December 6, 2021

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Model Shaun Ross Charts a Musical Path

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Shaun Ross is fond of flouting public perceptions.

In 2013, he appeared in the music video for Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts,” playing an imperious beauty pageant instructor who browbeats the pop diva as being too curvy. “I’m probably the only person in her life who has ever been told to rough her up,” he said.

At one point during filming, Mr. Ross barked orders so aggressively that he sprayed the singer’s face with spittle. “I immediately popped out of character and told her, ‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry, I just spit all over you,’’’ he said. “She was like, ‘No, it’s just acting. You’re doing great.’”

Acting or not, moments of defiance come intuitively to Mr. Ross. The casting of Mr. Ross, with his albino skin and eggshell-colored hair, underscored the song’s critique of conventional beauty. And they are part of his arsenal of survival instincts that have allowed him to pave an idiosyncratic career as a gay, Black and albino fashion model turned musician.

In the previous decade, his distinctive look made him a top male model who walked the runway for Walter Van Beirendonck and Pyer Moss, and appeared in the pages of Vogue Italia and advertisements for Kenneth Cole.

Alongside “Pretty Hurts,” he starred in several major music videos of the 2010s including Katy Perry’s “E.T.,” in which he played an extraterrestrial visitor who locks lips with Ms. Perry; and Lana Del Rey’s 2013 short film “Tropico,” where he portrayed Adam, clothed only in leafy briefs, to the singer’s Eve.

This month, as Mr. Ross turned 30, he is testing the boundaries again with the release of his debut album, “Shift,” a collection of stripped-down R&B with electronica flourishes. Can a seasoned catwalker, even one blessed by Beyoncé, reinvent himself as a modern-day Maxwell, a singer he cites as one of his pop idols?

“A lot of people also thought that the Olsen twins shouldn’t dabble in The Row and look at that now,” Mr. Ross said recently, in a video chat from his industrial-style penthouse in Downtown Los Angeles. He raised his eyebrows and tilted his head playfully, as if to say, “Next question.”

His first single, “Symmetry,” in 2017 featured Lizzo on backing vocals and earned buzz by leaning heavily into his uncategorizable mystique, with lyrics like “who we are is skin deep.” Other singles followed, including 2019’s “Red Light Green Light,” a club hit that he recorded with the British D.J. Duke Dumont. The song’s wry, spoken-word vocals echoed Mr. Ross’s teenage past in the ballroom vogue scene.

“Shift” is also a study in fluidity. The lead single “WX5,” released in January, embodies the moodiness of British trip-hop acts from the 1990s. Its monastic music video is reminiscent of Seal in his “Crazy” heyday and a Yohji Yamamoto lookbook. Nostalgia aside, his plush vocals and emotional openness are in step with fellow R&B contemporaries like Moses Sumney, Sampha and Syd, who also embrace being Black and queer on their own terms.

“Shaun is very conscious of, like, ‘I have got to be seen and heard as I am,’” said Carlos Cháirez, formerly of the Mexican rock group Kinky, who produced the bulk of “Shift” alongside Michael Tritter, a synthesizer programmer for Empire of the Sun. “A lot of young people haven’t seen an artist like him before.”

Mr. Ross grew up in the Bronx, the second youngest of four siblings who were raised “in a household of culture,” he said, by his mother, Geraldine Ross, who owned a database firm in the former World Trade Center, and his father, Shaun Ross Sr., a computer engineer.

No one else in his family is albino. “Obviously I knew that my skin is white and theirs was brown, but it wasn’t weird or spoken about,” he said. “I only knew I was different when I got around other people.”

His parents, who met at Bentley’s Discotheque in Midtown Manhattan, would play albums by Donnie Hathaway and the acid-house pioneer Mr. Fingers as early as 7 a.m. “I knew who Stevie Wonder was from birth and Björk by the age of 6,” Mr. Ross said.

As a boy, he parroted the tap dance moves of Savion Glover that he saw on “Sesame Street” using a pair of his mother’s high heels. Impressed by the home performances, his mother enrolled him in classes at the Bronx Dance Theater when he was 6.

Classmates and neighborhood friends were less nurturing. “I was the only Black kid who had any form of pale skin in a Black school,” he said. “A lot of people looked at me like, ‘Oh, I can’t touch you. You have a disease.’”

He found his voice through extracurricular classes at the Ailey School in Midtown Manhattan and by browsing the CD racks at the Virgin Megastore in Union Square, where he first heard experimental albums by Kelis and the spoken-word performance artist Ursula Rucker.

In 2007, when he was 16, he was discovered by the casting agent Shameer Khan, who saw a YouTube video of Mr. Ross vogueing at a dance studio once owned by his mother. He signed to Djamee, a boutique modeling agency in New York, the following year, and was photographed by David Armstrong for a black-and-white fashion spread for Another Man magazine.

His high school classmates were incredulous at first. “I will never forget this one moment, one of the boy students said to me, ‘Please, you’re too ugly. Calm down, Casper,’” Mr. Ross said, recalling how 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 one copy on the boy’s desk and said, ‘This is your copy,’” he said. “Then I went to my homeroom teacher and said, ‘And here is your copy.’”

Modeling offered both a refuge and an entree into a new world. Meanwhile, his distinctive look, masculine frame, graceful movements, Bronx roots and sexual orientation have made him both the object of fascination and the subject of misconceptions.

Mr. Ross recalled that a model agent once told him to carry a skateboard to castings so that he would “look more like a man.” Another time, he remembers being told that his eyes must be too sensitive for the bright lights of a runway show. “People were afraid to take chances,” he said.

In a way, “Shift” is his latest attempt to tell his own story. The album’s cover was shot by his boyfriend, the actor David Alan Madrick. It shows him standing shirtless, with his back to the camera.

“Everyone already knows my face,” he said. “I want people to listen to me, not just look at me.”

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