What defines a fashion legend? In 2016 that is hard to describe, particularly when so many talentless or untried personalities define their own attributes. In 2016 you can define yourself as a great designer without selling a lot of clothes or having any market proliferation. You can be a supermodel even though you have never had a major ad campaign or walked in any major designer’s show.
Well, none of those things are true of Pat Cleveland. Behind her tiny, high-pitched voice and gone-to-heaven-in-a-soft-light eyes is a steely fashion warrior that has not only survived the peripatetic, whimsical, non-forgiving world of fashion, but has triumphed on her own terms. And her first are far too many to name.
After five decades in the industry, Pat Cleveland is still kicking up her heels and making merry like Christmas. Cleveland’s new biography “Walking with the Muses” details all the fun, frivolity, joy, tenaciousness, and above all the craft and art of Pat Cleveland.
Just in time for New York Fashion Week: The Shows spring 2017 Fashion Reverie is proud to publish this interview with Supemodel Pat Cleveland as she elaborated about the first three decades of her phenomenal life as it is so brilliantly expressed in “Walking with the Muses.”
Fashion Reverie: Why this book at this time in your life?
Pat Cleveland: Things happen in your life where you need a moment to reflect. We are always rushing around so much and then you realize you need time to think about the people who have been in you life. Some are no longer here, and some might not be here much longer. And you want to send them a love message.
I have been telling people for years I was going to write a book. I moved back to the US to take care of my mother who was ailing and while I was with my mother in South Jersey I took out my old dairies and scrapbooks. I dived in intending to write about all the people that were in my head. I wanted to write about the people that I love and all the good times we had together.
FR: Your life has been a series of unexpected triumphs and successes, which you detail so beautifully in the book. That said; what has been the most unplanned, unexpected part of your modeling career?
Pat Cleveland: The most unexpected part of my life is all the wonderful people that came into my life and how they brought me joy and surprises. I stepped into the path of fashion because I grew up surrounded by artists. Because I was in that world, I wanted to live my life in a beautiful way. So, I was open to the surprises and the unexpected things that can happen in fashion.
When these creative, artistic people came into my life I was open to them and very curious about what they were doing, and maybe I was useful to them, as well. Remember, I was originally a student of fashion design, so I was exposed to illustrators, other designers, and fashion photographers. And I was interested in how people could live off of their art. That is really a gift to be able to live off of what you love.
FR: You changed the way models walked in the early 70s. At that time were you aware that you were redefining runway walks? And how did you come up with your signature walk?
Pat Cleveland: Well, if you can walk, you can dance. When you hear that music, everything comes to life and you just go with the flow. I came into the fashion industry when the funky R&B music influences ruled the airways, and everyone loved the sound of that music. The music was about being young and feeling good, and I was young and feeling good so I went out and performed. I felt that no one would complain because everyone loved R&B music and that time was about being an individual. So, I just went out there and slayed the audience. And it was infectious because everything was a joyous celebration.
I had no idea I was doing anything special on the runway or changing anything. Everybody, especially Stephen Burrows, told me to go out there and just do it!! You know, black models walk a certain way because they have that rhythm and soul. I was expressing what was in my soul. Also, I had to stand out and make it because I was solely supporting myself. There was no time for fear; I had to survive so I just did it!! I was the designers’ flagpole, and I had plenty of flags to fly.
Pat Cleveland: Timing has a lot to do with everything. Someone saw something in me that they wanted to use to make everything happen. I came along with this big cultural shift in music and the time was ripe for everything coming out and blossoming. It was like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon.
First, there was the 60s and the hippy, flower children and after that the disco era; and it was my time to sparkle and shine. I think I was lucky because Stephen Burrows put me in his shows modeling to the music of James Brown. Who could ask for anything better?
However, it wasn’t just me; it was a very interesting time with models like Marissa Berenson and editors in the mold of Diana Vreeland, designers like Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo, and illustrators like Antonio Lopez who all influenced me. And I was a part of all that, and they made me a part of what they thought was beautiful.
FR: How did you meet Stephen Burrows?
Pat Cleveland: I was over at Vogue with Carrie Donovan and she was talking with Stephen Burrows on the phone and she said, “Oh, I am going to send you a model.” Anyway, somehow they got my show card mixed up with Norma Jean Darden. So, I went over to meet Stephen Burrows and there he was behind this big door like the Wizard of Oz. He was sketching so beautifully, using all these bold colors and he turned me and said,” you’re not Norma Jean; well, just try this on.” After I tried the garment on, Burrows said to me,” oh, you look just like the sketches.”
Stephen Burrows had all these lovely people around him. It was like a rainbow; everybody was so unique and different. I put these colorful clothes on and we went to Central Park with Renaud White and photographer Charles Tracy and we were photographed for Vogue. We represented the new generation of colorful people. I had already been featured in Vogue as a new young emerging designer when I was in high school. But, when I met Stephen Burrows he was already making everything so beautifully that was in my head, so fashion design went out the window and modeling became my mode of expression.
FR: You have stated that Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland gave you that magic carpet ride. Could you elaborate on that?
Pat Cleveland: Diana Vreeland was an amazing person because she knew everything about fashion. A lot the people that were friends of my godmother Henriette Metcalf—who you will read about in the book—were also friends of Diana Vreeland. When I met Diana Vreeland, I danced into her office like a ballerina, and there she was sitting, looking like this great cockatoo. She had a very particular beauty that most people would not understand. She was really something to look at.
Diana Vreeland said to me, putting her hands on my shoulders, “you must stand like a tree, with your feet rooted to the ground.” After that initial meeting, Diana would have me come over to Vogue’s offices and try on clothes day end and day out. I really believe the reason she was interested in me was because of Vogue’s main fashion illustrator at the time, Maning Obregon, who was very sophisticated and European in taste and vision, really liked me. Obregon thought I was the girl version of Juan Fernandez who was the muse of Salvador Dali. Obregon adored Juan Fernandez.
FR: Even though Diana Vreeland and so many of the photographers associated with Vogue in the late 60s and early 70s liked you, you were not put on the cover of Vogue at that time, why?
Pat Cleveland: It just was not possible to get an American Vogue cover for a black model in the late 60s and early 70s. That didn’t happen until Beverly Johnson in 1974. (Grace Mirabella replaced Diana Vreeland as editor-in-chief in 1971.) I represented something that they didn’t really know anything about. Harper’s Bazaar understood, but Vogue was the American girl next door. And that girl was blond.
It just couldn’t happen at that time, even though I was shooting with Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. I didn’t fit the image of what high society in American was used to seeing. Avedon even said to me that he really wanted to use me for covers, but that Vogue and its advertisers wouldn’t understand. It was heartbreaking for me to work with all these great photographers and then have the opportunities fall through my fingers because my country was not ready for me. The great fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez invited me to come with him to Paris and I jumped at the opportunity because I was weary of all the roadblocks.
I got a lot of good vibrations from people in Paris. I was a friend to Antonio Lopez, Juan Ramos, Yves Saint Laurent, and Karl Lagerfeld. Their careers were still in the beginning stages and they had not become legends, yet. Even though I had worn Yves Saint Laurent clothes in 1966 in the Ebony Fashion Fair show—Yves Saint Laurent loved Eunice Johnson, founder of Ebony Fashion Fair—I didn’t get to work with him until later. At the time Karl Lagerfeld was working with Chloe.
Everyone in Paris was fascinated with me because of I knew the bad boys or rebels of American culture, Andy Warhol, Jack Nicholson, and Warren Beatty. Being anti-establishment was very much in vogue in Europe in the early 70s. If an artist was too accessible and gave too many interviews it was seen as selling out. Artists were only supposed to be accessible to the demimonde. Remember, at that time there was only radio and a little television. There wasn’t the Internet and social media where you can document every aspect of your life.
Pat Cleveland: Back in those days if you did runway shows many people would frown on you because you were only as a coat hanger. The models that got covers and photo editorials were treated like royalty and celebrities.
But, I did both because I was asked and that was my job. I loved working with the designers and just doing photo shoots could be boring. Also, I loved working with other models at fashion shows and hearing and engaging in all the gossip. I did one and then I did the other, and I didn’t tell anybody.
And then I also performed in a Broadway musical with, at the time, the love of my life, Sterling St. Jacques. And I didn’t tell anyone in the fashion industry I had taken on this new venture. It was considered embarrassing to be in Vogue and then you went and sang and danced on Broadway. I was only getting $300 a week, but I considered it having to be heaven performing on the Great White Way.
And I was also sharing this experience with my great dancing partner from Studio 54, Sterling St. Jacques. We blended so magically; we were a dream come true for each other.
FR: It is reported that the movie “Mahogany” was based on your life and that you coached Diana Ross in “Mahogany.” Could you elaborate more about “Mahogany”?
Pat Cleveland: My life and the character in “Mahogany” shared some similarities. And you know Diana Ross’ character in the movie wanted to be a fashion designer but first became an international fashion model. That is also my story.
Anthony Perkins, who I knew because I was a good friend of his wife, the fashion photographer Barry Berenson, told me that there were elements of my life in the actual “Mahogany” script. It was Anthony Perkins who contacted while I was in Rome working with Valentino to come over to the set and coach Diana Ross on her runway walk. When I initially met Diana Ross at her hotel in Rome, she was very kind and engaging. But, the next day when I went to the set to work with her, things were very different.
Diana Ross was under a lot of pressure with “Mahogany.” She accused me of acting like a diva and holding up production. You see, I was in the opening Kabuki fashion model montage of the film. But I understood that she was working so hard. So much of the film rested on her performance. So, after being on the set of “Mahogany” and seeing Diana Ross work so hard under such pressure I realized I did not want to be an actress. You know fashion is very hard work, but it is also very glamorous. And it fits me like a glove.
FR: Your book “Walking with the Muses” stops around 1983. Why did you stop your story there?
Pat Cleveland: Well, you have to stop at some point. I mean how much Coca Cola can you get in a small bottle. I had to leave out stories and characters in this book and it broke my heart. People kept asking me if they were in the book, but the publishers thought it was best if some things were left out. They wanted me to talk about my Hollywood lovers and working with famous designers. Truthfully, the people that are dearest to me and influenced me most are not famous. And unfortunately at lot of important people in my life were left out. This is my first book and I just couldn’t include and tell everything.
Essentially, we are all looking for love and somebody to love. And in the 80s I found someone to love [Pat Cleveland married Paul van Ravenstein in 1982] who loved me back. So, that is where I ended the book.
FR: So is finding love what you want readers to get from “Walking with the Muses”?
Pat Cleveland: Yes, find love and find some people you can have a nice time with as you go along.
FR: What’s next for you?
Pat Cleveland: Believe it or not, I have a song out on I-Tunes entitled “Tonight Josephine” and you can get it in either the dance version and/or the original version. I have a lot of little of things coming up and I try to infuse each new project with a part of myself. I am still writing plays and having a good time. I always prayed, “God give me something I can do that doesn’t hurt.” And modeling and working in fashion didn’t hurt.
Pat Cleveland is in her fifth decade in the fashion industry. She is married to former model, photographer Paul van Ravenstein and has two children, top model Anna Cleveland and yoga instructor Noel van Ravenstein.
“Dancing with the Muses” is published by Atria Books, a division of Simon and Schuster.
—William S. Gooch