How Benjamin Clementine went from the streets to Hollywood

Just ten years ago Benjamin Clementine was busking on the streets of Paris with little to his name. Now he's, among other things, the face of Givenchy's latest fragrance, Gentleman Society

Balladeer, self-taught spinto tenor, poet and actor Benjamin Clementine's story is like something out of a movie. "This is all a little ironic, really, the fact that I've got this new role," Edmonton-born Clementine tells me, as we chat via a phone call. The multi-faceted talent, who grew up in London and now splits his time between California and Italy, had just been announced as the face of Givenchy Gentleman Society Eau de Parfum Extrême, the French Maison's newest fragrance for men.

The irony comes down to the fact that a little over a decade ago, Clementine was busking on the streets of Paris, with hardly two euros to rub together, let alone enough money in his pocket to afford the luxe items that Givenchy is known for. "I moved from Camden to Paris with practically nothing," Clementine, who cites Claude Debussy and Erik Satie as influences, says. "I had packed a bit of spaghetti and some raw food, and that was it." Clementine had, after a brief encounter with Amy Winehouse - "we met in a pub just before I was about to leave London" - moved from the place he called home, in search of something bigger. "I wanted to go into the wilderness of French culture," he explains. "I was drawn to Paris. When the sixty quid I had travelled with ran out, I had no choice but to busk and stay in hostels. I did that for four years. I'd make enough money for the night, and eventually I would be able to book for six months ahead."

Clementine, still busking, fortunately met Matthieu Gazier, an aspiring music exec who was keen to start a label. With Lionel Bensemou, the Parisian club master behind establishments such as Le Baron, the Hotel Amour and Le Consulat, Gazier did exactly that, naming it Behind and in turn producing Clementine's first album. "I had success in France, but for me to be truly successful I needed to find success in England, and so I moved back," Clementine adds.

With a debut album to hand (albeit in French) he decided to move back to London in 2015, licensing his work to Virgin who produced it in English. It was this album, Cornerstone, that led him to scoop the Mercury Prize, following in the footsteps of Amy Winehouse, PJ Harvey and Florence and the Machine. Christopher Bailey ("he was such a gentleman, that man, it was sad when he left), tapped him to perform at one of Burberry's London-based catwalk shows. A string of EPs and solo singles followed, his last album having been released in October 2022, with another on the way.

And Clementine is also setting his sights on pastures new. A keen nose, he says that he has a strong affiliation with scent and so the Givenchy link up made total sense. "Growing up I was surrounded by the healthy herbs, frankincense and stuff like that, that my grandma smoked," he says. "Then my father had this long huge coat - half my family were in the military - which had a unique, musky smell. And then the smell of Paris. That obviously is something I recall" Clementine was busking all over, from Château d'Eau, "where a lot of Africans were", to Montmartre. "The smell of certain areas evoked different things, the calmness of some places as opposed to others. And of course, the smell of fresh croissants at 5am."

But being Givenchy's new leading man isn't his only new gig. "I have two films coming up," he says. Blitz is an upcoming drama written and directed by Steve McQueen, which also stars Saoirse Ronan and Harris Dickinson. In the Hand of Dante is his second film, and will see Clementine act alongside Oscar Isaac, as well as compose the music for the film. "It's all new territory. It all just fell into place. I've never thought, 'oh I want to be that'"

And success doesn't surprise Clementine. He has worked for it. But this isn't an arrogance, he's just tries not to think of success in the way that most would. "I am not deluded," he laughs. "Because of where I come from, and what I've done, I know that people can be extremely fickle and tomorrow I might be no one. Yesterday wasn't as today. I'm still in touch with the people from the hostels, and that's the nice humanity of it all."

Givenchy Gentleman Society Eau de Parfum Extrême is available to buy now at givenchybeauty.com

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