R&B singer Merlot has enthralled photographers and tastemakers alike with his Instagram presence—but they haven't seen anything yet. With a debut single dropping later this month and a budding reputation as one of New York’s most stylish club kids to uphold, the Berklee grad and Florida native sat down with us to chat authenticity, artistry and which fine wines pair best with excess. Interview by Sean Santiago. Photographed by Charles Ludeke. Styled by Matthew Pedersen. Hair by Nigella.
It seems like you're constantly in front of a camera—you’ve even shot with Ryan McGinley. What's that like, and what kind of role does your social media presence play in that?
I'm a Leo, so I love having my photo taken, but overall I find it really empowering. I was never the most confident person, but being able to have this chapter of my life immortalized in photos is really special. Being contacted to do modeling work for having a "unique" look has totally helped me embrace a lot of my insecurities, [and] social media had everything to do with it. Any of the photoshoots I've done have stemmed from someone contacting me on Facebook or Instagram after seeing other photos of me.
You've been called a club kid before—can you tell us a bit about your getting ready ritual?
I wouldn't consider myself a "club kid" at all. That's an entirely different brand, and I love the art of it all and the dedication to coming up with looks and the transformations that people can pull off, but I would just label myself an "artist," period. Sometimes that's seen specifically in the way that I present when I go out. Truthfully, 80% of my routine [when I'm getting ready] is making a mess of my room. Throwing around a ton of clothing options on my bed and on the floor, mixing and matching outfits I've worn before to try and come up with something new every time.
How often do you change your hairstyle? What's your favorite way to wear it?
The possibilities of my hair have only recently come to light for me. I never grew up changing it, and for the most part I kept it short. It wasn't until I got to college that I finally found the perfect concoction of hair products to finally allow it to grow healthily and quickly. This is the longest my natural hair has ever been. [When] I got to New York I started being creative; I started getting twists and box braids from time to time. At this point, I consider it an extension of my creative expression and I would change it far more often if it wasn't so expensive. And if the upkeep and maintenance was easier. It's a luxury to me.
Favorite nail color you've ever tried?
I love anything metallic or holographic, and those are usually the only colors on my nails.
Jacket by Adidas Originals, shirt by Uniqlo. Vintage Tommy Hilfiger pants.
You're going out and it's a lip or an eye—but just one! Which do you do and why?
Always an eye. I never wear a lip when I go out. I used to be really self-conscious about the size of my lips. I used to get made fun of when I was a kid because people thought they were too big for my face. Now that I've grown up—and grown into them—they're my favorite feature. It's especially funny because people are spending hundreds of dollars to get the lips I was born with. BOOP.
Matte or dewy?
Matte, for now. Ask me in a year.
Drink of choice? Is it really Merlot?
Ha! I do prefer red wine in general, but Merlot actually is a lot heavier and more bitter than something I would choose to drink socially or lounging around the house. It's a perfect choice paired with steak at dinner time, but I prefer a Malbec or a Cabernet. They're much smoother and you can easily drink them in excess. But, hey, the name chose me.
Merlot wears a vintage shirt and vintage pants, stylist's own. Vintage military vest. Shoes by Telfar.
Last, but not least, tell me a little bit about being authentic with yourself, which you mentioned in a prior interview. What does that look and feel like for you?
For me, being able to be authentic with myself came when I understood that living my truth and loving my queerness was essential if I was ever going to live a healthy and prosperous life. I spent a lot of time when I was young thinking that being a QPOC could potentially hold me back from achieving everything I wanted to in life, but now I realize that that's not the case at all. Loving and embracing who I am is crucial to my success and happiness. And I'm finally at a very happy place in my life, and that feels amazing.—