In his debut novel Kameleon Man, Ottawa author Kim Brunhuber examines the glamorous and treacherous world of male modelling, based on his own experience.
The book’s black hero, Stacey, goes from strutting catwalks in Nepean to the bright lights of Toronto. The siren call of becoming the next Kameleon jeans model haunts his journey. Anyone can be the next big thing in an industry that uses people up and throws them away. Stacey leaves behind his girlfriend, Melody, to pursue a dream that he constantly questions.
Brunhuber uses the idea that models must market their look based on trends which is part of the “chameleon men” theme. Nevertheless, reducing Kameleon Man to a book jacket blurb does not do Brunhuber justice.
Instead of the self-involved, conceited character I expected, Stacey is someone experiencing failures and small victories. Stacey, contrary to racial stereotyping, is an average athlete. He bumbles a commercial audition that involves shooting a basketball through the hoop. Stacey also considers himself a mediocre model with attractive skin, but an average look and body type. Ironically, the sexy cover of Kameleon belies this white lie about the author himself. In the shirtless photo of Brunhuber, he is facing down, shoulders arched, as though praying.
Brunhuber has developed an endearing anti-hero that you root for. While Stacey’s troubles get progressively worse, you know that he has an untapped talent – a photographic eye. He often describes how he would capture certain scenes. In one disturbing and invasive passage, Stacey insists on taking nude photos of Melody, somewhat against her will.
Kameleon also manages to rise above the novelty of examining the modelling life. Stacey befriends other black male models, such as Crispen, Augustus and Simien. There is an underlying sense that they only get work because they are black. When the boss cancels Stacey’s photo shoot because the inexperienced model shaved his head, Stacey discovers shortly afterwards that one of his pals has already received a call for the same gig.
Brunhuber’s perennial narrative voice keeps you reading. In some ways, the character’s journey is reminiscent of JD Salinger’s classic, The Catcher in the Rye. A character with underlying problems tries to escape them for something better. Instead, he takes them with him, encountering slings and arrows along the way. This is an archetypal hero quest, like a hobbit carrying a ring to a volcano, a beatnik hitting the road or Tom Sawyer rafting down the Mississippi River. In Kameleon, an asexually named hero enters a world based solely on looks. It’s a terrific and enviable first effort, although not flawless.
Stacey’s modeling buddies are sometimes interchangeable, the exceptions being Simien and the muscle-bound Augustus. There are hints of attraction when Stacey describes Simien as one of the most unusually beautiful men he has ever seen. Unfortunately, Stacey never goes further, although he admits that rumours have circulated about him shopping on both sides of the street.
He and the other models work out, play basketball and hit the bar together. Disappointingly, the hero makes a wide berth around same-sex experimentation. Other characters do indulge, but mainly off-stage. For example, Stacey mentions that Simien is a drag queen in his spare time. The other models talk about Simien having an encounter with a male photographer in a bathroom stall. As the most out model of the group, it’s no surprise that he gives sage and somewhat confrontational advice to Stacey throughout the story.
The jacket blurb promises an examination of the fast life of modelling, which the novel delivers, but not necessarily how readers might expect. It’s not like Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, whose main character slides into an abyss of cocaine addiction. Brunhuber’s treatment is more moderate. There is hell here too, but a particular one. Stacey and his friends are caught up in a scene that they clearly don’t have the money for. In one scene, Stacey is too broke to buy groceries, so instead he licks some dirty plates clean.
Overall, though, Stacey is a successful anti-hero. His friends have to lend him shirts to give him the right image at photo shoots. Someone shows Stacey how to shave properly; he really doesn’t know how because his father walked out when he was a kid and his mother taught him. As well, unlike his friends, Stacey has trouble picking up women.
Despite all this, you want Stacey to succeed or at least learn what it means to be a successful model. He questions his motivations constantly, which is a good trick, because so do you. Stacey seems willing to suffer abject poverty until making it big. Readers may have trouble believing that someone of his experience could be so naïve about high stakes modeling, but Brunhuber manages this fine balancing act.
Kim Barry Brunhuber.
Porcepic Books, an imprint of Beach Holme Publishing. 2003.