In January 2016, at the first stop of the Professional Bull Riders competition season, 28-year-old Bonner Bolton was physically and mentally prepared for the kind of big win that would underline his standing as the sport’s next great champion. During the second round, Bolton was dismounting a bull named Cowboy Up when he was bucked into the air, landed on his head, broke his C2 vertebra, and left the Allstate Arena just outside of Chicago paralyzed from the neck down. He regained sensation in his body 24 hours later, but the injury would prevent him from riding for the foreseeable future and drastically interrupt the life he had worked toward since he was 10 years old, training on a ranch in West Texas with his father, Toya Bolton, a bull-riding pioneer. “It was like part of myself died on the dirt that day,” Bolton says. “You don’t know if you’ll ever be okay to live a normal life. You don’t know if you’re ever going to fully recuperate. In that moment, there was a lot I didn’t know.”
Four months later, while barely out of a neck brace, he was approached and signed by powerhouse agency IMG Models, which took note of Bolton after seeing images shot of him at the 2015 PBR World Finals. (IMG Models’ parent company WME-IMG acquired PBR in April of 2015.) He was a natural, almost inevitable crossover poster boy, with his rare but approachable square-jawed good looks, rugged athleticism, and unbothered attitude about flashing his chest and the tattoo that reads “Faithfulness” that he got when he was 20. “That meant a lot to me because it really fueled my fire to recover as hard as I could,” he explains, “to get back on my feet, get well, and get on with it to try and do something new.” In a sense, fashion changed his life. “It really did,” Bolton says and laughs. “Fashion changed my life, man.”
A few months after that, Bolton joined the cast of Dancing with the Stars, where he became a breakout heartthrob rumored to be in a “showmance” with his dance partner, Sharna Burgess. He shared his story with the audience, foxtrotted to Michael Bublé, and placed an impressive fifth—an experience that counts as one of the world’s more unusual physical therapies.
“Even though it was super painful and I may not have been one hundred percent truly, physically ready to go through all that, I bore down, tried hard, and kept putting myself through it, dancing anywhere from four to eight hours a day, seven days a week,” he says. “I’d really like to continue to push myself physically to inspire people. That was my number one purpose for doing that show. It really wasn’t because I felt superprepared or con dent that I could even do it. It was about the challenge itself and that I was willing to take it on and not let it intimidate me.”
Today it seems that the Bonner Bolton Enterprises logo that the Dancing with the Stars art department invented for the set of his and Sharna’s final number—a sexy secretary jazz trio set to “That’s What I Like” by Bruno Mars—was a hint of things to come. His first modeling job was a campaign for Saks Fifth Avenue. “Then I started going to New York to dinner meetings with people like Mario Testino and Bruce Weber,” he says. Bolton appears in American Eagle’s current campaign, and when he adds, mysteriously, that he did “a really cool collaboration with Steven Klein on a really big project coming out that’s going to be a huge thing,” he is referring to his fragrance that he expects to launch next summer. “On the other side of being a cowboy, I’m an artist at heart,” he says.
“I went to school for it. My mom’s an art teacher. I have a partner who I create media with—about my sport, my lifestyle, and my culture.” Bolton also plays music with his younger brother and wants to build out his platform to include physical fitness and health. “I became an athlete at a young age and almost ended my career and my life a little over a year ago. Now that accident has launched me into a new direction.”
Bolton still feels the effects of the injury in his day-to-day life. “Depending on what I’m doing, and especially when I’m super active,” he says. If you check his Instagram, you can see him riding again, even if it’s only on an inflatable bull out with friends on the Frio River in Texas last Memorial Day. “Yeah, that was my first ride cracking back out. You know, that thing was damn hard to ride. It was pretty squirrelly. I was kind of impressed. I never tried to ride a bull in a river, but it’s harder than it seems.”
See the rest of his shoot with Terry Richardson in CR Men’s Issue 5, on newsstands September 7th, 2017.END
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