In the middle of evening rush hour at South Station, girls are discreetly snapping smartphone pictures of a lanky, shaggy man with bright blue eyes sitting in the food court. His beard resembles a shrub and his long hair is pulled back out of his eyes like an English Sheep Dog as he points out his teenage paparazzi.
“Maybe if they turned the flash off on their phones they wouldn’t be so obvious,” Phil Sullivan said as he grinned and waved at the girls. They blushed and looked down quickly.
They no doubt recognize Sullivan from his 2013 stint on the CW reality show “America’s Next Top Model.” The 25-year-old Berkshires native made it to the ninth episode of the Tyra Banks-hosted show before his elimination. But unlike most residents of the reality TV scrap yard, the 6-foot-3-inch Sullivan has used his 15 minutes productively. Since the show wrapped, he has worked the runway for designers such as Trina Turk during New York Fashion Week. He’s also signed with major modeling agencies in New York and Los Angeles.
“You see a lot of people on these reality shows who pretty much go nowhere after it’s finished airing,” said Robert Casey, president and owner of local modeling agency Maggie Inc. “In Phil’s case, he had jobs before ‘Top Model,’ and he’s had a lot more jobs since.”
Sullivan easily stands out from his fellow models because he has a beard that is best described as early Van Winkle. He also has the demeanor of a big happy-go-lucky puppy. On TV, he was the goofy guy who embraced challenges and his chest hair, a rarity in an era of aerodynamic manscaping.
“I stand out everywhere I go,” Sullivan said. “People look at me funny. They say ‘Dude, I love your beard.’ Straight guys have man crushes and always want to touch my beard.”
Male modeling can be a thankless profession. Men are often reduced to female arm candy in fashion shoots and advertisements. Sullivan has been able to break out of the mold with the beard. He refuses to trim the wooly mammoth, and has nearly lost jobs because of it. But it also puts him in a unique position. There are less than a dozen professional working models sporting so much facial hair.
The beard flourished in the months that he was contractually bound to stay out of the limelight until “ANTM” aired. Sullivan turned it into his signature look. He’s even started a website, the Bearded Model (www.thebeardedmodel.com).
He also set himself apart from fellow catwalkers with his quirky persona. He first showed up in front of Banks on “ANTM” wearing duct-taped socks (no shoes), capri-like pants (manpri pants?), and a jacket that looked like a castoff from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” He was often referred to as “the guy who looks like Jesus.” But it all seems to be working in his favor.
“I think I was first drawn to his personality more than his look,” said designer Lucio Castro, who cast Sullivan in his Spring/Summer 2014 fashion show. “He looks great, he looks distinctive. Really what people are looking for now are guys with a new look, and a strong personality.”
Sullivan hadn’t planned to become high fashion’s answer to Grizzly Adams. In 2006, he graduated from Mount Greylock Regional High School in Williamstown. He briefly attended the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams to play baseball before dropping out. He moved to Plymouth to work for a real estate staging company, Setting the Space.
Berkshires-based photographer and former fashion designer Dominck Avellino met Sullivan on a train from New York and started taking pictures of him, thinking he had potential as a model. Sullivan put those pictures up on a modeling website. These sites, such as Model Mayhem and New Faces, give up-and-coming models an opportunity to connect to the industry. It was all quite casual, and he had no expectations.
Sullivan gradually built a portfolio while he continued working as an interior designer in Plymouth.
“I remember how nervous my mother was,” he said of getting photographed. “She thought it was a little shady.”
Those pictures eventually led to getting representation at Maggie Inc. Soon Sullivan was landing small modeling jobs in Boston, but he was struggling to pay his rent.
“I realized if I wanted to make it as a model, it probably wasn’t going to be in Boston.”
He decided to make the move to New York when all of his possessions were stolen from a room he was renting in Roslindale (“I got scammed from someone on Craigslist,” he said). With no possessions and no money, he attempted to find modeling work in Manhattan.
He spent his first months in New York homeless, and then started bouncing around sofas. Eventually he took up residence in a 5-by-8-foot apartment with no windows.
Then came “America’s Next Top Model.” A friend posted about the auditions on Facebook, and Sullivan, seeing his break, endured a 15-hour audition. He made it past the initial round of 36 contestants in the first episode to be one of the 16 selected to compete.
“People say it is acting but no, these are human relationships. This is what happens when you put 16 people in a house,” he said.
When the show finished airing and Sullivan could finally audition for modeling jobs again, he found a new set of challenges.
“It’s very intimidating. No matter how good you feel about yourself,” he said. “You go to these auditions and you see these guys and think ‘I wish I had his jaw, or his eyebrows, or his voice, or his accent.’ The best part are the models’ names. Bastian or Josiah. Where do they get these names? I joke that I’m Phil with an ‘F’.”
He may not have a distinctive name, but he still has a distinctive look: the big, bushy beard.
“It’s hot right now,” he said of his look. “It’s huge in London, it’s huge in Paris, it’s huge in Milan, and now I’m just waiting for it to be huge in New York. Then I think you’ll be seeing me pretty much everywhere.”