After making it to the NFL and playing for the New York Giants, Keith Carlos made a unique pivot into modeling and acting. Growing up in a tough area of Bridgeport, Connecticut, Carlos realized football was a ticket to a better life, but once he attained that freedom, he was able to focus on finding something he truly enjoyed doing. We sat down with Carlos to discuss his path to celebrity and what he learned along the way.
What was it like growing up in Bridgeport?
People hear Connecticut and they think white picket fences and tee-ball games. Bridgeport is the ninth most dangerous city in the United States, according to CNN. I grew up in that environment where all the people I looked up to—uncles, cousins—were in and out of jail. My father passed away. I was doing things in the streets that were really bad. I got kicked out of school. Really, I was in a treacherous situation.
Keith Carlos, America’s Next Top Model
My older peers who knew I was a really good athlete didn’t want me to do what they were doing in the streets, but I wanted to do what they were doing because it seemed cool at the time. My friend was murdered, and that sparked something in me—hearing my mom cry, saying she didn’t want me to end up like him. That helped me to get everything in line. If I wanted to make her situation easier, if I wanted to make my life easier, I would have to straighten up in school, and really make it in football to get an opportunity to make it out.
What made you decide to leave the NFL?
I remember in third grade when the teacher asked me what I wanted to do, I said I wanted to play in the NFL. I always was a standout on every team I was on, from flag football to high school and college.
But by the time I got to college, I was burned out, mentally. I disliked football, but I did it because I knew that was my way out, to get an education. I got out of my environment, but I realized I still had family, and I was dealing with their problems and dealing with my own problems. The politics of football are exhausting, but I stayed with it. I felt like I owed it to my family and myself to keep at it. I don’t have anyone to pay for college, so I had to do it.
In the NFL, if you get injured, they cut you and bring on other people. I got injured, and I recovered from it, but I got the opportunity to go on America’s Next Top Model, and that worked out for the best. I never looked back. It’s a whole other struggle trying to make it in the NFL.
Is it tough being on a reality TV show like America’s Next Top Model?
Yes, depending on what personality you have. I’m kind of numb to a lot of things because of the way I was brought up, and football. We get critiqued hard in football, cussed out, kicked, whatever. When it comes to modelling, and someone tells you you’re this and that, it rolls off me. I have thick skin. A lot of the other contestants who weren’t raised like that, or weren’t in sports, they take it a whole different way, and it breaks them down. Mentally, some of them don’t recover from it. The modeling industry as a whole is a hard industry for people who are not like me because criticism is a constant. Models constantly get criticism.
Even me, I’m insecure now. I find myself thinking about things because they constantly tell you you’re too fat, too skinny, you have too many tattoos, you’re too black, too white. There’s always something. You have to have tough skin.
If you could tell your teenage self one thing, what would it be?
I would tell myself to educate myself about credit, and no more tattoos. A lot of people that grow up in situations like I did, urban America, we do not receive any education on how important good credit is. It really sets you up for life. A lot of us have bills because our parents are illiterate to it, so they put little bills in our name, and don’t pay it, and it’ll mess our credit up down the road. If I was speaking to my younger self, I would educate myself on that. I would also have less tattoos, body art. Everything else, I really wouldn’t change because I feel like it made me who I am.
As a new father to a six-month-old son, how do you plan on instilling that same grit in him, despite the fact that he is growing up in a very different world?
I always wanted someone like myself that I could look at and try to be like him, to learn something. I didn’t know if I touched the stove it would burn my hand. With my son having me, I feel like he’ll be able to look at me and my accomplishments, and that’ll inspire him. I’ll just impart everything that I have learned up to this point that I wish I had known back then. Now that I have a name, and I have connections, I’ll be able to set him up, but also make him earn it at the same time.