Singer-actor Benjamin Kheng apologises for offensive magazine photo

Benjamin had posed as Kurt Cobain holding his hand to his face in a gun posture, which was meant to imitate a photo of Kurt holding a cigarette. (Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore file photo)

SINGAPORE — Singer-actor Benjamin Kheng has apologised for seemingly making light of suicide after being criticised for a magazine photo shoot in which he posed as the late singer Kurt Cobain.

The Sam Willows band member and singer Nathan Hartono were featured in a fashion photo spread in the August 2019 issue of fashion magazine Men’s Folio, where they dressed as various rock stars. Besides Kurt Cobain, Benjamin also posed as Elvis Presley and David Bowie, while Nathan posed as Freddie Mercury, Sid Vicious and John Lennon.

Benjamin’s photograph as Kurt Cobain features him in a pose where he holds his hand to his face in a gun posture, which was meant to imitate a photo of Kurt holding a cigarette.

The 29-year-old said in a statement posted on his Facebook page on Wednesday (11 Sept), “Some of you have rightfully pointed out the offensiveness of this image. I'm deeply sorry. The blame is on me for this mistake, and not on Men's Folio, who at numerous junctures allowed me the opportunity to review the issue.”

American musician Kurt Cobain was the frontman of rock band Nirvana. He struggled with depression and heroin addiction, and died by suicide in 1994 at the age of 27 after he shot himself in the head with a shotgun in his home.

Benjamin and his sister Narelle, who are both members of the popular band The Sam Willows, were featured as spokespeople for a suicide prevention campaign by Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) in 2015. Narelle is involved in SOS’s campaign this year, which was launched on Sunday (1 Sept).

Earlier last month, Nathan Hartono also experienced some controversy for the same Men’s Folio photo shoot. His skin tone was quite dark in his portrayal of the late Queen singer Freddie Mercury, which led some people to accuse him of committing brownface. Nathan issued an apology explaining that his skin was naturally brown.

Below is the full text of Benjamin’s statement:

This is a public apology.

A few months ago, I was involved in a shoot with Men's Folio, depicting iconic rockstars. I was given the role of Kurt Cobain and a picture reference to follow - Kurt smoking a cigarette in a gun posture. I, alongside a few members of the team, raised a couple of concerns about this posture, but it was collectively decided (me included) that we should go ahead with it for the mean time. At that moment, I wrongly recalled that he died of natural causes (totally not an excuse, because even if the case, this pose would still be considered offensive).

I should mention that I was also guest editor of this issue, and had the authority and opportunity, at many other points before the publishing date, to rectify it. But instead I glossed over it, oblivious to how distasteful it was.

Some of you have rightfully pointed out the offensiveness of this image. I'm deeply sorry. The blame is on me for this mistake, and not on Men's Folio, who at numerous junctures allowed me the opportunity to review the issue.

Suicide is not a commodity to be glamorised and should never be painted in a trivial and tokenistic light. My apologies to Samaritans of Singapore, of which I've been a spokesperson for, and anyone else going through depression of any degree. I accept the repercussions and will do better.

If you have thoughts of suicide or are feeling distressed, you can call the Samaritans of Singapore 24-hour hotline at 1800 221 4444.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article said that Benjamin Kheng was a spokesperson for SOS’s suicide prevention campaign this year, which is not true. He was involved in SOS’s 2015 campaign. We are sorry for the error.