A Model Life, the Pat Cleveland interview Biography

by Thandi | Last Updated on: October 7th, 2020 at 6:18 pm

Imagine waking up to an email asking you whether you’d like to interview one of your idols… it’s every writer’s wet dream. That’s what happened to me recently on a gloomy and otherwise non-remarkable December day, “ThandieKay would probably love an interview with Pat Cleveland?” read the subject line, followed by a brief description of Pat’s achievements and accolades, which let me tell you are hard to compress. “Yes, ThandieKay would love to interview Pat Cleveland” I hastily responded without consulting either Thandie or Kay, because I mean, Pat’s the perfect fit- and one of the world’s first ‘African-American’ supermodels, and certainly the most fabulous.

Pat made a name for herself in the late 60s and 70s as one of the first models to achieve prominence as both a runway and print model. Close friends with the Studio 54 set; Cleveland was a muse to Warhol, Dali, Saint Laurent, Lagerfeld, and Halston (to name but a few). Modeling allowed Pat to travel the world, mix with and inspire countless artists and celebrities.

Now in her late 60s, age hasn’t withered her beauty, spirit, or energy; remaining a regular fixture on the catwalk and in advertising campaigns- as her daughter Anna continues the Cleveland modeling legacy- she has returned her focus to an early passion; that of painting.

Pat and I spoke over Facetime one evening, in the midst of a current show in London and preparing for others in the States. She tenderly guided me around her studio and home, showing me her diverse art collection and some of her own work.

Pat is bubbly, endearing, and possesses a unique childlike combination of naiveté and excitability. Despite being reduced to a screen of grainy pixels teleported across oceans- Pat’s iconic bone structure still shines brightly. Her melodic and drawling voice possesses faint traces of her Harlem upbringing and draws one in; captivating and transporting you back with her to whichever glamorous and prodigious reminiscence she chooses to meditate upon.

They say you should never meet your idols as they’re just bound to disappoint. But it was honestly an honor to speak to Pat- an experience I’ll never forget- I feel changed by her advice and wisdom. We bonded over our heritage and our revelations from using Ancestry DNA, we were a scarily similar percentage of African and Scandinavian- she found 6 siblings through using the website! Her musings on modeling gave me a much-needed sense of artistic perspective on an industry I sometimes find too shallow and consumerist to bear.

Notice how she slips between the use of the personal pronoun ‘I’ and the objective ‘you;’ when she speaks of her experiences she formulates them as though she is relating advice. Pat’s lived a fascinating and unbelievable life and therefore we should all be able to learn something from her. Pat’s gregarious guide to living:

How did you first get into modeling?

I started out as a fashion designer when I was around 14/15, I was always obsessed with fashion and made my own clothes. I always participated in what I thought was nice looking, or beautiful, I loved the idea of going out and looking good; dressing up and feeling good. That’s what fashion is supposed to be- embodying living art.

One day when I was wearing one of my own designs, a woman on the subway told me to come to the Vogue office to show them some of my clothes, an editor saw them and said: “I’m taking these to Paris, to Givenchy!” Following that they gave my clothes a 2-page spread. It was stocked in (Henri) Bendel’s for a while, but it was so exhausting- I was a one-man show.

One day when I was at Vogue, they didn’t have a model so pointed at me and said- “you’ll do!” I was enamored and thought why am I slaving away all night sewing? I thought this was fun, partly cause you get to be around people- all I wanted to do was see the clothes anyway…

What was the industry like at the time?

There was a division between photo girls and show (runway) girls at the time, there weren’t many showgirls then, maybe 10 in the whole of NY. It was kind of like an elite fashion club. If you were black it was hard, and I was kind of in the middle, so no one knew what to do with me.

It didn’t really take off for me till I met a designer called Steven Burrows and the illustrator Antonio Lopez, they were so important to me, so hot and so fabulous and they sort of just included me in everything they did. That’s how I met Andy… we’d go out to the Village, to Sheraton square, people could see me and appreciate me more because of who I was with.

We were all coming up at the same time, these people made a real difference in my life; Karl LagerfeldYvesValentino, and Halston…definitely Halston.

What did the label “African-American” feel like for you- someone of mixed heritage, predominantly Swedish?

The press referred to me as a ‘black’ model and I’d look at my skin and be like where’s the black? But I live in America where they separate you into black and white. Recently it’s become ok to be ‘mixed-race’, but before it was like: if you had one drop of black in you- you were black and it was meant with negative connotations whereas, I’ve always honored it.

Africa is a big beautiful country, that’s inspired so many people; YSL, Picasso… everyone takes their inspiration from Africa. And everyone has a ticket to ride- America’s a melting pot- everyone’s coming together to make a nice Mother color.

I was out there in the beginning because they allowed me to be there, perhaps because I was lighter-skinned- more palatable- but also because I’m just innately a fashion person.

Yes, I can tell you’re a fashion person, with your iconic fashion walk! How did you think the fashion industry has changed today? And do you think it’s for the better?

Time is precious; people don’t have time for romance anymore. That’s what my walk was- romantic. Romance is slow and moving- business is fast and competitive. The catwalk is more like a conveyer belt sometimes- you’ve got to get those groceries on the conveyer belt and out the other side! Fashion now has so many more people involved- more people, more cameras.

It used to be quieter; an isolated art that had nothing to do with everybody from anywhere. It had more to do with ‘ladies’ and ‘gentleman’ from a certain part of society. I guess it’s a natural occurrence, things that were small and exclusive become large and accessible.

At the end of the day, it must be a good thing, as there are more opportunities for people to work at different levels of the industry. Fashion is a huge and powerful global industry. It’s opened up; it’s kinda like- do you just sell to the people taking limos? Or the people taking buses and trains?

How long have you been painting?

That’s what I started out doing, I went to art school, but then modeling took over. Even then I was always scribbling in notebooks when on set. When Dali, Warhol, and I hung out we’d always be scribbling on tablecloths together- have drawing wars. All the artists in my life took an active interest in my work, encouraging me to grow. They’d peek over my shoulder and say, “that’s a good drawing!” “that’s really nice- let me have it!” It really was that creative, bohemian lifestyle where we just thrived off each other’s energies.

What encouraged you to start focusing more of your energy on art and formally presenting your work?

My mom was a successful fine artist, she passed away two years ago, so I kinda figured-as she wasn’t looking over my shoulder telling me ‘that’s not how you do it’. I thought well she’s gone now- I’ll do what I want! When I paint I can feel how happy it made her. She painted until the very last minute, so I take that as a sign- a way to be happy. In a way, through art, her spirit still entertains me.

Does your mother’s artwork inspire you? How would you describe your work and your practice?

My mom was a fine portrait artist, whereas my work is more decorative and abstract. Partly because I live in the middle of nowhere and I don’t have many people around me when I paint. I’ve done portraits of my daughter (Anna Cleveland) and son. Of course, I love Sargeant! And really all the artists I used to mix with continue to influence my work.

I try and paint 2-3 works a day; I love colors so my palette tends to be bright and bold. When making art, you go through stuff, you look at all the masters, you go through it and absorb everything that everyone’s done, and you don’t try and do your own thing because you know it’s been done before! It’s all been done before, everything; portraiture, fine art- everything- pyramids, architecture… So what you have to do is not worry it’s all been done, and just do it anyway. Sometimes when I get up and get dressed for parties now, I think I’d love to get back to my paintings!

Clearly, you’re innately creative, but spending so much time as a muse to other artists gave you awareness of both sides. Did being a model and therefore the object of another’s creative’s gaze feel problematic at the time? I sometimes find it tough being a passive participant in someone else’s vision.

You’re the important part, without you there is no image! You should feel grateful that they want you to be a part of their art. Identity isn’t a flat surface, there’s also the soul and the way you feel which is hard to capture in fashion photography. A model is there to invoke the spirit of the times. Your body is a work of art! A woman’s body, when you’re young… is the most beautiful thing in the world. These days there are disabled women modeling, transgender women, plus-size women- they’re all forms of beauty. Hieronymus Bosch/Sergeant– it’s just different forms of beauty. Whenever I model, I just feel honored- like they really picked me?!- I better do a good job! I better work hard to make this image they see happen, as a team.

Actress Thandie Newton and make-up artist Kay Montano met nearly 10 years ago on a shoot for UK Vogue (see ‘Our First Shoot Together’ post here). Since then a strong friendship has grown out of countless professional collaborations in fashion, beauty, red carpet, on stage and screen.