If you’re not a morning person, don’t have breakfast with Royal Ballet star Eric Underwood. The 32-year-old beams with the sort of superhero levels of confidence and joy that would make anyone feel a bit Eeyore-ish by comparison. As he tucks into his meal (two fried eggs with a side of chorizo; he leaves the toast), he even says, “I just really enjoy being myself.”
The British-American has been a dancer with the Royal Ballet for nearly 10 years, after being spotted at the age of 21 while on tour with the American Ballet Theatre in London. He has since danced the lead in Swan Lake, Sylvia and Manon, and Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. Now he’s finding a new audience as a model, being photographed by Mario Testino and Nick Knight, and sitting on front rows at fashion week.
Underwood came to ballet as a teenager, which is relatively late for a professional. He was raised in a low-income family in a suburb of Washington DC, one of three children, but his parents’ only biological child (he has two half siblings from his father’s previous marriage). His father passed away when Underwood was 17, and you get the sense that he got the lion’s share of his mother’s attention, with whom he is still best-friend close .
“My parents did the whole American, ‘We believe in you, you can do whatever you want to do thing,’” he says. Unlike his brother, who was into carpentry, and his academic sister, Underwood was more creative, something that manifested itself every time he danced with the neighbourhood kids or customised their jeans with a Magic Marker pen.
At home, he was nurtured and loved, but says he would hear the sound of gunshots outside every day. “It stressed my mother out and she would make us lie on the ground until the shots finished.” One night, somebody was killed outside their flat. “I don’t have any traumatising memories of seeing that body, because when you grow up hearing gunshots, at some point you know that there will be a dead body.” He adds that he was just glad it wasn’t a familiar face. “I have childhood friends who are no longer with us or who are in prison because of gun crime. That was a reality.”
His mother wanted him to go the nearby performing arts school, a more promising bet than mainstream school. “One day she said, ‘OK, we’re going to make you an actor.’ She got a book out of the library [so I could] learn an entire monologue for an audition.” But on the day, he got stage fright and forgot all his lines.
That might have been the end of it, but as he was leaving Underwood saw some girls practising ballet in the next room. “I couldn’t walk out of that building and say to my mum, ‘I didn’t get that’. That was a no-no.’” Underwood walked in, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and insisted the teacher give him a go. “I felt like I could be great at this, and that I could change my family’s destiny if I got it right.” The experience was a baptism of fire, with the teacher shouting out specialist dance terms (tombé and glissé). “I knew nothing, but I said, ‘If you show me, I can do it.’”
He was given a trial run that same day, and was soon taking regular classes. His teacher took him, one of the only boys in her class, under her wing and drove him around the city to attend different classes. This led to tensions between his teacher and his mother. “She was like, ‘I’m your mother, I’m used to giving you everything you need’. But then this ballet teacher came along and gave me something she couldn’t give me.” The two eventually realised they had a common goal and became friends.
Underwood, meanwhile, was absorbed in becoming a better dancer. “I would put my leg up on the bunk bed in my bedroom, stretch and watch videos of The Nutcracker and A Chorus Line over and over again. I was obsessed.”
His mother had anxiety issues and then a heart attack, which meant she could no longer work. The household income suffered, “but where the finances went away, it was replaced by time”. Underwood says: “My mother was home more, so she’d be able to say, ‘Eric, let’s do your homework together.’”
There was fun to be had, too. Every Friday night his mother would gather together the family, make a barbecue dinner, move the furniture and dance around the house to Teddy Pendergrass. “It wasn’t just a Friday night dressed in pyjamas,” Underwood explains. “She’d come fully dressed. She’s quite a vibrant woman who likes to do things, and this was her way of going out.”
At 15, he won the Philip Morris foundation scholarship to the School of American Ballet (“My mother was like, ‘Oh, you must be quite good, then’”) and in New York, for the first time in his life, he heard people refer to him as “the black one”. Did that hurt? “No. My mother had always told me I was beautiful and amazing. I thought it was their problem. I never felt negative about being black. I’ve always thought, ‘I look great, I can dance, I’ve got some rhythm. Things are on the up and up! I’m just going to go home, put on some Marvin Gaye and have a blast!’”
Underwood joined the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 2000 and was promoted to soloist at the end of his first season; in 2003, he moved to American Ballet Theatre, where he and Misty Copeland were the only two dancers of colour in the company. He tells me about something that happened on tour in Mississippi: he and Copeland were entering their hotel at the same time as a homeless man was being denied access. The man watched them go in and then screamed, “You won’t let me in, but you let these fucking niggers in?” Underwood remembers the sense of shock. “I felt singled out and defeated. In that moment, I wasn’t just one of the dancers.”
Until recently, ballet shoes for black feet didn’t exist – the “flesh tone” shoe was always a pale pink or beige – and Underwood’s pre-show ritual used to include a laborious 45 minutes spent caking his “nude” ballet pumps with dark makeup. Once, in Italy, he failed to find the right makeup and struggled to cover his shoes for a performance. “I posted an Instagram to some companies, suggesting there should be different coloured shoes. A Russian ballet company replied, saying, ‘You’re black. You should wear black shoes.’”
But one major manufacturer, Bloch, responded by creating a line in darker tones, including one co-designed with Underwood, which they call Eric Tan. Underwood has been dancing in them since March this year.
He believes that visibility is the best way to get more diversity in ballet. “It’s about having ballet on your radar, and it’s important to see people who reflect you doing it. Ballet can be incredibly elitist and expensive. Unless you can afford those luxuries, you don’t see it as being a possibility.”
Earlier this year, Underwood went to a school in east London with the BBC show Inside Out, to get some of the kids to try ballet. Out of 60 boys, he identified two whom he thought had real talent. One of the mothers went on to enrol her son in classes, but the other mother was immovable in her view that boys don’t do ballet. “She said, ‘His father wants him to play football. He doesn’t dance.’” Underwood shrugs: “People ask me why there aren’t more dancers of colour, or boys, and it’s about the parents.”
His own father’s reaction to his dancing was positive. “My father was quite a shy man. He said, ‘So I hear you’re dancing?’ I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he said, ‘Well, as long as you’re happy’. That was the end of that.”
Underwood joined the Royal Ballet in 2006, and in 2008 became a soloist and moved to London; he recently became a British citizen. He says he loves London’s diversity, and now feels like a visitor when he goes back to the States to visit his mother, who has moved to North Carolina. His brother is now a furniture builder and his sister a teacher.
Recently, Underwood has begun to look beyond dancing. “I love dancing,” he explains, “but I want to be able to stop early enough that I can reinvent myself.” Last year, he signed to the same talent agency as Alexa Chung, and has since been photographed by David Bailey (a full-frontal nude for British GQ); Testino snapped him with Kate Moss for Italian Vogue, an experience he describes as “in-cre-dible. She knew every angle. It was genius.”
He has loved fashion from a young age, and cites model Tyson Beckford and the Fresh Prince as early style icons. “I think of clothing as costume. One day I can be punk, and another I can be Ralph Lauren on a yacht.” Today, he’s wearing a maroon, button-down shirt that’s more normcore than out-and-out fashion. “I’m in a classic look because of work,” he explains.
You’d think a lifetime of focusing on his body and what it can do, as both a dancer and a model, would make Underwood self-critical, but he’s too well-adjusted for that. “When people are getting shot outside your house, your priorities are different,” he says. “It’s not about having a bit of fat under your leg.”
But he once described training as “nine hours staring at your faults”, dancing in a room full of mirrors. What does that do to a person? “It can be a great thing or it can destroy you. I think it’s important to know who you are when you’re looking into that mirror.”