Jim Jordan curls his bare toes around the edge of his pool, which looks out over the rolling hills and canyons of Calabasas, California. Earlier, when he’d gotten to the point in his life story where he said “I had everything that the world tells you that you need to be happy, but I was not happy,” which naturally preceded his miraculous discovery that there was even more happiness available, Jordan was referring to stuff like this view, and this pool, and the fountain burbling nearby, and the manicured lawn leading up to his all-white mansion in the Oaks, an address that represents the pinnacle of a certain kind of achievement. Although the real top of the mountain is just across the canyon to the right, a gated community within the gated community where Khloé Kardashian recently bought a place from Justin Bieber. Jordan, a talent agent, grew up in this area; he remembers when it was all real oaks and orange groves, before the trees were cleared to make way for all the mansions during the housing boom.
He looks down at his iPhone and dials, his face reflected on the screen. At 55, Jordan is tanned, with bleached-blond hair that swoops up and out in a way that might cause people his age to recall the band A Flock of Seagulls.
“ ’Sup, buhhdddy,” Jordan says, as FaceTime summons the image of a striking young man whose cheekbones and ice-blue eyes give off the impression of intensity even through the fuzzy connection. Jordan grins — a flash of white teeth that might, if the light up here were not so golden, look predatory. “How you doing today?”
“It’s all right!” the head, which belongs to Jeremy Meeks, nods. “I’m doing pretty good!”
If you are the sort of person who believes in miracles, you might see this conversation as evidence of one. After all, there are few people in Meeks’s position, which is to say in federal custody, who would claim to be feeling good. And there is no sensible explanation for how a felon from the burned-out city of Stockton came to be chatting on a Sunday afternoon with an entertainment agent in the Oaks, a development that until recently would probably never have let him past its gates. If he were telling his own life story, Meeks would never utter a sentence like “I had everything that the world tells you that you need to be happy,” because he had very few of those things up until June 18, 2014, when a thoroughly modern set of circumstances turned him from a statistic into an international heartthrob.
When Meeks, his car reeking of marijuana, pulled up in front of the Stockton home of a man police had identified as a “documented gang member” at the precise moment they were poised to raid the place, it seemed at first like another bad move in a life full of them. So accustomed was Meeks, a 30-year-old forklift operator, to losing at the hands of the law that he didn’t protest when the police asked to search his vehicle. In fact, he pointed them to where he’d stashed weed and a 9-mm. cartridge. Nor did he make much of an effort to explain the unregistered, loaded pistol they found in the trunk. He’d never even opened the trunk before, he halfheartedly suggested, before trying the competing idea that he’d found the gun in some bushes. He asked for a cigarette.
“Fine,” he exhaled. “It’s mine.”
Later he would tell Jordan it was the realization that he was well and truly screwed that caused him, when he faced the camera for his mug shot, to pout ever so slightly, and cock his head in a way that not only emphasized his cheekbones but also played down the gang-related tattoos on his neck while rendering almost poignant the teardrop inked just below his left eye. And who knows what other magic was in play that somehow turned the resulting photograph into one of the all-time greats of the genre, a virtual work of art that began circulating as soon as the Stockton Police Department posted it to its Facebook page as part of an announcement of the successful completion of “Operation Ceasefire.” Maybe it was that California lighting, some commenters posited, that “luminated his face with a warm glow that brings out his blue eyes.” Or the cop who took the picture had an unrealized gift. (Who took this mugshot? Annie effing Leibovitz?) Maybe it was a higher power, who, having created Jeremy Meeks (Look at God, he outdid his self with this one. Me likey likey), decided to pluck him out of the darkness and deposit him directly in front of the gated community that is paradise (This is the spirit of God moving …).
This is a theory Meeks and Jordan are inclined to believe. If they have anything in common, it is that they are both religious men. “God is good,” Meeks affirms, as his agent tells him about the opportunities that have come in for him, clutching a list that includes names like Steven Klein, Bruce Weber, and Ryan Seacrest.
“I don’t want to overwhelm you, but we should talk about you potentially moving to L.A.,” Jordan is saying, when he realizes Meeks hasn’t spoken in a while. “Can you hear me?” he asks, frowning. He shakes the phone. “You’re frozen!”
Frozen has more or less been Jeremy Meeks’s status since that June day two years ago. “I just visited my wife, and she said I, like, blew up all over Facebook,” he said, befuddled, when a news crew from KXTV, the local ABC affiliate, arrived at the San Joaquin County jail the following afternoon to inform him of his burgeoning internet celebrity.
Just two days after the arrest, BuzzFeed declared his mug shot “officially a meme.” Reddit had a field day with the best Facebook comments about him, and on Twitter, a subset of fans who saw modeling potential were Photoshopping his mug shot into ads for Calvin Klein and Givenchy. Soon mainstream news anchors in suits were sitting in front of graphics like CRIMINALLY GOOD LOOKING, struggling to maintain their dignity while reading Facebook comments: “If this guy broke into my house I’d make him forget why he broke in within 30 seconds. Laugh out loud.” Some of them tried to be responsible. “We never want to glorify or put people like this in the news,” said the KXTV anchor at the end of his segment, “but a lot of you are talking about it online …” By the end of the week, #FelonCrushFriday, it was clear the fans had won.
Leanna Rominger was in a meeting when she got a text from a friend informing her that her brother’s mug shot was all over the internet. Twelve years his senior, Rominger had taken official custody of him when he was 10 and their mother, Katherine Angier, who’d been in and out of prison throughout their childhood, stopped being able to care for her four children. For a while, it had gone well. And when Jeremy first started getting in trouble, it was for normal kid stuff: cutting school, breaking curfew. But in the tenth grade, Jeremy dropped out of school and moved out, and two months after his 18th birthday, Rominger got a call that he was facing a felony sentence for stealing a car. Her brother served two years, and when he came out, it didn’t seem like he had been rehabilitated. The tattoos that he’d started getting in high school had multiplied and now seemed to indicate an association with the Crips, which probably didn’t work in his favor when a security guard accused him, in 2005, of trying to steal a pack of pellets. They didn’t get him on theft; having given the cops his older brother’s name, Meeks ended up serving 71 days for forgery.
But that was in the past. Eventually, Meeks met Melissa Curl, a cute nurse with two kids. They’d gotten married, had a son, and settled in Stockton, where he’d landed what Rominger thought was likely his first real, income-tax-paying job. This mug shot her friend was talking about must be old.
But no, she realized, clicking on the link. There was her brother, above the caption: “30 year old man, convicted felon, arrested for felony weapon charges,” the comments below it piling up in real time, in multiple languages (“OHHHH … CARITA DE ANGELITO PERO CORAZON QUE DE MIEDITO”). There were career suggestions (“This guy needs to get out of the felony game and into modeling”) and, of course, jokes: “OMG!!! Is a criminal, he killed my ovaries,” along with the inevitable “Don’t drop the soap!”
Rominger did not lol. She left work and drove to Stockton, where she found Melissa and her children barricaded in their house. The local Fox affiliate had put up a post about the photograph’s popularity, and immediately, the family’s phones had started ringing with calls from reporters wanting to know more about the Hot Felon, or “Dreamy McMugshot,” as TMZ was calling him. Their own Facebook accounts were being raided for family photos, and far-flung relatives were coming out of the woodwork to offer commentary. “He has a past and because of it he is being stereotyped,” Jeremy’s niece in Florida told the Daily Mail. “He gave his heart to God, that is why he changed.” There was a rumor that his wife, “furious” over the attention being paid to her husband’s mug shot, had killed him out of jealousy, and another that Oprah had paid his bail in full. And to Rominger’s horror, their wayward mother, Katherine, had already started a GoFundMe page, asking for $25,000 for Jeremy’s defense. Rominger managed to wrest control of the page from her mother and used the money that had been raised — about $5,000 — to hire a defense attorney, Tai Bogan, who knew the territory of Stockton if not the media, and an entertainment manager, Gina Rodriguez, to help handle the overwhelming swarm of media requests. Neither of these things did much to get her brother out of trouble. Bogan’s request that Meeks be allowed to wear “civilian clothing that is fitting for his body” during court appearances only resulted in more headlines: “I’m Too Sexy for Shackles,” blared TMZ. Soon after, Katherine and Melissa appeared on Inside Edition. It seemed that Rodriguez, a former porn star, was paving the way for Jeremy to follow a trajectory similar to those of her other clients, Honey Boo Boo and Octomom.
With Meeks unavailable, people could project on him whatever they thought he was, or whatever they wanted to be: model scouts, saviors, detectives. “The case just didn’t make any sense,” says Brenda Taylor, an accountant who took over administration of the Supporters of Jeremy Meeks Facebook fan page from its original creator, an “eccentric but sincere multilingual Tunisian developer” based in Germany. “He was being persecuted,” Taylor explains, “because he was handsome.”
On July 8, the day of Meeks’s federal arraignment, the Sacramento courthouse was prepped for the heat, and also for hotness. Meeks wasn’t the only representative of Stockton in court that day; the city itself was bracing for a ruling in the same building. Decimated by the housing crash and an increase in violent crime, it had become the largest American city to declare bankruptcy, in 2012. “Then Detroit went bankrupt,” says Roger Phillips, a reporter at the Stockton Record. “So we didn’t even get that.”
Nor did they even get the glory of being the biggest story of the day. Nationally, headlines about the city’s sorry state of affairs were dwarfed by the sadder news that the Hot Convict was now facing a federal possession charge. “Bad news for his fans,” E! Online noted. “Because federal court doesn’t allow the release of photos.” Phillips remembers “a lot of oohing and ahhing and thinking how stupid it was.” Even the courtroom sketch artist there for the bankruptcy trial couldn’t resist a quick pop-in. “He’s just so unusual-looking,” she told city employees in the elevator afterward. “He’s got these clear eyes with the darker skin and the high cheekbones. Wow. The weird thing is he has got this tattoo that is like somebody doing the OKAY sign on his neck? And then he has a teardrop. That means something not good, I think.”
Like everyone else, Jim Jordan came across Meeks’s photos in his various feeds. “I thought it was funny,” he says, sipping a glass of wine on his patio. But it wasn’t until a friend called, saying that he had a connection to Meeks, that Jordan recognized how neatly the felon fit into his mission.
A hairdresser, makeup artist, and photographer for much of his career, Jordan started his talent agency, White Cross Management, in the early aughts. He is what is known as a “mother agent,” which means that he finds talent, develops them, then signs or lends them to larger agencies in exchange for a percentage of profits. Many of the people he works with are teenage girls like Charlize, a lithe blonde 14-year-old who drops by with her mother, a member of the cast of Swedish Hollywood Wives (Svenska Hollywoodfruar, as it’s known in Sweden), on the afternoon of my visit. “Gigi Hadid, Behati, Taylor Hill,” she says, primly ticking off Victoria’s Secret Angels when asked about her goals. “I idolize them.”
“You know, I discovered Gigi Hadid,” says Jordan, who has a Trumpian ability to take any thread and spin it into a self-affirming tale of questionable authenticity. He’d spotted Hadid on the beach, he says, with a friend who knew her parents, and taken some pictures, but it didn’t work out. “But Mohamed,” her father, “is all like, ‘You discovered Gigi!’ ” he finishes. “I’m not out in the world saying, ‘I discovered Gigi.’ But that’s what happened.”
Anyway. About a decade ago, in the wake of some “gnarly spiritual stuff” that culminated in a scene where Jordan found himself huddled in a fetal position on the floor of a Malibu church, speaking in tongues, while Pamela Anderson and Kid Rock watched from across the aisle, he had a Christian awakening. “And I started, like, going out into the world and looking to where need was,” he tells me. “And you know, some people are like, I want to go to Haiti, and I want to go to Thailand, and I want to get orphans, and I want to get prostitutes off the street,” he says. “I realized that my heart was to help beautiful people. This is my mission. ”
Jeremy Meeks was clearly beautiful and in need of help. When Jordan emailed Melissa Meeks, though, he immediately got a reply back from Rodriguez. “It says: ‘Hey back off, stop trying to poach my client,’ ” says Jordan. “So I call her and I say, ‘I don’t want to poach your client, but I can add value.’ I can hear her Googling, and she’s like, ‘Wow, you are, like, the real deal. Where do you live?’ I said, ‘The Oaks in Calabasas.’ She goes, ‘I was just there!’ ”
This connection established, she agreed to put Jordan on the team. Next thing he knew, he was driving up to the prison to meet Melissa and Jeremy. And although the guards wouldn’t let him in to see Meeks (having discovered online that he was “a famous photographer”), Jordan and Melissa bonded, and, he says, she asked him to take over, solo, from Rodriguez. (Rodriguez denies being rude to Jordan and “in awe” of either his photography or of Calabasas, where she grew up and lives. She says her relationship with Meeks's family dissolved because their constant infighting over the money gleaned from the felon's celebrity — the multiple GoFundMe campaigns, Inside Edition, and sales of photos to TMZ — made them difficult to work with, and because she was personally exhausted from working with this type of celebrity. "It's like they are all the same person," she told me, "but with different faces.") Melissa and Jordan talked weekly about their hopes and dreams for Meeks, to whom Melissa would “translate” their conversations. Eventually, he and Jeremy had a conversation over the phone. “I was like, ‘Dude, it’s so crazy, the trouble you are in,’ ” he says he told him. “I was like, ‘Bro, are people going to cut your face up, disfigure you?’ ” he says. “He’s like, ‘No.’ ”
They got to know each other. “When I talked to Jeremy about his world, it’s not like me or people I know,” Jordan tells me, tearing up. “He has never known a model or an actor or anyone in our business. For him, the celebrities growing up were, like, gang people. And when I talked to Jeremy and got to know his heart, I understood this is something real. And I chose to have a vision for him.”
Jordan’s vision is different from the one Rodriguez might have had. Among the many requests he and his assistants have fielded are the expected opportunities for club appearances, reality shows, porn. But though he wants to incorporate Meeks’s story into his brand, he doesn’t want him to be a caricature. “I don’t want Jeremy just going on shows and being like, ‘Hey, I’m a prisoner,’ ” Jordan says. He wants him to have a message: “To help get guns out of kids’ hands.”
This, of course, will co-exist with a career in high fashion. “He’s going to walk in the shows in Paris,” Jordan says, noting that Meeks’s runway walk — which he saw him do over FaceTime — is spectacular. Meeks also wants to do movies: On his list, Jordan says, is interest from the producers of the upcoming Vin Diesel vehicle xXx: The Return of Xander Cage. To this end, Meeks has been reading The Power of the Actor and The Artist’s Way. “He’s been doing his morning pages,” Jordan tells me, adding that Meeks also makes use of his transitional housing’s gym. “He works out three, four times a day.”
It wasn’t until March 8, when Meeks was released into a reentry program, that Jordan experienced the Hot Felon in his full glory. “I was like, ‘Damn, this guy isn’t just good-looking,’ ” says Jordan, who snapped pictures on the road trip from the Mendota federal prison to Meeks’s halfway house. “He has a ten-pack. Lean, he’s six-foot-one — the perfect height — fits the clothes perfect, super-white teeth.”
Meeks has announced his intentions to get all his tattoos removed, which might be a hurdle for clients who were drawn to the bad-boy image. “I just think he’s really, like, dangerous and gorgeous,” a representative of Cotton Citizen, one of the brands that had contacted Jordan, tells me. “I live in L.A., and we have the street fashion, like, thug thing.”
Jordan himself sighs sadly at the thought of his client losing that special patina. “You still want to remove them?” he asks, when he gets ahold of Meeks on FaceTime the next day.
“As soon as possible,” Meeks says. “My kids are at the age when they ask questions. I want them to know this is not the life. I don’t want them to think, My dad is that, so I have to be that.”
Meeks, who was recently remanded to house arrest for good behavior, is still technically in federal custody until July 7 and isn’t supposed to be giving any interviews at the moment. But he knows Jordan has a reporter with him, and the canned quality of his answer suggests he has been prepped. He sounds like a beauty-pageant contestant. Which, in a way, he is.
“It’s your story, man,” says Jordan.
And what a story it is. But as the internet giveth, the internet also taketh away. Since the beginning, Meeks has had his detractors: people perhaps too small-minded to partake in Jordan’s Vision. “You know he’s a felon, right?” one employee of the City of Stockton asks when I call to inquire about its most famous resident. “Like an actual criminal who is in prison?” And the news that Meeks is planning to capitalize on his renown — via Jordan, who posted a photo of the two of them leaving prison and has given several interviews boasting about offers Meeks has received from TV, film, and unnamed “royal families” — has caused even some of those fans to turn against him. “I think they’re going all Hollywood,” sniffs Brenda Taylor, noting Melissa Meeks’s increasingly glamorous Instagram presence. (“She had a kind of deep-cut shirt on, with the cleavage.”)
Worse, it’s possible the fashion world will have already deemed Meeks “over” before he begins. Because of his long incarceration, Meeks has missed some prime opportunities — like a chance to maybe be on W’s September cover with Rihanna, says Jordan, and that shot at Xander Cage, which has finished filming. “So I’d seen him around when he did the Givenchy campaign,” the woman from Cotton Citizen had told me earlier when I asked about Meeks’s appeal. “Wait, what?” I responded. “He hasn’t done any campaigns yet.” “No, he has,” she insisted. “That’s how everyone came across him. He did major campaigns, and then he was arrested.” Anyway, she went on, “it’s a good story. But my boyfriend is a photographer, and he thinks his time has already come and gone.” Not a day later, the internet was already obsessed with a new mug shot. "Move over, Jeremy Meeks," one radio station tweeted of 24-year-old felon Sarah Seawright, a.k.a. #PrisonBae, who has a rap sheet that includes aggravated assault and armed robbery and stellar hair.
Back at the Oaks, Jim Jordan gives his client one last prompt over FaceTime. “I know you have some stuff about the message that you have to share,” says Jordan.
“I do have a message,” Meeks says. But then, once again, he’s frozen. All we can see is his face.
*This article appears in the May 30, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.
Top photo courtesy of the Stockton Police Department.