There was a moment in the 1980s at photographer Steven Meisel’s holiday party when top male model Hoyt Richards looked around and realized this was about as good as life was going to get.
“At one point, I’m in a bustier, and I’ve got Naomi Campbell in a thong behind me, Christy Turlington in a thong in front of me,” Richards recalls. “I’m thinking, ‘How many millions of guys would want to be where I am right now?’ ”
Life was certainly good, but Richards was forbidden from partaking in the spoils of his jet-setting lifestyle.
“Everyone else was living it up. It was like, ‘Hey, let’s go to Madonna’s for the weekend!’ ” Richards recalls. “But I was like, ‘No, no. I can’t. The end of the world is coming.’ ”
Turns out there was much more to Richards than the chiseled face that stared back at consumers from magazine covers and Versace campaigns.
He was stuck deep inside a doomsday cult called Eternal Values that controlled his life and took all his money. He became so caught up in a web of lies and a spiral of damaged self-esteem that it would take a superman to save his life: Fabio. Yes, that Fabio — he of the flowing locks and cheesy romance-novel covers.
Richards, now 51, has a new career as an actor and a writer, and the comedy that he co-wrote and stars in, “Dumbbells,” is in theaters and on video-on-demand Friday. A basketball star (played by co-writer and Queens native Brian Drolet) is forced to take a job at a skeevy gym after a career-ending injury. There, he bonds with the owner (Richards), and the two launch a reality-TV show. Fabio plays himself as the host of the show.
“This last 10 years [since I left the cult] has been about living my life on my own terms for the first time ever,” says Richards, a 6-foot-2 all-American blond. “That’s how I got into the writing and producing. One of my therapists told me to do something creative, because that’s how you rebuild your self-esteem.”
You wouldn’t think Richards would have any problem in that area. He grew up in a large, loving Pennsylvania family, and would end up being named one of Vogue’s top-25 male models of all time.
He also graduated with an economics degree from Princeton, and it was during his freshman year that he got his first taste of the modeling world. While Richards was on a trip to New York to see a doctor for a shoulder injury, a friend asked him to come along when he was visiting his acting agent. The agent spotted Richards in the waiting room and signed him up.
Acting auditions soon led to a contract with the Ford Models agency. Before he’d graduated from Princeton, Richards had already shot with famed photographer Bruce Weber and was steadily earning more work.
“They were calling me, ‘Can you go to Milan?’ ” Richards recalls. “It was like, ‘What, are you kidding me? I have a test tomorrow.’ ”
One of his first jobs was for a new line of underwear produced by jeans maker Bonjour.
“I was excited and took the job, only to find out that it was just a crotch shot,” Richards says. “I go into the dressing room to put on the underwear, and the stylist was like, ‘OK, now I need to stuff you.’ I was like, ‘Excuse me?’ He’s got tissues and he needs to stuff me to make everything look perfect.”
Around this time — 1985 — Richards met fellow model Fabio at Ford. The two would often work out together at the Upper East Side’s Vertical Club, kind of a 1980s gym version of Studio 54 where a manager once proudly proclaimed in a newspaper article, “We have no fat people here.” The gym served as partial inspiration for “Dumbbells.”
“I’m telling you, that was such a scene,” Richards says. “Girls would work out in full makeup. It was like the bar scene transferred to a gym.” Meanwhile, Richards continued to be in demand.
Every six months, he did a catalog shoot for H&M.
“It was a two-week shoot, and it was five guys and 15 girls. We used to call it the Swedish bikini team, because they were all Scandinavian,” Richards says. “The whole team was so committed to having a good time, in the middle of the job, we’d have what we called ‘Pagan Night.’ We’d have this big dinner, then it was a free-for-all. I was sitting there thinking, I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this.”
Although, in truth, not everything was so great. At age 16, Richards had met a representative for Eternal Values on a beach in Nantucket, Mass. By the time he’d graduated college, he was deeply “brainwashed” and living with the group in New York and their headquarters near Asheville, NC.
“I didn’t see my parents for 12 years. It was a nightmare,” he says. “I lived the life of Johnny Supermodel, taking the Concorde all over the world. Meanwhile, my life was controlled. I was living a double life.”
The cult, who believed the world would soon end via a sudden shift of the Earth’s magnetic poles, was stockpiling food and weapons in North Carolina. Richards was forced to do menial tasks and also subjected to so-called “hot seat” sessions, where he would be verbally berated by other members for up to 20 hours.
The cult demanded perfection, and even while on the road 300 days a year as a model, Richards had to check in with leaders to assure them he was living a pure life.
Even though he was surrounded every day by world-famous, beautiful women, relationships with outsiders were strictly forbidden, but Richards says he was allowed to have brief sexual liaisons.
“I probably could have had some supermodel relationships,” he says. “I had some encounters, but I couldn’t settle down with them, because I had to save the world [with the cult].”
He also handed over most of his earnings to the religious group — a staggering $4.5 million by his own accounting. Richards’ brother and a Princeton football manager staged an intervention at one point, but Richards told them to “f - - k off.”
At age 37, the model finally left Eternal Values, not because he suddenly woke up, but because he worried that he was falling short of their high standards.
“I bolted, and the funny thing was, one of the few places I knew I could go where I wouldn’t be asked a lot of questions was Fabio’s,” Richards says. “I lived with him for a year. If I had to write a memoir, there would be a chapter about how Fabio saved my life.”
In the early aughts, Fabio allowed the broke Richards to live rent-free and provided him a non-judgmental atmosphere in which Richards could begin to process what he’d been through with the cult.
The two man-models would hang out around LA together.“Every morning we’d go to this one restaurant called the Source, and like clockwork, some tour bus would come by and stop and say, ‘Oh, here’s Fabio,’ ” Richards says. “I’d take pictures of everyone with Fabio.”
Turns out, Fabio’s allure was stronger than that of the man who was called by some “the first male supermodel.”
“I used to think I had pretty good mojo back in the day, but next to Fabio, you’re invisible,” Richards says. “We’d walk into a bar, and I wouldn’t get nearly the same attention. It was very humbling.”
In 2002, the model sued Eternal Values and won, recovering some of the money he’d lost over the years and effectively shutting down the group.
He continues to model occasionally through various agencies, including Storm in London. He’s currently planning to launch a Facebook-style Web site for fashionistas called Style IQ.
He maintains a bicoastal existence, living in a Midtown East apartment that he once lent to the cult’s leader — the one holdover in his life from his lost youth.
“I don’t really have bad memories of the apartment,” he says. “At first I did, but now, it’s just onwards and upwards, you know?”
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