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Crafting an Icon: The Intricate Layers of Michael the III's Identity
NCO 084
2023-07-14
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by
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N: Hi Michael, how are you doing, where are you right now? 

M: Right now I am in my home, my apartment. I’m usually always here as I’m quite reclusive. I recently redecorated for that very reason, so it has a fresh new vibe and lots of great lighting. For the sake of privacy, I’ll just say I’m in Canada.

N: Who are we talking to today; Michael the III, or Michael the person behind the persona?

M: You are talking to the person behind the persona, but you are also talking to both. I see Michael the III as an extension of myself: my personality, humor, and views. He is not made up. He is me but exaggerated to the tenth degree and serves as an experiment of personal representation in the social media age.

I am both the creator and the jester whom I call upon to make points, or simply have fun with.

N: For years now, I have been fascinated by the depth of the identity that you have crafted online and by how committed you are to the creation of an icon (both figuratively and in the original religious meaning).
Could you tell us a bit more about Michael the III? What is his origin story? 

M: Michael the III has a hefty backstory that I’ve alluded to in parts but never fully shared. I’m rather protective of my personal life, of my true stories, and of the people they are about, so his origin story is a lot like mine, with most details changed.

To make a brief explanation of where he came from, Michael the III was born in Litochoro, Greece under the base of Mount Olympus causing many to speculate he may be a demi-god, while others see him as just a wannabe. I can neither confirm nor deny those accusations and they may both be true, but he was born there because his mother wanted him, a water sign, to be born somewhere that overlooks a lot of water. Perhaps that is where he gets his sense of symbolism from.

Michael and his family moved from NYC (where his parents met and had their four sons: Maximus, Massimo, myself, and Mauro Jr.) to the small town of Mount Olympus, Ohio. The coincidence of this doubled name in his origin story often has people doubling down on their decision: demi-god or wannabe... which one do you think?

Michael the III and his brothers, being but ten months apart in age and bearing few features even extended family members can tell apart, have always had a very strong, prank-focused bond, involving switched identities and a constant disregard for how the world wishes to see us. I can be my brother if I say so. He can be me.

Despite this close brotherhood, being born somewhere near the middle and the only gay child has made Michael always desire to be different, to have his own clearly defined sense of self. At a young age, he took an interest in acting, which got him some TV credits but didn’t go too far. When he stopped trying, he decided he wanted to be an etymologist and studied abroad for a year, and fell in love for the first time which really allowed him to form his own identity. After that, he returned to America and went to art school.

Some years later, as the story goes, and this part is exactly the truth with no details changed whatsoever, my friends and I started an account as a joke in early 2013 where we would post (tasteful) nudes of each other once a week.

It got fairly popular relative to the average account back then, which amazed us because it was only just a bit of fun for us. When we stopped later that year, I realized I could just go on doing it by myself, but in my own way, and I soon changed my personal account from my real name to “Michael the III”.

The true origins of Michael the III began long before that, however. As soon as I got my hands on image editing software as a young teen I began having fun with its potential, putting my friends’ faces on celebrities (usually Dolly Parton), letting them see themselves in an entirely different way, and having a laugh. When I was 17 or so, I created a series of photos of myself mostly around my bed or desk, shot on my family’s first digital camera, in multiples, each in a different outfit, pose, and attitude. I posted them at the time to a platform I cannot even remember the name of. When I found them again many years later, I was astounded that this way of working was there as soon as I had the means to do it and that the ideas of identity, self-portraiture, and silliness were being experimented with before I even had a purpose for them.

N: Where does your love for beauty, desire, sensuality, and erotism come from?

M: I’m not even sure where it comes from. I’ve always been drawn to these qualities, along with glamour. Trying to find an answer, all I can come up with is that when I would draw as a kid, like under five, it would most often be depictions of Princesses and I would generally give them cleavage, a word I could not pronounce (I called it “courage”). In my teens and until now, most of my most potent obsessions have been sex symbols: Rita Hayworth, Sophia Loren, and Beyoncé.

There is just something very appealing to me about showing off in a way that doesn’t feel like showing off, that just feels like how that person is…or perhaps put another way, showing off in a way that is singularly branded and meaningful to that individual, and also of letting imagination play a role in your desires, and of attaching something deeper than beauty to a sex symbol’s importance.

For me, I did not intend to be so outrightly sexual, It really did just start as a joke with my friends and I never really considered myself to be seen that way, but when Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled album was released, it underlined how you can portray sexuality in a meaningful and entertaining, but also in an artistic form. She is not the first to do that, but the album being released at the time that I was starting “Michael the III” turned a key for me. I then began to incorporate many of the things I enjoyed like world-building, fantasy, identity, and my growing pride in being openly gay, and mixed it into a silly form of personal expression presented as a serious figure who did take himself too seriously.


N: What is the role of the fantastic/ fantasy in your practice? In your opinion, can imagination be seen as a form of reality, or is it fundamentally separated from the world of concrete experiences?

M: Fantasy is perhaps the single most important aspect of this specific art practice. If I were asked to remove it, I don’t think I could. At the same time, I do not wish to portray myself in such a way that is not holding hands with reality.

Fantasy and reality need to work together, or you’re not saying much, you’re not doing much, and I think personally I would fall into a creative rut.

Reality propels me. When I have a weird romantic experience, I can write something far better and more meaningful than making up a conversation with a squirrel, which I’ve probably done at some point. At the same time, I can make up an entirely imaginative romantic experience that feels emotionally true (to me at least) only because I have a real understanding of the emotions included, even if how I came to them in the story never occurred.

I think imagination isn’t a form of reality but that reality is a form of imagination. Even science changes as we learn new things, converting what was once “real” to be an imagined truth, something of which we’ve convinced ourselves based on compelling evidence.

In my work, I like to present my own compelling evidence. I don’t aim to outright trick people but to make them think and to make them feel good about identifying what is real and not. If they're completely under my spell, they can just admire what they see. Ignorance is bliss. But what gives me the most joy is when people understand very clearly that it’s meant to be fake and in doing so give themselves false confidence in how they interpret my work. This allows me to surprise them, keep layers of reality hidden, or include layers of fantasy they may not even know are there. The first Michael the III images used the paint-bucket tool to drop solid colors in my backgrounds. Now a photo can take me up to 40 hours to create and while I often add probably too many hidden details for my own good, it’s that’s something that makes me happy and allows me to always know there's more for people to discover. The point is not that it’s all fantasy, but in identifying what is the fantasy.

I don’t think magicians are supposed to reveal their secrets but I’ll mention a simple one. There are times when I am legitimately hired to promote a product. And there are other times when I pretend, just for fun. In these instances, I usually pick something a bit outrageous like let’s say Chocolate Peanut Butter Spread because I want people to understand the joke. Other times, I may promote something more believable, like Gucci. And so there is a scale from the real promotions one can find on a brand’s page too, to the clearly false, to the one you would only distrust if you did your fact-checking. All may seem true, all may seem fake. And all interpretations are welcomed.

N: Thank you for giving us some of your time to answer these questions today, to finish off this interview; what values/ ideals/ aspirations does Michael the III represent?

M: Michael the III should be understood as a parody of our social media culture, but also one that happily engages with it.


Any sort of parody is prone to be caught between what it’s meant to mock and inadvertently promoting the ideals they think deserve mockery, but I am not too hard on social media for the most part. I think it’s hilarious and stupid, but also profound and unlike any other cultural movement perhaps since we invented writing utensils. It has democratized the way we can reach others, represent and present ourselves, and especially in how we document our lives: what we’re doing, how we look, what we like, what we dislike, what our experiences are, and what they are not.

The word “selfie” used to have a very negative connotation. I think that is now completely gone from the word, but when I started this, it was aligned with a supposed vapidity of the Millennial generation. There was a study that said you are more likely to be a narcissist if you post selfies, and this seemed like the most obvious conclusion that didn’t need pointing out unless you wanted us to think badly of selfies. I want us to generally be more lighthearted about these things. There are “the sky is falling” accusations labeled at every newer generation by their elders, now often being done by Millennials to Gen Z. To me, the generations are often very much the same just with different parameters. And now the ideas of reality and being “real” for public consumption have evolved too, especially with the rise of Tik Tok and less of a desire to always show yourself “in your best light”, literally and figuratively, while also trying to keep up with understanding who is still doing that.

All images courtesy of Michael

Michael the III is a character study making fun and partaking in online self-expression, branding, commerce, and self-promotion as well as aiming to sometimes educate, always make people laugh, and hopefully feel something when images and words are brought together to form one big storyline. He is gay, arrogant, sexual, and open to being seen as all those things. He aims to present a universe you may not believe in but which allows you to make up your own conclusions about me, yourself, and maybe your own life, too.

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