“If you look different, even if you shock people, they give you money,” explained Rick “Rico” Genest in 2012. The 26-year-old wasn’t talking about his modelling career, but the life he was living before he was scooped up by the fashion industry: as a homeless “squeegee boy” in Montreal.
Genest, who was known as Zombie Boy, died from suicide on Wednesday, days before his 33rd birthday. He was famed for his tattoos, which covered 90 per cent of his body and transformed him into a skeletal, living corpse, and worked with Lady Gaga – who has paid tribute to him in the wake of his death – and Jay Z at the start of the decade, catapulting him into the upper echelons of the fashion world. But beneath the ink lay a quiet, courteous and troubled man, whose outré appearance disguised a lifelong struggle with mental illness.
Genest was born in LaSalle, Quebec, in August 1985. The eldest of three children, he grew up in the Montreal suburb of Châteauguay, fascinated by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and George A Romero’s Living Dead movies. He’d later describe himself as being “white trash my whole life”; his mother called him a “unique child”. When he was 15, though, disaster struck the family: Genest was diagnosed with a brain tumour, his life hanging in the balance as he was held on a waiting list for six months before undergoing surgery that would save his life – but remove half of his brain.
The incident took a year out of Genest’s short life and reportedly left him with mental health problems that would continue to plague him. But he already had plans of how to celebrate his survival: “I’d always wanted tattoos,” he told WWD in 2012. “I’d see them on the bus or on TV or in movies.” He got his first – a “a puking one eyed zombie with crossbones on my upper arm”, as he’d later describe in his first interview – on his 16th birthday, shortly after finishing treatment. It was the start, he told ES Magazine, of his “rebel phase” that also saw him thrown out of the family home after an argument.
Genest survived by living in squats and on the streets of Montreal. Like many teenagers who live rough, he formed another family of his own choosing, a gang of fellow street kids and outsiders who called him “Zombie” due to his life-changing brain surgery. “'It was awesome. We were living on the streets, sleeping on the roofs, hitchhiking from city to city, from party to party,” he recalled. “We were young and living from day to day.”
Genest got by, wiping down windscreens at traffic lights, skipping ticket barriers and ignoring police fines for sleeping rough for the next five or six years. He’d save up his meagre earnings for tattoos, building up the patterns and images on his arms and chest (different representations of death) until Genest marked his 21st birthday with his first face tattoo: dark circles around his eyes, a black hole over his nose and the gumless grin of a skull. In early photos, the red pockmarks of spots sit above Genest’s hazel eyes. “I think it was making a commitment to my lifestyle out on the streets,” he explained. “I'm not sure I set out to have a full body suit of tattoos; it just happened that way.”
He was also making his entry into the world of freak shows. At 23, Genest realised his childhood dream of having his “very own freak show” by co-founding Lucifer's Blasphemous Mad Macabre Torture Carnival, an event he later described as “featuring sadistic freaks, sickening sights and horrible abominations" in an attempt to “replicate a night in hell”.
Genest’s markings didn’t just earn him extra tips from drivers. He got his first bit of press shortly after – a body modification blog called his efforts “ the most intense facial tattoo I’ve ever seen in terms of radically transforming a person’s interaction with the rest of the world”. In the next two years, Genest made steady process, entrusting his $20,000 “bodysuit” to one tattooist – Frank Lewis. His whole head was shaved and inked, along with his back, torso and arms – and started to be picked up by the mainstream tattoo and horror community.
It was a photoshoot in Canadian fashion magazine Dress to Kill that would truly change Genest’s fortunes, however. Designer Nicola Formichetti, then artistic director at French label Mugler and Lady Gaga’s main stylist, recognised Genest in the publication – he’d had a photo of him pinned up on his wall after spotting it on Google. Until then, Formichetti thought Genest’s tattoos were impermanent, “amazing Halloween make-up done by [make-up artist] Peter Philips or something”.
He tracked Genest down on Facebook and messaged him – just seeing his photographs on Facebook had been enough to persuade Formichetti to change an entire season of newly designed work. “I just wanted him to be the face of whatever we were going to create,” Formichetti told hintmag. Genest was game, but he didn’t have a passport – and Formichetti wanted him in Paris in two weeks. Instead, the designer went to Montreal, and shot the video and photo footage that would make Genest a rising star in the fashion world.
Genest did get to Paris. Formichetti set him up with Colin R Singer, an immigration lawyer who swiftly became Genest’s manager. The designer paid the new model’s police fines to the tune of $20,000, and got him sorted with a passport. Genest was grateful, but nonetheless racked with remorse when the extent of his problems - his homelessness, his misdemeanours – was revealed: “he just kept telling me, ‘I'm not a criminal, I'm not a criminal.’” Formichetti remembers. “I paid it myself. I really believe in him.”
“Ever since I got my passport the world’s just kind of opened up,” Genest told WWD in the summer of 2012, by which point he was a fully fledged model – the previous months had seen him walk New York Fashion Week, sit on its front row, advertise for Giantto watches, appear in Elle France magazine and land a cameo in Samurai film 47 Ronin. That summer, he became the first male spokesperson for L’Oreal Demablend Professional – the promotional video of him wiping off skin-coloured makeup to reveal his tattoos underneath went viral. Jay Z hired him as the face of his label, Roc A Wear.
Genest remained fairly apathetic about his fashion commitments, but he was charmed by his work with Lady Gaga, whom Formichetti introduced him to. It was the singer who persuaded Formichetti to make the necessary legal wranglings to get Genest to Paris. She later cast him in her Born This Way video, painting her face to mimic Genest’s tattoos. “That was really exciting,” Genest said. “We went down to Manhattan and had a crazy weekend.” Gaga held on to the image – a year later, she was still transforming herself into a skeleton to perform Marry the Night at the Grammy Nominations ceremony.
While Genest became a temporary darling of the fashion press, few delved into his psyche. He makes a brief mention of his struggles in an interview with ES: “Genest says, apropos of nothing: 'Depression is a strong thing...' But asked what he means, he clams up. 'Next question,' he says, without smiling. It is like trying to prise open a stubborn oyster inside which there could be either a pearl or a grain of sand.”
Rather, the reports focussed on his calm and gentle temperament - the fact that he held doors open for women who were too scared to look him in the face. WWD magazine described Genest: ”He gently thumps his seat with the heel of his hand like a heartbeat as he talks. He has the manner of someone who’s always aware of the exits in case he needs to make a quick getaway.” In video interviews, Genest speaks calmly with the whiff of a Quebecian accent, a cigarette wedged between two fingers. It is slightly unerring to see a smile spread across his painted lips, but not uncharming. Photographer Joey L remembered Genest on Twitter: "he was quiet, soft-spoken, yet very collaborative and ready to do anything to make a photo work."
The fashion fame didn’t last, but Genest didn’t expect it to. Instead, he appeared to respect the industry as just another collection of artists and professional playmakers, like those he had surrounded himself with since his teens. His ambitions were more rooted in subculture – he spoke of the desire to sharpen his teeth, complete his tattoos and learn how to walk on stilts. “When the fashion show is over, I want to go back to the circus,” he said in 2012.
He remained in the public eye, even after fashion moved elsewhere. Genest’s instagram account has nearly 400,000 followers, and is filled with professional shots of him in fashion editorials and performing circus stunts. In 2016, Thorpe Park partnered with him for their Fright Night event, and a smattering of comparatively cheesy promo shots propelled Genest back into the public eye. To some, it would seem a step down from the arch refinement of the high fashion photography that introduced Genest to the world, but I suspect Genest all saw it as part of a similar creative process. “I had a lot of fear when I was younger,” he once said. “Now I have flipped the coin. It is my revenge on the world.”