Shaun Ross likes to ignore public perceptions.
In 2013 he appeared in the music video for Beyonce “Pretty Hurts,” plays a compelling beauty pageant instructor who beats the pop diva for being too curvy. “I’m probably the only person in her life who has ever been told to brutalize her,” he said.
At one point during filming, Mr. Ross barked orders so aggressively that he sprayed the singer’s face with spit. “I immediately got out of my character and said, ‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry, I just spat on you,’ ” he said. “She was like, ‘No, it’s just comedy. You do it well. ‘”
Acting or not, moments of challenge intuitively come to Mr. Ross. The cast of Mr. Ross, with his albino skin and eggshell hair, highlighted the song’s criticism of conventional beauty. And they’re part of his arsenal of survival instincts that have enabled him to open up an idiosyncratic career as a gay, black, and albino model turned musician.
Over the previous decade, his distinctive look made him a male supermodel who paraded the runway for Walter Van Beirendonck and Pyer moss, and appeared in the pages of Vogue Italia and advertisements for Kenneth cole.
This month, as Mr. Ross turns 30, he’s testing the limits again with the release of his debut album, “ChangeA clean R&B collection with electronic flourishes. A seasoned parade, even blessed by Beyonce, reinvent himself as a modern-day Maxwell, a singer he cites as one of his pop idols?
“A lot of people also thought the Olsen twins shouldn’t be meddling in The Row and watching this now,” Ross said recently, in a video chat from his industrial-style apartment in downtown Los Angeles. He raised his eyebrows and nodded playfully, as if to say, “Next question.”
His first single, “SymmetryIn 2017, introduced Lizzo to backing vocals and won the buzz by leaning heavily into her uncategorizable mystique, with lyrics like “who we are is skin deep”. Other singles followed, including those from 2019 “Light green red light», A hit he recorded with British DJ Duke Dumont. The song’s wry, spoken voice echoed Mr. Ross’ teenage past in the ballroom vogue scene.
“Shift” is also a study of fluidity. The first single “WX5Released in January, epitomizes the gloomy British trip-hop acts of the 1990s. Its monastic music video is reminiscent of Seal in his “Crazy” heyday and a Yohji Yamamoto lookbook. Nostalgia aside, her mellow voice and emotional openness are in tune with contemporary R&B colleagues like Moses Sumney, Sampha and Syd, who also come to terms with being black and queer on their own terms.
“Shaun is very aware of the genre, ‘I must be seen and heard as I am,'” said Carlos Cháirez, formerly of Mexican rock band Kinky, who produced the bulk of “Shift” alongside Michael tritter, a synth programmer for Empire of the Sun. “A lot of young people have never seen an artist like him before.”
Mr Ross grew up in the Bronx, the second youngest of four siblings who were raised “in a cultural home,” he said, by his mother, Geraldine Ross, who owned a grassroots company. data center in the old World Trade Center, and his father, Shaun Ross Sr., a computer engineer.
No one else in his family is albino. “Obviously I knew my skin was white and theirs was brown, but it wasn’t weird or talked about,” he said. “I only knew I was different when I met other people.”
His parents, who met at the Bentley nightclub in Midtown Manhattan, played albums by Donnie Hathaway and acid house pioneer Mr. Fingers as early as 7 a.m. “I knew who Stevie Wonder was from birth and Björk when I was 6,” Ross said.
As a boy, he performed the tap dancing movements of Savion Glover which he saw on “Sesame Street” wearing a pair of his mother’s high heels. Impressed with the performance at home, his mother enrolled him in classes at the Bronx Dance Theater when he was 6 years old.
Classmates and neighborhood friends were less encouraging. “I was the only black child with a pale skin form in a black school,” he said. “A lot of people have looked at me like, ‘Oh, I can’t touch you. You have a disease. ”
He found his voice through extracurricular classes at Ailey School in Midtown Manhattan and browsing the CD shelves at the Virgin Megastore in Union Square, where he first heard experimental albums by Kelis and the artist from spoken word Ursula Rucker.
In 2007, when he was 16, he was discovered by casting agent Shameer Khan, who saw a YouTube video of Mr. Ross vogue in a dance studio once owned by his mother. He signed at Djamee, a modeling agency in New York, the following year, and was photographed by David Armstrong for a black and white fashion broadcast for Another Man Magazine.
Her high school classmates were in disbelief at first. “I will never forget that moment, one of the boys said to me, ‘Please, you’re too ugly. Calm down, Casper, ”Mr. Ross said, recalling how his classmates named him after the white cartoon ghost. His homeroom teacher chuckled.
When the magazine came out a few weeks later, he brought six copies to school. “I slammed a copy onto the boy’s desk and said, ‘This is your copy,’” he said. “Then I went to my homeroom teacher and said, ‘And here’s your copy.'”
Modeling offered both a refuge and an entry into a new world. Meanwhile, his distinctive look, masculine figure, graceful movements, Bronx roots, and sexual orientation made him both the object of fascination and the subject of misconceptions.
Mr Ross recalled that a modeling agent once told him to wear a cast skateboard to “look more like a man.” Another time, he remembers being told his eyes must be too sensitive for the bright lights of a parade. “People were afraid to take risks,” he said.
In a way, “Shift” is his latest attempt to tell his own story. The album cover was shot by her boyfriend, the actor David Alan Madrick. He shows him standing shirtless, his back turned towards the camera.
“Everyone already knows my face,” he says. “I want people to listen to me, not just look at me.”