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 spoke with Carlos to discuss his path to celebrity and what he learned along the way.
Q: What was it like growing up in Bridgeport?
Carlos: People hear Connecticut and think white picket fences and tee-ball games. Actually, Bridgeport is the ninth most dangerous city in the United States. 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 dangerous situation.
My older peers didn’t want me to do what they were doing, but it seemed cool at the time. Until my friend was murdered—that sparked something in me. And 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.
Q: What made you decide to leave the NFL?
Carlos: 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 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 persevered because I knew football was my ticket to college. I didn’t have anyone to pay for college, so I had no choice. So I stayed with it. I felt like I owed it to my family and myself to keep at it.
In the NFL, if you get injured, they cut you and bring on other people. I got injured. While I was recovering, I got the opportunity to be on America’s Next Top Model, and that turned out for the best. I never looked back.
Q: Is it tough being on a reality TV show like America’s Next Top Model?
Carlos: Yes, depending on what personality you have. I’m kind of numb to many things because of 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 in sports, they take criticism 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 some people because criticism is a constant. Models constantly get criticism.
Even me, I’m more 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.
Q: If you could tell your teenage self one thing, what would it be?
Carlos: I would tell myself two things: 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 the importance of good credit. It really sets you up for life. Many of our parents are also financially illiterate. They might put little bills in our name, and never pay it. That messes up our credit up down the road. If I was speaking to my younger self, I would educate myself on that. I would also have fewer tattoos, body art. Everything else, I really wouldn’t change because I feel like it made me who I am.
Q: As a new father to a six-month-old son, how do you plan on instilling that same grit in him?
Carlos: I always wanted a role model, someone who I could look up to and try to be like. I didn’t know if I touched the stove it would burn my hand. With my son having me, I hope he’ll be able to look at me and my accomplishments, and that will 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 connections, I’ll be able to help set him up, but I’ll also make him earn it at the same time.