PARIS — Fashion and music figures took to social media outlets on Friday to mourn the death of Rick Genest, known as Zombie Boy, the 32-year-old, tattooed Nicola Formichetti muse who had also worked with Lady Gaga.
“The entire Dulcedo family is in shock and upset by this tragedy,” said Montreal-based Dulcedo Management, Genest’s talent agency, in a statement on Facebook on Thursday.
“Thank you ZB for these beautiful moments in your presence and for your radiant smile,” it added.
While news outlets and celebrities reacted to the death as a suicide, Genest’s agent, Karim S. Leduc, said he had fallen off of a third floor balcony Wednesday in what may have been an accident.
The Canadian, who had described his profession to WWD as a “sideshow performer” and whose acts included writhing on beds of nails, shot to fame after being discovered by Formichetti on Facebook. The designer hired Genest for the Thierry Mugler 2010 campaign and flew him to Paris for the men’s show.
“I like the whole freak-show atmosphere,” Genest told WWD in 2011, speaking backstage after his turn on the catwalk.
His fame continued to grow after he appeared in a high-profile advertisement for Dermablend that garnered millions of hits and launched endless Internet debates about how society judges physical appearance.
The video ran under the tag line “How do you judge a book?” and featured a clear-skinned Genest who stripped nude to the waist and proceeded to rub off concealer makeup to reveal his elaborate tattoos that transformed his head into a skull with dark circles around his eyes. Other tattoos included bones, ligaments, insects and a radioactive symbol.
Lady Gaga expressed her grief over the death of Genest, who appeared in her “Born This Way” video, in an initial post on Twitter, saying in part, “The suicide of friend Rick Genest, Zombie Boy is beyond devastating.” On Saturday, she retracted that, again on Twitter, saying, “I apologize if I spoke too soon” as there was no evidence to support a claim of suicide. “I in no way meant to draw an unjust conclusion. My deepest condolences to his entire family and friends.”
Formichetti posted a tribute on Instagram alongside a picture where he posed next to Genest.
“Absolutely heartbroken. Rest in power, Zombie Boy. Sending all my condolences and love to his family and friends in this trying time,” he wrote.
In an interview with WWD in 2012, Genest said he got his first tattoo, a skull and crossbones, at age 16, and estimated he had spent tens of thousands of dollars on the designs, referring to them as his project.
“I’d always wanted tattoos. I’d see them on the bus or on TV or in movies,” he said at the time.
His tattoos even made the Guinness Book of World Records, which lists Genest as having set the record for the most insect tattoos in 2011 — after 176 were counted on the set of a television show in Italy. The Guinness Book’s entry noted he left home at age 17 after finishing high school, and cites his mother as indicating he had waited until he was 16 to get his first one out of respect for his parents.
The tattoos were also deemed museum-worthy, with London’s Science Museum set to unveil a larger-than-life sculpture of Genest next fall to preside over its new medicine galleries. More than 11 feet tall, the piece by artist Marc Quinn will sit in the entrance of a section featuring medical artifacts, carrying the title “Self-Conscious Gene.”
“Literalizing a quest to understand his own body, his tattoos are like a kind of poetry,” said Quinn, in a statement about the project when it was revealed.
Images posted last month on Instagram showed Genest posing in an orange Home Depot vest to promote an association linked to the retailer that assists homeless youth in Canada.
“He was a special person, who taught us much about the beauty of personal expression and the importance of not judging others based on surface appearance,” Malena Higuera, worldwide general manager of Dermablend Professional, said in a statement.
He relayed a positive view of the fashion industry, saying he respected it. “I’ve always surrounded myself with artists. I’ve always loved being around the art scene and the fashion world and designing sets and props and all of that. That’s all showmanship, that’s all art,” he said.
When questioned about life beyond modeling, Genest hinted at other interests, including music, but also referred to his previous experiences: “When the fashion show is over, I want to go back to the circus.”