From playing basketball (when most told him he wasn’t good enough), to working for Mayor Vincent Gray in Washington, D.C., to modeling in a campaign for Levi’s, Rafael Deleon is the perfect example of what happens when you stop dreaming about something you truly want, and just start doing it.
EBONY: How did you get your start in modeling?
Rafael Deleon: I was working for Mayor Gray in D.C. government and one day, after work, my mother called me and told me that she had scheduled for me to shoot with a photographer. It was random, but I just did it and I posted the photo on Facebook. This was back in 2010. Because of my time at Temple [University], playing basketball, I had a good number of friends. So, once I posted the photo, I had people inquiring and telling me that I should send my photos to an agency in New York. I did a photo shoot with my cousin and we sent some off. The agency that I’m currently represented by responded and wanted to meet with me. And the rest is history.
EBONY: So, you go there, they meet you and they said they want to sign you. How crazy.
RD: It’s funny because prior to moving to New York, I had no knowledge of the fashion industry; I played sports. I emailed my photos from D.C., and in hindsight I’ve learned that a lot of models are scouted and found on the streets of New York.
EBONY: How did your opportunity with Levi’s Go Forth campaign come about? That was a really big deal for a newbie in the biz.
RD: My agent sent me to the casting. Lisa Leder, the casting director, asked for us to mention things that we did outside of modeling, like a brief 30-second to a minute snapshot of our “story.” I walked in and I told her about my college ball experience, working in politics and my journey here. I think the people at Levi’s and Lisa were impressed and they wanted to include me in the campaign.
EBONY: What has been the hardest part for you in the industry as a Black male model?
RD: Well, the hardest part I think for African-American males in this industry is the numbers. Traditionally, when castings directors or clients are looking for a campaign they’re going to market to a demographic that they feel is going to sell. But the thing is, what was once the majority, isn't the majority anymore. So I find myself in a very interesting time as it relates to fashion because of [that]. Clients now are faced with the obligation to who’s going to buy and adding diversity where it really hasn’t been before.
EBONY: As a bi-racial model (being Black and Puerto Rican) do you ever feel forced at times to stray away from identifying as an African American?
RD: No, I don’t. And to be honest, the bi-racial youth have had our own plight and dealt with our own set of difficulties. As much as I appreciate and am humbled by my little brother and other Black kids I know looking up to me, I do kind of have a soft spot for mixed and bi-racial ethnicity youth that look up to me. It’s generally harder for ethnic models period, so being bi-racial doesn’t really help or hurt me, which is why I’ll never stray from being a Black model. I wouldn’t want to anyway. I feel that being bi-racial allows me to speak on behalf of both ethnicities and [on the] behalf of mixed and bi-racial youth or people, because I’ve been able to see both sides.
EBONY: Modeling can be such a short-lived career but if you work it to your advantage you can really create some longevity. What do you hope to do in the future with these opportunities you’re getting?
RD: I intend on continuing with fashion, but my long-term goal that I’m taking steps towards now is to break into TV and film – television drama and hopefully feature film.
EBONY: It seems that in your lifetime, you’ve discovered new dreams time and again—from school, to sports, to politics, to modeling and now acting. What are your thoughts on dream-chasing and the necessary work required to fulfill them?
RD: Obviously you have to believe in yourself before anyone else does; you have to value your vision first. I think that putting in the work is more important than having a dream. To have a dream but to not actively work on it, will stagger the fruition of your dream.
EBONY: What’s the biggest mistake that you think 20-somethings make in the 21- to 24-year-old span when you’re figuring out what it is that you want to do?
RD: Forgetting the value of planning and having a timeline of things that you want done. Those are the two biggest things: taking time for granted and not having a plan. Even if you don’t know exactly what you want to do, planning and starting to put the pieces in order to even try to figure out what you want to do is a necessity.
EBONY: Would you say that you are doing more ‘doing’ than planning right now?
RD: I’ll say this: for me, seven days equal 100%. I would say a good 40% of my week is spent planning. Whether that’s research, networking or me just in my room, writing out goals. The other 60% of it is me doing the work.