Of all the new experiences Brian Whittaker has faced during his rapid ascent within the UK fashion scene, perhaps none was as unexpected as logging onto Twitter and seeing his face screen printed on a fan-made pillowcase. “My followers are quite intense,” Whittaker says. “I didn’t know people thought I was that cool.”
The Birmingham, England-based emerging model, like most teenagers, has had a social media presence for years now, first joining Twitter, for example, back in 2013. But, unlike most 17-year-old tweeters, Whittaker’s social media followers have a habit of placing his likeness on all sorts of gifts for themselves and one another. “There’s been a birthday cake, birthday cards,” he reports. “It’s crazy. It’s great, but it’s crazy.”
Whittaker can’t be too surprised that his social platforms are the foundation of his influence. (He currently has over 500K followers on Instagram, nearly 22K on Twitter, and an active Snapchat account). So many other models in his age bracket—from Lucky Blue Smith to Anwar Hadid—have leveraged their strong following to great success, and Whittaker ticks a lot of the boxes that make his popularity on Instagram seem almost inevitable: He’s 6'1", with bright green eyes and a six-pack, and has a penchant for posting photos of himself wearing of-the-moment streetwear brands. In fact, he has the photo-sharing platform to thank for his entire modeling career in the first place.
“It all starts on Instagram,” Whittaker tells Complex during a recent weekend in London. “A model at my agency actually noticed me and commented on my picture. He was like, ‘You need to contact my agency.’” A spur-of-the-moment visit to Select Model Management in the UK capital resulted in Whittaker’s first modeling contract two years ago. “The rest is history,” he says.
“It all starts on Instagram. A model at my agency actually noticed me and commented on my picture. He was like, ‘You need to contact my agency.’”
At the time he signed with Select, Whittaker was also fielding offers from another agency (via DM), and he says he was routinely stopped on the street by model scouts. If it all feels a bit easy, breezy, and #blessed, allow Whittaker to pull back the curtain on his reality: Despite the sudden attention, it took almost a year before he landed his first campaign, on his 16th birthday. He says the time in between was not exactly a patient waiting game, either; it coincided with a moment during which he began grappling with lingering doubts about his physical appearance. Even newly minted teenage models get the blues.
“I have gaps between my teeth, and I was really insecure about that for a while,” he recalls, also noting that his blemish-prone, adolescent skin was an additional source of anxiety. “I did have a bit of a depression period. It was really hard for me to even meet new people, because if I met someone new, I’d get butterflies in my stomach, and I wouldn’t be able to make eye contact. I wouldn’t be able to make conversation.”
Even as his followers left worshipful comments and reposted his photos across the internet, Whittaker still struggled. “Every single day would be the same,” he says. “I’d go to school, be depressed at school, come home, and be depressed.”
An older friend eventually pulled him out of his rut. Whittaker doesn’t provide too many specifics, but says the pal showed him some perspective and offered some much-needed moral support. “You can say, ‘It’s obvious, there’s so many other people in worse conditions.’ But when you’re feeling like that, you’re not really thinking like that,” he explains. “You’re just thinking you’re in this hole. You’re thinking you’re in it alone, but you’re really not. That’s what I need everyone to know.”
Emerging from his depression gave him a new purpose. Whittaker adopted a stance of naked honesty in his social media posts that has resonated as much as photos of him flashing his biceps. An un-retouched photo on Instagram that clearly shows his acne garnered 39,000 likes. He shared another photo of himself grinning wide, spaces between his teeth on full display.
“You guys never see me smiling because I've always been too shy to show my teeth because of my gaps,” he wrote in the caption. “Although I have accepted I have them and I have accepted that my teeth aren't abnormally white either from some kind of teeth kit, this year I would like to be a little more comfortable with my smile, as well as lots of other things.” 51,540 Instagrammers approved at press time.
He doesn’t limit his burgeoning role as millennial motivational tweeter to encouraging his followers to deal with solely physical insecurities, either. His timeline is full of the type of wide-ranging positivity that echoes the broad-strokes talking points of guidance counselors (the importance of avoiding conflict), mental health advocates (the necessity of some quality Me Time), the ACLU (racial and sexual equality), and even PETA (fish are indeed animals, for what it’s worth). If it’s a lot of youthful, rose-colored optimism, it’s also a vital antidote to the invective routinely shared online.
“I get told from real people that aren’t just in the comments—people that I encounter in real life—that I’ve had an impact in their life,” he says. “It’s a great feeling.”
Whittaker is also quick to point out that even with his newfound positive outlook, he isn’t immune to the occasional backslide. “When I [first] got over it, I’d feel a bit happy, and then sometimes I’d just randomly feel emotional,” he says. “You can’t just switch.” He continues, “I’ve built an audience of half a million Instagram followers, which isn’t huge by all means—there’s real celebrities that have a lot more followers and much wider audience. But still, if I can at least help one person, then I’ve done the right thing in my opinion.”
Whittaker is finishing college—the UK equivalent of American high school—this spring, and plans to model full-time, while also honing photography and acting skills on the side. And he’s remaining open to whatever opportunities come his way, especially those that provide him with a platform to spread some love and good vibes.
“If it’s cool, then it’s cool,” he says. “If you feel positive energy, just go with it.