As his tattoo collection grew, Montreal native Rick Genest, also known as Zombie Boy, says: 'Well, there is a lot of stigma. You usually have to fit into the square of society - they want to keep everyone kind of restricted and the same, which I obviously had a problem with. But it was also to my advantage.'
The world now knows him as a Mugler muse, friend of Nicola Formichetti and Lady Gaga. He has even been photographed by Steven Klein. Genest is fashion's most alternative cool kid du jour, 'discovered' by Formichetti. His body is inked head to toe as a corpse, skeletal with ripped flesh, exposed ligaments and insects. He is also in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most tattooed bones and most tattooed insects.
The result of about 300 hours of work is beautifully macabre, but also riveting, especially Genest's face. Eyes and nose are blacked like they are sunken in, a captivating inked skull with exposed brain matter on top and teeth shaded in over his lips. The man is a walking artwork, and a performer. You can tell by the way he works the camera, probably the 10th that has been shoved into his face that day.
The Genest that sits before me, despite the rather fearsome appearance, was also rather shy and gentle, making us both a little awkward. After a long flight to Hong Kong and a slew of interviews, it's clear that he would rather be somewhere else than in a hotel room rammed with journalists and photographers.
'It was a great delight and surprise [to be contacted by Formichetti]. I had no idea what to expect at first. It's been a good trip - it's fun,' Genest says of this journey.
Genest's lifestyle changed drastically after he was contacted by Formichetti over Facebook and catapulted into a whirlwind fashion career. Formichetti immediately wanted to invite him to walk on the Mugler menswear show in Paris. But reportedly, Genest owed fines for sleeping on the street and couldn't get a passport in time. Formichetti sorted legal help and paid the municipal fines for Genest, and now they tour the world together for the French fashion house.
'The culture that I got into [when I was younger] was circus and carnival and these scenes embrace extremes, originality and the beauty of contrasts,' says Genest.
Formichetti reportedly even made last-minute changes to the Mugler men's collection so they would fit Genest perfectly on the catwalk. Since fashion has always latched onto the original and the extreme, perhaps Genest's muse status is not so surprising.
When he was younger and before all the fame, Genest was just a Canadian kid who was anti-establishment and had a love for the underground punk movement.
'I got into tattoos when I was about 16,' he says. 'I was intrigued with street culture in general, from tattoos to making my own clothes.
'There's more to the project than just the tattoos - I still have a lot to learn. I still have to keep practicing and pushing the art form. It's all really for the love of performance and theatre,' Genest explains. 'I'm just very eager and looking forward to continuing to progress in performance. In circus there are a lot of extreme costumes and things like that which makes it similar to fashion.'
Genest appeared on Lady Gaga's music video Born This Way where she had her own face painted to match his. 'It's very flattering for sure,' he adds. But in the fashion machine and its many superficial cogs, you feel that Genest might be understandably and charmingly out of his depth. It's when he talks about friends back at home, his circus performances, that his eyes light up. It's clear that Genest prefers what would be called 'the fringes of society'.
'I do have ambitions to keep going, to keep training in the circus, maybe do some stilts and fire breathing,' he says, 'which was what I was doing before I got into fashion. I've done a bed of nails, flesh hooks, but not suspension. I've done an act where you're hooked on to two artists and spun around pulling on each other.'
There is no fake chimera or glossy PR talk, and it is rare to see a real punk in the industry. But despite creating this remarkable attention-grabbing work on his body, Genest can seem the most withdrawn person in the room.
'I'm more of a silent type,' Genest adds. 'When you are on stage performing you release all this energy, and afterwards you just kind of retreat again.'
'I still live in the [same] environment' he adds, 'When I go home I still hang out with my same friends and perform with them.'