The Tragedy of Harry Uzoka

He was a shining star of a tight-knit group of rising Black male models in London. Why did he die at the hands of another model?

By guest author Alexis Okeowo is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a contributing editor at Vogue who lives in Los Angeles and was named Journalist of the Year in 2020 by the Newswomen’s Club of New York. Aaron Marin is an artist who works with mixed media and collage and works under the name NEUTOKYO, a nod to his formative years spent living in Japan. His work focuses on assumptions of beauty, power and intelligence as they relate to the Black experience in America.

Harry Uzoka, all captions courtesy by the New York Times

When Harry Uzoka was 17, he went with his older brother, who was trying to get ahead in modelling, to a meeting at a talent agency in West London, a place of fairy-tale wealth with Edwardian homes and fertile parks. Uzoka grew up in Dagenham, a working-class neighbourhood across the city with a growing Nigerian community. He and his brother were raised by a mother who, like other West African immigrants, traded her homeland for London — cold and indifferent but also possessing free education and more jobs — so that her children could thrive. Uzoka did well in school, but he had recently served a stint in juvenile detention for robbing a cash-delivery van.

Patrick Egbon-Marshall, an agent who has a reputation for placing Black and mixed-race men in high-profile campaigns for labels like Burberry and Alexander McQueen, remembered Uzoka’s almost hiding behind his brother at the meeting in 2010. Uzoka was “really shy,” Egbon-Marshall recalled. “He had lost his way, and this was the only avenue he probably had. He was Black and not the tallest. But he was very charming and able to listen.” His agency signed Uzoka soon after.

What started for Uzoka as an intriguing lark soon became a way to do something great, even earn his mother’s pride. He dreamed of modelling for Gucci one day. “I want to be a role model for other Black models,” he told the British men’s fashion magazine Boys by Girls in 2011. “And it would just be iconic to be one of the first Black guys to do that.”

Even with the agency’s support, Uzoka had to adjust to the demands of the industry. Modelling was rarely glamorous; it consisted mostly of long periods of boredom and anxiety, interrupted by intense bursts of performance. At casting calls, he would wait in the reception area for as long as an hour, distracting himself by talking with the other models about their outings the previous night. When he was finally taken in to meet the casting director, everything about him was subjected to scrutiny: his physical features, how he moved, his portfolio. He experienced rejection after rejection. (It is not uncommon for models to go to as many as 15 castings in a day and not book one.) Even if he was picked for a show, it meant more waiting — hours backstage doing hair and makeup and fittings — all to prepare for a walk that lasted five minutes and paid new faces only a few hundred pounds, a rate significantly less than what female models received. “Being a male model is so difficult,” Madeleine Ostlie, a casting director who worked with Uzoka earlier in his career, told me. Owing to the constant demand for fresh faces, she said, “the life span of a male model is about two years.”

But Uzoka had charisma, and that helped him stand out. “He had star quality,” Lulu Kennedy, a veteran talent scout, said. “He was so attentive and engaged. He would talk to anyone and everyone backstage equally; he gave people his time and his energy.” Soon he was walking in London Fashion Week and appearing in Nike ads. Mercedes-Benz and Zara followed. Casting directors started to request his presence, and labels booked him for Fashion Week exclusives, at times paying him 10,000 pounds or more to commit to their campaigns. When Uzoka was 21, Paper magazine named him one of England’s hottest models.

It was unexpected and overwhelming and otherworldly. Once, Uzoka had admired the clothes; now he saw himself wearing them in magazines and on the sides of buses. His beautiful face, with ears that stuck out, looked down from billboards for Uniqlo, Everlane and Levi’s in London, New York and Los Angeles. School friends called to tell him they had seen his image somewhere. “Everyone in London pretty much knew who he was, and he was just starting to really conquer America,” Chuck Achike, his close friend and fellow model, would later say in court.

At 25, Harry Uzoka had become one of Britain’s most adored male models. And so it later shocked his friends, family and much of the fashion industry that on a clear winter day in 2018, Uzoka was killed by another rising Black male model named George Koh.

The elevation of Uzoka, Koh and other Black male models in British fashion represented a major shift: For years, the industry created few opportunities for Black models, stylists and photographers. Ayishat Akanbi, a stylist who works mainly in men’s wear, told me that on her early jobs around 2010, she was often assumed to be a relative of Black clients.

The only prominent Black male model had been Tyson Beckford, who served as the face of Ralph Lauren Polo in the 1990s; it would take two decades for more Black men to approach his level of success. That gap was partly due to the nature of Beckford’s fame: His charm and extraordinarily good looks, his popularity with fans and his connection with Polo created a star status that was difficult to replicate. Many Black male models have passed through the industry since, but with varying success. As Bethann Hardison, a former model and now an advocate of diversity in the industry, told me, “There was erratic interest from designers, who still didn’t see Black faces and bodies as fitting their perceptions of high fashion. It was a tiny island.”

But within the past decade, as brands have started trying to appeal to wider markets, many have been eager to cast more diversely. “The industry has realized, through the Black influence on social media and pop culture, that money can be made from Black people and Black art,” Philipp Raheem, a photographer who has shot for Kanye West and the designer Virgil Abloh, said. “Before, they thought Black people weren’t their audience and Black models couldn’t sell.” An ascending generation of designers of colour, combined with mounting criticism of all-white shows, helped turn the tide. “It was a perfect storm that allowed another standard of beauty to rise,” James Scully, a former casting director, told me. “London is really where it all began, and Harry fell into this world.”

At the same time, Instagram was disrupting the industry in unprecedented ways: Would-be models in the outer districts of London were using it to reach out directly to labels and casting directors, without having to go through agents. Or if they already had agents, hustling models could aggressively promote themselves and draw the attention of new clients. “Harry was an early adopter of Instagram and naturally good on it,” Kennedy, the veteran talent scout, told me. “Beautifully managed, and he’d always thank the brands and give credits — kind of old-school in the best way.” Casting directors now routinely scout for unique faces both on the streets of immigrant neighbourhoods and on Instagram. “Casting has exploded, especially street casting, using social media,” Kennedy told me. “People are getting themselves out there and getting a ton of followers.”

As the culture evolved, young men like Uzoka seemed to no longer view modelling as incompatible with their masculinity. Succeeding in an industry that valued beauty required male models to show aspects of themselves that could make them uneasy, like their femininity and vulnerability. But making money off your looks became a flex, a skill that could garner fame and access to the same luxuries more conventional celebrities had. And so two at-times-conflicting ideas lay under the hierarchy of male modelling: beauty and the openness it required, and a conception of manliness that still prized dominance and swagger. “Today being a male model is like being a rock star,” Egbon-Marshall said. “It’s becoming a thing disadvantaged Black boys think they want to do to get out of council estates,” he said, referring to British public housing. “Some of these kids have no passports, they’ve never done anything, they’ve all left school. But if they’re beautiful, there’s a chance they could do this thing.”

Many who met Uzoka thought of him as sensitive and generous. (I began piecing together his life in 2019 from interviews with friends and colleagues, as well as court transcripts.) He didn’t need to project machismo. Boys by Girls called him a “lovely, calm human being.” He enjoyed talking about African history and love and metaphysics, describing himself as “a free flying soul, not bound by his physical body.” During a photo shoot early in his career, Uzoka pulled out his favourite book, Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist,” a novel about following your dreams, and gave it to the photographer to better understand him. He had not yet travelled abroad — Manchester was the farthest he had gone for vacation — and he had an evident curiosity, almost innocence, about the world. He loved horror films, was fascinated by crystals and spirituality and hated showing his feet to Leomie Anderson, a fellow model and his girlfriend at the time.

In the community of Black male models, others looked up to Uzoka. There was now more demand for Black men in fashion, but there were still only a small number of them regularly working. “I really admired models like Harry, and I watched him,” Leonardo Taiwo, a London-born son of Nigerian immigrants who followed Uzoka into the business, said. “I wanted to be recognized as much as he was. Everybody respected Harry,” he told me. “He was a world-changer.” During the time Uzoka dated Anderson, Black fans found their relationship inspiring: They embodied a dark-skinned beauty not often found in fashion. “To the creative Black community, Harry was not only a model,” the stylist Akanbi told me. “He was the living representation of possibility.”

George Koh found his way into fashion not long after Uzoka, and he had a remarkably similar background. Born in Liberia, he immigrated to Britain with his family when he was 2. His mother was a retired chef, his father a security officer. As a teenager, Koh also got caught up with law enforcement: He was arrested for drug possession and assaulting two police officers. After high school, he studied business economics at college and completed an internship at a media agency, but he didn’t know what he wanted to do.

While Koh was still a university student, a talent scout approached him on the street. At first, modelling seemed like a way to make money and try something new. “I thought maybe I could do some traveling,” he later said in court. Dean Cleary-Patterson was the first agent to sign Koh, to his agency d1, in November 2013. “He was one of our top guys,” Cleary-Patterson said of how sought-after Koh became.

Koh quickly began booking jobs with labels like Kenzo and Louis Vuitton, and he liked to show off his success. According to court transcripts, Koh texted a woman a photo of his check at a fancy restaurant to impress her: The meal cost 100 pounds. “George was immature, because of how successful he was and how naïve he was,” Taiwo, who was friends with Koh, told me. “He had a lot of growing up to do.”

But Koh found the work itself alienating. It was not rare to be the sole Black man on a shoot or the only one in a show of more than two dozen men. Backstage, there were no stylists who could do his hair or who knew how he and his friends liked to dress. No one who could relate to where he came from and how he grew up. “I was the only one, or maybe there’s another person, so it kind of felt like a novelty,” Koh told me.

Even though the industry was recruiting Black models, it could treat them as interchangeable commodities: The young men routinely found themselves competing with one another for the same limited number of bookings. Every time Koh showed up for a casting call, it seemed, Uzoka was there. “We bumped into each other a lot,” Koh told me. “Some stylists were mistaking me for him.”

A former model, who requested anonymity to speak about Koh, said, “George seemed quite nice, quite chill.” She met him and Uzoka at the same casting in 2015. She remembered that Koh and Uzoka often went for the same jobs. “The industry is partly to blame,” she said. “They were put in the same box. If one person is getting confirmed and the other isn’t, it does eventually become a thing. I’m sure that George felt that pressure build up.”

As Uzoka’s fame grew, it seemed to have an effect on Koh’s sense of self. “The whole thing with George and Harry was that whole comparison thing, constantly,” Martin Addo, a streetwear designer who was also friends with Koh, said. “It wasn’t, ‘Let Harry be Harry Uzoka. Let George be George Koh.’” He added, “I remember him saying stuff like, ‘When it comes to certain castings, they either pick between me or Harry.’” At an Adidas shoot in Germany, Koh told me, the photographer said that he looked quite similar to Uzoka, who was “one of their boys.”

Koh told me that Uzoka tried to be a mentor to him. They met in 2014, at a show for the clothing line Agi & Sam. For once, most of the models were Black, and Uzoka gave the inexperienced guys, including Koh, tips on walking. They saw each other again at shoots in London and Paris. At a shoot for Urban Outfitters, Uzoka looked through Koh’s portfolio and suggested that he move to a better agency; he later advised Koh to bulk up to get more jobs. In the small world of Black British models, their lives circled each other’s without ever quite colliding.

It is not hard to see how the models who existed on the periphery of Uzoka’s orbit could long for a closeness to it. In a desert of colleagues and clients who had no relationship to Black culture, Uzoka’s crew of model friends was an oasis of warmth and a space where a Black man could be himself and talk and act freely without being judged. Jamel Gordon-Lynch got into modelling with the help of his mother after a high school friend’s father suggested he try it; an agency signed him when he was 20. He saw the work as an adventure and began hanging out with Uzoka, whom he described as a “bundle of light,” and other young Black models. The group decided to create a collective called Justanorm, a reference to how they were just “normal” guys who had found themselves in a new and surreal reality. The group met up to talk about ideas over jerk chicken; they wanted to rap and produce music and create a YouTube channel together.

The collective was eventually made up of Uzoka, Gordon-Lynch, Achike and the models Jeremy Boateng, Boyd Alves and Dylan Williams. Represented by London’s top agencies, each man had a striking look, from Uzoka’s boyish features and protruding ears to Achike’s blue eyes and fair skin. They were all consumed with streetwear and hip-hop. Boys by Girls shot the group for multiple issues, following them to their favourite hangouts, like a 24-hour bagel shop in Brick Lane. The men treated one another like brothers, the magazine observed, and seemed like “a secret society” of which everyone wanted to be a part. Uzoka joked that the models had “come together for global takeover.”

“We met through modelling, but now we are literally with each other every day,” he told the magazine in 2014. “It’s not just about modelling now; it’s about being there for each other every step of the way.” He went on, “It just feels like we are all chasing that one dream, and we all inspire each other to do it at the same time.”

On a typical morning, Uzoka and his friends would head off to castings, where they usually ran into one another. Later, over lunch, they would relax and catch up, talking about jobs they had booked and looking through one another’s portfolios, before heading off to more castings in the afternoon. At the end of the day, they would go out partying. They sometimes travelled together for work. They joked that they felt “like aliens” when they walked around European countries like Italy, where casting agents would tell them there was no market for Black models. As a group, they felt invincible.

Justanorm was the platonic ideal of how rival models could create and monetize mutual support in a callous profession. “If any of us booked something, we felt like we all booked it,” Gordon-Lynch said. “We got so much love for it, especially from young Black people in London.” He added, “I feel like we opened a lot of doors.” The collective kept up a Tumblr that documented each model’s appearances in ad campaigns and runway shows, and clients began hiring them to work together. Men’s Health shot the men on horseback for a feature. “We were basically riding horses through the hood,” Gordon-Lynch recalled. “It was good stuff.” Taiwo saw them around a lot: “Whenever they came in the casting room, you just felt their huge presence,” he said.

The men’s level of agency and their camaraderie — in an industry that has always been intensely competitive, rife with subtle slights — was made possible, in great part, by social media. Besides allowing young models to contact labels themselves, it lets the labels skip casting agencies and hire those models directly (often at cut rates). The level of access on all sides is without precedent: fashion democratized. Egbon-Marshall, the agent, said he encouraged boys he couldn’t sign to get on Instagram and “create their own brands.” Abdourahman Njie, a Swedish-Gambian artist and model, was scouted on the service and hired to pose in a Botter ad a few years ago; after the makeup artist who worked on the shoot posted the photo on her Instagram account, an agency immediately contacted and signed Njie. Soon after, he was hired for a Burberry campaign.

But social media also allowed petty grievances to escalate into something darker. Relegated to orbiting the men of Justanorm, Koh seemed to grow increasingly fixated on gaining the attention and approval of Uzoka. He began keeping tabs on Uzoka’s friends and family on Instagram, repeatedly trying to follow their private accounts. (In court, Koh said that an app he was using to gain followers on Instagram was responsible.) When they complained to Uzoka, he asked Koh to stop. “There is an entitlement that people think they have access to you,” Akanbi, the stylist, said. “Maybe he could feel like he knew Harry better than he did.”

Instead of stopping, Koh continued to insinuate himself into Uzoka’s network. About a week before the fight that led to Uzoka’s death, he invited Annecetta Lafon, a model who was visiting from Paris, to hang out. Lafon was part of the intersecting circles of Black models living in Europe. She had first connected with Uzoka, whom she befriended over Instagram. Not long after he followed her, Koh did the same.

Lafon took up Koh on his invitation, she said in court. Though she had never met him in person, they were each part of what felt like an intimate bubble. But after she arrived at his flat, Koh repeatedly asked her if she knew Uzoka, she testified, and claimed he slept with Uzoka’s girlfriend, the model Ruby Campbell. (Campbell later wrote on Instagram that she didn’t even know Koh. “I have NEVER met George and Harry was NEVER friends with him,” she said. “The whole thing seemed creepy.”) Lafon grew uncomfortable with Koh’s childish posturing.

She spent the next week at Uzoka’s place, where she told him what Koh had said. In response, she later testified, Uzoka just laughed. “He was not surprised,” she recalled. He showed Lafon multiple texts he had sent Koh, accusing the other model of spreading lies and rumours about him. To Uzoka, Koh’s animosity was beginning to feel almost routine, an unavoidable burden of his fame.

But the more Uzoka thought about what Koh said about his girlfriend, the angrier he grew. “Harry’s mood didn’t feel right,” one of his roommates, Seun Lawal, testified. “He just didn’t like what was being said.” The next day, Uzoka and Koh argued on a phone call broadcast on speaker for Uzoka’s friends to hear. Koh called Lafon a liar and denied saying anything about Campbell. When Uzoka asked how Koh even knew whom he was dating, Koh said he had figured it out on Instagram — more or less admitting that he was stalking Uzoka on social media. “George, just leave it,” Uzoka said as the call ended. “Why make this trouble?”

The phone call seemed to settle the matter. After Uzoka hung up, Achike recalled, he was smiling. “He squashed it. He was acting as if George had said sorry and it was over. Like it was nothing to worry about.” They started playing video games.

But Koh later said he was “still worried” about the situation, nervous that he would run into Uzoka at a photo shoot or a party. He apologized to Uzoka over text. But he added that he was ready to fight, if need be — a performance of male bravado he seemed unable to drop. His friend Taiwo said he told Koh to go home and relax.

“The kind of person George is, he worries a lot,” Jonathan Okigbo, a childhood friend, told the court. “George sometimes has a tendency to overthink things.”

Koh called Uzoka a few times, but he didn’t answer. Two days after their phone conversation, Koh texted Uzoka. “Where you,” he wrote. “I’ll come there we can fight, bring your friends with you.”

‘Come Shepherd’s Bush,’ Uzoka responded over text, referring to the neighborhood where he lived. Within minutes, Koh showed up near Uzoka’s flat, holding a knife in each hand.

Koh persuaded Okigbo and another longtime friend, Merse Dikanda, to accompany him. The men reluctantly agreed, they later said in court, believing that Koh was putting on a dangerous front. “Why you say you’re going to go fight him, when you know you’re not a fighter?” Dikanda recalled asking. “You’re just going to go there and have some talk. I don’t know why you’re trying to exaggerate yourself.”

“I know, I know,” Koh said, according to Dikanda’s recollection. “I just want to meet him. He’s ignoring my calls.”

“Come Shepherd’s Bush,” Uzoka responded over text, referring to the neighbourhood where he lived. Within minutes, Koh showed up near Uzoka’s flat, holding a knife in each hand. Dikanda carried a machete.

Uzoka and his roommate, Adrian Harper, took apart a set of dumbbells in their living room, Harper later testified. Armed with the metal bars, they went into the street. Across a parking lot, they saw Koh and his friends walking away. “Yo, George!” Uzoka called out. The men turned around, and the groups approached each other.

While Okigbo chased Harper back to the flat, Koh and Dikanda cornered Uzoka between two cars, his back against a fence. A neighbor who passed them at that moment later testified that Uzoka “was standing like he might have been a little scared.” He swung the metal bar he had brought with him, but Koh stabbed Uzoka three times, piercing his heart. Uzoka somehow managed to sprint back to his flat, bleeding the entire way. His roommate, Harper, ran to his side.

“I’ve been stabbed!” he testified Uzoka told him.

“Where?” Harper asked.

Uzoka didn’t reply. He collapsed at the entrance to his apartment, hitting his head on the wall as he fell. Emergency responders tried to revive him, but he died of his wounds that night.

That evening, unaware that Uzoka had died, Koh called a friend in a daze and confessed that he had stabbed someone. They prayed together over the phone, asking God to help Koh make better choices. Three days later, Koh turned himself in and was charged with murder and possession of an offensive weapon.

In court, Koh testified that he “didn’t mean to kill Harry.” Crying on the witness stand, he recalled how Uzoka taught him how to walk the runway, gave him advice and inspired him. He claimed he was in “genuine fear” for his life and had acted in self-defence. “I didn’t mean to stab him,” he repeated, mantra-like, wavering between an admission of what he did and a reluctance to accept it. “I apologized even though I didn’t do anything. I am so sorry that he’s dead.”

Before Koh was sentenced, a statement from Uzoka’s mother was read in court. She had kept a low profile during the trial, avoiding the media. In only a few short years, her son had made good on her dream: As he grew more successful, he helped pay her mortgage and took her on vacations abroad. He had even begun to build a home for her back in Nigeria.               

“I have so much pain for the death of my Harry, and I find it difficult these days to go on without him,” his mother wrote, according to The Mirror. “His departure has left a gaping hole, a gap, a void in the family that we are all finding hard to contend with. He was due to start acting in a couple of upcoming movies, but that chance has been taken away from him. My son was a beautiful boy. I would give anything to change places with Harry, to take away the horror and pain that he suffered that day.”

To those who knew Uzoka and Koh, each man appeared to have let ideas of masculinity and honour distort his judgment. “It was about male pride, it’s ego,” Taiwo said. “When you feel disrespected, peer pressure can make it harder to let it go.” Koh offered a similar explanation in court, when he was asked what he meant when he texted Uzoka that he was ready to fight. “To be honest, I didn’t mean the word ‘fight,’” he told the court. “It was just bravado. What I meant — what I was trying to do was just find a situation where I could meet Harry and just speak to him like face to face.” On Sept. 21, 2018, Koh was sentenced to life in prison for murder. His friend Dikanda, who carried the machete, was also convicted of murder, while Okigbo was found guilty of manslaughter.

After the murder, models and stylists and fashion photographers fell into months of grief and anger and introspection, trying to make sense of what happened. Some Black models worry that the current push for greater diversity will prove as fleeting as everything else in fashion, plunging them back into more ruthless competition. The landscape is larger and more inclusive than it was when Uzoka and Koh began working in the industry a decade ago, but Egbon-Marshall, who scouted the first Black male model to walk for Burberry in 2014, thinks that the fixation on race is “overkill” — overcompensating in a way that will burn out quickly. (When I left our meeting in East London, I passed a bus stop covered with a Polo ad featuring only Black models.)

Five years ago in men’s fashion, white models with pale, androgynous looks had the most currency. Now Black men in the industry are already starting to wonder how much freedom they will have in their careers if the interest in diversity fades. “It gets to you, and you can start to question yourself,” Njie, the Swedish-Gambian model, said. “Because especially if you’re Black, you’re at the whims of the industry.” The men of Justanorm, meanwhile, want to believe that the alliances Uzoka fostered can triumph over rivalry. “All of us have always inspired each other to do other things, or be the best people we can be, or the best models at least.” Gordon-Lynch said. “I think we’ve just tried to carry that on to a higher level.”

That camaraderie has expanded past Justanorm; Black male models don’t have to be part of it to have that feeling. “Today, instead of having one Black model in the Topman show, maybe they would have four or five,” Cleary, Koh’s first agent, said. “Thankfully there is a lot more diversity in casting directors, people who are calling the shots: the art directors, the designers.” Cleary also works more now on helping his models better manage their expectations and take rejections less personally. In fact, Uzoka’s legacy in the industry could be the increased alliances among male models in London, especially Black ones, in the wake of his death. Had Koh’s career begun even five years later, he might have had an easier time moving through the world of modelling.

The young, successful model Babacar N’doye, who recently shot a Dior Men campaign, told me that while there was occasional competition among him and his Black peers, they all knew and supported one another. “It’s just camaraderie. When I see the guys doing their thing, it’s love — because as long as it’s one of us, it doesn’t really matter,” N’doye, who was born to Senegalese parents and grew up in East London, said, smiling more broadly than at any other point during our conversation. N’doye didn’t know Uzoka, but he said he had “nothing but respect” for his work and life.

From prison, Koh still sounded bewildered by what he had done. “I kind of thought, OK, let me just show Harry that I’m a big man — and that’s how it escalated.” Earlier, he asked me if I had heard of the concept of bravado; he was trying to come to terms with his regrets. “It’s my fault,” he said. “I had the knife that day, and if I didn’t have a knife that day, he’d be alive.”

Source photographs: Harry Uzoka (top illustration): Matt Stansfield. Ollgar Close: Jonathan Brady/PA Images, via Getty Images, All captions courtesy by the New York Times Magazine.

www.nytimes.com