Trading New York catwalks for the quiet of Clayoquot Sound. Super Model Simon Nessman found a seemingly unlikely passion project. An ecological field station on Vargas Island
VARGAS ISLAND, B.C. — Imagine that you’re one the world’s most sought-after and highest-paid male models.
You were discovered out of high school, whisked to New York and end up working with the biggest names in the industry. By 22, you’ve strutted down dozens of catwalks from New York to Milan. You become the “face” of Armani’s Acqua Di Gio fragrance campaign that features your lithe, speedo-clad body on a sun-soaked Miami beach. You even appeared as shirtless eye candy in Madonna’s Girl Gone Wild music video.
But after five years, you’re feeling restless. While you are grateful for what modelling has brought you, you’re yearning for something more.
What do you do?
For B.C. native Simon Nessman, the answer in 2012 sent a minor temblor through the industry. He announced he was scaling back his modelling and escaping New York for a secluded island off B.C.’s rugged coast. Inhabited by only one retired couple and a pack of wolves. Living in a minimalist cabin with a leaky roof and solar panel connected to a car battery.
Humble Home Base on Vargas Island
It’s from this humble home base on Vargas Island — surrounded by old-growth Sitka spruce trees, ancient bog forests and white-sand beaches — that Nessman found inspiration for a new passion project: the creation of an ecological field station that invites everyone from research scientists to student groups to yoga enthusiasts to come and lose themselves in the natural rhythms of Clayoquot Sound.
As the fledgling station, located in a former Bavarian-style inn, opened its doors for a new season in May, the National Post paid Nessman, 28, a visit to learn more about the station and to understand why he put his glamorous life and lucrative career on the line to live off the grid.
Nessman greets us from a dock in the nearby surfing town of Tofino. He is wearing a flannel plaid-green shirt and gumboots.
This is the guy whom Forbes, in 2013, listed as the world’s third-highest paid male model. Estimating his salary at $1.1 million. It’s the model who posed for Giorgio Armani, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Bottega Veneta, Michael Kors, Givenchy. Ditto for the magazine spreads: GQ, L’Officiel, Numero, Vogue, W.
Yet there is nothing to suggest Nessman bears any of the traits of Derek Zoolander, the self-absorbed Ben Stiller character from the popular Zoolander movie franchise. When he introduces himself, he speaks almost in a whisper. And when he smiles, it’s as if he’s blushing.
Nessman ably skippers his aluminum skiff over to Vargas Island. The ride takes only 15 minutes, yet you feel like you’re worlds away, especially when the fog rolls in.
Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve
It is not uncommon for visitors to the island — which forms part of the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve — to be treated to the sight of grey whales breaching or the plaintive wail of loons.
Soon after our arrival, Nessman suggests taking a hike to one of the island’s crescent-shaped beaches. It’s a muddy, 45-minute romp through dense brush, but Nessman doesn’t appear to break a sweat as he traverses the trail — at times pausing to cut away overgrowth, at other times pausing to explain that each layer of step moss represents a year of growth or to express his “love-hate relationship” with fast-growing salal underbrush.
When we reach our destination, Nessman crouches over a tidal pool.
“Ever touch an anemone?” he playfully asks, pointing at the flower-like sea creatures.
If you gently stick your finger in, their tentacles will hug your finger, he says.
“I loved doing that as a kid.”
The geeking out extends to his Instagram account. While it features some of his clenched-jaw/furrowed-brow modelling pictures, he favours posts that relate to nature. There is one of him crouching next to a cluster of golden chanterelle mushrooms (a “delicious and nutritious food source”) and another pointing out a tree burl (“Did you know that a burl is a tree’s response to stresses like injuries, viruses and fungi?”).
Raised by “Hippie” Parents
Simon credits his fondness for the outdoors to being raised by “hippie” parents on Hornby Island, a laidback West Coast artists’ enclave where Nessman and his three older siblings learned to bush whack, hitchhike to the beach, gather firewood and tend the family vegetable garden.
The small team he’s assembled to run the station — station coordinator Julia Simmerling, research coordinator Mack Bartlett and facilities and safety coordinator Adam Ftaya — have an equally contagious affection for the outdoors.
During the return hike, they stop to pick up a pink Western bog laurel and the flowering bud of a sweet gale with child-like wonder.
Asked what it’s like to work for a boss who, twice a month, disappears to some far-flung destination for a model shoot, they liken him to a double agent.
On the island, Nessman is the guy they poke fun at for wearing 2000s-era skater clothes. Then, he’ll slip away to his other life.
“I don’t think any of us really realize what he does when he’s in New York or Milan. It’s a little bit of a mystery,” Simmerling says.
Until they spot his image in a magazine or on an airport billboard.
Not Seeking Out Modelling
Simon says he did not seek out modelling.
His original plan after graduating from Georges P. Vanier Secondary in Courtenay, B.C., was to become a “surf bum”. And to shoot hoops at Quest University, nestled in Squamish.
But the sister of a friend, who was scouting for Calgary’s Mode Models International, approached him in his senior year and asked if she could pass along a few headshots. Weeks later, Nessman, just 17, was signed by New York-based agent Jason Kanner. And Simon was whisked away to the Big Apple for his first gig.
Shot by photographer Hedi Slimane, the feature in VMan Magazine showed Nessman in various poses, including one in nothing but boxer briefs, holding a basketball. That was followed by a shoot for Abercrombie & Fitch with photographer Bruce Weber, known for his iconic black-and-white images.
Even though working as a fashion model was incongruous to his parents’ money-isn’t-everything ethos, they supported his decision to go to New York full-time after graduation. They figured it’d last a couple months.
But the work kept coming, modelling for all the top-tier designers, magazine spreads everywhere.
Simon checked off all the boxes, the British edition of Vogue noted: “Symmetrical face, pillow-like lips, rock-hard abs, dreamy brown eyes, cute curls, killer cheekbones.” A perfect male super model!
The job came with its share of perks, Nessman says, like being able to jump the queue at nightclubs. But the allure quickly wore off.
Same goes with the bachelor pad townhouse Nessman shared with several other models. Exposure to drugs and alcohol was common and he saw one person’s career take a nosedive because of it.
Too much to take in
It was a lot for someone barely out of high school to take in.
“I think I was 17 when I got a lease on my first apartment. … I don’t know if I fully realized it at the time or if it was later on that I realized that in many ways I kind of missed out on my — I was forced to give up my childhood.”
Nessman did find distractions — surfing (which he calls a “meditative practice”) on Long Island and gardening at home.
“I can remember him calling me from a Home Depot because he wanted to develop the backyard of the house,” Nessman’s father, Ron, told the Vancouver Province in an interview. “While so many others might have been partying, I was giving him advice on building planters.”
Nessman said he always felt within his right to say, “‘I’m not going to do this,’” especially when it came to posing nude for photographs.
“I’ve always felt comfortable saying, ‘No.’”
Around the time that Forbes listed Simon as the world’s third-highest paid male model. He felt secure enough financially to decide to leave New York and begin his new life.
By then, his “nature deprivation disorder” was maddening. Escaping to his workshop in Brooklyn to carve surfboards or build wood furniture didn’t cut it anymore. He was burnt out from the constant travel and modelling.
Nessman’s agent, Kanner, founder of Soul Artist Management, didn’t put up much resistance.
Nessman’s mind was made up, Kanner said. Plus, he had built up enough of a reputation with clients that it was “worth the risk.”
Escape to Vargas Island
“Simon’s longevity is that he was wise enough to pick and choose model jobs he worked on and never allowed himself to be over-exposed.”
What awaited model Nessman back in B.C. was a 45-acre property on the southeast corner of Vargas Island. A place he had adored since a high school kayaking trip. Property records show he paid $450,000 cash.
Those early days on the island weren’t easy. Simon assembled a patchwork rainwater collection system and not-to-code electrical connections for his cabin. There were more than a few mishaps as he learned how to drive a boat.
“There were many moments when I wondered what I was getting myself into,” he says.
But with support from off-grid neighbours, Simon fell in love with homesteading. He noticed his sense of time shifting; he had to start paying attention to weather and the tides.
His views on “wealth” also began to change.
Residents on neighbouring islands seemed to embody happiness in terms of “the quality of food they were eating — catching their own fish, growing their own vegetables — living in homes they built with their own hands, and being surrounded by a really strong social network of friends and family,” he says.
Blueprint for the Cedar Coast Field Station.
In fall 2013, he enrolled in Quest University with the aim of finding a way to share with others that feeling of being connected to the land and surrounding ecosystem. A 112-page academic paper he turned in before graduating last year contained the blueprint for the Cedar Coast Field Station.
In it, he cited influential architectural theorist Christopher Alexander, who once posited that “a person is so far formed by (their) surroundings, that (their) state of harmony depends entirely on (their) harmony with (their) surroundings.”
Self-sufficiency is the name of the game at Cedar Coast. To that end, power and heat for the station comes primarily from solar panels. Water comes from a well and rainwater catchment system, and an effort is made to grow as much food as they can.
The station aims to attract an array of guests. Researchers who want to study the island’s bog forests, inter-tidal biodiversity or wolf population; students, artists, and yoga groups.
“Having these pristine natural areas is an important piece of the puzzle where people can go and really experience a sense of awe and humility at the scale of some of these landscapes and step back and think yeah, maybe humans aren’t the climax of evolution,” Nessman said.
Meanwhile, staff are engaged in ecological monitoring projects, gathering long-term data on out-migrating salmon smolts to examine potential impacts of sea lice and carrying out drone-based mapping to examine the growth and decay of kelp forests.
His savings go for funding of the station’s operations
While Simon has used his own savings to fund most of the station’s operations, he says he can’t do it forever. Especially with plans for the station to move into a cavernous new building next year. The long-term viability of the station depends on public support.
On Instagram, Nessman describes himself as a “naturalist, craftsman and fashion model embracing a dichotomy of contrasting worlds.”
He is aware that some people might view his consumer-driven modelling career as incompatible with his greener pursuits.
But he doesn’t see a contradiction.
He has said that modelling at times conflicts with the morals he was raised with, but says he has come to appreciate how modelling has given him a platform to draw attention to ecological issues.
Meanwhile, his work on Vargas Island has had the unintended consequence of creating a mystique about him that has given him staying power as a model.
Hope to bridge modelling and field station work
“Living out here and being so unavailable really played into this exclusivity game,” he said. “A lot of clients found that intriguing. In some sort of weird, bizarre way that’s probably part of the reason my career has lasted as long as it has.”
In a first, an outerwear company recently came to Vargas Island to do a shoot with Nessman.
“Ad clients are actually taking an interest not only in myself as a model and my bone structure and the ability of my image to sell clothing, but also the initiative I’m working towards.”
Now, if only he could find a way on social media to bridge the audiences for his modelling work and his field station work.
“For the most part they really just want to see pictures of my face and not pictures of the landscape around me.”
This article originally was published by NATIONAL POST
I enjoyed this interview to the full. This life story is a proof that photo models, or at least many of them, are not just pretty face. This story should motivate young talented models to see beyond just posing in front of a camera. Let’s wish Simon Nessman all the best!
I am sure that most of you would love to see some modelling photos of Simon. He is really stunning. Here is the LINK to some hot photos of Simon Nessman