The Lenny Interview: Pat Cleveland

The legendary supermodel on dancing down the runway, fighting racism in the fashion industry, and staying in the '70s.

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Pat Cleveland did it all — runway, print, Mick Jagger. The supermodel rose to fame in New York in the '60s and became a darling of the Paris fashion scene in the '70s; she found herself hanging out with a young Karl Lagerfeld, dancing with Andy Warhol, and posing for Salvador Dalí. Cleveland's campaigns, covers, and runway walk are legendary.

Her first brush with high fashion nearly wasn't. "I've been running after you since 42nd Street and thought I'd nearly lost you," a stranger said when she caught up to Cleveland on her way home from high school. As it turned out, the stranger was Carrie Donovan, then an assistant fashion editor at Vogue, and she wanted to know who Cleveland was wearing. She'd made the outfit at home with the help of her mom; the resulting profile on Cleveland posited her as an up-and-coming designer.

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The Vogue profile attracted Ebony's attention, and shortly after, Cleveland was asked to model in its Fashion Fair national runway tour, which brought couture trends to black communities around the country. (At sixteen, Cleveland was too young to go alone, and so her mom came along too.)

"What I really think is that you will never make it in the modeling business," Eileen Ford, the co-founder of Ford Models, told Cleveland two years later, in 1968, adding: "You don't look like an American." Cleveland was born in New York City in almost the exact middle of the twentieth century (June 1950). Her mother was an African American painter from the South, and her father was a white Swedish saxophonist. It's clear she inherited her sense of fashion from her mother, Lady Bird Cleveland. When she was in labor with Pat, Lady Bird donned a satin maternity dress and high heels to walk halfway across the Queensboro Bridge to give birth at one of Roosevelt Island's charitable hospitals.

André Leon Talley called Cleveland "the most extraordinary black model of the century" and "the all-time superstar model." Bill Cunningham, a man of few words, simply called her "The Supermodel." Cleveland ushered in a new era of model-as-personality, not just moving mannequin. She took a break to raise two kids, returned to modeling, ran a Milanese modeling agency, and now appears often in campaigns with her daughter, model Anna Cleveland.

Her recently published memoir, Walking With the Muses, covers the clothes, clubs, and celebrities. But it also offers an intimate portrait of designers and artists lost to the AIDS epidemic and the trials of a lanky, freckled, mixed-race girl growing up in Harlem. She continuously challenged the fashion industry's racism: In 1971, she moved to Paris and refused to return until Vogue put a black woman on the cover, which it did a few years later with Beverly Johnson.

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When I called her a few weeks ago, Cleveland seemed to answer from a moonbeam, but really she was in the parking lot of her local health-food store in New Jersey. We continued talking as she drove home, greeted her dogs, and settled into a comfy chair. Diane von Furstenberg once called her "magical," and being on the other end of the line felt the same way.

Alex Ronan: I loved reading that the first time you modeled, it was for your mom, Lady Bird Cleveland, when she painted a portrait of you. How did she inspire and shape the direction your life took?

Pat Cleveland: The art in itself was the blessing. It took us out of the mundane world that was always trouble and chaos. In that first stint as a model, I was mesmerized by the artist, my mom. I continue to be mesmerized by the creative energy of the people I've modeled for. They turn nothing into something; with strokes of a pen and fabric, they can make you believe in how beautiful you can be. To me, fashion always seemed like something that was going to take you somewhere.

AR: Let's talk about the idea of the muse, which is often constructed as something entirely passive, wherein you just stand around looking good. From your writing, it seems you think of it differently. Can you explain?

PC: You're very involved with one another; it's often very collaborative. Their life and your life intermingle since they're creating work on you and with you in mind. Working with designers, we were just pouring nectar over each other, soothing each other in those moments of doubt.

AR: As a teenager, you were selected to participate in Ebony's Fashion Fair, which resulted in traveling around the country to do shows for black communities. You were so young your mom had to come along. What was that tour like?

PC: Ooh. My goodness. I met all of these lovely society ladies, and I had the best clothes to wear, so it was pretty glamorous to me. The money from the shows went to raise college funds for kids that didn't have the opportunity to get an education. Meanwhile, I was getting mine on that bus, I'll tell you that. I saw things you should not see.

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AR: Can you speak more about those kinds of things you saw?

PC: I grew up mostly in Harlem, so the Ebony tour was an opportunity to get out of the house and see what was in our backyard, or America's backyard. We suspected that it would be difficult, but we were still surprised. Being black is like you're wearing a poster that says, "Here, hate me, I'm black." We had a few run-ins with the KKK; we had to flee a motel in the middle of the night. It was terrifying.

Being black is like you're wearing a poster that says, "Here, hate me, I'm black." We had a few run-ins with the KKK; we had to flee a motel in the middle of the night. It was terrifying.

AR: Growing up, you said you felt "too light to be black and too black to be white." As a young model, photographers said, "You're not black. You're not white. You're nothing." Eileen Ford told you, "You just don't look like an American." How did you persevere?

PC: You develop a spiritual core because of it. You have these guardian angels or intuition that there's something wonderful somewhere. It's called the light in the darkness, and walking through that, you learn not to believe the naysayers. I thought about my family and slavery and all those difficult things, just centuries of pain, and it reminded me you can't drop the torch.

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AR: In 1970, you moved to Paris and said you wouldn't return until a black woman was on the cover of Vogue. Can you tell me about that decision?

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PC: Well, the thought that I could leave to go to a place where I could do better for myself was and is always about self-preservation, like birds go to where the sun is in the winter. When things felt icy cold for me here in the USA, I just had to fly to the light and not let other people's fear of color squash the opportunities.

AR: Early on as a model, you were told to be like a mannequin, but pretty soon you developed your own signature walk where you were pretty much dancing down the runway. How did that happen?

PC: After the '60s, everybody was like a love child. In the '70s, the sexual freedom and all of this kind of feeling that you could do what you want and feel good about it. I just started dancing on the runway because I was feeling happy and alive and so grateful to be in the presence of all of these wonderful people. I'm slightly bowlegged, me and Marilyn Monroe both, so I just developed my own walk so people wouldn't notice that. You develop your swagger from hiding your flaws.

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AR: It seems like, off the runway, women were doing the same thing culturally, taking charge, walking their own path.

PC: Exactly! Suddenly, women were going into business and leaving the kitchen and the kids. Oh, it's just frantic. Burning bras and wearing pants. Oh my God. When I was a child, we couldn't wear pants to school. They would send you home and think you were crazy.

It wasn't just about work and dress; it was sexual too. Women could take advantage of their sexuality instead of being taken advantage of. You could just be a full person — not limit yourself, express yourself. It was a very sexy time. If they're going to give you a chocolate box and you're only allowed to take one, you've lost out. That's my box of chocolates. That's my life, and I'm going to have a taste and see what this is all about.

I'm slightly bowlegged, me and Marilyn Monroe both, so I just developed my own walk so people wouldn't notice that. You develop your swagger from hiding your flaws.

AR: I wanted to also ask about the 1973 Battle of Versailles, which pitted American designers against their French counterparts in a competition the French were expected to win. Women's Wear Daily publisher John Fairchild later said, "It ended the idea of copying everything from the French. The Americans stole the show. I think it was the start of what American fashion turned out to be." You were one of eleven black models the American designers hired, which was pretty unheard of back then. What was it like to participate?

PC: It was amazing! We had the fruit salad they were waiting for. They just wanted to taste it because it was so diverse. The music set the stage for the fashion, with James Brown and Otis Redding and some other wonderful musicians. Everybody wanted to feel that energy, and then, when the black girls came out on the stage, we brought the music to life. We started voguing. People loved it.

AR: It seems like we're having a resurgence of '70s style right now. Is that fun to see, as that's such an important part of your life, fashion-wise?

PC: Yeah. Being 21 is it. Forever. Just be that. Just be the freest part of yourself, whatever age that is, where you felt the freest, just repeat it. For me, it's always 1971.

AR: There's this moment at the end of the book where a lot of your couture is stolen.

PC: The pieces that I thought I shouldn't travel with because they were so expensive were the ones that got stolen! So, when you're packing and you think maybe it's not a good idea to take it, take it anyway! When you lose everything, you just say, "I have myself. Now let's keep going."

Alex Ronan is a writer living in Berlin, mostly.

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