Nacho Figueras: 'I'm not a model, I'm a polo player'

nachoNacho Figueras. The chances are you won’t know the name but most likely you’ll recognize the face.

It stares out at you from the pages of countless magazines and adorns billboards across the planet as the face of luxury fashion brand Polo Ralph Lauren.

Figueras is polo’s answer to David Beckham, a sporting icon in his native Argentina who transcends his day job as a professional polo player.

He is friends with Princes William and Harry, was once voted the world’s second most handsome man by Vanity Fair magazine (behind the actor Robert Pattinson) and has appeared in the TV series “Gossip Girl.”

In addition, he runs his own polo horse-breeding program in Argentina — breeding between 70 and 80 horses each year — and uses his status for wide-ranging charity work.

Of the Beckham analogy, he says: “I don’t know if that’s true. The comparison maybe comes from how much Beckham has done to promote football in the world. He has become a person that transcends football.

“You have Lionel Messi as the best footballer on the planet but he plays football, goes home, trains. For Messi, football is his work but Beckham’s work is broader than that. He and his wife are obviously very connected in the fashion world.”

Figueras is well aware of his omnipresence in waiting rooms, magazine stalls and airports the world over.

Speaking to CNN in a phone interview from California where he is currently playing polo, he says without a hint of arrogance: “It’s very rare that you open a magazine and I’m not in it in one of the photographs.”

But don’t make the mistake of calling Figueras a model. “I’m not a model, I’m a polo player,” he says, describing the Ralph Lauren work as endorsements and marking himself as a brand ambassador rather than a model. “Models are on the catwalk.”

The Argentinian’s path into such side work began at the behest of the celebrated photographer Bruce Weber, who introduced Figueras, at the time playing polo in the Hamptons, to Ralph Lauren himself back in 1999.

A year later, he started working for Ralph Lauren before becoming the face of Ralph Lauren Black Label in 2005. He has been under contract with the American company ever since.

He readily admits that his connections with the brand have opened doors for him, allowing him to become increasingly involved in charity work perhaps most notably with Sentebale, a charity co-founded by Prince Harry, which helps poverty-stricken children in Lesotho.

Through that work and their shared love of polo, he has spent a lot of time with both British princes although is reluctant to overplay their relationship.

“That’s something you’ll have to ask them,” he says to the question of whether he calls them friends. “I love working with Harry with the charity, to be able to give back.

“Both are very committed at giving back and polo is a good platform for them to do that as they’ve grown up with the sport.”

Both brothers are accomplished players, says Figueras — Harry an attacking player, William more strong defensively — “as they played since they were little, they’re very good.”

As for Figueras, his own standards have slipped a little. Where once he was handicapped eight (10 is the highest in the sport,) he is now a six but still rates among the world’s top 100 players and, two years shy of his 40th birthday, has no plans to retire from the sport.

“Polo is No. 1, it’s what I do,” he adds. “It’s still 90/95% of my time and I’m still a young guy, okay, maybe not as young but still young so I want to play.

“I grew up playing polo and at 14/15 years old I decided I wanted to get serious about it. To start with, I loved the speed and adrenalin but now the horses are the big part of it for me.”

That love of horses has spawned into his breeding program, Cria Yatay, from which he can sell the very best horses for up to $100,000, although its day-to-day running is left to others.

In contrast to the U.S. and the United Kingdom where polo tends to be the reserve of the elite, polo in Argentina is more accessible to those from a wide range of backgrounds.

And his world renown has given him a certain amount of notoriety back in Argentina, although he laughs at any parallels drawn between him and Argentina’s No.1 sporting icon.

“In Argentina, football is king and he’s the leading player,” says Figueras. “I don’t think you can compare any athlete to Messi, he’s just on a different level. Polo is big in Argentina but Messi is huge.”