'For six years I was called mr blobby'
You'd be forgiven for thinking top models are born perfect, but you'd be mistaken. Tanya Sweeney speaks to Irish model Kohlin Harris, who went from being a 20-stone bullied teenager to posing for Vogue within six months. Yet he still struggles to accept his new image...
It's safe to say that supermodels are almost otherworldly in their beauty, but for many of them it hasn't always been that way. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a successful model who doesn't recall being taunted at school with names such as 'giraffe' or 'beanpole'.
Wicklow-born model Kohlin Harris knew this drill only too well. Yet what makes his story all the more remarkable was that six months before landing six-figure contracts with Calvin Klein and Versace, Harris was tipping the scales at 20 stone.
Harris's weight problems began aged eight when he put on three stone in two weeks by gorging himself at Christmas.
"I would eat everything at home and buy more food outside," he said. "I would look in a mirror and never think I was that fat. I would eat on the sly." At the age of 14, Harris had to have his 52in trousers especially made.
He's not likely to forget his time at St David's School in Greystones in a hurry. There, girls voted him the ugliest boy in the school, while boys dubbed him Harry the Hippo.
"For six years, I was called Mr Blobby, Elephant Man and loads of other names. Sometimes it nearly brought me to tears," he recalls. "I had no self-confidence at all and very few friends."
Matters eventually came to a head when his doctor warned him that if he didn't address his weight problem, he was on a fast track to a heart attack.
"Very simply, I couldn't walk any more," he admits. "The skin in between my legs got infected from the friction. My sister, Nicole, was in medical school at the time and the doctor was like, 'I'm going to have to put you on a high-fibre, low-calorie diet'. I started walking three miles a day, and when I started that I was in pure agony."
Harris lost nine stone in five months, shedding a stone in the first week alone. And no-one was as surprised as he was at the boyishly handsome figure that emerged, chrysalis-like, from the entire episode.
"At the time, there was one defining moment for me," he says. "I went shopping and, while I was queueing for a changing room, I noticed this guy kept staring at me. I was thinking, 'What's his problem?' It took a minute for me to realise that the guy was actually me [in the mirror].
"When I got back to school after the summer holidays, some of my classmates didn't recognise me," he adds. "I had to tell them who I was. It was a great feeling. I also noticed girls looking at me. In fact, one of the girls who slagged me off about the size of my trousers... well, we ended up going to the debs together."
Job done on the weight loss, Harris faced the prospect of knuckling down to his Leaving Cert exams -- or so he thought. A week after the changing room incident, Assets Models founder Mags Humphries spotted the schoolboy outside McDonald's on Grafton Street.
"I'd bunked off school that day because I had my mock Leaving Cert exams in maths," he laughs. "All I recall was that feeling, 'Shit, I have to tell my parents I wasn't in school'. I missed my English mock then because the day after I got scouted, I was on a shoot for Italian Vogue. I thought I was made for life on that set. In the end, I got paid £60, but the honour of doing it was priceless."
Within four months, Harris had signed to major agencies in London, Paris, New York and Milan (including the renowned Wilhelmina powerhouse agency in New York). With major ad campaigns under his belt, he found himself sharing a loft with fellow novice Jason Lewis (later, Samantha's boyfriend, Smith Jerrod, in Sex and the City).
"For an ex-fatboy from Wicklow, it happened at a pretty manic pace," he reflects. "There was a bit of an Irish posse out there in New York at the time: Alison Canavan, Zoe Gregory, Marcus Fitzgerald, Mairead McHugh. In the 90s, there were big names around and it was a very different era to what it is now. I started out with Karen Elson, and we'd hang out in Milan together. Except instead of going to the model parties, we'd take a packed lunch to the park.
"I was lucky that I always had a strong enough head about drugs and suchlike and never went down that road," he adds. "To be honest, I never saw that much of it. One time in Milan, I was invited to a party where they were handing round actual trays of cocaine."
Harris may have found himself at the frontline of fashion, but it took him a while to adjust to his newfound beauty. Ironically, he has had no issue with his weight since contracting glandular fever in his 20s, when he hit a low of seven stone.
"You go from being a total numpty to everyone in the entire room going 'Oh, bella, bella', which is a complete headf***," he admits. "In a knock-back way, it had a bad effect on me. Most of the time I was thinking, 'What on Earth am I doing here?' It took at least six months for me to realise that I was any good.
"I was bullied so much for being fat that I felt nothing but ugly," he continues. "I never believed once I was good looking. But I've found that this is what's happened to the best models. They're all totally unassuming because most of them got picked on in school. One girl I'm working with right now is so beautiful she's almost alien-like, but she's getting quite a tough time about it in school."
However, Harris's remarkable past became a hook that propelled him to even greater heights. At the peak of his career, he was earning a six-figure salary and dividing his time between New York and Milan.
"I got a lot more press than most young male models because of the weight issue," he notes. "A lot of people remember me for it. In Australia, three years ago, a girl came up to me and said, 'I had your poster on my wall'. It's taken me years and years to appreciate that I might not be ugly."
As an added bonus, Harris's teenage years have given him the edge in his latest role as head of scouting for Elite Model Man- agement in London. At the age of 27, he grew "tired of working with 17-year-old models" and, after a successful Prada show in Milan, decided to leave modelling at the top of his game.
"You have to understand that at the end of the day, you're dealing with children," he explains. "At 16, I was most certainly not an adult. But I know now that if someone tells you something about yourself, it can cause problems and stick in your head. My youth made me more aware of how one little comment can mess you up. So around here, we never use the words 'fat' or 'overweight'.
At Elite, the ideal body type is 'naturally slim', with Kohlin denouncing the size-zero look as "a bit four years ago".
"We won't let at least two girls we've signed start working until they put on a stone and start to look healthier, but their problem is that they are coeliacs. We need to promote that healthy image now more than ever. As to the idea that size 14 girls are being used in London Fashion Week, I'm all for it. The Mark Fast models looked great in those clothes and that's all that matters."
These days, Harris's time is taken up scouting for new modelling talent. After our interview, he takes off to do what he calls the "school run", where he checks the train stations that service private schools in London.
As to what makes an ideal new signing, Harris admits: "It's a bit like The X Factor, where you know it when you see it. Aside from having perfect features, they also have 'the glow'. It only takes a split second, but you can tell completely whether they'll make it. Someone can have a big nose or have eyes that are really far apart and it can really work."
Now, he is turning his attention towards Ireland as he searches for new faces. He plans to launch a number of campaigns across the country in the coming months. It will be an interesting time for the ex-model both personally and professionally, who admits he has only been back to Ireland a handful of times in the 16 years since he left.
"I think that whole modelling way of life instilled a lack of homesickness in me," he admits. "I never missed Ireland. To me, London and South Africa are now home."
Whether he will look up any of his old schoolfriends when he gets back remains uncertain. "The funny thing was that, even when I lost the weight, I was then being called gay, which proves you can never win," he says with a smile. "One guy in particular gave me a hard time on that front. Last I heard though, he was living abroad with his husband."
If you're between 14 and 20 and between 5'8" and 6'1" in height,email kohlin@ elitemodellondon.co.uk. For details of Kohlin's next scouting trip to Ireland, see www.elitemodellondon.co.uk.