Nick Kamen, model who starred in a celebrated jeans ad and went on to forge a career in pop music – obituary

·4 min read
Nick Kamen at a signing session in 1987 for his self-titled debut album - Nick Kamen at a signing session in 1987 for his self-titled debut album
Nick Kamen at a signing session in 1987 for his self-titled debut album - Nick Kamen at a signing session in 1987 for his self-titled debut album

Nick Kamen, who has died of cancer aged 59, had some success as a singer but was best known as the bronzed and toned model in the 1985 Levi’s ad stripping down to his boxers in a launderette to the strains of Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine – an ad which regularly features in “best-ever” lists.

The creation of John Hegarty of the Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty advertising agency, it featured Kamen entering a retro 1950s-style launderette, removing his Levi 501s and T-shirt and putting them in the washing machine, together with a bagful of stones, before taking a seat between two giggling teenage girls and a disapproving middle-aged man in a pork pie hat while he waited for the cycle to finish. “501: The original shrink-to-fit jeans,” ran the tag-line, “now available stonewashed.”

Kamen is interviewed by Paula Yates on The Tube in 1986 -  ITV/Shutterstock
Kamen is interviewed by Paula Yates on The Tube in 1986 - ITV/Shutterstock

The original ad, which featured Kamen stripping down to a pair of Y-fronts, had been rejected by the television advertising watchdog on the grounds that not only did the Y-fronts offend public decency, but the ad might incite copycats to load stones in Britain’s launderettes. The ad agency agreed to put Kamen in boxer shorts and promised that if any launderette complained about stones they would pull the ad.

None did and the ad, funny, sexy, and above all cool, led to sales of Levi 501s rocketing by 800 per cent, closely followed by sales of boxer shorts, and may briefly have made a trip to the launderette a more keenly anticipated experience.

The sight of Kamen stripping off probably lodged in the psyche of every female that ever watched the ad (a young Kate Middleton once confessed to having a poster of Kamen on her wall), but as Brian Finnegan, former editor of the gay lifestyle magazine GI, observed, the real targets were men: “That particular advert was the first time mainstream culture objectified the male body for the male gaze as a means of encouraging men to buy.”

Over the years the ad engendered a series of spoofs including, in 2006, a version featuring a middle-aged man with a paunch – a light-hearted look at how Kamen’s character might have aged – but also, sadly, a comment on the sort of customers to whom the original ad really appealed.

Kamen in 1987 with his girlfriend, the actress Talisa Soto, who had appeared in his first video, at the British Phonographic Awards in London - Shutterstock
Kamen in 1987 with his girlfriend, the actress Talisa Soto, who had appeared in his first video, at the British Phonographic Awards in London - Shutterstock

One of eight children, Nick Kamen was born Ivor Neville Kamen in Epping, Essex on April 15 1962, the son of Neville Kamen and the former Zoe Rencontre. Brought up in a council house, he attended St Marks RC Comprehensive School in Harlow.

He first came to public attention in 1984 when he appeared on the front cover of The Face magazine, though his modelling career seems to have ended after his scene-stealing performance for Levi’s, Campaign magazine reporting in November 1986 that he had been dropped by the advertisers after asking for a £60,000-£70,000 contract.

In the meantime Kamen had caught the eye of Madonna, and in 1986 he reached No 5 in the UK charts with Each Time You Break My Heart, a song written by Madonna and Stephen Bray, on which she also sang backing vocals. His follow up single, Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever, a cover of the Four Tops’ 1966 hit, reached No 16 in 1987.

He released a total of four albums and several more singles, which were more successful on the continent than in the UK, his Tell Me becoming a massive hit in Italy in the summer of 1988, when it spent nine weeks at No 1, and I Promised Myself reaching No 1 in eight European countries in 1990.

Over the years Kamen was romantically linked in the press with various models and actresses, but he remained unmarried.

Nick Kamen, born April 15 1962, died May 4 2021