For the past decade, Shaun Ross was mostly seen, not heard.
The 26-year-old model, a Bronx native, has been one of the fashion industry’s most ubiquitous faces, appearing in campaigns for Alexander McQueen and Givenchy, as the first professional male model with albinism and bringing awareness to the congenital disorder through last year’s collaboration with fashion designer Nina Athanasiou for the “In My Skin” clothing line.
His forays into music have been visual: he’s the one who emerges from the rubble in Katy Perry’s epic video for “E.T.” featuring Kanye West. And yeah, that’s him measuring Beyonce’s waist in the clip for “Pretty Hurts.”
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Now, he’s is stepping into a different sort of spotlight. With the release of his debut single “Symmetry” on Lamplus Media, Ross embarks on his first foray into music as a solo artist, enlisting former J*Davey member Brook D’Leau on production and co-writing, as well as Rush Davis (also a co-writer) and Lizzo on background vocals.
“Just because you have abs — and I don’t — doesn’t mean that I’m less of a person,” says Ross of the silky R&B song. “If your skin is clear — and mine isn’t — it doesn’t make me less of a person. It’s all about what matters inside.” With Black Eyed Peas ingénieur will.i.am overseeing the creation of his debut project, Ross gives his first interview about making the transition from the runway to recording studio, and what to expect from him in the near future.
Your background is modeling. What made you want to get into singing, and how have you followed that journey?
When it comes to music, I’ve always had a love for it — especially since I was younger, because of my parents. They were both two people who had very eclectic ears. When I was younger, I was never allowed to listen to the radio, so I would always listen to the stuff that they would play. And one of the biggest influences was Donny Hathaway. We were listening to so many people, from The Cardigans to Everything But the Girl to Bjork. So many different genres, so many different artists. I’ve always loved listening to music, but did I ever think I wanted to make music? No, not at all.
When I moved to Los Angeles, my friend who actually is one of the writers on the song, Rush Davis, he would always drop me a line in his car, and he would play me different kinds of music. He was like, ‘Yo, you really know music pretty well.’ And then I would meet people who liked the same music I like. He would always tell me, ‘You should do music, you should do music.’ And I was always like, ‘Eh, I’m not really sure about it.’
Then I ended up becoming friends with will.i.am, and I ended up doing this event for him in New York. And the Black Eyed Peas — meaning will.i.am, Apl and Taboo — all three of them approached me, and they were like, “Hey, are you into doing music?” And I was just like, “Not really.” I basically ended up taking the microphone at the “Where Is the Love” event, and I was just MCing on the microphone with DJ Ruckus, and I just got the party jumping. And they said, “You have a really good stage presence, you should think about doing music.”
So I ended up getting back to L.A., telling my friend Rush, and Will was like, “Hey, why don’t you start doing music? I’ll help you out a little bit,” and so on and so forth. And that’s basically how this journey started.
When you actually started to do music itself, how did that take shape?
All of this started happening last year around November, December. It’s been an actual year. And the first person I got into an actual studio with was the producer Kingdom, from Fade to Mind. I ended up getting in with him, ‘cause he worked on something and I wasn’t comfortable with my voice. It took a few times for me to start hearing my vocals to get comfortable with, “This is just who I am, and this what I’m gonna sound like,” and learning to appreciate it. So that was that first feeling.
Where did it go from there?
Well, I’m not really the best writer. I do write, but my friend Rush, he’s really good at writing, and he knows a lot about my personal life. Sometimes we’ll have conversations, and he knows how to articulate how I’m feeling and what I went through. We just get each other. It’s so weird, but we have this relationship where we just get each other. It’s kind of crazy. We’ll talk about things, and he’ll run it by me and I’ll tweak some stuff. We just bounce off ideas back and forth.
“Symmetry” is your debut single. The lyrics have a special meaning to you. What kind of message do you want to communicate with this song, and why did you choose to go with this one in particular?
I felt like it should’ve been a song that you start with. And the reason why is, when it comes to the modeling industry, I’ve been an ally for people that have fought against social norms. For me, I feel like this song represents that completely. If you listen to the lyrics, it’s all this talk about body: “What is him/her?” I feel like that is something I went through my whole entire life. Even in modeling, always being told that: “This designer’s looking for this kind of model and you have to look this way in order to get accepted.” It’s like, what is that though? What does that actually mean?
Something that I’ve never understood about modeling in general is — I use this example all the time, the brand St. John, which caters to an upscale female. And what always baffles me is almost all of those ladies in the White House, they’ve all worn St. John. And what I think is funny is that, even St. John or Chanel, it’s usually rich, gaudy women who wear it. And those women are not a size two. A lot of them are bigger-sized women. So it always baffles me. Models aren’t buying it. It’s another person who’s buying it, but just because that person doesn’t have the shape of a model doesn’t devalue who they are as a person. So this song represents, to me, [that] it doesn’t matter.
You’re coming from the fashion world, where you’re probably used to being seen and not heard. What sort of obstacles do you think you might face in crossing over from one platform to another? Do you see it as an obstacle?
In the beginning I used to see it as an obstacle, crossing from modeling to music, but I don’t anymore. The reason why is I feel like the industry is changing. And I used to feel like it’s changing for the worse, which I still do, but it’s changing also towards a more innovative direction. And when I say that, it’s like — back then, there were certain standards that you had to reach in order to be anything. You had to reach a certain standard in order to be considered a journalist, and I feel like today you don’t. If you are a person and you have a blog to show people, you can get a job at a magazine. If you take great photos and people like them, you can model for a campaign.
So I feel like if there are people who don’t have to go through the social structure of what it means to be whatever they’re trying to be, then I don’t have to go through it too. If people can have the opportunity to be experimental and express themselves in any other way, I should be able to do it as as well. So if you want to be a model overnight, I’m gonna be a singer overnight. But unfortunately, me being a singer overnight isn’t true, because even though I haven’t been singing my whole life, I’ve always loved music deeper than anybody could imagine.
Why do you feel like now is the right time to go into singing?
It’s really crazy, ‘cause right now it’s an actual decade that I’ve been modeling. It’s been 10 years, and there’s always a pivotal point in your life where you know you want to do something new. I will always still do modeling because I’m just into that. I’m into the artistic-ness of things like that. But at the same time, I wanted to express myself.
The thing that people got to realize is, when it comes to modeling, I didn’t want to be a model from the beginning. I wanted to be a dancer. And I love dancing. I danced for 11 years before then. And then modeling happened, and that happened for 10 years. So I wanted to do something finally that I wanted to do. I just wanted to make sure that when I do my music, I’m doing it for me. so this project, these songs, they’re for people if they like them, but more importantly it’s for me. When I listen to my music, I like what I hear.