If you were to see photographer Mark Reay on the street, or at a runway show, you’d think that he lived like anyone else who works in fashion: comfortably. Shooting for high-end magazines, dressing in well-tailored clothes, hanging out with models — what could be so bad?
The truth is, however, that Reay is homeless. For six years, between 2008 and 2014, he actually slept on the roof of a lower Manhattan building. Not in a swanky penthouse apartment, but under a tarp on the floor of an apartment building’s roof.
When film director Thomas Wirthensohn found out about Reay’s living situation, he knew he had to document it. A week later, Wirthensohn began production on “Homme Less,” an 87-minute documentary about Reay’s life that premeired at the Doc NYC festival in 2014. With glowing reviews from The New York Times and RogerEbert.com’s Mark Dujsik, it’s begun screening at various locations worldwide.
We caught up with Reay and Wirthensohn to find out more about their story.
In the early '90s, Reay pursued a career in modelling, but he was only making $10,000 a year and never considered himself successful. It was at that time that he first met director Wirthensohn, who was also employed in the modelling industry, though it would be another 20 years before they would collaborate on the 'Homme Less' documentary.
Reay also got involved in acting and is still an active member of the actors' union. He's filled in as an extra in several TV shows and films, including 'Sex in the City' and 'Men in Black 3.'
In 2006, Reay began trying his hand at photography, offering his services to people who wanted professional documentation of their vacations. It wasn't as lucrative as he hoped, though, and he came back to New York broke. He briefly stayed in a Brooklyn hostel, but he was convinced the lodge had bed bugs in it -- worried he might bring the bugs into their homes, he avoided staying with friends.
Reay decided to tough it out and use whatever money he earned to maintain his camera, phone, and computer. He was determined to keep pursuing his passion for photography, no matter the conditions.
Reay started pitching various fashion magazine editors in the hopes he would get a job shooting during New York Fashion Week.
But Reay was still struggling to make ends meet. He started sleeping on a roof in New York City's East Village neighbourhood in 2008. Reay had been given an extra key by a friend who lived in the building. Lucky for him, the friend never found out what he was doing with it.
Sometimes he would use the bathrooms in public parks to clean up or shave. 'I don't want people to feel any sympathy for me. So that's why I'm not 'homeless.' I just don't have a roof over my head,' Reay said to Business Insider.
Reay also had a membership at a local gym. There, he'd exercise, shower, and store his belongings in lockers.
Wirthensohn's film also shows Reay's volunteer efforts for Women In Need (WIN), an organisation that provides shelter to women and children. In one scene, Reay dresses up as Santa Claus for a Christmas family charity event. He was named Volunteer Of The Year in 2013.
It wasn't easy to keep his homelessness a secret, and Reay was nervous about agreeing to the documentary at first. He feared being exposed, kicked out, or worse, arrested -- but he eventually decided he was ready to risk it.
On the 'Homme Less' website, Wirthensohn writes, '(Reay) looked like a millionaire living it up in this town. So it was shocking when he finally revealed his unbelievable story to me. At first, I thought he was joking.'
The film explores many important themes, including the idea of the American dream, perception versus reality, and the stigmas applied to those who are homeless. This was Wirthensohn's first time directing a feature-length documentary, and he and his small team spent almost three years shooting.
The film premiered in November 2014 at the IFC Center in New York City, screened as part of the Doc NYC festival. It's now being shown to audiences around the world.
The film sheds a new light on New York City, which is often portrayed in movies and literature as the ideal place to chase dreams. 'I see the potential for the film as endless,' Reay told Business Insider.
He left the roof last July, but he still doesn't officially have a place to call his own. Contrary to a report in the New York Post, Reay has not moved back to New Jersey with his mother. 'Like anyone with an over 80-year-old mother, of course I want to spend time with her,' Reay told Business Insider. 'But what 56-year-old man wants to say he's living at home with his mum?'
The star of the film (left), and the director (right), sit on a bench as we chat in Madison Square Park. As we're leaving the park, Reay asks Wirthensohn where he's heading now. 'Home,' Wirthensohn says. Reay laughs and, with a smile, says, 'Ah, home. I hope to have somewhere to call that one day.'
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