “The economy, the banking system just collapsed – literally during fashion week,” he recalls. “I knew that the jobs I was getting that were enabling me to get an apartment would probably start drying up.” So, instead of admitting defeat in the city and going to stay with his mother in rural New Jersey, he did what for many would be unthinkable, and decided to head to the roof. Or, as he puts it, “I sort of re-trenched and downsized.” Reay makes one thing clear though: he does not want to be a cause for anyone’s pity: “I never thought I was a victim – I always knew that it was mainly the person in the mirror who was responsible for where I was.” 

Over the course of the film, we follow Reay from fashion show or photoshoot to rooftop, witnessing the way that his relative societal privileges (being an educated, well dressed, attractive man) come together to allow him to cross undetected between the two worlds – as Wirthensohn puts it, “HOMME LESS is about the discrepancy between appearance and reality.” Reay’s job demands the appearance of success: he goes to the gym (where he washes and irons his clothes) wears $200 shoes and chats with models in French while they pose for his street style shots. Although it’s not confronted directly, Reay is also white in a city where 88% of the homeless population are people of colour, meaning that he did not meet the stereotype (and was presumably less targeted by New York’s controversial stop and frisk laws because of it). 

“Catching up in a fancy bar I asked Mark where he was living in the city, and then he told me that for the last three years he had been sleeping on a roof. I knew right away that I wanted to make a film about his story” – HOMME LESS director Thomas Wirthensohn

None of this is lost on Reay. “I had a blessing with looks,” he admits. “I would also wear, what I called ‘my well-dressed man disguise’”, making sure to keep clean shaven instead of his preferred stubble where possible (in the film, we even see him lather up early one morning using a shop window as a mirror). He ‘passed’ – not looking out of place at a fashion show or a gallery opening, and even got invited along to a Marc Jacobs after party where Sonic Youth were playing, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Juergen Teller. “I kind of realised that this was a very unique take on living in New York,” he says. “Documenting the ups and downs and the irony of (going to) Marc Jacobs’ party and leaving at one in the morning on a February night where it’s like 21º (-6ºC) out.”

But aside from the glamorous moments, the film is also deeply personal. Reay discusses his sex life (or lack thereof – a rooftop isn’t really conducive to romance), the absence of direction that has defined his life and the fact that he has never told anyone beyond his family members that he loves them. Wirthensohn praises his bravery, but unsurprisingly Reay feels a level of vulnerability about seeing himself laid so bare on screen. “It’s as if your analyst sets you up for three years of being in therapy with them and then says, by the way, I’ve got a film coming out about you! To show me at a low point in my life, it makes me feel a bit embarrassed... But probably in the first two weeks shooting on the roof I knew that what I was doing would one day be a great story.”

Wirthensohn certainly thought so too, and while he’s keen to stress the economic difficulties created by a gentrifying city (“homelessness is not only an issue for a small minority of people living on the streets with a drug problem or mental illness can happen to anyone who lives from paycheck to paycheck”) Reay says he “was kind of fascinated by living where (he) was and getting away with it for so long.” For him, it “became a challenge”, a way to beat the system one day at a time. He doesn’t want to be a poster boy for the American Dream gone wrong. “I feel responsible where I am in life,” he explains. And that’s not necessarily positive or negative. I know I had a good education and there were opportunities available to me or could be available to me if I just somehow got a focus or a direction. And so I’m not bitter – just find that I am wholly accountable for my life. It’s not the system, it was me that was the problem.”

Asking someone whether they are nostalgic about their past homelessness feels like a strange question. But Reay (now subletting an apartment) isn’t fazed by it – “Oh, I do miss it!” he exclaims eagerly. “There’s a lot of times I felt like my own man on that roof. It’s probably in the past, but I do miss it because you really felt like a survivor...I really don’t need an apartment. I don’t need a roof over my head to survive.” 

“I never thought I was a victim – I always knew that it was mainly the person in the mirror who was responsible for where I was” – Mark Reay