Nick Kamen was a model, songwriter and singer who rose to fame after appearing in a popular Levi’s advert in the mid-Eighties. He later had a successful career in music, recording his own songs and collaborating with his friend Madonna.
Kamen, who has died aged 59, was born Ivor Neville Kamen in Harlow in 1962, one of eight children of Neville and Zoe Kamen, who met and married in Burma.
His breakthrough came in 1985 when, aged 23, he appeared in an advert for Levi’s 501 jeans. Set in a 1950s launderette in mid-America, Kamen, looking like a young Elvis, strips down to his boxer shorts to the music of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”. After putting stones in the washing machine, Kamen removes his clothes and adds them to the wash, watched by a group of admiring women.
The results were spectacular: an eightfold increase in sales for the jeans maker, according to owners Levi Strauss, and a boost in demand for crisp white boxer shorts, in preference to traditional Y-fronts.
The advert cemented the fortune of a young advertising agency, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, whose partner Nigel Bogle told Campaign magazine in a recent interview “We felt we were on the crest of a wave”. Recalling his first impression of Kamen, the agency’s founder, John Hegarty, said “I can remember the moment he walked into that casting session, you knew you were in the presence of a star”. Kamen’s future was assured.
Kamen’s performance also heralded a new era in the field of advertising. In an environment where women were habitually objectified by male onlookers, here was one of the first adverts that acknowledged the female gaze.
Interviewed by Paula Yates for The Tube, a handsome yet shy Kamen confessed that he had previously stripped off in the same way in real life at a launderette in Notting Hill. Going on to ask him whether his looks would help in his future musical career, he mused “It’s a hindrance... They don’t give you the chance to express what you’re about, they look at your face and that’s it, that’s all they see and want to see.”
Turning away from modelling, Kamen went on to become a talented musician and composer. He sang the hit “Each Time You Break My Heart”, written, produced and with backing vocals by Madonna, which reached No 5 in the charts in 1986.
Speaking of the collaboration, Kamen said in an interview at the time: “We were at the same record company in America and she got to hear my demo tapes and she liked my voice, so she asked if she could write me a song. I said yes!”
He followed up the next year with “Loving You is Sweeter than Ever”, a cover of the 1966 Motown hit by the Four Tops, which got to No 16 in the UK and topped the charts in Italy. His subsequent singles “Nobody Else” (1987), “Tell Me” (1988) and “I Promised Myself” (1990) all remained within the lower reaches of the top 50 in the UK.
In later life, Kamen had dedicated himself to painting, cooking and to his Buddhist faith. He was diagnosed with bone cancer three years ago and had been undergoing treatment at Hammersmith Hospital.
Madonna said in tribute “It breaks my heart to know you are gone. You were always such a kind sweet human and you suffered too much. Hope you are happier wherever you are Nick Kamen.”
He is survived by the filmmaker Lucinda Cary, his partner for the last 15 years, and her daughter Evie.
Nick Kamen, model, songwriter and singer, born 15 April 1962, died 4 May 2021