Around this time last year, Montrealer Rick Genest received a Facebook message from Nicola Formichetti, Lady Gaga's famous stylist sidekick who had been newly appointed as creative director for fashion label Thierry Mugler. Formichetti was curious about Genest's body art – tattoos covering nearly every centimetre of skin, which make him look like a walking corpse. Think elaborate Day of the Dead makeup – blackened circles around the eye sockets, a smile that extends past the lips to reveal a skeletal jaw – in permanent ink. And that's just his face. Genest's shaved head has been detailed with the brain's twisting hemispheres. Overtop his all-too-real ribcage depiction: a massive biohazard symbol.
Genest, 26, hails from Châteauguay, Que. He left home at 17 for Montreal, where he moved in punk-rock circles, starting off as a squeegee kid before joining and developing travelling freak shows.
With much effort (Genest didn't have a passport at the time), Formichetti was able to get him to Paris, where he appeared in a men's-wear presentation for Mugler followed by Lady Gaga's Born This Way video. Dermablend, a line of professional skincare makeup, cleverly recruited Genest to show the effectiveness of its tattoo-concealing product; a video of his transformation has been viewed on YouTube more than 7.4 million times.
Portraits of Genest (a.k.a. Zombie Boy and Rico the Zombie) are currently hanging alongside those of Marilyn Manson, Nick Cave, Bjork and Jean-Claude Van Damme at Le Cabinet des Curieux, a closet-sized Paris gallery that could not hold all the goth gamines who turned up to admire the real Genest on a recent evening. Before indulging them, the man of more tattoos than words sat down to answer a few questions.
How do you feel about being called a muse?
According to history, muses were never paid, and always abused, so it's not something I'm really flattered to be called.
But meanings evolve.
Yeah, I guess it's a chapter in my life, an experience for me. I'm having fun. I get to travel.
Do you ever get tired of being called Zombie Boy?
It was a term created by the media a few years ago. So I accept what is beyond my ability to change, and I go with it.
About the Dermablend ad, what came to your mind when you looked at yourself fully concealed by the makeup?
I thought, cool, now I can actually accompany my grandmother to church!
And when you saw yourself like that, did you miss uninked skin?
No way. I'm 100-per-cent committed to my artistic project. And I accept that there is no point in thinking [about]going back in time. I fully accept my present state and I'm excited about the many projects I'm developing because of it.
I'm going to play Barbara Walters and ask you who is the real Rick Genest? All the moodiness in the videos – maybe we are only getting one side of you.
It's like Shakespeare – the drama, the role-playing. Or if you look at paintings, people [can]interpret them as morbid or beautiful.
Do you think this moment was inevitable? If Nicola hadn't given you such a platform, it would have been something or someone else?
I'm very grateful that Nicola took me under his wing and gave me that platform. There are tattoo conventions all over the world and I had been trying to get through to people on Facebook and MySpace. Nicola is the one who took the gamble.
Social media have helped your profile, though. I'm sure many of the people here tonight follow you on Twitter.
But with Twitter and Facebook and these things, if you don't word yourself correctly, you can be misinterpreted. Whereas with an image, it can always mean many different things to different people.
Has your approach to fashion changed since all the magazine editorials and modelling?
I have always loved style. It's character. Just because I don't wear thousands and thousands of dollars in jewellery and clothing doesn't mean that I'm ignorant [about style]
Why do you think zombies are having such a moment in popular culture?
2012 is the year of the apocalypse, when some say the world will [end] So zombies and the dead could have a major role to play.
Okay, here's a macabre question: Do you think about what you want to do with your body once you die?
Flush it down the toilet!
Seriously? After all that work and effort?
Well, I guess it depends how I end.
So, when you get up in the morning, is the glass half full or half empty?
It's half. That's it!
This interview has been condensed and edited.