Every day, heroes walk amongst us. In Columbia, they include Kelvin Davis.
Their power may not be obvious to some — they’re not faster than speeding locomotives and can’t leap over tall buildings. But they can help change lives for the better.
Davis’ power wasn’t awakened by a red cape, but by a red blazer. And the power has taken him from middle school teacher and coach to acclaimed author, popular blogger, in-demand model and fierce advocate for all men to develop positive self images.
A little backstory
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Davis grew up in Irmo and graduated from Irmo High School and the University of South Carolina.
From a young age, his father taught him lessons on being a man and the importance of “paying it forward,” helping out those in need.
An artful child, Davis says that when he was 7, his mother taught him to do his own laundry because he wasn’t happy with the way she folded it or divided it into color coordinating piles. Being responsible for his own clothing at an early age, he learned an appreciation of the colors and textures of different fabrics, and about style and putting outfits together.
In high school, Davis says, is where he started to realize that style and fashion were ways that someone could say something about themselves without having to speak out loud. He took advantage of that, showing aspects of his personality through his evolving personal style — his choices of color, selection of hats, shoes and accessories.
Davis is proud to note that he was the first male, that he knows of, to wear a pink Polo shirt (collar popped, of course) in high school. But this first personal high note of self expression also came with Davis’ first encounter with negativity — and his first identity crisis involving fashion and the idea of masculinity.
His parents, especially his dad, were quick to remind him that being a man and being masculine was not about the clothes that he wore but what was inside him. A man can be fashionable and stylish while maintaining his masculinity — even if he’s wearing pink or purple.
That red blazer
While at USC, Davis and a friend, Adam, went on a shopping trip to an area mall.
Passing Express, Davis spied a red Nantucket blazer that he decided he just HAD to have. He’d purchased items at Express before so he was somewhat confident when he went to try on the jacket in his size (a 44 at the time).
This time, however, the jacket didn’t fit him. When he asked the clerk if it came in a larger size, Davis was told that 44 was the largest size available and that, basically, he was “too big” to shop there.
This exchange may be familiar to female shoppers of a certain size, but it was something new to Davis.
It was his first body shaming experience. He couldn’t shake it off — and he didn’t realize at the time how it would impact his future.
By 2012, Davis was getting older, he’d become a father, gotten married, and developed a “dad bod” with stretch marks and a little roundness around the middle. While he was confident in his fashion sense and style, he was uncomfortable in his body. He’d wear pulled together outfits in his day-to-day world as a middle school art teacher, but would wear jeans to the beach — and he never took off his shirt.
The red blazer incident became a flash point. He decided he needed an outlet to express his feelings about body image and overall kindness, and space to project a positive image of black masculinity.
The blog Notoriously Dapper, at notoriouslydapper.com, was born in that moment.
Davis credits his wife for coming up with the name — “dapper” being a word used to describe a man who is neat and trim in appearance or bearing.
On the blog, Davis writes about “how to be a modern gentleman with manners, style and body confidence.” He features photos of him in his coordinated outfits along with positive messages about style and image. It’s Davis’ way of “giving some guys confidence in who they are, no matter their body type or race or religion or sexual orientation. Embracing who they are — not the fact of what it is to be a man, but what it is to be a human.”
Those positive vibes have been noticed by the likes of The New York Times, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post and Glamour magazine. The outspoken plus-sized female model Tess Holiday invited him to join her Instagram platform, @effyourbeautystandards
His audience grew.
In August 2017, Lush Cosmetics, coordinators for the Love Thyself conference in London, asked him to speak about the American black millennial perspective on body image.
“I kept it real,” Davis says.
“It’s hard to tell a teenage black kid to be comfortable in their own skin and to love themselves when they’re not loved for who they are — the media doesn’t like you because of who you are . . . you’re pretty much getting gunned down because of who you are.
“It’s hard to tell them to be comfortable in their skin when you’re being judged for your skin.”
In the stars
Davis says he realized that things were coming together when he was offered a book deal.
Published in 2017, The Notoriously Dapper book is part autobiography, part rules to live by. Davis was surprised later that year when the book was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work/Instructional.
Although The Awakened Woman by Tereai Trent — with an introduction by Oprah Winfrey — won the award, the recognition was great. It showed his work advocating as a positive role model for African-American men was starting to pay off. Davis was shooting commercials for the men’s plus sized clothing line Destination XL, alongside record producer DJ Khaled, retired baseball slugger David Ortiz, musician Sundance Head and retired ice hockey defenseman Hal Gil, and he appeared in national campaigns for Target and (more recently) Gap.
While he was in London last year, a representative from Bridge Models approached him about signing a modeling contract.
“She told me that (the company) was called ‘Bridge’ because they wanted to bridge the gap between what people deem as beautiful and what your own version of beauty is,” Davis says. “There are too many people in the world deciding what beauty is when beauty really is everything that you intend it to be — and who’s to say you’re not beautiful just the way that you are?”
The messages behind Notoriously Dapper and Bridge are very similar, and for Davis, a natural fit.
When worlds collide
The spotlight that brings out the best can also illuminate areas of life that are a day-to-day struggle.
For Davis, it was his “normal” teaching job at a Richland District 1 middle school where he was an art teacher and helped coach the football team. That was his full-time job.
The blog, the book, and the modeling gigs were part time. He’d go off and shoot a commercial, rub elbows with celebrities at conferences and awards ceremonies over the weekend and be in front of his class on Monday morning.
He never told his students about his side gig. Once or twice, a student would say that they’d seen him in a commercial on TV or in an ad in print. Davis hoped that the kids saw the bigger picture — yes, he was modeling, but he wasn’t bragging about it. He was back doing his job in Columbia. He was teaching.
It was the week after the NAACP Image Awards that Davis decided to leave the education profession and pursue modeling full time.
“It was difficult. It was weird,” he said. “I literally went from talking to Morgan Freeman one night, to having a 13-year-old kid telling me I’m a ‘bald headed m-f-er.’ And, I have to send the kid to the main office to be written up … or not, depending on how discipline was meted out because someone else may have brought a gun to school that day.”
With the decision made, Davis said the last three months of teaching were the best in his career. It wasn’t easy for him to leave, but his passion for teaching had been supplanted by his desire to get his message of positivity and kindness out on a larger stage.
Still based in Columbia, Davis has modeling assignments scheduled through the end of the year, and he’s started writing his second book.
Tentatively titled The Strength of Being Strong, Davis puts the emphasis on being mentally strong rather than physically strong. He asks the question: which is more important or valuable in your life — to be able to cope mentally with the problems that life hands you and to be able to bounce back, to be a good husband, father, friend and brother; or is it more important to be able to bench press 400 pounds?
In the future, Davis would like to collaborate with a designer on a line of plus-sized men’s clothing. (He’s a fan of what Chrisitan Siriano has done including plus-sized women in his designer collections.)
One of the last acts Davis did as a teacher was to get the artwork produced by his students hung in a public place. He did this at the end of each school year to give the young artists a chance to be seen. Check out the gallery wall at Scoopy Doo Gelato Shop in Five Points for examples of his students’ work.