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A Tough Act to Follow: In conversation with Raphaël Say

This article series – A Tough Act to Follow (get it?) – is an exploration into the performative nature (and indeed, the “theatre”) of social media. Each feature will see me interviewing an Instagram influencer, social media personality, or somebody who utilises social media to advance their career, as we explore the construction of online identities. In particular, this series is interested in gender and sexual identity.

Raphaël Say

@raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

Following my last “tough act”, businessman and author Danny Gray, is influencer, model, dancer, actor, and art director, Raphaël Say.

Although I have already featured a few models in this series, Raphaël is the first high-fashion, full-time model. He is one of my all-time favourite models, up there with David Gandy, Naomi Campbell, Nyle Dimarco, and Tyra Banks.

Raphaël loves Tyra, so I am sure he will appreciate this! More on Naomi later…

But the reason I chose to feature Raphaël in this series is not that he is a beautiful, talented model but because he uses his platform so admirably.

Raphaël embraces gender-nonconforming fashion and even calls himself a “proponent of Non-Toxic Masculinity” in his Instagram bio. Raphaël, then, is the perfect collaborator for this series, which hopes to redefine “masculinity” and what it means to be “a man”.

Photo: @raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

Raphaël is one of the coolest, nicest, and funniest people that I have ever interviewed. His first email back to me was probably the nicest email I have ever received from an interviewee, so I knew that interviewing him would be lovely.

At 1 hour and 40 minutes in length, this is my second longest interview. (My longest was with the Zakar twins, so this is my longest interview with an individual). Raphaël had so much to say, and I could have spoken to him for hours, but I had to let him go eventually!

Raphaël’s beginnings

@raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

Raphaël grew up in the south of France, where masculinity is “toxic” and people are “a century behind”, but his mother encouraged him to be himself. She told him that if he conforms to gender norms, his life might be easier, but he will not be being his true self.

Raphaël started modelling during a time when the industry was going through some big changes, thanks to the creation of social media. This is yet another example of why Raphaël is perfect for this social media-based series.

When Raphaël started modelling, his biggest fashion inspirations were the late, great dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch and the model Coco Rocha because of the incredible ways that they move. As aforementioned, Raphaël is also a dancer.

The brands he was most inspired by were Tom Ford, who he hopes to work with one day, and Jean Paul Gaultier, a brand he has worked with lots recently.

Photo: @raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

He is also, unsurprisingly, influenced by the 80s! More on that later…

Raphaël’s career

Something that is surprising, though, is finding out that modelling was not Raphaël’s original calling. He never even considered it. This is particularly surprising because Raphaël is one of the most model-looking models that I have ever seen!

Raphaël’s first true passion was dance; he aspired to be a choreographer. He has been dancing since he was 4 years old and moved to Paris, aged 18, to start dancing for a company, but he was scouted in the street by a modelling agent. He did not want to lose dance, though, so he incorporates it in his modelling.

Photo: @raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

Raphaël has a huge dance project coming up soon. He told me that the (huge) dance studio is going to be filled with water. “I will dance, and the water will come… up and up and up and… totally cover me”.

This project is just one example of Raphaël’s creativity. He is an art director, after all: whilst most models have people who do their art direction for them, Raphaël usually takes control of it himself.

The below image is one of my favourites of Raphaël’s looks. He told me that he took these photos himself!

Photo: @raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

Raphaël explained that brands book him, in part, because of his artistry. Even when a huge brand hires him, they generally give him some control over their collaboration.

He is actually in the “talent” part of his agency, not “modelling”, because he is not just a model but also a dancer and an art director.

I began to tell Raphaël that he has a very individual brand, but he cheekily cut in: “a package, yeah. A full package,” he laughed. This was just one example of Raphaël showing off his sassy and funny side.

Photo: @raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

Raphaël’s use of social media

Raphaël has been an influencer for about three years, and he has already amassed over 300,000 Instagram followers. He created a TikTok account about a year ago, and he already has almost half a million followers and almost 9 million likes!

Whilst Raphaël is a professional dancer, he does not dance on TikTok. Instead, he creates transformation videos.

Photo: @raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

Raphaël is trying to fight the “hate” and “negativity” of social media by helping to solve problems positively.

“My way to work is… to be creative, positive and a little bit funny… to show that you can be yourself… you can live your f*cking own life.”

Not too long before our interview, Raphaël uploaded the below photo and captioned it: “Wear and rock whatever the f*ck you want. It’s all about love!”

Photo: @raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

Raphaël has always loved inspiring quotes, and now he even writes his own. In fact, most of the quotes on his Instagram page are his own.

“I have an image, but I want people to read the hidden messages [but] it’s hard to show it on Instagram.”

Raphaël thinks that captions are boring, so he decided to put quotes at the end of each album he uploads. Each quote compliments the photo(s) that it is uploaded alongside.

Photo: @raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

Before I followed Raphaël, I knew him as the “quote guy”. He admitted that people often focused on his quotes, but now they are more interested in his reels, especially his transformation looks.

Raphaël thinks that people love his reels because they are more personal and allow him to show his (positive) personality. He admitted that people often told him that he looked distant in his photos. In reality, he is a lovely, charming guy, but he wanted to have a “cold” image because he loves drama and aesthetics.

This photo shows off Raphaël’s goofy side, but as you can see from his other photos, he prefers an icy aesthetic.

Photo: @raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

“Instagram is theatre, so I wanna show all my different characters and visions and play with that,” he said. “I like to surprise myself and take risks by creating things that I have in mind and using my body and art as tools, adding messages and being confident”.

Photo: @raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

I was over-at-the-moon at this answer, not just because it is very inspiring but also because it reflects one of the primary aims of this article series – to explore the “theatre” of social media. Merci, Raphaël!

Raphaël’s gender politics

Raphaël is not bothered by the gendered term “male model”, but he does not like that “male models” are often expected to only do “male stuff”. In other words, his problem is not with the term “male model” but with what people do with that term.

“I think it’s so stupid to [put] male or female on [objects] or things that you are selling… I’m a male but I do make-up, I do perfume… Art, creation, photography, image [have] no gender… This is why, on my social media, I don’t put any gender on my [creations], any sexuality on my [creations].” 

Raphaël thinks putting categories such as gender on art means potentially blocking people who belong to other groups, which is counterproductive because, as he explained, “I can talk [to] and try to inspire different kinds of audiences. I love the symbiosis”.

The below photo is a great example of Raphaël blurring the lines between “masculinity” and “femininity”.

Photo: @raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

“I feel comfortable with everybody, and I understand how hard it is to find ourselves. That’s why I don’t want to put myself in a box. If you wanna grow, you must learn from different people, visions or cultures – and that is what I love in life: energy, communication, and positivity.”

Fortunately, modelling is making progress when it comes to gender – and indeed, gender-nonconformity. Raphaël thinks that this is because social media has given a voice to young people, many of whom problematise categories such as gender.

Photo: @raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

Raphaël knows, from experience, that even the most “conformist” person can listen and learn.

He spoke of straight men that he has inspired – guys who have told him that he has made them feel more comfortable wearing make-up and Cuban heels!

Another masculine, straight man that Raphaël has inspired is his own father.

Raphaël said that he and his father have had many confrontations about gender-nonconformity, but now his dad is “following everything that I do on Instagram. He said, ‘I love your make-up, I love your art feed’… He’s really into it because he [understands] why people are doing this.”

He now even watches RuPaul’s Drag Race!

The response to Raphaël’s gender-nonconforming looks have been overwhelmingly positive. He said he receives a few degrading comments on TikTok, for instance, people complaining that he is not a “real man”. But when Raphaël asks them what a real man is, they have nothing to say.

Raphaël also told me about the time he posted a photo of him wearing make-up and a (well-meaning but ignorant) girl commented something along the lines of, “you’re beautiful, but you look transgender. Are you?” Raphaël responded, “I’m just human”, which led to him receiving lots of thanks from his trans followers.

Photo: @raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

“To me, the true definition of masculinity – and femininity, too – is being able to lay in your own skin comfortably,” Raphaël said eloquently.

“Non-toxic masculinity is about being yourself, whatever that may mean for you. It begins with facing fear. That voice that whispers in our ears, ‘hey, don’t do that… What are people going to think about you if you do that? Men don’t do that’.”

“‘Cause you know what makes a good leader? Honesty and transparency. It’s easier to act in accordance with what we’re supposed to do. It’s much harder to go against the grain and challenge the expectations of how we’re supposed to be. Just a simple reminder – be who you are and stay confident”.

Raphaël’s love of the 80s

As aforementioned, Raphaël absolutely loves the 80s, which is not surprising to hear when you look at his high camp photos.

Photo: @rafael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

We spoke about how lots of 80s artists, such as David Bowie and Prince, embraced gender-nonconformity and were loved for it. Yet when artists do it today, they receive a great amount of abuse.

Raphaël thinks that the reason for this is because the gender-nonconformity of 80s’ artists was seen as “theatre”: there was no social media in the 80s; gender-nonconformity was just seen in music videos and on stage.

This is not to say that gender-nonconformity was merely theatre for these artists. (For Prince, especially, it was personal. Let’s not forget his iconic, stereotype-fighting Love Symbol!) But it certainly was seen that way.

Raphaël and I agreed that the gender-nonconformity of today is seen as something political because we are having cultural conversations about it, and, sadly, it makes some people feel uncomfortable.

So, whilst Prince and Bowie’s gender-nonconformity was seen as “theatre”, social media and identity politics have allowed gender-nonconformity to be seen as both personal and political. It is no longer just entertainment; it is about real people and how they want to identify.

On top of this, social media has given ordinary people a platform, which Raphaël says is “good and bad at the same time”. People can make their voices heard, which was much more difficult in a world without social media. Unfortunately, many of these voices are cruel.

Photo: @raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

One of the most famous gender-bending artists of today is, of course, Harry Styles.

Raphaël appreciates Harry Styles donning a dress but does not see it as that radical – so many men have been doing this for so long. Raphaël, himself, has done it!

What Raphaël finds more radical is the fact that Vogue put a man – and not just a man but a man in a dress – on their cover. This made Styles the first solo male cover star in the magazine’s 128-year history!

Raphaël refers to this as “the new generation of fashion”, where “you can put a man… on [the cover of a female fashion] magazine… and it doesn’t change anything”.

Raphaël’s body positivity

@raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

Raphaël has some pretty risqué photos on his Instagram account, though they are not vulgar. Rather, Raphaël embraces nakedness as part of his art.

“I’m talking with my body… As a dancer, your body is like your tool,” he explained. “For me, a naked picture is timeless. You can see it in fifty years; you don’t know when it was taken… You don’t have time on you; you just have your own self to show something.”

Photo: @raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

Surprisingly, Raphaël has not always been confident in his body, but he has gradually come to accept his image – and play with it. He finds posting body and sex positive photos therapeutic.

“Maybe I’m not the most muscular guy, maybe I’m not the skinniest guy, but it’s just me, and I just want to show it,” he said. “Not to [receive] good comments; I just want to show it for myself, because it’s my therapy… I’m proud of this picture, and I want to show it”.

Photo: @raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

Raphaël said that he loves dressing up, even at the airport! He called this his “little pleasure”, before saying, “I’m crazy, but I love it”.

This reminded me of a video he uploaded recently, in which he walked around the streets of Paris, and even a supermarket, in a glittery suit. Raphaël admitted that this look was not actually for a video; it was just his look for the day!

Photo: @raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

Raphaël’s friend was humoured by the way that people were looking at him, so he decided to record him.

Raphaël has recently been looking for a new flat and has worn some flamboyant outfits to viewings. Some people asked him if he was there for a show, but no, it’s just his outfit of the day!

Raphaël just wants to be his own fabulous self – and let’s be honest, if you looked as good as him in those clothes (or in no clothes), you would dress like that, too!

Raphaël’s celebrity encounters

As you can imagine, Raphaël has met and worked with some pretty big celebrities. Here he is with actress Sarah Grafferty.

Photo: @raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

Model Mel Dedigama (@meldedigama) challenged him to do her make-up… blindfolded!

Photo: @raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

I asked Raphaël about Eurovision, which is coming back in May. He explained that Eurovision is not as big in France as it used to be because of the country’s failure to pick memorable acts.

They did, however, have an incredible act in 2019, with Bilal Hassani, who Raphaël knows.

Hassani is particularly inspiring because, like the Zakar twins (@zakartwins), he is a gay Arab man who refuses to conform to “masculinity”.

He briefly met Dame Anna Wintour DBE, the esteemed editor-in-chief of Vogue, during Paris Fashion Week.

“She was like, ‘hey, nice to meet you, you look good,’ and that’s it.”

Whilst getting a compliment from Anna is obviously incredible, Raphaël was not surprised she liked his Dior look. “I was dressed in full Dior, so I was like, ‘she cannot say that I don’t look good in this suit; it’s impossible’,” he laughed. The Devil wears Dior!

He met the late, great Karl Lagerfeld (and his cat) when they were working in the same studio.

This prompted me to ask him about the equally iconic Donatella Versace – my favourite fashion designer – because I have heard that she, too, is nice. Sadly, Raphaël is yet to meet her.

I also asked him about David Gandy, another one of my favourite models. Raphaël said that he is a “really nice guy”.

Raphaël has also had the pleasure of meeting lots of celebrities that have branched out into fashion, such as Ciara, Iggy Azalea, Kendall Jenner, Nicole Scherzinger, and Rihanna!

He especially loved meeting Iggy. He called her “the kindest, for real… so cute… amazing!”

But that’s not all…

The DJ played ‘Fancy’, and they sang together. Yes, for real – he got to sing ‘Fancy’ with Iggy fricken Azalea!

But let’s be real, ‘Fancy’ could totally have been written for Raphaël!

He’s so fancy, we already know…

@raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

Raphaël also told me the hilarious story of when he met one of the biggest figures in fashion.

He was shooting in a hotel in Paris for a huge magazine. He had his head turned as he cat-walked, so he did not see the woman approaching him and ended up slamming into her!

Raphaël was very apologetic, and the woman, who was masked with sunglasses and a hat, apologised too. Raphaël then introduced himself to the woman and told her his name. She then told him her name: Naomi.

Wait…

Raphaël brushed it off, but then a woman approached him and asked him to erase the video. When he asked why, he was told that Naomi Campbell does not want to be on it.

Yes, you heard that right – high-fashion model Raphaël Say cat-walked into Naomi fricken Campbell!

At this point, Raphaël’s dog started barking, so he introduced the adorable diva to me. “What’s she called?” I asked. “Vogue”, he responded. Of course!

@raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

I ended the interview by asking Raphaël about his relationship with the fabulous Stefanie Renoma (@stefanierenoma), a photographer and art director.

Raphaël and Stefanie started off in fashion together: he was her first model.

He says that she is basically his soulmate. There is more to say about Stefanie, but she needs an article of her own! Take a look at her Instagram – you will be in awe of her talent!

Photo: @raphael_say on Instagram. Link to original.

Earlier in the interview, I told Raphaël that I was supposed to visit Paris last year for my 21st and am hoping to finally visit next year for my 23rd. He said that we will go for a coffee and he will try and introduce me to Stefanie because he knows that I will love her.

Raphaël and Stefanie are two of my fashion icons, so being in the presence of the both of them might give me heart palpitations!

I’ll make sure I wear something super fashionable.

Merci beaucoup, Raphaël, for being a part of this series. You really are a tough act to follow!

You can follow Raphaël on Instagram @raphael_say and TikTok @raphaelsay.

Tags: A Tough Act to Follow, france, french, Gender, inspiration, LGBT, LGBTQ, model, modelling, models, Queer

Jay Darcy

Theatre Editor. Instagram & Twitter: @jaydarcy7. To write for theatre, DM me or email [email protected]
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