Author's note: This is part II of a two-part series on British photographer Thomas Knights.
Thomas Knights was on a mission -- not just to eliminate one of the last remaining societal taboos, but to transform it into a point of sexual pride.
We've ruled out homophobia, sexism, racism, but the last acceptable form of discrimination is being anti-ginger," says Knights, who released his 'Red Hot 100' photography project to critical acclaim in late 2013. "I think, even in school, teachers struggle to take it seriously as an issue. There is a huge impact for ginger kids who are bullied. Ginger kids end up taking their own lives."
Red Hot 100 aimed to change all of that and more.
The grinning, sneering, blushing, and playful redheaded men, some shirtless and other clad only in their skivvies, burst onto the art scene in 2013; men who only a few years ago had tried to attract as little attention as possible now reveled in their newfound celebrity status. The accompanying coffee table book, released by German publishing giant Bruno Gmunder, only spread Knights' message of self-acceptance even further.
"Our motto is, be proud of who you are. It's our message, our ethos," Knights explains. "There are a lot of similarities between this issue and the gay community. It goes hand in hand with the experience of coming out. That's a really big part of it."
Art and photography lovers, gay men, and media consumers the world over heard Knights' message loud and clear -- and they wanted more. The artist followed up the original Red Hot 100 with his Red Hot 2 photography series. Welsh designer Elliott James Frieze collaborated with Knights on the project, releasing it in 2016.
Red Hot 2 included a couple of notable additions. This time, both men and women appeared in the series and photo book. And many of his models dropped their drawers to expose that holy grail for ginger lovers -- flaming red pubic hair.
"The ginger pubes thing is more recent ... and in this second project, we went to the heart of the bullying," Knights explains. "This was a more sophisticated-looking project. It was about the bullying and the emotion of it all, and it became a huge commercial hit."
Now, Knights and Frieze are hard at work on a Red Hot American Boys calendar (to follow up on the calendar's Red Hot British Boys counterpart), as well as a much-anticipated Red Hot C**ks calendar, in which some of your favorite Red Hot models will be baring all. Proceeds from the sale of the calendar will go to the Movember Foundation's Testicular Cancer Awareness project.
Knights says Red Hot fans can expect even more sensuality and eroticism from the calendar -- after all, sexiness sells.
"We want to make sure we shoot (the images for the calendar) in a homoerotic way," he says. "It's what sells calendars."
When he's not getting audiences hot and bothered with his cadre of redheaded studs, Knights can be found playing in his band, Pandora Drive. Like the Red Hot projects, his involvement in Pandora Drive and the music he creates come from a deeply personal place. His music, he says, helps him to deal with past pain.
"Our latest album is my story about struggles with addiction and escape," Knights says. "I'm a year sober now, but we wrote some of those songs at the worst time in my life, and it's nice to know that was a chapter that's over. It's brilliant to know I have some sort of documentation of that time. It's true to my experience."
That need to be completely transparent and honest as an artist has guided him throughout his career, Knights says, and it's at the heart of all art he produces -- especially the Red Hot project.
"I think I've realized that I tried for a long time to copy others," he observes. "It didn't lead to happiness at all, and somewhere along the way, I lost myself. (Red Hot) is the first thing I did from the heart, and even if it had only resonated with a few people, it would have been worth it. Ultimately, it was my story. It was incredibly scary doing something so personal, but this is the only way I can exist as an artist."