Fortune has smiled down at all of us this weekend with the release of Shawn Mendes’s Calvin Klein campaign photos. I’m honestly still recovering. If you haven’t seen them, here’s what he posted:
I’m indebted to both the photographer and to Shawn for the posing and staging of these photos. Despite the motel-like setting, Shawn’s casual lean, his smouldering stare, and his perfectly toned body are just impossible to stop looking at. As much as it is a thirst trap, I’m sitting here like:
And I’m not the only one thirsting after Shawn Mendes either. Twitter and social media exploded with tweets like:
god watching me type ‘shawn mendes x calvin klein’ into twitter for the thousandth time today pic.twitter.com/bP3PmURhCT— syd (@0sydknee0) February 18, 2019
Those are just the ones that are appropriate enough to share. The internet is freaky. Even celebrities like JLo were commenting on his Instagram.
Shawn’s Calvin Klein campaign announcement temporarily broke the internet. And while it’s fun to look at these photos and enjoy them, this is also a carefully orchestrated career move. The Calvin Klein shoot is like puberty or a coming-of-age ceremony for younger celebrities. The inherent sex appeal of the ads shows that these stars no longer want to be seen as young kids, green and naïve in the industry. Instead, the message here is that Shawn is now more “masculine,” and more importantly, older. When Shawn Mendes first came on the scene, you could tell that he would be handsome, but he looked youthful – because he was youthful. Thirsting after him felt a little like cradle-robbing. Shawn is now just 20 years old, but the intention behind these photos is to make him seem more mature, both as a person and a performer, someone who can be taken seriously.
Other examples? There’s of course the iconic Calvin Klein shoot from 1992, when Mark Wahlberg posed with Kate Moss for an ab-filled photoshoot and playful commercial, propelling him to another level of fame beyond the Funky Bunch. It’s no coincidence that Wahlberg’s ad campaign hit right before his transition from music into acting, and only a few years before his breakout roles in Renaissance Man and Boogie Nights.
More recently, stars like Nick Jonas and Justin Bieber have used the same strategy, using the underwear campaign to shift their careers and change their image. Jonas posed for Flaunt Magazine in 2014 (a photoshoot that I will never forget as long as I live), the same year he released his debut solo album, Nick Jonas, which made it to the top 10 in US charts. Bieber displayed his goods the same year he released Purpose, his latest album that had three number one singles and is considered his best album to date by many critics.
In both cases, the Calvin Klein shoot was an announcement. For Jonas, it announced the transition from a young Jonas brother to a sexy solo artist. Justin Bieber had huge problems with his behaviour, skirmishes with the law, and reputation for being a complete asshole, and used the shoot to change that narrative. Sex is transformative, and it can be easy to reinvent yourself when people are busy gawking at your toned body and your intentionally framed “assets.”
So Shawn Mendes wouldn’t be the first to use this springboard to launch himself to the next level of fame. He already has a loyal, predominantly young female fanbase, he is obviously very talented. By trying to show us that he’s older and knows what he’s doing (read: sex), he’s making a move towards ubiquitous recognition, just like those before him did. When Wahlberg did the shoot, he widened his appeal to both men, who wanted to be him, and women and gay men who wanted to f-ck him. That’s the goal here too. And if Shawn is indeed following the same playbook, and the trend of Jonas and Bieber, this will continue to be the push through the year, the next phase of his career, punctuated perhaps by either new music or new music videos… featuring him in his Calvins?