In this FRONTPAGE interview, we catch up with downtown NYC’s latest golden child, the born performer Fernando Casablancas.
New York City is a seasonal town. Humid summers give way to crisp falls, harsh slippery winters into allergy-stricken springs. But more than its weather patterns, New York’s seasons lie in its social and creative circles. Various vanguards have come and gone throughout the history of the city, leaving indelible marks in the world. From Studio 54 to the Chelsea Hotel, St. Mark’s Place to the Mudd Club, China Chalet to Glasslands, New York’s power lies in its social ecosystems, where movements are born and bred and released into the cultural stratosphere.
In the post-Indie Sleaze, Instagram era of the city, that new hub is Dimes Square, half a place, half an idea; a watering hole of downtown conviviality, where the who’s who and the unavoidable vultures go to see and be seen. It’s a place where you can find Fernando Casablancas strutting off the runway, cheekbones high and hair flowing, filming scenes for The Come Up – a reality show documenting the lives of the new downtown guard as they navigate relationships, ambitions, and growing up. “The goal is to bring it,” Casablancas (who uses he/they pronouns) says to the camera in one of the scenes, “whatever it is.”
For Fernando, the “it” is constant flux. While front-facing as a model represented by Elite, where he books jobs for both womenswear and menswear, there is more to the Rio de Janeiro-native than meets the eye. “Who is Fernando?” he ruminates over Zoom. “I’m a free spirit [who] is truly a performer. I live my art in my day to day. I’m an actor, a singer, a dancer, a mover, a performer. When I step onstage, whether it’s a photo shoot or something else, I try to embody the character that I envision for that moment while still being this blank slate vessel for whatever energy.” Fernando displays a lifestyle that he refers to as a “slash creative” – a renaissance term for the 21st century – on the show and on his feed, with snippets of songs, performances, and DJing shown as addendums to his blossoming modeling career, as well as an upcoming foray into acting in a feature film, which he shot earlier this year.
He smiles widely as he talks from his downtown apartment, where, in the background, people shuffle in and out of an adjacent room. It’s a big day on The Come Up journey, as the cast is about to get together to watch the first four episodes of the series for the first time. The announcement of the show garnered mixed responses, particularly (and perhaps unsurprisingly) from members of the downton creative scenes, who no doubt misjudged the concept. The show strays far away from reality tropes of produced drama and messiness, instead it is concerned with portraying the realities of what downtown life is like for both city natives and implants in their early 20s. Through each individual storyline (the cast is comprised of Sophia Wilson, Taofeek Abijako, Ebon Trower, Claude Shwartz, and Ben Hard) we see NYFW, acting class, trips to Casa Magazines, the classic New York sidewalk run-in, intimate conversations with friends and family, musings on love, and, of course, a slew of fabulous parties.
Both on the show and in real life, Fernando seems really sweet, genuine, his excitement for everything happening around him not just palpable but contagious. He is a character to root for, especially as he shows a relatable vulnerability on camera while dealing with a broken heart (Casablancas was in a relationship with Jordan Barrett, which culminated in an unofficial boho ceremony of love in Ibiza, ordained by one Miss Kate Moss). There is a tenderness that comes across Fernando’s scenes, and he seems to embrace the throngs of a broken heart with inspiring grace and openness. “To quote queen Cher,” I ask, “Do you believe in life after love?” He laughs. “100%. I think life is love. To follow love is to live, to stay alive. I believe in tenderness, I believe in companionship, and I believe in love in all forms.”
Fernando’s warmth comes across in a way I can relate to as specifically Latin. While he spent his childhood and a large part of his adolescence in his native Brazil, there was already a fateful legacy waiting for him in New York. If his name sounds familiar, that’s because it is. His father, John Casablancas, was one of the pioneers of the modeling industry, establishing the legendary Elite Model Management, which bred fellow Brazilian supermodels Gisele Bündchen, Adriana Lima, and Alessandra Ambrosio, as well as a large percentage of the industry’s most recognizable names. Amongst his bevy of siblings is The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, a pioneer in his own right – the downtown it-boy of a generation past.
I’m curious how Fernando’s family and their legacies inform his life journey: “My family has always been super welcoming of a career in the arts. Julian was so successful following his dreams, my sister Cecile has always been a designer, my brother John is one of the most amazing guitar players, my mom is a very talented painter, and my dad saw business in a very artistic way as well.” Fernando’s proximity to expression of self is part of why he considers his artistic practice so fluid, but it is perhaps his late father’s savvy of the modeling industry that seems to inform him the most. “I used to sit in my dad’s office on the floor while he was in meetings, listening in on him working. Now that I’m dealing with agents I understand the jargon… and the way my dad shaped this industry in a lot of ways.”
“I honor his legacy,” he continues. “[And] I am also very appreciative of it, because it’s shaped how I approach my career. Understanding how agents work obviously is a huge advantage for a model to not just be a pawn, but a player.” With modeling so ingrained in his DNA (his mother was also a model), it seemed inevitable that Fernando’s fate would lead him to where he’s at, a sentiment which he holds dear. “My dad passed away nine years ago, and me stepping into the modeling world is the closest I can get to him in a lot of ways.”
Fernando came out to his mom at 17, two years after John had passed away. She didn’t take it so well, prompting Fernando to move to New York to feel free, to explore who he is. It’s a tale as old as time: the city providing both the freedom and the challenge to whittle one into who they are, and to find their people along the way. “It took coming to New York and having this explosion to see what would stick. And in that explosion I… lost myself for a second, I had to retract and go back to zero. Which was good because… now I can be myself and build who I really am.”
During his self-exploration, Fernando maintained the aim to smooth things over with his mom to help her understand who he is. And even though it is clear there was a lot of pain, there was also a lot of empathy, which has allowed for space to repair. “For my mom to accept [me], it took her seeing it in real life. Seeing me fall in love, seeing me go through a hard breakup. That really connected us in a lot of ways, because she understood that who I am and what I do with my life is valid. It’s real. Now that I’ve been having some success in my work, I think that also showed her it’s possible to be a queer person, a non-binary person, and still be successful in the world.” Fernando understands a lot of what he faced with his mom to be cultural, both by being of a generation that feared anything other than heteronormativity would cause chaos in their childs’ life, as well as being from a country laden with normalized machismo and Catholic conservatism. Thankfully, Fernando sees a change in his native Rio, and when asked what the Brazilian city could learn from the city that never sleeps, and vice versa, Fernando has love for what either offers. “I feel like Rio could learn something from the electricity, and New York could learn something from the chill, easygoing lifestyle.”
In New York, Fernando has found the opposite of fear and rejection from his adolescence, and with opportunities like The Come Up, he wants people to learn that “we’re all just kids chasing our dreams We’re still learning, but at the same time it’s like, you can do it too. You can chase your dreams. What’s meant for you will come.”
‘The Come Up’ is a Freeform show now streaming on Hulu.