On Nov. 5, 2021, Kevin Cupree received a text from a member of both the New York Fashion Week and Paris Fashion Week boards inviting him to come to New York City the next day. With minimal advance notice and even less explanation, the young model booked a flight. A text like this from an industry icon was not something of which to be dismissive.
The following day, he gazed up at the billboard above Forever 21 and Polo Ralph Lauren in Times Square and saw his reflection staring back at him. About that time, another text came through — this time, with an explanation. The image, which will run until November 2024, was a gift made in honor of Kevin Cupree’s impact on the modeling industry while working in the City of Dreams several years prior. Now seven years into his modeling career, he has walked in front of Jay-Z and Beyoncé, performed in music videos for City Girls, Megan Thee Stallion, Nicki Minaj, and Young Thug, and donned attire from both local and global designers.
After returning from New York, school was on the top of his to-do list. It was back to the books at Newberry College, where Lee Livingston was in the final stretch of his senior semester. As he wheeled back onto campus and cracked open his biology books, Kevin shook off the extravagance of New York City and settled back into the studious life of Lee Livingston. The two are one and the same — sort of.
Lee adopted Kevin Cupree as a stage name for his modeling career in 2019. “Lee Livingston is my birth name, but Lee Livingston and Kevin Cupree are two very different people,” he says. “Lee Livingston is the student, who also handles the business. Kevin Cupree is the person who you see in front of the lens. Since developing that name, I’ve learned how to switch one on and turn the other one off.”
Whereas Kevin Cupree originated just three years ago, Lee has been around since 2000. The model, student, and savvy entrepreneur is the son of Lillie and Shellie Livingston of Irmo, South Carolina. He grew up regularly attending St. Peter’s Baptist Church, led by Bishop Odell Sims — a lifelong supporter of Lee and his multitude of endeavors.
Though he has always been outgoing and unapologetically vocal, Lee kept his social circle at Spring Hill High School relatively small. He and his alter ego spent the majority of their time tapping into their dreams and identifying who and what they wanted to be in life.
While they may not have known it at the time, SHHS teachers Sumner Bender and Norma Brown each had roles to play in this discernment process. As Lee’s drama teacher for two consecutive years, Sumner became keenly aware of the positivity she saw emanating from her student. She encouraged him to lean into the positive impact he could make on anyone. Norma, who oversaw the school’s Distributive Education Clubs of America program at the time, further instilled his sense of self-confidence simply by encouraging his participation in the program, a springboard of sorts for young leaders and entrepreneurs. “She allowed me to use DECA as a platform to speak truly about how I felt and what I believed in,” says Lee.
One thing he believed in? Himself. His parents did, too, and always have. Their support and that of his close-knit community paid off handsomely in 2016, when Lee’s modeling career began to gain traction. That spring, a selfie he posted on Instagram caught the attention of a seasoned model and actor who graciously shared tips and insights with Lee on how to get started in the industry.
From there, the resolute teen set out to perfect his technique and put himself in front of more of the right people and places, starting with none other than the Capital City’s Columbia Fashion Week in June of the same year. “Columbia Fashion Week was definitely my start,” he says.
For attendees, Columbia Fashion Week comprises only one week in a year. For models, designers, agents, directors, stylists, scouts, makeup artists, barbers, and hair stylists, it is a much different matter. The frenetic activity begins days, sometimes even weeks, prior to the runway-ready moments. Inevitably, added steps are involved for a first-timer — perhaps extra amounts of shoulder-rubbing and portfolio presentations.
“Designers would see your headshot and full body shot, then tell the owner and creator, ‘Hey, this is the model I want to walk for me.’ Then the owner would reach out to you and say, ‘You’ve been selected by this designer.’” Little time is available for celebration as this appointment is followed by a slew of fittings and refittings, as well as countless hours of practice curating the walk, talk, and turns that each model hopes will result in “the look.” “Working with people for the first time who don’t know where you came from or what experience you have truly builds your confidence.” That year, he walked for M. Dumas & Sons, Belk, Polo Ralph Lauren, and Xodax Fashion.
These names became the building blocks of Kevin Cupree’s modeling career. Although this persona was not officially unveiled until 2019, it is the product of an all-hands-on-deck approach to intentional portfolio growth. Lillie Livingston was at the helm of this undertaking. “My mom was making calls for me before I was who I am today. Before I had anyone in place to do anything, it was my mom.” He credits her commitment to his success, in combination with the connections he made at Columbia Fashion Week, with putting him on track to walk at New York Fashion Week that fall.
Lee remembers Columbia Fashion Week as having a professional, yet congenial, feel. New York Fashion Week had a distinctly different energy. There were no warm and fuzzy sentiments in the city that never sleeps. Instead, it was strictly business in Madison Square Garden. The intimidation factor was real for the self-taught teen surrounded by well-trained professionals. “To say that I didn’t become discouraged at some point would be a lie because I was able to see models who didn’t have to get ready; they were ready.”
However, he was not easily dissuaded. As he sought to steady himself and focus his energy, one thought made its way to the forefront of his mind: “The greats knew that they were great before anyone else did.” With this in mind, he pressed on with renewed determination and confidence. For the next three days, he experienced firsthand the grit and tenacity required to make it in this industry. “It sent me home with another reality. In order to be the best, you’ve got to play the part.”
Before Lee was a model, he was a businessman. At the tender age of 8 in Irmo, he turned his passion for pups into a money-making venture called K9-IFind, a matchmaking service for people and pets. Through this service, individuals submit specific descriptions of the breed of dog they are looking for, which may include preferences for particular eye and coat coloration.
“Once someone says they want a puppy and pays the deposit, my company communicates with my connections overseas to put the word out that I’m looking for something. Once it’s found, my company notifies the family and the pup is imported!” K9-IFind profits from a finder’s fee, which includes a personal guarantee of every pet’s pedigree and health certificate, as well as a satisfaction guarantee to the new owners that the dog they receive satisfies their requests.
After more than a decade, K9-IFind is still going strong. The business’s longevity is largely due to the support Lee received early on from the Auntie Karen Foundation, a local organization led by Karen Alexander that supports youth empowerment through a variety of outreach and education programs. In 2012, Lee was the recipient of the Auntie Karen Foundation’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year award.
“Karen is just someone who is a true servant of the Lord. She gives young entrepreneurs a platform and a voice, which gives youth powerful tools to be successful in today’s society,” he says.
Armed with an arsenal of tools and teachings from the Auntie Karen Foundation, Lee has grown the business from a backyard hobby to a well-oiled machine. In the past year alone, K9-IFind has connected hundreds of dogs and owners. In 2019, he added Livingston’s Bulldogs to the mix: a bulldog breeding business that he founded in college. On average, Livingston’s Bulldogs yields five litters per year, with anywhere from one to 10 puppies per litter. Needless to say, business is booming.
However, as a full-time student and ambitious model, Lee has gradually transitioned the day-to-day operations of both K9-IFind and Livingston’s Bulldogs to his parents and additional business partners. While he was reluctant to relinquish the reins, he knew that it would free up much-needed time in his schedule.
This schedule includes a highly diversified laundry list that requires frequent code-switching between Lee Livingston, MBA candidate through Columbia International University, and Kevin Cupree, rising model. His work mostly triangulates between Columbia, Atlanta, and New York City — with the occasional excursion to Los Angeles or Paris. His studies go wherever he goes — on planes, film sets, and photoshoots alike. In light of this, he takes great care to preface every job opportunity with a clear explanation of his priorities. “When it comes to modeling, being on the set of music videos or movies, I always let them know that my education comes first,” he says.
As long as Lee Livingston pursues his studies with a vigor equal to the passion for modeling exhibited by his alter ego, Kevin Cupree, his life will be most aptly described as a skillful balancing act. Fortunately, it is an act he takes great joy in performing. “I always knew the things that I wanted and the things I’d desired to become,” he says. “It may not be in the order of what I planned it to be, but it’s in the order that God planned it to be.”
While he does not envision moving back to Columbia permanently, he is far from forgetful of his roots. “Columbia holds a big place in my heart. I’m never too big to go back.”
Getting to Know Lee:
Q: What is your favorite nook or local hangout in Columbia?
A: I’m big on sweets, so, Rita’s Italian Ice in downtown Columbia. A lot of people don’t know it’s still back there.
Q: What about Columbia do you miss most?
A: When I was coming up, Five Points was definitely the place to be. I kind of miss hanging out with my friends there.
Q: What was your favorite thing about living in Columbia?
A: Riverbanks Zoo! I’ve always loved going to the zoo. It’s one of my favorite places!
Q: What do you hope your modeling future entails?
A: My future of modeling looks like opening my own agency for people in Columbia who feel like they have not been discovered yet.
Q: What book is on your nightstand?
A: The Peacemaker by Ken Sande. It just really teaches you a lot about being in different atmospheres with different types of people and managing conflict.
Q: What advice would you give to a young person just starting out in their career?
A: Always be confident and unapolo-getically you. I think sometimes people want you to fit into a box of how they want you to be. When you meet someone that doesn’t fit that box but they create their own box, you open up a new avenue of so many things to transpire from there.