When I heard the news that Nick Kamen had died, aged just 59, having suffered from bone marrow cancer for years, I was propelled instantly back to 1985. I had moved from Dundee to London and happened to live near a launderette. Its name – Wishee Washee Splishy Splashy – was pretty wacky, but that’s not why I glanced in, hopefully, every time I walked past. It was because of a certain Levi’s ad.
Up until then, the only commercial that had made any impression on me was the Smash Martians – and, safe to say, Nick Kamen sauntering into that launderette, pulling off his shades and proceeding to whip off his white T-shirt and jeans was hotter than a bowlful of reconstituted mashed potato.
Utterly beautiful with a perfect pout, he was the Just Seventeen readers’ ideal boyfriend: cool, stylish, dropdead handsome but boyish enough not to intimidate. I had just started working at the teenage magazine and he routinely topped our readers’ most fanciable polls. Heartfelt problem letters to agony aunt Melanie McFadyean would often be signed “Nick Kamen fan”. Short stories featuring cute boys in launderettes were hurriedly commissioned. White T-shirts and Levi’s 501s swiftly became the unofficial uniform of Just Seventeen staffers; Essex boy Nick’s languid strip had restored the beleaguered brand to cool and we all hotfooted it to Flip in Covent Garden to grab a pair.
For a magazine like ours, there was your perfect home-grown poster boy right there – knocking spots off Duran Duran, even Wham! and certainly Shakin’ Stevens, for pin-up-ability. It didn’t matter than he was “just” a model famous only for stripping down to those white boxers. It didn’t even matter that, in the pre-supermodel era, it was virtually unheard of to even know models’ names – let alone that of a male model.
“I was 13 when he walked into that launderette,” remembers avid Just Seventeen reader Sue Baker, now 49 and working as an animal care technician in Norfolk. “His posters were pinned up all over my bedroom. The twinkle in his gorgeous eyes swept me away completely. He was my first teenage crush.”
In our office, the staff were as obsessed with him as our readers were. We had posters up, too, pinned up until they became so ragged they would be literally falling off the wall. Occasionally, the man himself would be sighted in the vicinity – our office was in Carnaby Street – triggering a surge of hysteria as we all clattered downstairs in an attempt to glimpse him in the flesh.
In the 1987 Just Seventeen Yearbook, he revealed that his favourite actor was Marlon Brando (of course) and his favourite singer Marvin Gaye (naturally – I Heard it Through the Grapevine had enjoyed a huge revival thanks to it being the soundtrack to his ad). His favourite TV show was Tom and Jerry (adorable) and his favourite food, he revealed, was “sushi – a Japanese delicacy”. How sophisticated, we swooned.
Inevitably, the most beautiful boy we had ever laid eyes on was propelled to pop stardom, his debut single, Each Time You Break My Heart, reaching a respectable number five in 1986. In truth, our hearts were a little bit broken when he became a protégé of Madonna, and then – sob – was reportedly dating her (unfair, we bleated, when she could have had anyone!). But at least his pop career gave us permission to keep on featuring him in our magazine.
He was so lovely, that was the thing: sweet and unaffected. “He was always so polite in interviews,” recalls journalist and broadcaster Gayle Anderson, who was pop editor at Jackie magazine (was there ever a better job title?) at the time. “He always tried to answer the questions, however teen-tastically silly they were. I reckoned it was because he started off as a model. He had a strong work ethic and didn’t take the fame thing too seriously.”
Meanwhile, the Kamen brand grew. His brother followed in his footsteps as a model: “We ran a competition with Brylcreem, and the prize was a date with Barry Kamen,” remembers a Just Seventeen colleague (Barry died of a heart attack, aged 52, in 2015).
By now, Nick was so famous that it was harder to gain interviews. But back at the height of teen magazines, you didn’t need face-to-face access to feature yet another profile, a poster or a random collection of facts.
Numerous magazine colleagues knew him long after his stardom had begun to dwindle. “He was totally unassuming, smart and talented,” remembers another former staffer, “and always pleasant, even to those who accosted him in the street long after the peak of his fame. And he loved his Chelsea – he was a season-ticket holder and an avid fan.”
As the Eighties wore on, other celebrities became objects of our collective obsession in the Just Seventeen office. Andrew McCarthy, the Bros boys, Nathan from Brother Beyond… all had their place in our hearts. But none made our hearts flip in quite the way that Nick Kamen had.
To this midlife woman, he will always be the beautiful boy who coaxed men out of pants and into snowy white boxers – and for that I am truly grateful.