Joshua Simon, Radio Host & Singer/Songwriter, 30 – Singapore
Joshua Simon has never been one to fit in, but he definitely didn’t think he’d be one to stand out. Born and raised in Singapore of half-Chinese, half-Indian descent, Joshua’s accolades include being the radio show host on one of the country’s top channels, a TV presenter, viral celebrity interviewer (his chats with the likes of Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman have crossed over 1.2 million in views), singer-songwriter and, most recently, advocate for men’s mental health and body positivity.
Upon first meeting Joshua, I’m taken aback by his flawless skin, striking bone structure and somehow passive-yet-avante-garde fashion sense. He’s dressed in an Ariana Grande ‘Thank You Next’ tour t-shirt with a pair of crisp white jeans embossed with Japanese characters and paints. A single cross earring dangles from his right ear and I instantly feel not quite cool enough to be meeting him.
We’re at Café De Muse in Orchard and it’s a rainy, tropical Singapore Saturday afternoon, the sound of socially-distant chatter around us as we nestle into the back corner of the café, both eager to skip pleasantries and delve into the get-to-know-you process. “You’re kind of gorgeous! I wasn’t expecting that!” Joshua chimes animatedly as he greets me. He certainly knows how to make a first impression and his charm exudes unwaveringly for the remainder of our chat.
As soon as Joshua speaks, it’s easy to see why he’s fast becoming a celebrated spokesperson for the advocacy of positivity around fashion, men and their mental and physical wellbeing. He’s articulate, sharp and full of energy. Growing up in a conservative household with a Pastor for a father, Joshua realized early on in his childhood he was going to have to be okay with not fitting in and even open to the possibility of entirely standing out. He realised early that he was gay, tall and overweight, an unconventional trio of traits, particularly for a young boy in Singapore. As a child and teenager, he enjoyed music, entertainment, art and most of all fashion, seeing it as a form of self-expression, identity and ultimately escapism – a far cry from the academic and sporting interests of many of his male classmates and counterparts.
"It took me years to unlearn that behaviour and it’s only recently that I’ve been able to understand that body positivity isn’t about getting to some non-existent destination, it’s about living each day accepting who you are."
As his knowledge and passions in the areas of media, fashion and pop culture grew, he faced an internal dissonance when it came to accepting who he was both physically and mentally. He can’t recall a time when either his height, weight or lifestyle wasn’t a point of contention or discussion amongst his friends, family and society, so much so that he was sent home from school with a letter one day after a sports teacher weighed him and cited him as ‘obese’.
“That really struck a chord with me because to be honest; as children and young adults, we don’t even understand the concept of body positivity until we experience body negativity,” he explains. “We just are comfortable and confident in who we are, until someone proactively points it out to us and then we suddenly feel as if we’re not good enough or something is wrong with us. That for me was a huge moment of realisation and the start of experiencing what I would call body negativity.”
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2 months of lockdown: 20 hours of fasting each day, ketogenic meals, jogging at the park and taking long walks after midnight. Can't wait to go rockclimbing, to go back to the gym coz i've lost quite a bit of muscle mass. But above all, I'm looking forward to breaking real bread with my friends.
Not unlike many other men who silently suffer, Joshua began to internalise these feelings over a period of years, working out obsessively, desperate to lose weight and find comfort in his body image in accordance to what society and media felt was attractive and conventional. Trying his hand at acting, he was deemed too Chinese for Indian roles and too Indian for Chinese ones. In 2012, he eventually joined Hot FM 91.3 (now One FM) and became a radio host. But the pressure to conform never left him.
“I’d play and listen to songs like Christina Aguilera’s ‘Beautiful’ like everyone around me at the time, but I’d feel like it would only apply AFTER the diet and exercise had worked. It took me years to unlearn that behaviour and it’s only recently that I’ve been able to understand that body positivity isn’t about getting to some non-existent destination, it’s about living each day accepting who you are, be that for your shape, weight, height, acne, body hair or skin. It goes far beyond just your size.”
As his music and stage career have blossomed, Joshua has spent the last five years traveling the world, performing as one of only 17 artists globally at Abbey Road Studios in London, for a YouTuber’s cover edition of ‘This Is Me’ from the hit movie The Greatest Showman. The next year, he represented Singapore again in London performing a medley by the iconic band Queen at Metropolis Studios ahead of the launch of Rami Malek’s Bohemian Rhapsody biopic. The more he performed, the more confidence he found in his own image. “It was like a little boost of confidence every time I felt recognised for something other than my body or how I looked. It’s empowering to feel like a whole person and not just deduced down to something as amenable to change as your body.”
However, a defining moment for Joshua’s popularity and presence came in 2019, when he was set to give a talk on the coveted TEDxYouth platform on June 29 last year. At the last minute, he was asked by event organisers and the hosting university to edit the contents of his speech that referred to his story around his LGBTQ+ experiences in Singapore, deeming them ‘inappropriate’ for the target audience. Joshua refused to edit his talk, afraid to set a precedent of censorship for future speakers of similar backgrounds to feel like their existence and self-image somehow needed suppressing or hiding. The move caused great discussion and controversy, but also earned him a raft of fans and a newfound status as an advocate and opinion leader amongst the LGBTQ+ community. He’s used his Instagram platform as a way of continuing this advocacy ever since.
“I never anticipated the Ted talk to become as much of a discussion point as it did,” he say. “But I think it was one of the times in which I truly knew if I didn’t stand up for myself and who I was, that I would not only be disappointing me, but so many others like me who have no one to represent them or make them feel seen. This was a catalyst moment for me. I wasn’t just trying to provoke people and topple a system for the sake of rebelling anymore, I was truly just trying to learn to love me and wishing that I could also instill that love in someone else through my actions.”
"I’m passionate about mental health, particularly for men, because I want people to know there’s someone out there just like them who is overcoming the same mental and physical battles they are."
A new hosting gig with his own show, ‘Josh’s Goodnight Kisses’, on KISS 92FM, a sell-out album later (described by music magazine Bandwagon Asia as “one of the best to ever come out of Singapore”) and the launch of his latest single, ‘All I Wanna Do’, in 2020, Joshua tells me his relationship with himself has truly evolved over the last two years after a series of inward-facing realisations and small moments of clarity and self-reflection, stemming from his many experiences in showbiz.
“People look at me from the outside in and think this is a successful man. He gets to work in a field he loves, he’s in pretty okay shape, he travels the world and he gets to interview celebrities and make music. But the truth is, every day for me is another day I have to train and teach myself to unlearn so much of the harm I’ve done to myself mentally. I’m passionate about mental health, particularly for men, because I want people to know there’s someone out there just like them who is overcoming the same mental and physical battles they are. You can be in media, be in the spotlight, be a performer, embrace fashion and pop-culture and be who you are. And if you want a reminder on what’s possible, you can always look to me to give you one.”
Ben James, Male Model & Body Positivity Advocate, 28 – UK
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why Ben James has catapulted to recent fame. Standing at 6’6, dark blonde and with a cheeky smile, Ben is a Yorkshire-based male model and passionate body positivity advocate, amassing a commendable following of over 220,000 across both Tik Tok and Instagram over the last six months. His countless videos on normalising body image, cellulite, scars, acne and redefining the nuances around toxic masculinity often clock up hundreds of thousands of views, his photos equivalently in comments, with one of his ardent followers describing him as ‘the plus size industry’s answer to David Beckham’.
When we speak over Zoom, he tells me that in addition to his Insta-fame, he’s garnered an impressive CV of shoots with brands including Lacoste, Calvin Klein, Ted Baker and ASOS since he started his modelling career. Ben represents the new breed of unconventional influencer-models slowly breaking the barriers between mainstream men’s fashion, social media and the world of luxury. For James, however, who was formerly a marketing executive and technologist before taking the dive into full-time modelling, he’s not persuaded or led by vanity, but rather by a fiery desire to incite the inclusion of plus-sized men into campaigns – something he feels is long overdue for both consumers and brands alike.
“There is such a prominent and huge opportunity for the fashion industry to change the way in which they approach men’s clothing, in particular the inclusion of men above standard sizing,” he explains. “Consumers are waiting for brands to make a change and brands are waiting for consumers to bring the demand and the end result is amount of revenue that could be generated by better understanding the market need is being wasted, when it’s really something both parties can tap into.”
Ben’s inspiration to jump into the world of modelling came from watching other men with his build find success in the industry, no matter how niche the category. He took some photos of himself and compiled a portfolio and sent them off to several agencies, and after a series of shoots around Europe and North America, he’s now signed to the UK’s largest modelling and influencer management agency, MiLK Model Management. Whilst Ben often models for big and tall brands, he also has a keen eye for creativity and is passionate about pioneering a conversation around the future of high-fashion and couture. In particular, he has a desire to see a men’s movement not unlike that occurring with female representation amongst high-street and luxury brands.
"You feel conditioned to feel poorly about yourself if you don’t fit into the mold of what is considered fashionable or sexy or manly. We put a lot of pressure on men in this industry to be lean and muscular with six packs."
“When you think of couture, you definitely don’t think of a plus size man. We’re only now starting to see female faces and bodies such as Ashley Graham break into mainstream shows such as Dolce & Gabbana, Fendi and so on, but there’s still a long way to go when it comes to big and tall men being on the radar. We’re not often scouted for these shows or campaigns, nor do we seem to have much say in the direction the industry is taking in this area. I know for me it would be a dream to walk the runway for a luxury brand and there are many, many more men like me who feel the same way.”
Similarly to Joshua Simon, however, Ben too hasn’t had an easy journey with embracing his body and stature over the years. Whilst many covet his tall frame, it’s not always been a feature of desirability for James, who felt it made him stand out in a time when he just wanted to blend in as a teenager. Couple that with weighing 175kg at his heaviest and it’s easy to understand how the mental health struggles began, often accompanied by bouts of debilitating self-doubt and anxiety when it came to his self-image.
“It’s taken me a long time to accept myself and embrace the opportunities that have come to me. You feel conditioned to feel poorly about yourself if you don’t fit into the mold of what is considered fashionable or sexy or manly. We put a lot of pressure on men in this industry to be lean and muscular with six packs. It’s taken me years of unlearning to know that a healthy body image and state of mind have nothing to do with any of those things and either does being a man.”A welcome mindset considering that whilst praise has been high for Ben since he began his online journey, it has also not come without criticism and judgement. This is no truer than when it comes to the notion of whether he is considered ‘plus-size’ enough since he’s weight loss and frequent posting of fitness-oriented content.
“One thing I’ve learned as I’ve gained traction in this industry is that it’s okay for me and for any other man to not have to subscribe to every element of the body positivity movement, because often, they’re extreme. We’re so used to seeing the largest person as the only representation of what is considered ‘plus-size’ or above average that we can’t normalise bodies anymore without distortion. I don’t agree with people who say you can’t embrace health or fitness or looking after yourself as part of being body-positive. If anything, there’s nothing more positive than embracing those things and working to feel better and happier in your skin, as long as you’re doing it for yourself and not to please others.”
James hopes his platform will stand for three things: provide a safe space for men to explore their relationships with their body image and mental health including fitness; re-educate brands on what is considered fashionable for men who don’t fit the conventional look of a model (or even average man); and create a forum for discussion for men and women alike. When asked, he shares that the most frequently asked questions he receives are how to cope with criticism around body types and lose weight as well as how to overcome negative thinking and embrace confidence.
“I always try my best to give each person the care of responding as carefully as I can, because you never know how someone truly feels about themselves. Especially men, because we’re taught not to emote and express our fears or emotions. I’ve been where so many of my followers are today and even for me now, it’s a constant battle with my inner voice to keep that positivity alive. That’s why it doesn’t help to tell someone they’re overweight or they’re not meeting a standard we’ve set, because trust me, no one knows it more than them. I want society and the fashion industry to know there’s a place for everyone to feel safe and represented and confident in their own skin and if they feel they can’t find it elsewhere, I’ll be happy to provide it until they do.”
Words by Rahat Kapur