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.
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.
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.