In 2019, Alton Mason took a trip down under to accept Australian GQ’s Model of the Year Award. There, he delivered a speech the director Baz Luhrmann found so moving, he felt compelled to introduce himself to the 24-year-old. (I’m not surprised; when I ask if there’s anything Mason wants to add at the end of our call on a recent afternoon, the model and actor passionately tells me, at length, how he wants everyone reading this to follow their dreams.) Little did he know it at the time, but Luhrmann didn’t just want to pay him a compliment. He was seeing if his hunch that Mason could be the perfect Little Richard in his upcoming biopic Elvis held up. And Mason had what turned out to be the perfect answer when Luhrmann asked if he could sing. “I come from generations of singers,” he recalls telling the director over the phone ahead of the film’s June 24 release. And one of them, the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, just so happened to be one whom Elvis Presley greatly admired.
Less than 24 hours later, when Luhrmann saw Mason had inherited some of the family talent for himself, he offered him the role—never mind that the model had no professional acting experience whatsoever. “I was just stunned,” Mason says. But he knew he could do it: He’d actually studied acting, at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Los Angeles, before pivoting to modeling to pay the bills. He ended up falling in love with the latter, and the industry has most definitely loved him back. The year Mason was cast in Elvis and awarded Model of the Year was, in a word, huge: he appeared on nine magazine covers, walked 31 runway shows, and starred in 19 ad campaigns for houses like YSL Beauté alongside Kaia Gerber, and Missoni.
Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Mason grew up “everywhere;” his father’s career as a professional basketball player took him across the globe. Wherever he went, he was known for his dancing skills (which the late Virgil Abloh would later encourage him to show off on the runway). They eventually earned him a spot on the BET Awards stage next to Diddy in 2015; a modeling scout took note. Meanwhile, his knack for thirst traps was gaining him enough attention for another scout to reach out, asking Mason whether he wanted to appear in Kanye West’s third Yeezy show. Alessandro Michele enlisted the model in 2017 to walk for Gucci—and to star in a campaign that saw Mason as part of the house’s first ad featuring an all-Black cast. It was the first of several milestones for him: The next year, the late Karl Lagerfeld handpicked Mason from a Chanel campaign to be the first male Black model to walk the house’s runway in its then 108-year history.
Mason didn’t waste his free time once Elvis paused filming during the pandemic. He took his first trip to Africa, visiting the countries his family came from, Ghana and Nigeria. The latter struck such a chord with Mason that he resolved to make a short film that would benefit local Covid-19 relief efforts. He also immersed himself in everything Little Richard. By the time they got back to filming, he was so familiar with the iconic so-called Architect of Rock & Roll’s personal style that he was confident enough to differ with the costume designer, industry vet Catherine Martin (who goes by CM), who had designed him a gold suit. “I was like, ‘You know, CM, this is super fly, but what if we take it to church and put on a simple suit—this white tie, white shirt, and grey blazer?,’” he recalls. “She was like, ‘Okay, let’s try it—the only person that has ever suggested anything was Nicole Kidman.’” She immediately saw that he was right.
Mason wears the ensemble in a scene where he’s performing as Little Richard, reinvigorating Presley at a time when he was losing steam. He found Little Richard electrifying, as did the audience who saw Mason revive him at Elvis’s Cannes Film Festival premiere. The whole place clapped at the end of his scene, making for the first applause in a film that had already been full of performances. It was an experience like no other for Mason, in part because the photographer-flooded red carpet made for an entirely different experience of being photographed. “I’m not walking to sell clothes, I’m walking because this is my film debut,” he says. “It felt like a new experience—a rebirth.”
Mason plans to continue acting, and while he can’t talk about it yet, he already has something else in the works. For now, though, he’s getting back to making his own music—and, of course, to modeling. In fact, he’s jetting off to Paris Fashion Week the very next day. After all this time, the industry still manages to surprise him: The brand he’ll walk for, Casablanca, recently cast him in a campaign opposite Nicolas Cage. Mason is amused to report that the actor didn’t need any tips. “He definitely was a natural,” he says with a laugh. “He knew what he was doing.”