Pat Cleveland

The model talks Studio 54, model diversity and her introduction to the art world.

Synonymous with the fashion scene of the 70s and 80s, African-American supermodel Pat Cleveland is an international icon. Over the course of her vibrant career, she’s appeared within the pages of pretty much every major fashion title, walked for the likes of Chloé, Thierry Mugler and Dolce and Gabbana, and last year released her memoir, Walking with the Muses.

She tells me all about said vibrant life over a transatlantic call, in which she shares stories of Studio 54 – including singing with Stevie Wonder – traces the roots of her varied DNA, and speaks about the influence of her artistic upbringing.

It’s the latter that has led Cleveland to try her hand at painting. Adding another string to her already impressive bow, her work is currently on display at east London gallery BEERS, part of a wider exhibition titled 75 Works on Paper. Through the airwaves, the polymath shares anecdotes on life, art and the in-between.

Over the course of your career, you’ve done some amazing shoots. Which have been your favourites?

I had this vacation shoot with a friend of mine, we had a little duffle bag and we crawled through the pyramids, then he just decided to immerse me into the Nile river and that was number one! Not only that, he decided to set a fire at a temple so that I could look like I was making this ring of fire, which was later copied by [Norman] Parkinson… But yeah you know, those vacations where Vogue says “Oh you’re going on holiday” – this is in the old days – “take these clothes with you and do a shoot!” I like those freelance, kind of like “do what you want”… That’s why it’s good to have a photographer boyfriend if you’re a model!

You’re widely recognised as being one of the first African-American models to work in fashion. There is still a lot of talk about a need for greater diversity within the indusrty, what are your thoughts on this?

I am really diverse, I’m half Swedish and African-American. I did my DNA, you know. I found all my family, I have a bonus family I didn’t know about – I am one of seven! I thought I was an only child. It took six years to find everybody but two days ago I had my brother and his kids over and I hooked up with some brothers and sisters in Sweden, and I’m on the road to having a bonus family!

People should not be colour-blind to all the truth that’s out there. You need to make a lot of choices, don’t be so narrow-minded about things, like we’re in the world of art so we need to use the full range, the whole palette! What it comes down to is more than sales, I think it comes down to attitude and people being brave, just understanding that beyond beauty is the understanding that people have a culture and they want to show the very best of who they are.

In terms of contemporary fashion, who are some of your favourite designers?

Oh, I love Zac Posen! Stephen Burrows is always on my list and there’s Marc Jacobs, Tom [Ford], you know all of these ones I have worked with. Moschino’s artists, and Missoni, I love people who bring their family and friends around and they take from the streets and they make everyone feel like they have their moment of expression! I love these true artisans who sometimes step back and let the art speak for them. Of course, Valentino’s in the mix, you know, how can you get more chic than that?

A lot of my designer friends have passed away but for the old timers that are still here, I love Zandra Rhodes. Oh my God, isn’t she great? For me, she’s a contemporary now because people are trying to copy her and she has a museum, she travels around the world and she’s just a joy to be with. You know that spirit of like, Anna Sui — Anna Sui is great too! I have this purple coat that I just can’t stop wearing. [Laughs] I love these girls! Because girly girls like Diane Von Furstenberg, she just made a name for herself, she took the princess route but she deserves it you know, all of these girls deserve to be on the platform they are on! I’m tending towards these girly girls that survived and all of my guy designers in America, I just love them too, because they all care for women and they all care about beauty.

I am obsessed with stories from Studio 54, can you tell me about some of your best nights at the iconic space?

You know, you could be there and it’s like listening to stories of the 1920s! “What were they doing? Where was Hemingway? Who’s sitting on whose lap?” You know it’s all about who fell into whose arms and started to dance? “Was that real?” — of course it was real! Those lights are coming down through the room and there was this curtain and the VIP’s would be sitting in the back behind this curtain. The space was laid out so there was a private party behind the curtain, but after midnight, they’d pull the curtain up, the moon and the spoon would come down, the public would like, merge with the VIP’s and it would be dancing all night! Everybody was just so sparkly, you know how the lights in those times were so impressive, before the laser they had the disco ball, so the clothes and everything you wore had to be sparkly so it sparkles in the room! People are just popping around and dancing, drinking champagne and falling into each other and laughing, it was better than staying at home alone so that’s why everyone who was young came out to party because in those days people worked from nine until five or when their shop closed so at night, you’d go home, take a nap from like five until eight, then you’d go out and have some dinner before. Then you’d go to the club, show up in limo’s, show up in bugle beads and take over the dance floor! See how many people you could dance with in one night and then you would go home like you’ve been at one of those marathons. What a place to work out your body and work out your soul. And all of the designers went! They were all friends and there wasn’t like this one battling against that one, it was just like “Oh my God, we can be together!” It was really like going to school lunch break.

And what about your most memorable moments?

I just thought it was very entertaining. Sometimes we got to entertain and I always loved singing! One night, they asked me to sing happy birthday to Steve Rubell on this high platform and I was singing happy birthday to Steve and then this platform rolled out with Stevie Wonder was on it! And he came into the end of my song and I almost died. I thought “Oh my God! I just duetted for a moment with Stevie Wonder” and I went upstairs to get to the office and I was stepping over The Police, you know that group? They were all stoned out and I’m saying “excuse me, excuse me” making my way up to the office which is where everyone hung out, anyway, you just saw so many wonderful people coming in like Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, oh my God Bruce Shields was there! Mariel Hemingway and Margaux Hemingway, everybody was there. It was a little bit like Paris you know, because we also had the internationals coming in, but just a bit more big and shiny. Paris was more petite and neat and tiny and more private. America’s like loud and big and you know, in-your-face kind of style. It was amazing that that place existed.

These days you’re following in your mother’s footsteps and you’ve taken up art. I’m guessing that art has been a part of your life from an early age?

Yeah, so early age means like, from the minute you pop out, for me it was feet first! Growing up with a mum who sewed all of her clothes and made [such] exquisite costumes that she won like, the Beaux Arts Ball practically every year. She used to hang out with Josephine Baker and all these stars! Sissle and Blake, they used to come over to the house and I would be sitting there and they were really famous and I didn’t know, but they had a good time in the living room because my aunt was a dancer with Katherine Dunham, and we used to have walls of mirrors all around the living room and they would come over and dance and limbo and they had drummers with Congo drums in the living room and I just remember getting up at night and dancing with them. I would go visit my godmother who was like a prominent figure in the 1920s, and she was a Vogue editor in France and she married Willard Metcalfe, he was a famous American artist who did landscape. If you go to the Met you can see one of his paintings there.

So you’ve always painted, how come this is the first time you’ve decided to show your work?

I just think that somebody gave me a chance, I believe it was Kevin Arpino and Andrew Salgado over at BEERS gallery, they asked me to participate in the gallery’s 75 Works on Paper exhibition and I thought “OK, I could do that” and they gave me a chance to be a part of their gallery. I just thought “wow this is something I can do” because when I wake up in the morning I want to have something creative to do and painting has always been in my soul and I just always hear my mum, she left all her paint brushes. I keep them and I get new paint brushes and she says “you can do that, that’s your gift” and I say “aww, thank you ma”. I can never forget drinking the water colour and thinking if you drink it, you’ll be it. She’d say “it’s in your blood now, you can take over” and I feel good because when she was alive she was a very serious portraiture painter and her stuff was very realistic, but I’m more abstract and she would always be angry at me for making abstract paintings but you know, it’s the time I’m born and that’s just what I can do.

You were friends with the likes of Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali, did they teach you anything about art practice?

Yeah, they did actually. We should start with Salvador Dali, because what he taught me is that, as much as you’re known as a painter or whatever you do in your life, you have to have a life to paint from, and when Dali asked me to pose for him, in the nude mind you, I realised that he’s a living person and you take from life the things that inspire you. He took from life the things that sparked him up – like he loved famous people because they were powerful people and he just was in awe of everyone so you should be in awe of something that you are painting. You could see him working in his head, see him thinking. It wasn’t like Antonio Lopez, who would do all the strokes really fast and have it done in a breeze. Andy, he didn’t need anything from you, he was just like “we’re pals and we’re just gonna go party”. Andy did photographs of me, I’d be in the house in a little G-string or something or on the beach and I remember one time, we were just fooling around and he took a picture of me standing with a shell and he called me his Venus.

Amazing. So what other projects are you working on?

I’m working on an album, with Maurice Lynch and I had a book party last year for Walking with the Muses, he wrote the song “Tonight Josephine” so I performed it at my book party. And it was so much fun and everybody came over, designers and all the fashion world showed up and I got to sing my song. Maurice asked me to do an album so I’m working on that and its fun!

75 Works on Paper is at BEER London until 23 December.

Ryan Cahill
Pat Cleveland

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