To hear Nyle DiMarco tell it, his rapid rise in the modeling world has been pretty much accidental.
He once did a casual shoot with a photographer friend, but nothing came of it until a few years ago, when an independent film producer persuaded him to try his hand at acting and modeling. Soon enough, he had an agent in Los Angeles and a guest-starring role on ABC’s “Switched at Birth.”
Then, last November, he got a message from the casting directors at “America’s Next Top Model.”
Intrigued by his photos on social media, they contacted him through models.com and asked whether he’d be interested in auditioning for the show. But until they got his sample video, there was something they didn’t know — like his two brothers, his parents and two more generations of DiMarcos before him, the dark-haired, blue-eyed model is deaf.
“They asked me, ‘How would this work?’ ” DiMarco says, signing energetically to an interpreter during an interview. “Do you need an interpreter with you the whole time?”
The 26-year-old from Frederick, Md., who has heard these questions before, had ready answers. No, he wouldn’t always need an interpreter. And yes, it would work. He knows because he has been successfully communicating with hearing people all his life.
And so, with less than a year of professional modeling experience, DiMarco was cast as the first deaf contestant on “America’s Next Top Model,” the 22nd — and possibly last, if you’re reading host Tyra Banks’s tea leaves — season of which premiered Wednesday on the CW. He joined two other area contestants, Mame Adjei of Silver Spring, Md., and Stefano Churchill of Virginia Beach.
After his performance on the first episode, TVLine pegged him as the “most intriguing hopeful.” But on-screen, Banks scolded him for smiling too much and agreed when fellow judge Kelly Cutrone called him “goofy.”
So it’s not clear what the future holds, but from the start, DiMarco says, he didn’t want to be “the ‘pity party’ person” on the show or “the token deaf person on reality TV,” although he says he felt that some of his fellow contestants might have seen him that way. It didn’t faze him — it just isn’t what he’s used to, having grown up in a tight-knit deaf community. Apart from one year in the fifth grade, he attended deaf schools all his life, ending up at the District’s Gallaudet University, the world’s only liberal arts college for the deaf. Most of his schoolmates, like him, were the children of deaf parents.
In many ways, DiMarco says, growing up deaf “was easy.” His family adheres to the outlook, embraced by part of the deaf population, that deafness is a unique difference — that the deaf are like a language minority or an ethnic group — rather than a disability. His parents supported him in all his pursuits, and he rarely worried that his opportunities would be limited.
His biggest role model growing up was his math teacher at the Maryland School for the Deaf, who he says always related to his students as equals. So perhaps not surprisingly, DiMarco majored in mathematics at Gallaudet and once planned to become a math teacher for the deaf himself. He was most fascinated by cryptography, the study and practice of communicating through symbols (otherwise known as the technique Benedict Cumberbatch masters as Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game”). After all, encryption, much like sign language, is about conveying messages in code.
But now those mathematical visions are behind him as he harbors hopes of modeling for Hugo Boss and gracing the cover of GQ magazine. He arrived back in Washington this week fresh from an event at New York Fashion Week: Men’s hosted by the Council of Fashion Designers of America in New York, where he modeled a sleek light-blue suit from Hvrminn’s Eponymovs line.
In modeling, DiMarco considers deafness a strength. “American Sign Language requires a lot of facial and body expression,” he says. “The way [deaf people] communicate is naturally very expressive and shows a lot of emotion.” Seeing with “deaf eyes,” he adds, helps him pick up on nonverbal subtleties and makes him more attuned to what photographers want. He rarely has an interpreter with him during photo shoots, relying instead on lip-reading, body gestures and typing notes on a phone to communicate.
Sure enough, watch him at a shoot and you’re struck by his ease before the camera. Under dramatic professional lighting, he’s all smiles and thumbs-ups. Working wordlessly, he and the photographer seem to understand each other perfectly: a forward flick of the wrist tells him to take a step back, a point of the finger directs him to stand on a chair. And when the camera starts clicking, DiMarco matches it like clockwork, each tilt of the chin and brooding smolder executed as if it had all been choreographed beforehand.
‘I always feel like I’m at home,” says DiMarco, who calls his persona before the lens “macho.” “When I’m shooting, it’s really like my playground.”
This model isn’t just all about his career, however. He hopes that his prime-time gig will change people’s perceptions of the deaf community so it won’t be “shocking” in the future when a deaf person struts down a runway or appears on TV. He wants to combat the assumption that deaf people are always in need of help.
“Switched at Birth,” in which he guest-stars as a friend of one of the main characters, is one of the shows pushing against that misconception. Following the lives of two teenagers, one deaf, who were mistakenly given to the wrong families as newborns in the hospital, it’s the first mainstream TV series to feature scenes shot entirely in sign language.
But “Switched at Birth” is an exception in the entertainment industry, which still suffers from a dearth of deaf participants — a fact that has hardly gone unnoticed in the deaf community. Earlier this year, a New York Daily News interview with Catalina Sandino Moreno, a hearing actress who plays a deaf mother in the movie “Medeas,” sparked outrage that led to a #DeafTalent movement on social media.
DiMarco joined the backlash on YouTube, calling out directors for casting hearing people in deaf roles. “We know what is real here,” he signs in his video, comparing the practice to choosing a white person to play a minority character (see Emma Stone in “Aloha”). Things haven’t improved much since 2009, when the New York Theater Workshop featured a hearing actor as the central deaf character in its production of “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” That prompted Linda Bove, a deaf actress on “Sesame Street,” to denounce the decision in the New York Times as “tantamount to putting a white actor in blackface.”
So change is slow in coming, but DiMarco isn’t discouraged. He urges aspiring deaf models and actors to “own your identity. Love who you are in the world. Love your deafness.”
He’s happy to help lead the way. He’s never going to be shy, DiMarco says, about what makes him different. “Oh hey, and Tyra Banks?” he signs at the end of his “ANTM” audition video, a wry grin on his face. “I look forward to teaching you some new signs.”