Hubert Burda Media

Cover Story: Sean O’Pry

Following a turn in a Taylor Swift music video and an audition for 50 Shades, supermodel Sean O’Pry tells us about life in front of the camera.

Sean O’Pry had a perfectly ordinary childhood in the sleepy town of Kennesaw, Georgia. He was the middle child of three, went to the local public high school and endured all the usual crises that loom so large in teenagers’ lives. He was a promising American football player, until he caught mono and had to step back from the sport. He secured his dream date for senior prom, got dumped, and later found out through Facebook that she’d gone with another guy. But then, amid all the drama and drudgery of adolescent life, O’Pry started getting messages from a stranger on MySpace.

The messages were from a man based far away in New York, who said that he’d looked through O’Pry’s MySpace photos and thought he had the potential to make it as a model. O’Pry was flattered, but also worried that it was a scam, so he showed the messages to his mum. She recognised the man’s name – Nolé Marin – because she’d seen him appear as a judge on America’s Next Top Model. O’Pry replied.

“Two weeks later I flew to New York. It was November 27, 2006,” O’Pry reminisces during a call from his family home in Georgia, where he’s just finished Thanksgiving dinner. “It was such a whirlwind, really. It all happened so quickly. I have great memories. That day, the first time I flew up north, I remember coming up to New York City. My manager’s father picked me up and ‘Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer’ was playing on the radio.”

What followed was a series of firsts. That was O’Pry’s first time on a plane, the visit to New York was his first time in a big city and the next few days were his first foray into the fashion world. He’d signed a contract with Lana Tomzcak, the owner of VNY Model Management, before he arrived in New York, and he was immediately thrust into a maelstrom of castings and meetings. “It was a completely different world,” O’Pry admits. “I come from a not-too-small town, like 30,000 people, but then landing in New York is crazy. I didn’t talk for like three days. It was very shocking.”

This initial reticence didn’t hold O’Pry back. Within days he’d signed a deal with Calvin Klein and his phone was ringing off the hook with other offers. In 2008, just one year after he started modelling full time, O’Pry was ranked the eighth most successful male model in the world by Forbes magazine.

By the next year, he’d climbed to the top spot, having raked in more than US$1 million that season. Since then, O’Pry has racked up appearances in campaigns for high fashion houses including Giorgio Armani, Bottega Veneta, Versace, Hermès, Salvatore Ferragamo, Viktor & Rolf and Kenzo, as well as for highstreet giants H&M, Zara, Uniqlo and Gap. He’s also appeared on countless magazine covers, including those of Vogues Hommes, GQ Style (in Russia, Korea and the UK), Esquire, L’Officiel Hommes and Details.

But one look at O’Pry suggests he was made for the industry. For a start, there’s his sky-blue, catshaped eyes, which may well be his most famous feature. Then there are his perfect cheekbones, alabaster skin and impressively muscled, beach-ready body. He also has a mop of dark-brown hair that can be slicked back to make him look like a ’50s movie star, gelled up to make him runway ready or tousled to turn him into a cheeky boy next door. He’s everything that fashion designers want in a male muse, so it’s almost surprising that he didn’t find his way into modelling before Marin spotted those MySpace photos. “The idea of it, people had suggested it before,” O’Pry concedes. “But it was never what I thought I’d do with my life.”

Yet modelling has become O’Pry’s life and, for the moment, he’s happy with that. He recently made headlines for playing Taylor Swift’s love interest in her “Blank Space” music video, which – at the time of writing – has amassed over a billion views on YouTube and is the second most viewed clip on the site. O’Pry appears as the impeccably dressed, classic-car-driving, horse-riding heartthrob who, it seems, is just so handsome that he drives Swift to the edge of murderous insanity.

As the on-screen relationship disintegrates, we see Swift throw plant pots at O’Pry, destroy paintings of him and take a golf club to the Shelby AC Cobra car that he parks outside her castle. “The first time I met Taylor was when we were doing the car scene, so we did the intense bit first,” O’Pry says with a laugh. “It was incredible. She was so professional and she was just incredible. Joseph [Khan, the director] was great, her whole team was great, they took really good care of me. It couldn’t have been a better experience.”

In the days before we speak, O’Pry’s performance in the “Blank Space” video is once again making headlines. This time around it’s because he’s just appeared in a video alongside Katy Perry, who famously enraged Swift by poaching a troupe of her backing dancers midway through a tour. That incident inspired Swift’s hit “Bad Blood” and led to virtual war breaking out on Twitter and Tumblr between Swifties and Katycats, the stars’ rabid fans. So when news broke that O’Pry had now worked with Perry too, the Internet went into overdrive. “Katy Perry ‘steals’ Taylor Swift’s ‘Blank Space’ boyfriend Sean O’Pry,” Sugarscape reported. “Now we got more Bad Blood,” the Daily Mail claimed.

But it seems the news was blown out of proportion because, as O’Pry explains, “It wasn’t a Katy Perry music video, it was just an H&M video. It was H&M’s Christmas campaign. I’ve done their last three Christmas videos. It just so happens that Katy Perry was in this one.”

O’Pry is having to contend with rumours like this more and more regularly, and admits that he struggles with the phenomenon of social media. “I like taking pictures of scenery and things I like, but I guess I now feel more pressure to post things that are my private life. And I’ve always been very private, so I’ve taken a step back from social media as of recently.”

The thought of Googling himself is also anathema to O’Pry. “I stopped that a long time ago,” he reveals. “You just read things that you don’t like reading. Some things I’d see I didn’t enjoy, and I thought the best way to not see those things any more was to stop looking. And it’s worked.”

He’s also quick to admit that he has had to find his own ways of dealing with the stress of living in the spotlight. “I feel like I’m a creative person,” O’Pry says. “I draw, I play instruments – I play guitar, a bit of harmonica and I just started learning to play piano. I have my hand in a lot of artistic outlets. It just gives me a moment of clarity and almost silence in all the craziness.”

Without making too much fuss about it, O’Pry has also started to quietly try his hand at acting. “I was studying it,” he states, “but I just moved back to New York recently, so I’m just reevaluating everything. I’m still pursuing it to a certain extent.” 

One of the roles that O’Pry was considered for is Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey, a part that eventually went to fellow model-turned-actor Jamie Dornan. “I did audition for 50 Shades of Grey, and I did so well they didn’t book me,” O’Pry deadpans.

“It wasn’t a big audition, I just had to put something on tape. But that was very, very early when I was starting to pursue acting and I didn’t have any of the craft that I should’ve at the time. But it was exciting to even read for it.” 

One of the things holding back O’Pry’s acting career is the fact that he’s still modelling so much. “I leave to Puerto Rico for work on Sunday, and then to Istanbul after that,” he reports. “It’s hard to audition for things when I’m travelling as much as I am. Jobs come when they come. The way that I like to lead my career is that I don’t know my options, I don’t know any of that – I just take them as they come. It keeps it exciting. I’ve been doing it now almost 10 years.”

A decade is a long time to be a model and this year O’Pry will turn 27, yet the jobs keep rolling in. But whether he keeps on modelling, turns more seriously to acting or tries something else entirely, it seems certain that he’ll be a fixture in magazines, on billboards and possibly on the silver screen for a while yet.

“Fame is a weird beast, a very weird beast, and I have a very, very small taste of it. Other people have it much worse than me,” O’Pry muses. “One day I’ll take a step back from it, but I’m just not sure when that will happen.”