Photography / Fashion

Legendary supermodel Pat Cleveland on surviving six decades in fashion

The iconic 70s muse talks fantasy, free love and fighting her way to the top.

“I had just turned 21 and was living in Paris with [fashion illustrator] Antonio Lopez. We went over to Karl Lagerfeld’s house on Rue de l’Université and I was scared to death because the boys had talked about him so much,” remembers Pat Cleveland. “He was living on the second floor of this mansion, with terraces, a garden, marbled floors, chandeliers and a mirrored room for his exercise materials. It was like you’d gone back to the 1920s! As I walked in, Karl said, ‘Quick, take off your clothes, and put this on!’ and he threw a dress at me that belonged to Marlene Dietrich. I called the dress the Blue Angel. It was really lingerie he made for her, but she got mad at him when he was late for dinner, so he didn’t give it to her because they were having a fight. I wore it with nothing but gold platform shoes and a G-string underneath. It was totally transparent – made from at least two thousand chiffon pleats. We went out for dinner and the whole fashion world was there, with their veils, little fascinators and glasses of champagne, and when we walked in everybody stood up and cheered. It was like a Cinderella story.”

Pat Cleveland has lived a less than ordinary life, and in parts it certainly must have seemed like a fairy tale. The darling of the Parisian fashion scene in the 70s and adored by Andy Warhol, she was a fixture in every glamorous group, lighting up New York’s Studio 54 with “rambunctious” Grace Jones and the gang night after night.

Now 68, the legendary supermodel recalls those twinkling, disco-era days with a sedulous attention to detail (peppered, often, with her infectious, mischievous giggle). Surviving six decades in fashion – a notoriously cut-throat industry, where youth is currency – hasn’t been an easy journey though. From being told there was “no work for coloured girls” at 16 to fighting deeply entrenched racism in the industry at every turn, Pat’s vivacious nature and tenacity made her one of the most sought-after faces of a generation and, quite often, even more famous than the artists she inspired. “If people close the door on you, that’s good!” she says. “You go to the next door.”

The daughter of a Swedish jazz musician father and an artist mother, the acclaimed African-American painter Lady Bird Cleveland, her childhood in Harlem was anything but typical. At the age of three, she attended a touring drag cabaret, The Jewel Box Revue, with her mum, and singer-actress Eartha Kitt. At four, she was taking dance lessons with a young Marlon Brando. “He was just one of the gang,” she remembers fondly. “Sometimes he would play the conga drums while my auntie danced with Katherine Dunham. I didn’t know who these people were; I found out later. But it really inspired me; it livened up my life to see all that action, all that music.”

By her teens she found herself mingling with classmates Calvin Klein and Steven Meisel at High School of Art & Design in New York. “You get out and try to get a little attention like a peacock and fluff your feathers,” she says. “I wore a lot of feathers then, around the bottom of my skirt, because I had no hips whatsoever, so I would expand myself like a blow fish!” Fashion, she says, would be her great escape. Even when told by superagent Eileen Ford that she would never make it as a model, she persevered. “You kind of go, ‘Can you actually trust that? Can you trust somebody telling you to cut your nose off?’ Don’t do it!”

“I didn’t really look at other models,” she says. “I started at the Ebony Fashion Fair in 1966, and, to me, it was all about show and jazz – feeling like a dancer on the stage and having beautiful clothes.” While the event celebrated the glamour and beauty of African-Americans during the civil rights-era, she recounts a terrifying run-in with the Ku Klux Klan while touring the Deep South. “We were on a Greyhound Bus travelling across America. All black models, except for one, Peggy – she was Italian. It was Thanksgiving; we had the night off and were staying in a downtown hotel in the middle of nowhere. Then, outside we heard what we thought was a parade going on. But it was a protest. The garden was full of all those people with the hoods: they used the N-word, threw a rock at the window and told us to get out of town. We packed our bags and got out of town. It happened many times on that trip.”

Encountering racism never stopped Pat from pursuing her dreams. “My grandmother was one of the first black women in America to graduate from Spelman College – she was a slave and an orphan,” she says. “So, when you think of your history, you cannot succumb to ‘oh, I’m no good because somebody says the palette is not right for that’. You have to march through.”

Tired of the lack of opportunities for models of colour in America, Pat fled to Paris in 1971. There, she modelled for designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, Oscar de la Renta, Yves Saint Laurent, Thierry Mugler and Christian Dior, and indulged in “champagne-popping” evenings with everyone from Paloma Picasso to Salvador Dalí. “[Dalí] said to me, ‘All of this art is good, but the best thing a woman could do is have a baby.’ All I thought was ‘Oh my God, he wants to knock me up!’”

A few years later she moved back to the United States, the same year Beverly Johnson became the first black model to appear on the cover of American Vogue. “Back then I had a little closet of an apartment in Central Park South,” she says. “It wasn’t exquisite but going out to the club was. It was huge and lit up; people were alive and you’d see all your friends. Nobody had a significant other and the dancing was like gymnastics.

“After finishing work at 5pm you’d go home, take a nap and get ready to go for cocktails at 6pm. Then go home again, take another nap, redo your make-up, put on your dancing clothes and go to Studio 54, because it would be an all-nighter. We didn’t have computers or phones; you had to go out and meet your friends on the corner under a lamppost or something. You’d always see them because they’d be twinkling in the dark in their sequins.”

Studio 54 became NYC’s most legendary nightspot, the epicentre of 70s hedonism. While there’s been much written of the fabled disco haven and its A-list clientele, there is little evidence of the star- studded debauchery that is said to have occurred: “Only Andy [Warhol], because he always had a camera in his pocket, and a couple of others were ever allowed to take photos,” Pat explains. “Everybody wanted to be in the picture. But you couldn’t take pictures in those loft areas where they really went to dance,” she says, giggling. “I mean let’s talk about sex! You remember that song ‘Love The One You’re With’? That’s been going on since the 60s. Before then, there was no contraception. After the Pill came out women were like men – they could have sex with no fear.”

“Where else could you go to be wild?” she muses. “I remember doing a whole number with Grace Jones as a back-up girl, because she and I were really good friends. She was as slippery as baby oil going across the floor. We would all slide along with her and dance and party. We loved each other so much – we were family.”

Much has been reported over the years of the supermodel’s love life, from being pursued by a then 22-year-old Muhammad Ali (she was 16) to a fleeting romance with Mick Jagger. Then, like a scene from a movie, she fell hard for Hollywood’s bad boy, Warren Beatty, resulting in a six-year love affair that defined her twenties.

“I was about 12 years old when I watched him in Splendor in the Grass,” she says. “I fell in love with him on screen before we met – I thought, ‘That’s the one I want, he looks so vulnerable.’ I met him when I was 24 or 25 at a party with Andy [Warhol] and [Richard] Avedon. My friend Richard Bernstein made me wear a white gardenia in my hair and I was all dressed in white. Warren made a beeline for me, and Andy said, ‘Go get ’em!’ I said ‘No, I’m not getting him, everyone’s getting him!’ After the party we go outside and who’s waiting on the corner, under one of those pink lights in front of Tiffany’s but Warren Beatty. Richard embarrassed me and asked him to walk me home. He looked at me, kissed my hand and said, ‘I’d be glad to.’ The next morning I got three-dozen red roses, and he said, ‘Please, come see me.’ And so I did.”

For Pat, those magical days of disco were punctuated with the onset of the AIDS epidemic and being exposed to excessive drug taking in the midst of a city on the verge of bankruptcy as the decade wore on. “I actually saw my friends with scabs on their faces, and we’d laugh it off, like ‘they have a rash’, but then they got really sick and skinny and ashamed and then everyone was shaming everyone,” she remembers. “It was like the plague. It marked the end of the fantasy – you couldn’t love the one you were with anymore.

“Everyone was wearing black and sniffing cocaine. Free love, peace, hippies: it went up until the early 80s. Then those big shoulder pads started getting bigger, there was more leather and S&M, and everybody just went dark.” At one point Pat recalls getting out of her friend’s limousine after begging them to give up the drugs. “For me, I always listened to my mum – I heard her voice in the back of my head saying, ‘Don’t do it!” And it’s this advice that she passed on to her own model daughter Anna Cleveland.

 

In today’s fashion landscape, intertwined as it is with the Instagram age, Pat believes that quality and worth don’t equate to followers, but she does think that the advent of social media has transformed the industry for the better “because everybody can participate, every wannabe is being somebody”.

Could the mystique and ecstasy of the 70s ever really be created again? I ask her. “They’re getting it back,” she stresses. “A designer is an artist and an artist never dies. You can never break into the underground unless you’re a part of it. And when they come out from underground it’s just time for them to get into business. Business people can’t peek in there and see the seed before it’s ready to grow. You have to pay for it!”

It’s somewhat surprising to note that Pat’s remarkable career was dramatically halted in the mid-noughties, after joining a modelling agency run by the most ruthless tycoon of them all: Donald Trump. “He used to be my agent, can you believe it? He threw a big party for me in, I think, 2005. He was just a rude businessman then, but he went berserk and crazy,” Pat says. “He really used everybody. I was so ashamed – and for one year no one would handle me because I was with that agency. I got out of it somehow. They would always sit me next to him at fashion shows and I would get up and walk away. Now it’s like America’s having a facial – all the dirt is coming out to the top, it’s so ugly.”

Throughout her long, illustrious career, Pat’s relied on her empowered spirit to pull her through darker periods: “Keep going towards the light and you’ll get there.” Just days ago, Pat returned from a soul- searching trip in Sweden, where she rediscovered her long-lost family (on her father’s side). “I rented a huge house in Stockholm, and we had a long table, and the midnight sun, and I got to acquaint myself with people I didn’t even know!” she says. Soon she’ll pack up again and head to Mexico with her fashion designer son Noel van Ravenstein for Tulum Vegan Fest (“they’re going to give me a little show and make some crazy clothes to wear.”)

Now, whether she’s painting in her home studio in rural New Jersey, making a jazz album, designing clothes or writing a book about her parents’ love story, Pat, as ever, continues to dance through life with the same effervescent spirit that catapulted her into the spotlight in the 70s.

“Older women are not old anymore,” she says. “They’re just part of the game. It’s being happy with what you have and showing people how to be excited about life, no matter what age you are. I feel that people are taking notice of their elders and everything is more appreciated because it’s just so fragile. Antiques are very rare. It’s going to take a long time to get more antiques.”

Interview published in HUNGER 15’s ‘Fantasy Meets Reality’ issue, available online here

27 November 2018