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Red Hot: a story of sex, drugs, and gingers

Thomas Knights founded Red Hot to fight the stereotype of the ginger male. The project went global – yet its creator couldn't escape his inner darkness...

As soon as Thomas Knights realised he was ginger, he hated himself for being it.

He wasn’t even that ginger, more auburn, reddish-brown really, but kids don’t deal in nuances, and Thomas was ginger enough to get the treatment. Playground insults, but what happens in the playground can be carried into the world. He’d go to bed and quite literally dream of waking up with any other hair colour than his own.

“When I got bullied for being ginger I was like, yeah, I hate it too. It’s shameful.” Over the years the bullying stopped; the self-loathing lingered. Aged 17, he finally realised those childhood dreams and dyed his hair platinum blond. Dying your hair was against school rules, and he got a bollocking, but at long last he had escaped his curse.

“The ironic thing was, my hair went bright, neon yellow – I looked like a beacon! I stood out more, but I was so much happier because I wasn’t ginger – even though it was piss yellow!”

With practice he turned piss yellow into a more traditional colour. Then the transformation began in earnest. All traces of gingerness were erased from his body. He dyed his hair, his eyebrows, his pubes. He shaved religiously to ensure no tell-tale stubble would betray his natural red.

When he reached music college – LIPA, Paul McCartney’s alma mater – everybody assumed blond to be his natural colour. Knights certainly didn’t correct them. He grew it long, embraced the new persona. He wasn’t a ginger kid; he was a blond musician. They have more fun after all.

“That was the new me. That was the me that I thought was the real me. This fabricated version of myself that was going to make me happy; that was going to solve everything.”

“It was an effort man, it was a fucking effort! Ten years of dying your hair blond

Thomas came out aged 20. The process was traumatic, simply because being gay, like being ginger, added another layer of separation between who he was and the ‘normal’ person he so desperately wanted to be. His gingerness stayed in the closet for another seven years. “It was an effort man, it was a fucking effort! Ten years of dying your hair blond.” Music led to fashion photography. He needed some promotional shots for his band, and fell in love with a new profession.”

“When I picked up the camera for the first time in 2006 it was like I had found the thing I was meant to be. I could have gone through my whole life and never known – I never wanted to be a photographer.” New career, same old look. He began to question the logic and logistics of his ongoing blondness. Was it worth the effort? Did it make him happy? Could he keep doing it forever? If not, when would he stop?”

“I was like, why am I doing this, why am I hiding who I really am? It sounds silly because it’s like sexuality or something – coming out of the closet as a ginger person.” There was another issue: his roots were showing through. After a decade of hair dye, his natural red was fighting back, and the top of his scalp had started to darken like a stain.”

“One summer I was on holiday with my best mate in Cyprus, and he was like, ‘right, do you want to do it?’ As soon as I shaved it off I looked a bazillion times better. I had a buzz cut but my natural colouring. I looked like I was meant to look. It felt like the shedding of a skin, like I was revealing the true me. I had the self confidence to stand out in the world.”

Thomas Knights returned from Cyprus a new man. Happier, more confident, more secure in himself. Around Soho he made an interesting discovery: gentlemen like redheads, too. “I went from being this fake blond twink to being a buzz cut and being ginger. Suddenly I was attractive to people who liked ginger guys, which I just didn’t see coming. I think that was the moment when I realised: Red Hot!”

Are you Red Hot?

The concept: a photographic celebration of the redheaded man, one that made him look strong and confident and sexy and all the other things that redheaded men were so rarely depicted as. Something to turn ‘ginger’ from an insult into a boast. Something to ensure no kid would ever hate himself like he once did because of the colour of their hair. Take your darkness and make it a source of light.

A 2013 article, ‘What’s the new obsession with hot ginger men?’ – referencing the likes of Prince Harry, Damian Lewis and Eddie Redmayne – convinced Thomas there was a zeitgeist to be tapped into, his passion project had the potential to be something far bigger.

It was time to turn idea into reality.

Step one: find some hot ginger men. With Instagram in its infancy, Thomas turned to the natural home of the physically attractive: modelling agencies. Working in fashion meant plenty of contacts, and he duly rang round. The only issue: no agency had a redheaded male model on its books.

“The model agencies weren’t actively discriminating: there’d never been anyone asking for ginger models, so they didn’t scout them. Eventually I found one agency that had two, a dance and model agency called AMCK.” He shot three models in total. Experimented with different backgrounds and looks. Told the boys not to pout: this shoot was about self-confidence, empowerment. Looking through the photographs he saw the blue background was the one, against blue the red hair popped – especially in the topless shots.

“With the T-shirt on it almost looked like a fashion shoot – but once the top came off it was just their skin and their hair. The hair suddenly became the star of the picture.” He posted the photos on Karl Is My Unkle, a fashion blog and its Tumblr run by his friend Nik Thakkar. Added the tagline ‘Are You Red Hot?’ and his email address. Waited, hoped.

“I first heard about Red Hot when Thomas had taken about eight photos,” says Thakkar over the phone. “It went really viral on our Tumbler, and that sparked a lot of things off.” Within 24-hours, the photos had gone viral. Redheaded men from around the world were getting in touch, wanting to be part of this campaign that celebrated the very trait so many of them had been mocked for.

Thomas picked nine or ten more guys, shot a poster, same tagline: Are You Red Hot? Posted it on Facebook and watched it explode. Hundreds more emails. Parents were even submitting their children as potential models.

As well as the poster, he made a video, a Red Hot trailer with the models playfully preening to the camera. The day after it went out, Thakkar phoned again: American talk show host Conan O’Brien had cut himself into the video and played it on the nightly show. Less than two months after Thakkar shared the first photos, Red Hot had gone transatlantic.

“Nobody had ever celebrated ginger guys before. There was potential to be massive.” He raised funds for an exhibition on Kickstarter: 151 backers pledged £5,763 toward a £5,000 target. He shot 50-60 models. Hired The Gallery in Redchurch Street. Printed the photos on large foam boards and covered the walls with them, turning the gallery into a Google image search for ‘topless ginger men’.

The aesthetic was perfect but the exhibition lacked heart. He asked every model for a quote on the experience of growing up with red hair. “Some were funny, some were poignant. We attached them beneath the pictures. Most of the guys were really broken. They’d been bullied to fuck. To get the picture where they looked sexy and self-confident took 200-300 shots.”

The quote supplied by Olympic gold medalist and Red Hot model Greg Rutherford: “The fact I’m ginger is mentioned in every walk in my life. Whenever I’m spoken about… I’m described as the ‘ginger long jumper’, which is interesting seeing as I never hear ‘the brunette javelin thrower’ or ‘blonde rower’… I’d love for my children to be ginger. But even more, I’d love for them to go through at least 24 hours without someone describing them as such.”

Few independent art exhibitions receive a scrap of media coverage: Red Hot was swamped by it. Buzzfeed, HuffPost, Sunday Times’ Style, Elle, Attitude, New York Magazine, Hunger TV – everyone wanted a piece. The same question, over and over: what’s next?

Next? Next was New York City for the launch of the photography book Red Hot 100, again funded on Kickstarter. (£20,000 goal; 468 backers, £29,299 pledged.) One hundred photos of you can guess what. No time to think; barely time to breathe. Ride this thing and see where it takes you. It took him back to London, then onto Amsterdam, Sydney, Berlin, more exhibitions, more work, more parties. All incoming money from the merchandise going straight back out onto the next event.

“It was this giant machine that needed cash. A lot of my business friends were like, ‘you should have got funding, got sponsorship’ – there wasn’t time! It was happening right then! I could feel it, it was like electricity. I can either apply for funding and miss it, or I can go with it, and I went with it.”

He reached for the credit card. Took out a £10,000 overdraft on his personal and business accounts. A friend pitched in with some money to support the New York launch. His dad loaned some more. The show rolled on and on. There were ten Red Hot launches around the world in twelve months: for books, calendars, exhibitions.

Each launch cost between £5,000-£10,000. Thomas didn’t lose money, but he didn’t make any money either. However he inspired thousands of people; not only redheads but anybody with insecurities who heard the story and could face the mirror with a little more confidence than before.

“A lot of people read into the success of Red Hot as an example of taking something that was once the thing you hated about yourself and were insecure about – if you can own that, if you can find your own self-comfort in that, then suddenly it becomes your asset, it becomes your calling card, it becomes the thing that sets you apart, the thing that makes you unique and different… When you learn to accept it, it becomes your superpower.”

That would make a good sign off. He learned to love himself and, in doing so, made a small yet meaningful alteration to the world. Pull back the camera as he walks up the garden path, weary yet fulfilled. Fade to black. Cue uplifting pop song. Applause.

Only Thomas isn’t weary, he’s utterly exhausted. Physically broken, mentally broken, emotionally broken, spiritually broken. On the cusp of total depression.

He climbed into bed and didn’t get out again for three months.

How to disappear completely

As Red Hot grew and grew, so did its creator’s drug binges, the abuse of substances as a gateway out of being Thomas Knights. The pattern was simple.

In the lead up to a launch, when it was all work, work, work – and can you imagine the work that goes into these things? Hire a venue, hire staff, invite guests, invite more guests when the initial guests drop out, invite the models, buy booze, publicise the event, navigate the inevitable late disaster, all just him and his assistant – Thomas stayed sober, and on the night of the launch all that stress and good behaviour would be obliterated in an orgy of play.

Everybody came to praise him. People literally queuing up to tell him how Red Hot had changed their lives. Thomas you’re a hero – and could you honestly say you’d be unaffected by all this? – Thomas you’re the fucking man – you’ve realised your dream and now you’re living it – Thomas can I have a photo? – no wonder all these people love you – Thomas do you want a line? – yet you don’t deserve their love – Thomas can I suck your dick? – you don’t deserve anything but misery.

He disappeared for two days after the New York launch. Missed a load of engagements, dozens of phone calls from his assistant. Couldn’t bear to face reality. This isn’t happening, I’m not here. Awful behaviour, personal and professional sabotage, but it was his project, and not being funny but who the fuck did he have to answer to?

The more success I got with Red Hot, the more that my drug use and bad behaviour grew

“The more success I got with Red Hot, the more my using and my bad behaviour grew. I was almost trying to prove to myself that I was worth nothing, even though I was fighting daily to prove to the world that I was worth something. Massive head fuck there.”

He never hung around long. As soon as the latest event finished and the after-party kicked off, he would vanish into the night of whatever city he found himself in. Lose himself in every sense until he had no senses left, least of all a sense of self, of being someone so much lesser than the person the world thought him to be.

“Everything I did with Red Hot was to try to empower the ginger man, and in so doing empower myself as well. It was working, but then it was like, ‘I don’t believe that I’m worth anything.’ It was the classic case of wanting and getting the respect and the success that you’re fighting for, only to then feel uncomfortable with that success, and wanting to fuck it all up. Push the ‘fuck it’ button.

“It’s so common in the arts: as soon as a movie star becomes successful they realise they’re still not happy. The success they have been chasing, the success that was going to make them happy, doesn’t fix them, it isn’t enough – and then they stop and go why?”

I had a chance to stop and think about my life, and who I was, and what I’d become, and I fell into a massive depression

Just as alcoholism tends to be a symptom of an underlying problem, rather than the problem itself, so the hatred of his red hair was merely the manifestation of a deeper, more corrosive self-hatred. He didn’t know how to cure this disease, only temporarily numb the pain of it, and once the medication wore off there was only shame, and the desperate need to escape. He ran from city to city, launch to launch, and then the tour finished, and he returned home with nowhere to run anymore.

“I went back to Wiltshire to get off the rat race for a bit and take a little breather. It was the first time in my adult life when I had a chance to stop and think about my life, and who I was, and what I’d become, and I fell into a massive depression.”

His friends didn’t rally round; his friends didn’t even realise. After two years of Red Hot, Knights had lost contact with most of his friends. Personal contact at least: lying in bed doesn’t stop you from uploading a few old photos, liking a post or two. The virtual Thomas Knights stayed visible, even as the physical version languished.

He drank a bit, didn’t use. Let inertia wash over him. An acquaintance got in touch about collaborating on a Red Hot candle. He went to Bath for a meeting that would change his life.

I wanted to fuck it up for myself

Elliott James Frieze had spent a decade working for fashion brands across Asia, launching his own company in 2009. After successfully marketing a range of FRIEZE designer candles, Elliott wanted to celebrate Red Hot with a special branded scent. He reached out to Thomas. They met, they talked. Chewed over what Red Hot had been, what it meant, and what it could yet become. Elliott recognised Thomas had unfinished business with the project, business that extended beyond branded candles.

Elliott writes over Messenger: “I knew he was having a tough time from the moment I met with him in Bath about three years ago. He told me that he didn’t know what the next chapter was. I could see he was down. I could see the potential in taking the brand forward. I think having a vision and setting yourself goals is key in turning the corner.”

Elliott joined Red Hot as Brand/Art Director. The pair committed to another project, far more ambitious than Red Hot 100. There would be candles, yes, but also underwear, more exhibitions and another photography book. The aesthetic would be darker, more meditative. This would be more than empowerment: this would be art.

“It was like Red Hot 100, but done to a higher degree, it wasn’t celebratory, it was about the emotion of the bullying.” Profits from the book went to The Diana Award, the anti-bullying charity founded by princes William and Harry in their mother’s name. (Over the years, Red Hot has raised more than £60,000 for various charities including Terrence Higgins Trust, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the Anti-Bullying Alliance, and Athlete Ally.)

We wanted it to be art – but that only works if you’ve got a fucking backer

Again, Kickstarter. A £34,290 goal; 332 backers raised £37,857. One hundred and fifty models shot in a matter of months. The workload was heavier than ever before, and Thomas’s depression hadn’t gone away, but at least he was working, at least he had a partner to share both vision and burden.

The models were depicted against satin drapes of midnight blue. No smiles: their beautiful faces became masks, their alabaster bodies twisted like those of tortured gods. And goddesses – female models were also shot, including the pop star Nicola Roberts. The images were stunning but also lifeless: you marvelled at their beauty while feeling relieved you weren’t one of them. Red Hot II lacked the fun and phwoar factor of its predecessor – a deliberate omission, yet also a damaging one.

“Looking back I love it, I think it’s really beautiful, but it wasn’t something that was commercially successful. We didn’t want it to be commercially successful, we wanted it to be art – but that only works if you’ve got a fucking backer… It just, just broke even.”

Elliott, via Messenger: “I’m not so sure, Red Hot 2 enabled us to drive forward the Company, without it the brand may have fizzled out. It gave us the platform to drive the company forward and gave the press something new to talk about.” The press certainly talked.

I attended the Rotterdam launch on behalf of British GQ, and at the bar of some flashy gay club I first heard fragments of the story that you’re reading now. There followed a London launch at the Devonshire Club, which eventually progressed to the less refined surroundings of Metropolis in Bethnal Green. Thomas was there, and then he wasn’t. “Oh, he’ll be off doing his own thing,” said Elliott, not the least bit surprised.

Yes, Thomas had fallen into the same self-destructive cycle of the first Red Hot tour. Addiction is nothing if not repetitive. “As soon as I took drugs I extradited myself. I would jump on an app and do bad things with strangers. I wanted to disconnect from my life and be with complete strangers and take loads of drugs and escape. That became my pattern of behaviour throughout 2016.”

The sequel ended much the same as the first instalment: sick with exhaustion and unhappiness. A friend invited him to Mexico for New Year. Party in 2017 at a gay resort? Fortunately, Thomas was broke. The friend offered to pay for his holiday. “I knew it was going to be a real hedonistic trip… I told myself that I wasn’t going to go crazy: I knew that I was going to go crazy. It was like I was planning my own sabotage. I knew that I was going to fuck it up for myself. I wanted to fuck it up for myself.”

I couldn’t stop using: I was using, using, using, using, anything in order to not come down

He went crazy. Escaped from his friends, who barely saw him the whole week. Ended up in a drug dealer’s house. After two days the drug dealer kicked him out.

“I couldn’t stop using: I was using, using, using, using, anything in order to not come down. I had to get this horrific flight home, still high. I went through security with the shakes. If they’d drug tested me I’d have been completely over the limit. I hadn’t slept for like a week. It was a comedown of epic proportions. It was – ah, it was just the worst.”

The husk of Thomas Knights crawled onto an airplane and let it fly him back to England. Battered in body, broken in spirit. Got a train to London Victoria. Chemicals leaching from his system. He’d never been lower. Then a tube to Paddington. Sweating, shaking. Then a train to Chippenham. Please make it fucking stop. His mum collected him from the station. “Hello darling! How was the trip?”

The cocks fucking solved everything!

The launch of Red Hot American Boys proves a lively affair. L’Escargot is wall to wall packed, a thicket of bodies, noise, flashing phones. Crane your head and it’s possible to make out the marbled torsos of some American Boys, tops off, grinning in front of their calendar.

There must be several hundred people here, encompassing more or less every demographic you can imagine, and a few you probably can’t. It feels like half of Soho has come out to play. Midnight is nearing but for many the night is just kicking off – after all, London is a hell of a city to lose yourself in.

The man responsible for this extravaganza seems to materialise in every room, hugging friends, thanking well wishers, claiming to be exhausted but displaying no sign of it – Thomas is all energy, energy, energy. He’s so visibly having the time of his life, it’s impossible not to smile.

How did we get here? Flashback to early 2017. Thomas and Elliott sit down and face up to some difficult questions.

Red Hot II hadn’t made a profit – or rather, like its predecessor, all its profits had been needed to sustain the project. A viable business model this was not; not unless they were willing to work for free. “We need to cut away all the things that cost money and work on the things that are financially successful. The exhibitions, the books, they’re great for glory, they’re great for press and kudos, but they’re time-heavy, and they don’t make any money. What makes money is the calendars.”

The fixing ourselves is an inside job. That's the only way we're going to find any kind of peace

What kind of calendars? How to produce fresh content, year after year – in the calendar business, deadlines are pretty immovable – while keeping a clear brand identity? Simple. Maintain the aesthetic, change up the boys.

“Why don’t we brand each calendar with a different nation? We can go round the world for ‘X’ amount of years doing Red Hot ‘X’ boys. Next we’re doing European boys, the year after we’re doing Australian boys, the year after we’re doing Brazilian boys…”

British Boys came first. A make or break moment for Red Hot. The audience existed, the plan had been devised – now for the execution. The target a mere £9,974 (calendars come cheap). Success: 450 backers pledged £19,243. “We thought, ‘Right, we’ve gotta make it naked, sexy, celebratory, put the blue back – so it’s a blue sky background – and that’s what we’re going to take around the world for the next five years. Obviously it ends up becoming the most successful calendar we’ve ever done.”

Each year, a different country will be represented; prioritising, of course, the countries where a viable market is known to exist. (Thank you, Kickstarter.) In 2023, Red Hot will celebrate its tenth birthday by releasing its first photography book since Red Hot II: a compilation of every model featured in the by-then seven calendars, a different chapter for each nation.

“There’s a plan now,” says Thomas with satisfaction, “and it’s a commercial plan.” Another plan came from the artist Andrew Salgado. “I’ve got this idea for you,” he said to Thomas. “Red Hot Cocks!”

‘Haha ummmmmm…’ writes Salgado after Thomas introduces us over Messenger. ‘I got drunk and thought it would be funny lol.’ He goes on to describe the idea as ‘A booze-fuelled moment of genius’. So it proved. The relative ease of creating British Boys allowed the team to spring into action on a second calendar – the raunchiest Red Hot yet. (And presumably ever, unless Red Hot Sex Acts is ever produced.)

We launched a spinoff calendar, and that calendar then became our biggest selling calendar of all time!

Coyness be damned: 12 models would show off 12 penises. (One penis per model, I should add.) Market potential became apparent: a goal of £6,500 was smashed by 776 backers to the tune of £32,254.

“In the space of maybe two months, after doing British Boys in the summer of that year, we launched another calendar, a spinoff calendar, and that calendar then became our biggest selling calendar of all time!” And so Red Hot starting making actual money – money that didn’t leave the bank account as soon as it arrived. Two calendars was all it took – two calendars and a clear identity on what the brand wanted to be.

“The cocks fucking solved everything! The cocks is the reason why we’re here. British Boys was great because it got us over the threshold; the cocks was like the thing. Everybody went mental for it.” Professional success coincided with personal salvation. By the time you read this article, Thomas Knights will have been sober for two and a half years – and counting.

I always knew you’d end up here

Rock bottom only exists in hindsight. As the name suggests, the terrain is hard and unforgiving – you don’t automatically bounce up once you land there. You must pull yourself out, slowly, arduously, because if you let go you might fall back even further and discover what you thought to be rock bottom was merely another staging post on your descent.

“I got clean in January 2017. I went into that year massively in debt after Red Hot II, feeling the strain. Life was pretty fucking awful.” He swore to make the Mexico trip his rock bottom. Three days into 2017, Thomas Knights started to take back control of his life. “It was the evening of 3 January. We had this Red Hot II show in the Beers Gallery in London. I couldn’t face it. I burst into tears.”

He knew if he drank at the show the whole cycle would restart, and he didn’t have many more cycles left. He asked a friend, herself a former addict, to take him to a meeting. He meant AA, but she knew better. She told Thomas to meet her in Soho the coming Friday: the afternoon of the show. He snuck out of the gallery at lunchtime. Discovered it was a group therapy meeting but went inside anyway – too late to turn back now.

Most of the attendees were old acquaintances, people he’d spent the previous decade cavorting around Soho with. “Thank God you’re here,” said the chair. “I always knew you’d end up here. I never thought I was going to be a group therapy person at all, but I totally got it.” I walked into that room broken, exhausted, no self-confidence, no money – and within six months I’d got my entire life back together. “I was going to die, I was 100% going to kill myself through using. I would have had an overdose or I’d have been hit by a car or I’d have fallen off a building. That was my future.”

Instead he found the strength within himself to change the ending of his story. Of course there are moments when the old temptations resurface – never more so than at launch nights, cavorting around L’Escargot with all those friends and well-wishers. But such nights are also the best of nights, the nights that supply a happiness far stronger and more enduring than any drug.

The project continues to thrive – Red Hot Underwear being the latest incarnation. (Available in black, white, and blue.) Yet its creator is no longer enslaved by the machine. He’s even found the time to return to music, his first love – Pandora Drive released their debut album earlier this year. Follow your dream but don’t let it distract from the others.

A boy dyes his hair; a man shaves it off. Is one of them hiding his true identity and the other revealing it? Or are they simply living out their identities at a specific moment in their life? Was the blonde Thomas Knights aged 17 less of a Thomas Knights than the Thomas Knights aged 30, redheaded and falling into drug addiction, or the Thomas Knights in L’Escargot, happy and sober and fulfilled?

“We often think external factors are going to fix us, but the only fixing of ourselves is an inside job. That’s the only way we’re going to find any kind of peace with ourselves. It comes from within. You have to work on yourself.”

That’s the crux, isn’t it? Work and keep working, work on the person you are, and the person you aspire to be. Turn your deepest insecurity into your superpower. Take it out into the world. Stand before the mirror and be able to say, “I am here. I am me.”

Thomas Knights can say those words – and thanks to the Red Hot project, so can thousands of people around the world. ‘Are You Red Hot?’ asked that initial blog post. It turned out everybody was.

For more info, see redhot100.com and thomasknights.com

Instagram: @redhot100 and @thomasknights