The Don: Don BenjaminLEFAIR
Photographer Tracy Kahn @tracykahn
Stylists Madeline Rosene @madelinerosene and Cristen Stefanelli @cestefanelli
Videographer Ben Shani @benshaniproductions
Assistants David Madison @honest__eye and Matt Goldstein @youknowmatt
On a sweltering day in Los Angeles, model and musician, Don Benjamin and the LEFAIR editorial team chilled out in the air conditioning inside Black Anchor Tattoo, home of celebrity tattoo artist, Nikko Hurtado. “I’m excited to get this basketball tattoo,” said Don, whose body is covered in ink artistry. In the creative hands of tattoo artist, Ricardo Castillo, Don waited and fiddled with his iPhone. “For most people, it’s hard to get their first one. I got my first tattoo at fifteen. After you get one, some people are like, ‘I don’t even care. I just want a tattoo!’ They don’t necessarily think about what it means to them. But if you’ve thought about it and it’s something that has significance in your life, like a girls name or, like right now, I’m getting a basketball, then go for it. Even though it might seem random, it’s a symbol that means something to me.” Rewind to our interview at the LEFAIR Loft in May.
MR: You’re from the Midwest. Do you like it here?
DB: I love Los Angeles. LA life is so fast. I’ve been here 11 years now. Back home is so slow. I’m from Minneapolis. It’s a small city. Obviously, there is a lot more opportunity in LA. In Minnesota, you get a regular job, you start a family, and that’s about it. And the weather—My mom said it was snowing last week and it’s 80 degrees here.
I’m close to my family. I talk to my mom every day and my father every couple of days. My dad is from Chicago, a real Chicagoan. My mother met my father when she lived there. She is a typical Minnesota woman with a thick accent. When you think of a Minnesota woman, you think of my mother. Both of my parents are disabled. My mother has a back issue and she can’t work and my father is on dialysis. He is currently on a list for a kidney transplant but he has been addicted to drugs throughout my adolescence. Every time he relapses he gets taken off the list. So he has been on dialysis for 15 years*. He has been on the kidney list for half of that time. Hopefully he will get a kidney.
MR: When did you get your first tattoo?
DB: I was 15 years old. I wanted a tattoo and I went with my mother. At first I chickened out. I set the appointment but I was too scared. So my mom went and she got a tattoo on her neck and said, “It’s okay. If I can do it, you can do it.” She took me back to the shop. I wanted a basketball on my arm but the tattoo artist said he could only tattoo something of religious significance on someone underage. So I got a cross and I don’t regret it. I still want that basketball though. The only space now I have is my legs. I definitely have to do it soon.
In high school, all I did was play basketball. I was a top ten scorer in my city. I wanted to go to the league but my grades were horrible. I couldn’t get in to the colleges that I wanted to go to for basketball. So I gave up basketball for entertainment. I thought, “What else can I do and be my own boss?” If it can’t be professional sports, it’s definitely the entertainment industry.
MR: Your usual tattoo artist is Romeo Lacoste. How did you meet?
DB: Yes, he’s really good at character tattoos. That’s his specialty, anime and things like that. I originally linked with him because I was going to a tattoo artist who was fresh out of prison and it wasn’t the best work. Romeo was a friend of a friend and he came highly recommended. He just did Justin Bieber’s tattoos. My friend told me that since I have a high following, he would probably do my work. We hit it off as soon as we met. His tattoo work was incredible. I need help fixing up some of the others tattoos I had.We also figured out what I wanted to do I the future. He saw the vision. He saw how to add to it. A lot of well-known LA tat shops are really pricey and he doesn’t over charge. He has regular clientele but a lot of his clients fly out here from different countries to get work from him.
MR: If you weren’t working in entertainment, what would you be doing?
DB: I always thought I would play basketball – I thought it was the dream. You know, the dream as a kid coming up with nothing, seeing people on TV, watching sports and you thinking, “I want to have that life.” I just wanted to be able to take care of my family. I didn’t have the grades I needed to have to get into the schools that I wanted to play for. Once the sports dream faded away I hopped on the entertainment train. I have a cousin who lives in the Lakewood area and I went to visit him during Christmas. It was negative ten degrees in Minnesota and when I got here they were barbequing. I was like, “Yo, I need to live like this.” He told me how he did extra work on TV and in movies. In my 18 year old mind, I was like, “Wow, you made it!” Being on the set of any movie or show was impressive to me. I went home and told my mom that I wasn’t going to go to college and that I was going to pursue acting in Los Angeles. I’m her only child. She was torn that I was leaving but she said, “Go chase your dreams.”
MR: What have you been listening to lately?
DB: I’ve been listening to Kendrick Lamar’s new album. He has a record out right now called “Love.” I’ve been listening to Wale’s new project.
MR: We saw a picture of you with another one of our favorite tattoo icons, Ruby Rose. We’d love to have her in a future issue. How do you know each other?
DB: We’re with the same agency. We were supposed to do a shoot together and it never worked out. We always run into each other at events. I’m always like, “You’re the female version of me!” I play in a lot of celebrity games. We had a celebrity basketball game in Canada and she came in and talked to me and Snoop in the locker room after the game.
This was a charity event in Toronto during the MBA All-Star weekend. It was 2 Chainz vs. Snoop Dog. I was on 2 Chainz’ team. He picked me up. It was just playing the game for a good cause. I play in the Power 106 game too. They do an annual game for Homeboy Industries.
MR: There is a certain power that comes from having such a large following on social media platforms…
DB: A lot of people forget that, as an influencer, you have a lot of responsibility because people are watching us. I try to post things that are motivational. A lot of other people abuse it and they’re just drinking and smoking all day and posting about it.The cool thing is that people want to know what else is going on with you besides what you are shooting and what songs you are putting out. People want to actually connect with you. There are a lot of people who have disabled parents. I want those people to be able to connect with me on that level. I want them to see me taking care of my parents.
MR: Recipe for success?
DB: Tenacity is key. A lot of people don’t get that. On my grind, I had to dig deep to hear these success stories. People think it just happens and successful people are blessed but they don’t see the struggle, the family issues. A lot of people aren’t willing to talk about their struggle and how they overcame it. Some see it as a weakness. The way I saw it was, “I’m dealing with all of this but I have no choice but to make it.”
MR: How does it feel now that you’ve had success in the entertainment industry?
DB: It feels amazing now. It was hell before. I didn’t get on Americas Next Top Model until 2013. There were so many times I would call home and my mom would say, “No, stick it out.” Even when I went into the casting for America’s Next Top Model, there were over 2,000 people there. I called my mom and girlfriend. I told them it would be a twelve-hour wait and they said, “Just stay. It will all work out.”
It took seven years to get my first break and even after I was on the show, I was still struggling. Now I can take care of my parents. I bought my mom a car a couple of years ago. I’m moving her out here soon.
MR: You have a girlfriend?
DB: My girlfriend is Liane V. She is a singer and influencer. We were friends for years while we were both in relationships. We both got out of our relationships and a year later we just hit it off.
MR: How did Liane become an influencer?
DB: She was doing background singing on tour with some artists. She got into the Vine circle and she blew up on the Vine app. That carried over to her Instagram.
MR: Did you go to Coachella?
DB: I did go to Coachella. It was cool. The thing is, I like air conditioning. I’d rather be inside the staples center. If it’s too crowded, I’m the kind of person who is looking for an exit. We’d be right in the middle and all you could see were miles of people. But it was a good experience, definitely. It’s fun to bounce around from stage to stage. I watched Kendrick’s show and Kehlani. Kehlani was amazing. I watched DJ Khaled’s show. Those were the only shows I caught. I flew right in from Morocco. I had food poisoning from the water there so the whole way back I was throwing up. It was the longest 24 hours ever.
MR: What were you doing in Morocco?
DB: A few influencers and I were flown out to do video skits with the producer RedOne. The song features French Montana, Dinah Jane from Fifth Harmony, and Fetty Wop. RedOne and French Montana are both from Morocco. They wanted to do a hometown thing. It’s like a euro dance record. We all got sick in Morocco. Liane was there too and she got sick, her makeup artist got sick. It’s a good thing we have a lot of fun together.
MR: How do you deal with fake friends?
DB: I keep a lot of people at a distance and I keep my circle tight. I’m pretty aware of the people’s motives. I’m big on energy. If I feel any kind of negative energy from anyone, I distance myself from them immediately. And there have probably been some people who could have helped me in my career but I had to distance myself because I couldn’t trust them.
I have family members who think I’m rich already and they hit me up all the time now. They’re like, “I see you bought a new car. Can you buy me a new car?” These are the same family members who told my mom I shouldn’t come out here. They said, “The industry is too hard.” Your family should always be in your corner but they doubted me. Now, of course, they say, “Oh, we knew you were going to make it!” It’s so crazy how that works. I mean it makes sense. Like, what are the odds that someone is going to succeed in Hollywood? But a lot of people have such small minds that they can’t fathom someone reaching their dreams. My mom was never in a financial position to help me. If I couldn’t make rent out in Los Angeles, we would call my aunts and uncles for help. At that time, a couple hundred dollars was like winning the lottery. They would hardly lend me that money and now they are so quick to ask me for favors.
MR: What are you going to do for the rest of your day?
DB: I’m gonna rest myself and watch some basketball. My birthday is coming up. Cinqo de Mayo is my 30th birthday. I’m excited for my 30s. I think it will be an exciting decade.
MR: A lot of people don’t feel great about turning 30.
DB: I think a lot of people are scared or they have lost faith around this time. I feel like I hit that point at 25. I kept thinking, “I’m getting old. What am I going to do?” And then I went on America’s Next Top Model. My friends who aren’t where they want to be in their lives are freaking out. When you’re on the right track, you’re peaceful and it doesn’t matter where you are. I’m happy where I am.