Interviewed by Morgan Mantilla
Braylen Brooks @braylenbrooks is the definer of his own destiny. Period. Creator of The Real Life Mannequin, a full-force, multifaceted, platform where he creates digital and visual content for luxury boutique and corporate brands internationally. Brooks has truly built the career of his dreams from the ground up. After multiple bouts of homelessness, a handful of trips to Europe for modeling, and too many people who said ‘No’, Brooks came out on top of the game—and he’s not done yet. We sat down with Brooks at BASIC HEADQUARTERS to hear more about his story in detail, and pick up some of his tips on how to get what you want—no matter what.
BASIC: So tell us your story.
BRAYLEN: I moved to California about 7 years ago, in August of 2010 to work for Smashbox Cosmetics. My main goal was to move to LA and get into television. After I moved to San Diego, I picked up a second job at Aldo. I was working there when this actress named Sheree Swanson walked in and complimented me, asking if I had ever thought about styling. I said ‘no’ and her response was, “Oh, well I work on pilots all the time in LA. If a designer on set ever needs an assistant or anything, I’ll definitely tell them about you and let you know.” So two months later, she called and said she was working on this pilot called Shared Spaces, which Miguel Núñez was producing. So I met the wardrobe stylist on that set and we became really close. She actually had properties in LA, and I told her I really wanted to move to LA, so she said, “I’ll lease you out while you’re here.” Back in San Diego, I was going through a really hard time, I was homeless, going from pillow to post, just trying to figure out what I was going to do. So when I got to LA, I just kind of hit the ground running professionally, but personally, it didn’t last. I was really notorious in my group of friends for crashing Hollywood Red Carpet events. Any event, you name it, Golden Globes, Grammy’s, Oscar parties. I think it really worked for me because I was completely oblivious to knowing who anyone was, so I wasn’t intimidated. At the same time as that was happening, I was living on Skid Row, where I lived for about a year. There was a huge contrast in my life—I was living on Skid Row, in a facility, and at the same time, crashing these lavish Red Carpet events.
BASIC: So how did you get involved with Scenester.TV?
BRAYLEN: I met Joanna, the founder of Scenester.TV, at an event that I crashed. I overheard her saying, “You know, I’d really like to interview the celebrities at this event, but I don’t have a host. We have the equipment, but no host.” This was at Madame Tussaud in Hollywood, and I just kind of leaned over and said, “I can interview them, it can’t be that hard.” She kind of looked me up and down and said “Okay, well let’s have you test on the wax figures first.” So we did that for like 15 minutes, and after that, I started to interview the celebrities that were there. Larry King, Nick Cannon, Soulja Boy, and Vanilla Ice were my first interviews. At the end of the night, she said, “Hey I want to start this Hollywood red carpet web series for the outlet, and I think you’d be fit for it, so I’ll call you in a couple of months.” So she did, and then we did the Golden Globes, and some other fun things like gifting suites for the Emmy’s and the Oscars.
BASIC: Next you got into modeling. Tell me how you went about that.
BRAYLEN: So I interviewed Janice Dickinson at this Emmy’s gifting suite at the end of 2013, and I told her, “You know, people come up to me all the time and tell me I should be a model. What should I do?” and she said, “Go to Paris, that’s what I did.” I looked at her like how could you even say that? But that resonated with me for about a year, and then in 2015 I moved to Paris—for a month. I signed with my first agency in Paris, and I ended up staying for about 6 months.
BASIC: What did you do when you came back from Paris?
BRAYLEN: When I came back to the states, I lost my apartment. So I just started doing temporary jobs here and there, still doing the red carpet hosting, but I was still worried about this huge contrast in my life: I am at these high profile events but my personal life is in uproar. The reason I am an influencer now is because I started a style blog and brand that is 100% me. By popular demand from friends, and fans of Scenester.TV, I started a style blog on Instagram about two years ago. I was thinking about what to call it. I decided on The Real Life Mannequin because when I worked at Aldo, I would stand still and people would be like, “Oh my god you look like a mannequin! I thought you were a mannequin!” So I thought it was perfect, had a little history—it’s funny, and cute, you know? Oh, and just for the record, I’m not homeless anymore! For the past 3 years I have not been.
BASIC: Why do you want to share your story?
BRAYLEN: I think what makes my story so unique is that I’ve been denied so many times. I’ve been in LA for 6 years and I’ve been denied by every single modeling agency or creative agency that I’ve been to. I took matters into my own hands, I said, “You know what? If no one is going to give me the opportunity, I’ll give myself the opportunity.” I think my main purpose in what I do is to try and inspire, empower, and encourage people who share similar interests, who have been through trials and tribulations. Because people never used to know that I was homeless. I just recently posted that testimony on Facebook. But people look at me now and think, “Oh he’s spoiled, he’s got to be. Must be loaded, and his parents were probably rich.” People don’t understand that I’m working and pioneering my way through this industry that I have given myself to, and more than anything I really want to inspire and encourage people, beyond just showcasing myself on a luxury platform.
BASIC: So how do you go about forming these relationships with these brands? What steps do you take?
BRAYLEN: I call myself a telemarketer sometimes because I cold email and cold call brands a lot. But I think the fact that my brand kind of speaks for itself really helps a lot. I worked really hard on the branding early on. I had a lot of people telling me to be authentic, be yourself, because I am my brand. When people see me, in 2 seconds they get it: he’s fashion forward, he’s elegant, he’s bespoke. The brands I reach out to have similar aesthetics. I think finding similarities between the brand I’m reaching out to and I is important to even having the potential to collaborate with the brand. Then, from there, delivering immaculate content, that’s another valuable thing towards building a strong relationship with the brand, where you could go back to them in the future, or have them reach out to you. Another is having a genuine audience, because your audience validates you. Like I’ve posted something on Instagram and 15 minutes later, I get a text from the executive director of the brand that reads, “Thank you, we’re already generating sales from your post.” Those are things that I put in my press kit so that other brands can see it. Like this is not just fluff, what I’m doing is real. When you hire me, you’re getting authenticity, you’re getting a brand, you’re getting a story, you’re not getting just anyone posting a photo on Instagram.
BASIC: So how do you refine your brand so that it is clear in every post to other brands what you’re about?
BRAYLEN: I think I refine it through my perspective. When people look at my Instagram or blog, they say, “You inspire me.” I’m showing the opulent side of life in my own way. So the theme, I’m all about themes, is this whimsical, fun, wonderland kind of feel. I want to inspire people, to give them ambition. I want them to question, “Is this even real?” Because when it’s questionable it brings that much more desire and curiosity. I’m finally traveling and living the life I’ve wanted to live for so long, so when I take a picture for my blog, I want the viewer to feel the same emotion that I feel in that moment. Often a feeling of, “Wow I can’t believe it.”
BASIC: So how have you gone about doing all this expansion after starting the Instagram and the blog—how did it grow?
BRAYLEN: Brands do their research. When a brand sees that you are collaborating with, and you’re active with, and you have history with a brand, you show you’re being lucrative. That’s really important for them to see. When they look at my collaboration sheet in my press kit and they see brands like the Peninsula, St. Regis, Adidas, Vivienne Westwood, especially the smaller boutique brands, they see the value in me since I have secured these certain accounts. It builds itself.
BASIC: So tell me about how you formed a relationship with the Vivienne Westwood brand.
BRAYLEN: There were models being called already to go to that casting, other models living in the apartment with me. Normally, your agency will present you to a client, and the client will say, “Yes we’d like to see them,” or “No.” If it’s a yes, that’s considered a call back. I didn’t get called for that through my agency. I just knew other models who were going to that so I said, “Okay then, what’s the address? I want to go to.” So I got the address, I went, and then I booked it. That was that. I actually had some time to speak with her, and we took a selfie.
BASIC: So your theme is crashing things, just to get in the door. [laughs] Which seems to work well for you which is why it’s so funny, unexpected.
BRAYLEN: [laughs] Look there are no rules and I get what I want. Sorry to say it’s like that but look I’ve been told ‘no’ so much—and I’ve waited in line in Milan for 2 hours in the hot Milanese sun for somebody to come out and say, “Oh I’m sorry, no black models at this casting.” Stuff like that—you’re either going to let it make you or break you. For me, that just makes me into the person that I am today. It’s being creative about your approach. You don’t take no for an answer. One door closes, there is always another way to get in. They call me Super Braylen, because I just make things happen. I had the drive to get it myself.
It’s all about building those relationships in each market. You can drop me in any market and I’ll pioneer and I’ll make some connections. I went to Paris, didn’t have any connections. I went to Milan, didn’t have any connections. So now, when I go back, I’ve built a platform for myself.