FLASHBACK: Model Iconophilia by Glenn O’Brien
When I was a young man about town – a bit naive and possibly awkward, despite my location at glamour’s vortex, the Warhol Factory – fashion models seemed quite interesting to me. To the extent that I wanted one of my own. Or perhaps to collect the whole set. And I certainly made at least a token effort in that direction.
Of course, that was another era, and the ones I knew were hardly typical – the Warholettes: Donna Jordan and Jane Forth, who starred in Andy’s movie L’Amour with Patti D’Arbanville; Apollonia van Ravenstein, the hottest Euro chick in the back room of Max’s Kansas City; and the fantastic posse of black girls who modelled for the great, young, black New York City designers of the time, Willi Smith, Stephen Burrows and Scott Barrie. Compared with the vast fashion world of today, it was a little village then. But the designers were real artists and innovators, not copyists or stylists, and they had their own cool scenes and posses and they collected girls who would bring their visions to life. The liveliest designers on the scene, Willi, Stephen and Scott, had their clothes brought to life by the genius of Pat Cleveland, Toukie Smith, Alva Chinn, Bethann Hardison and a few other magical brown girls. They were real performers and their fantastic energy and kooky grace made fashion seem brand new and utterly exciting.
If you want to get a feel for what fashion was like then, there’s a fantastic video on YouTube.com of a Betsy Johnson fashion show at Studio 54 in 1977, filmed wretchedly over the course of 28 minutes by Anton Perich. It shows rather dimly just how brilliant and fun fashion used to be. Girls put on clothes, take them off, swap them, frolicking, cavorting, spinning, dancing, stretching and shaking their booties to Eno, Roxy Music, Talking Heads, Iggy and Blondie. And they are doing things that are utterly forbidden on today’s runways, such as smiling and laughing and being themselves. Watching this sexy, free-form display and thinking about the march of the anorexic androids of today makes me wonder what the hell happened to the world.
I was kind of in love or lust with several of those girls, at one time or another. Donna was an amazing character, an amazing dancer, with a new kind of body and a radical style that is imitated to this day, from her bleached hair to her invisible eyebrows, painted over in colour, to her anklets under 6in spikes. In those days, the gay clubs were +the+ dance clubs and Donna, Jane and Patti had a way of taking over floors covered in boys. Donna was so brusque and apparently nasty that I remember thinking how superficiality was really, really underrated.
The wildest, most out-there girls all seemed to be in the posse of the illustrator Antonio Lopez. He had an amazing eye for beauty and he also acted as a kind of beneficent Svengali, helping girls such as Jerry Hall bring out their max potential. He was the best person a young hetero guy could have known in those days. Tara Shannon was one of Lopez’s girls, a super-elegant woman with a swan-like neck. A fashion blog I read recently called her the Forrest Gump of modelling, which I think was meant as a compliment – because she was in Cirque du Soleil, played the Bride of Frankenstein in a Huey Lewis video, and married Spider-Man in front of 50,000 people at Shea Stadium. I didn’t work hard enough on her case.
I was briefly semi-mad for Ingrid Boulting, a beautiful kind of Brit hippie yogi with a broad face and giant blue eyes, who co-starred with De Niro in The Last Tycoon and then sort of vanished into yogaland. She was perfect, too. Today they’d say she was too chubby to be a model. And she’s still a yogi, and now an artist.
I also had a crush on Esmé (Murray), a lively sort of neo-Audrey Hepburn who had short hair and fantastic eyebrows. I still miss eyebrows. I’d see her hanging out here and there and she projected a cool independence. As far as I was concerned Beverly Johnson, the first African-American model to appear on the cover of Vogue, was the most beautiful girl in the world back then, and beyond that, she was unbelievably nice. How could she be so nice? I was stumped and I used to ask Richard Bernstein, the Interview magazine cover artist, who everybody thought was my brother, how I could get with her. He’d say: “Call her up.” I didn’t.
Back in those days there was also a supermodel (though we didn’t call it that yet) named Naomi, but it was Sims and not Campbell. Naomi was a brilliant Brooklyn girl who got into the Fashion Institute of Technology and talked her way to the top. She was the first black model to make the cover of a major fashion magazine, the Ladies’ Home Journal, in 1968. She was cool, smart, ladylike and business savvy. She seemed perfect. In 1973 she married art dealer Michael Findlay, a Brit who also seemed perfect, and she appeared on the cover of Interview with Andy Warhol.
My first model girlfriend was Grace Jones. I was New York bureau chief of Rolling Stone when she was a Wilhelmina agency model and she would bring girls up to the office at the end of the afternoon for cocktails. Grace liked girls about as much as boys and that was not something I discouraged. She was also my first crew-cut girlfriend and I remember feeling misunderstood in Bridgetown, Barbados, holding hands with the believe-it-or-not flat-chested Grace. Back then, all of her singing was done on table tops and she was coming to see me sing in front of a band. I still love that crazy chick. When she asked to borrow money I introduced her to Jean-Paul Goude. The rest is history.
I had an enormous crush on Donna Mitchell, who seemed to be on the cover of Vogue every other month, an incredibly delicate beauty who, at the time, wore no make-up and, it seemed, borrowed men’s clothes intended to make her as plain and invisible as possible. Impossible. She was still exquisite, and when I see her in movies, such as The Ice Storm, I still get that old feeling.
In 1986 I was totally, madly in love with Rosie Vela. She had been a top model in the mid-1970s was not only an incredibly beautiful redhead (my weakness), but she was a wonderful musician and had just made an album called Zazu, produced by Gary Katz with big contributions from Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of the defunct Steely Dan. I went to her apartment and she showed me my columns from Interview that she had underlined in yellow marker. It freaked me out, that and the fact that I thought she was still going out with Peter Max. They don’t make ’em like that soulful Texan anymore.
Also in 1986 I fell into the fashion business by accident and wound up making ads for Barneys New York. In my second season we shot with Steven Meisel and a bunch of brand-new models who he liked – Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and Rachel Williams. They turned out to be something. I remember eating a hamburger in Steven’s studio with Christy and being floored by the fact that she was 18. Not only did she look like an adult (a very amazing adult), she talked like one, too. As did that whole crew. They weren’t called supermodels then, but they were already extremely super. Working with Linda was like working with a great silent-movie actress. We’d look at the contact sheets and every single frame would be different. Of all of them, I wound up being close with Rachel, an intellectual from an intellectual family who had a wild streak. After being a junkie and a TV star in London she went into the family business, architecture, got a degree from Columbia and then another one. I can’t remember if she’s a Master now or a Doctor, but she is a landscape architect, she looks better now than then and she has gotten over the torture of modeling.
My friend Eric Goode, the nightclub proprietor/restaurateur/hotelier was a serial supermodel dater. He drove Rachel crazy for a while, and then the gorgeous Elaine Irwin. When he seemed to be phasing out Elaine I was trying to figure out how to phase her in. I still think it was Eric who drove her into the Midwestern arms of Johnny Cougar Mellencamp. Damn!
Shortly after introducing supermodels to the world, I worked on introducing the un-supermodels, the grunge girls, including Kate Moss who was, I think, 18 when I met her while working with Ronnie Cooke (now Newhouse) and the grunge auteur photographer Corinne Day and her best pal stylist, the beautiful Melanie Ward (now senior fashion editor at American Harper’s Bazaar). We also used Sarah Murray, not your average supermodel, who is now a casting director, and Rosemary Ferguson, who had the biggest nose in modelling, with the possible exception of Anh Duong, and is married to a Chapman brother. Even though the supermodels hadn’t been ruling the roost for that long, it was great to see some sorta sideshowy oddities take over the icon scene. Kate was short, Kristen Owen looked like she had just got off a commune bakery (Manson?), Kristen McMenamy looked hot but a bit Transylvanian.
But the most fun I ever had working with models was with the old broads. I worked with Paulina, Isabella Rossellini and Arianne when they were not the latest thing. And what could beat working with Veruschka, the late Wallis Franken and Benedetta Barzini on CK One (not to mention Quentin Crisp, who was convinced I was Calvin Klein and kept calling me Mr Klein)?
It’s funny but the runways were another world. I remember when the great walkers could get a huge hand on the runway, even an ovation. (Of course, Polly Mellen is no longer there to start the cheering.) Some were supermodels, such as Linda or Naomi, some were exotic like Yasmeen Ghauri and Yasmin Le Bon, or the green-eyed Chrystelle, whose big, bouncing Afro was always a crowd pleaser. But some were girls rarely photographed by the magazines, like the elegant, white-haired Carmen, old enough to be the mom of her runway companions, or the sultry Marpessa, who had an electric presence that could sell any dress. I must say that, today, I find runway shows a complete bore compared with the old days, when the girls could express their personality without threatening the designer.
I guess it might be old age, but models don’t really catch my fancy the way they used to. Sometimes one will stand out, such as Mariacarla Boscono, whom I told Richard Prince about. I thought she’d look good on a Harley Davidson. And there are some great beauties, such as Irina Lazareanu and Natalia Vodianova, where you have to hand it to the goddess. We still have characters such as Agyness Deyn, who looks like a cross between Edie and Andy and has a personality to back it up. And I have to admit that, after taking in every show in three cities, I developed a kind of fascination with Vlada Roslyakova and how she manages to walk that way and not fall over backward, and with Karlie Kloss and the angle of her head. I mean, after a couple of hundred shows, this is the stuff that sticks with you. But when it comes to icons, well, I get more excited running into Lauren Hutton or Veruschka than any of these kids. I guess I must be grown-up.
Text by Glenn O’Brien
Taken from 10 Magazine Issue 38