Like many young boys, matching outfits, designers, and vogue were far from what compelled Harry Napper’s attention growing up in Essex.
If you had told him that a few short years later he’d be getting Nando’s with Vivienne Westwood after a photoshoot in London, he’d probably blink at you, wondering who the fashion mogul was.
In fact, Harry had never cared much for trends. While his peers in secondary school sported the then deemed fashionable combination of spiky hair, skinny jeans, and shiny designer shoes, he preferred his blonde locks long and shaggy, and chose comfort in long hoodies and baggy t-shirts.
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But, looking different meant standing out, and that isn’t always received well while in school.
From the age of 11, Harry, from Brentwood, said he struggled to fit in. Feeling isolated and excluded among his peers at his first school, Shenfield High School, he asked his parents to change schools, to have a chance for a fresh start.
Unfortunately, like a flame futilely battling against the wind, dreams of a school year filled with new acquaintances were quickly snuffed away. Being a naturally quiet and reserved child with a preference for baggy clothes brought about the wrong kind of attention once more.
“It was never physical, just verbal, online and spoken,” he says now. “You’d hear people gossiping; someone would come up to me and say something, or would take a picture [of me] and maybe post it [online].
“When I had longer hair, they’d always make silly, mocking [comments] where they’d be like ‘oh he looks like a mop head’ or shout ‘drapes down’ at me.
“It made me sort of shy, not want to socialise as much. I let things get to me and then thought, ‘Oh, I can’t do that. I shouldn’t go in here’. I wouldn’t go out to certain places because I didn’t want to bump into the people that I didn’t like.”
The bullying continued to be relentless as Harry grew up and, despite managing to make a few friends over time, the young boy retreated more and more into himself. While other kids got the chance to blossom into their own, he felt constricted, unable to express himself when the possible outcome would be a mocking response and an off-handed comment.
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The only benefit, if you can call it that, was that, he’d gotten so used to the comments, they soon became almost background noise for him.
And then, at 16, a short escape to London with his friends and an expected meeting with a strange man, completely altered the course of his life.
Walking around the busy streets of Camden Market that day and browsing through the various, colourful stalls and shops, Harry was suddenly approached by a man. Curious, if not a bit weary, he looked up.
“I literally had no idea who he was, I thought he was going to mug me to be honest. I had no idea what was going on.
“But he just gave me his card and said I’d love for you to join my agency. Turns out he was the director of PR Models [PRM] in London.”
Still, Harry wasn’t convinced. He was, after all, a typical teenager with more of a love for cars than fashion; a taste acquired by following his father- the general manager of Mercedes-Benz’s Brentwood branch – to car shows from a young age.
“I didn’t really think much of it. I just handed [the card] to my mum when I was back home. She read it and ended up calling them back without telling me. But I’m so glad she did.
“The next day, I had a meeting with the agency and literally the day after I was on a shoot with Dazed [magazine] for Gucci. It was quite surreal and strange, but I was really excited.”
The shoot was on location in an old office building in London and it would be one of many that would follow in the next few years and take him all around Europe – from Italy and France to Portugal, Spain and even New York.
Surrounded by a cluster of models, directors, and stylists the shy teenager was embraced by the diversity of people around him and finally found a place he could fit in and be himself. Casting directors would introduce him to models from all over the world and, slowly, the initial feeling of intimidation was replaced by a rush of wonder and excitement.
“I now have friends in loads of different countries. I think the best part is the fact even if I wasn’t one of them anymore, I’ve made all these connections with people across the globe and I could now just go and visit them and relive the memories we made together,” he added.
Harry went on to not only make an abundance of friends and travel around Europe, but also be featured in the likes of Vogue and GQ, meet high-end fashion photographers and designers, have lunch with Vivienne Westwood at Nando’s, and even be personally invited to Paris by Hedi Slimane, the artistic director of French luxury brand Celine.
However, despite his social horizons rapidly expanding, the fear of these new, beautiful experiences being tainted by derogative comments from the people that brought him down for years, kept Harry from revealing his modelling career to his school.
It wasn’t until a year after he signed with his agency, when a classmate saw him appear on an ad, that the anonymity was involuntarily lifted. The boy, who had been part of the crowd that had spent years teasing and taunting him for being different, approached him with words of praise that left Harry dumbfounded.
And, being a small school, the rest of the students soon followed.
Suddenly the mood changed.
Harry said: “People went from hating someone and mocking them on a daily basis to ‘oh, well, I want to be friends with you because you’re in an advert’.
“It was strange and, at some point, I did fall into it and accepted the fact that these people like me but I never shaded it as a flat out ‘oh yeah you should all be friends with me.’ They had been so horrible to begin with and, just because I’ve done something you think is cool, why should I then change my opinion on you?’”
(Image: Sent by Harry Napper – says we have permission to use from photographers)
The sudden change of heart is a pill difficult to swallow for many bullying victims. Many never understand the reason why they were targeted, others carry the after-effects of the stigma with them to adulthood.
As recently as this year, it was reported that one in four young people, aged 12-18, in the UK have been victims of bullying, with 77 per cent of them stating the experience affected their mental health.
Like Harry, 72 per cent of those bullied also reported that their self-confidence had been negatively impacted. And while he credits modelling for getting him out of his shell, others haven’t been so lucky.
Today, at 21, the young model still considers himself a small-town boy from Brentwood and refuses to forget his roots. Currently, in his second year as a fashion student at the University of Nottingham and waiting to travel to China for an opportunity that will allow him to live there for a few months, he is more content than ever and still in the beginning stages of his flourishing career.
The one thing he advises is simply to “be yourself”.
“It’s very important to understand that, especially now that everyone has an opinion, no matter what they think, as long as it makes you happy, you should do it.
“Be happy with what you’re doing and push yourself.”
You can follow Harry at @harrynpr on Instagram.
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