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Brandon Mills

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Article on Brandon Mills from modelresource.ca

I don't know how much you know about Muay Thai, but here it is in a nutshell. Muay Thai is an especially brutal form of martial arts that encourages combatants to use fists, elbows, shins and feet to subdue their opponents. As the name suggests, its origins are in Thailand, and professionals can make a living fighting regularly in South Asia. As you might guess, not a lot of fighters go on to be models. But Brandon Mills did.

I met Mills on a Thursday morning at Toronto's Delta Chelsea Hotel. Sutherland Models had brought him in on a direct-book for Tip Top Menswear, and this was his last of a three-day stay before returning to New York.

Tall and confident, he made his way to the concierge desk with a relaxed, Zen-like quality that seemed so out of place in the hectic environment of travellers checking out and bellhops scrambling to earn a tip. His manner also seemed in conflict with nearly every image I had ever seen of him. He wasn't at all what I expected.

We found seats in a quiet area of the lobby and began conversing. He first told me, as I expected, that he never expected to be a model. Men - especially the straight ones - seldom do. But in light of his particular upbringing, the notion that this guy would end up in this career seemed almost unbelievable.

Brandon MillsBorn in a Pennsylvania trailer park, Mills was raised by a single mom, moving frequently until they wound up in a rundown area of Vancouver. He describes the relationship as "tumultuous," and the finances "difficult." By age 14 he moved out.

In the years that followed Mills relocated to Calgary and immersed himself in martial arts; a lifestyle that despite its combative nature, still helps him find peace today. It was a violent course however, that soon led to the jungles of Thailand, where he spent twelve hours a day kicking banana trees to build strength and stamina. To support himself, he fought.

The Muay Thai career ended abruptly however, when he crashed a motorcycle at 60 kph, wearing nothing but shorts. Badly hurt, he was taken to a jungle medical clinic where his leg became so seriously infected he nearly got gangrene. "Just by the grace of God," he now recalls, "I found a gentlemen - a Thai doctor that owned a clinic - and he had trained in Canada for sports medicine. He analyzed the medicine I was using and told me it was fake."

Over the following three weeks, stacked on an I.V. and ingesting three different antibiotics, Mills lost 45 pounds. "It killed everything in my system, but luckily I got to keep my leg." His fighting career however, was done.

Before leaving North America, Mills had been approached about modelling by Mode Models' Kelly Streit. After several discussions, Mills felt modelling was too uncertain, and wasn't prepared to stop fighting. During his recovery time in Thailand however, he received an e-mail from Mode suggesting he get in touch with an agency in Bangkok (also called Mode, although the two are unrelated).

His first booking was for a New Years event at a packed, 85,000 seat stadium. One side, he recalls, was filled with the Thai army and royalty, the other with Thai citizens all wearing shirts with the Thai flag. "They had guys in rubber balls like hamsters running across the stage, fireworks, everything..."

The only Caucasian model in a cast of 200, he only had one outfit, but the runway was the length of one-and-a-half football fields and Mills still had 60 stitches and third degree burns.

Through his pain, he walked across the stage "like a soldier," limping by the time he finished. "Then they handed me an envelope full of money and it was twice as much as I got for fighting three guys back-to-back-to-back and winning a tournament. So I figured maybe there is something to this... I might as well give it a shot."

From Thailand, Mills went to Australia where he shot "ten magazines, maybe a few more" in six weeks, quickly building his book and making decent money, before returning to Calgary.

With the mentality that he didn't want to fall back into his old ways, he moved to Vancouver with his then-girlfriend, and started working in construction. Six months he spent on the West Coast, broke and frustrated that he was no longer earning the kind of money he made as a model. He learned then that Joy Models - one of the top men's agencies in Milan - was interested in him, so without any expectations he jumped on a plane bound for Italy.

Brandon MillsIn his first season he did 13 designer shows. "I wasn't even expecting to get one, and I got such amazing response. It's just progressed from there."

His success may have come quickly, but he wasn't immediately at ease with his place in the industry. In the beginning, he says, he felt he had surrendered a lot of the power to control his destiny, instead placing it in the hands of bookers and casting directors with whom he had no connection. "The biggest adjustment had been going from that street mentality to model mentality and all the people that you interact with on that level. Without having the martial arts in my life it was very stressful for the first year. I didn't really understand how to approach these people. I was borderline aggressive-assertive. Coming from a background where you're the only one to take care of yourself, obviously there's more on the line than just fun and games."

"It took me a little while to find an inner peace in myself where I could deal with the ups and downs of the business and feel comfortable. A big part of that was that my leg healed up and I could do martial arts again. It was my therapy."

"Getting back into who I am and what makes me relaxed, and grounded really made me realize that I've got longevity and it's my personality and my charisma and confidence that ultimately bring all of those things.

These days Mills trains a minimum of five days a week, doing Tae Kwon Do in New York. He says it's what keeps him sane.

When I mention how calm he comes across, he - predictably, I suppose - answers in an even tone. "I remember Bruce Lee said he felt like an old soul in a young man's body. That's something I empathize with. Obviously having come through so many experiences in my life already, I just feel like I've lived multiple lifetimes already and have a wealth of experiences to look back on, and the bottom line, I've had everything happen to me.

"You know, in Thailand again, a guy fell out of the back of a truck putting up Muay Thai signs for the night's fights, and he died right in my arms on the street. I've lost a lot of people in my life and had to overcome a lot of bad emotion. And the martial arts helped me find inner peace and a sense of confidence, and I think if I didn't have the experiences that I've gone through I could have gone in any direction. I could be on drugs, I could be dead, I could be in jail."

Could be, if not for his Guardian Angel. Mills is pretty sure he's got one, and he believes it's his grandfather - a Native American preacher who travelled with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking about civil rights.

Before he passed, his grandfather instilled into Mills a sense of compassion that shaped his belief system. "I definitely in my inner core have a very deep sensitivity for humanity and women's rights and gay rights and everything. I'm a very passionate person. I'm a Pisces, so I'm also a very sensitive person - which is interesting because coming from where I came from, it was a very hard arena to be in while also being a sensitive person."

Despite all the calm, rational sentiments, there was still a part of me having difficulty reconciling that a guy that came from the proverbial "wrong side of the tracks" could find peace with himself as a well-paid, well-travelled male model. Of course it's hard work, but Mills struck me as the type of person that would want to use his experience to make the world a better place.

Brandon MillsBut it's not my place to reconcile that. Mills already has. "For me it's been the most beautiful experience. I hold my head high, doing what I'm doing, and I'm proud of something that, for my entire life I've never been able to do. I can be on billboards, and it's something to be proud of. The last thing that it makes me is arrogant or cocky. All it does is remind me how lucky I am to be where I am. I'm not stuck.

"Guys look in my eyes and they can see that I belong, and that I've had that experience, and we can share in that to some extent. What talking about the modelling does, is to set an example.

"A perfect example: I have a friend that lives in the projects on 125th Street and he has to do what he has to do to take care of his little brother. His parents are dead. He called me a couple weeks ago, and after spending a bunch of time talking about modelling and acting after all the things I've gone through growing up, he said 'look Brandon, I want you to know after all the conversations we've had that I've done some thinking and I've enrolled to become a medical assistant.'

"That just goes to show me right there that obviously experience plays a huge part of life, and if you have a humbleness about you, you can approach people and can give them some inspiration. That's what I feel I have to give back to everybody who comes from that type of demographic."

"I realized I do have a very strong energy that, if it's not in control, is going to make people nervous. I have tattoos all over my body, and when my head is shaved if I walk into some places feeling a little bit irritated - they're already expecting someone a little bit intimidating - and if I come across like that people are going to expect me to be difficult to work with.

"Now I walk in and people expect to see this hard, gangsta type of guy, and I always have a smile on my face, and I'm laughing and joking around. I think people respond really nicely to that. My success has just started to flourish because of that.

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