Return Of The Muse.
There are models and then there are muses. In the 70’s and 80’s Pat Cleveland, Kim Williams and Sylvia Gobbel were legends. Working alongside Newton, Penn and Demarchelier they did more than strike a pose, they nurtured the collaborative side of fashion by inspiring creativity and helping to define an iconic visions of beauty and art.
Text by Savi Kuruppu
Clothing Peet Dullaert
With special thanks to PATTY SICULAR and JESSE STOKKEL
Also see Muses with Extraordinary lives Pt.1
You were brought up in a very creative household your mother a painter, your father a jazz musician and your grandmother was Marian Anderson the classical singer.
Yes, she was an African American singer during the time of Roosevelt. The challenges she faced you simply can’t even imagine today but she managed to have great success in the United States and Europe. Growing up I had very artistic people around me. One of my godmothers was a Vogue editor in France in the 1920’s. She was in her 80’s when I met her and she was friends with Vaslav Nijinsky, Sarah Bernhardt and Isadora Duncan. I grew up with impressions of these great artists so when I was quite young I knew I wanted to go to art school.
Which is where you studied fashion design. You were wearing your own designs when you were first discovered.
I was wearing a mini-skirt. I was pre-Twiggy, I was making tiny skirts before she even had them. Carrie Donovan from Vogue saw me in the subway and asked me to take my designs up to Vogue. So, I took some pieces to the offices and while I was sitting there this guy named Joel Schumacher−he’s a film director now−saw me and said we should use ‘her’ for the pictures. Right away they took me out on a shoot. It was the middle of January and I was outside in the wind with a kite.
After you appeared in Vogue how did your life change?
My mother sent that article around to some magazines and the first to respond was Mrs. Johnson of Ebony, which was a popular African American society magazine. She had purchased entire collections of Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert Givenchy, Christian Dior and Pierre Cardin. She asked me to join her travelling trunk show.
You must have travelled the whole country, what was that like?
I was stuck in a greyhound bus for three months. You know what they say about travelling, you have to see your own country first and boy did I see it. I have never been so terrified than when I was down south. We were a bus full of black girls and they wanted us out of there. I remember it was Thanksgiving and Ku Klux Klan came past with torches in front of the hotel telling us to leave.
How did that experience affect you?
I was glad it was over. When the tour ended, I went back to finish school and then things started happening for me. Irving Penn took my photograph and I got a call from Antonio Lopez the illustrator asking me to come to Paris.
What was Paris like in the early 70’s?
Fantastic! We didn’t have any money but we were rich in other ways. You don’t really want money when you’re young. You want life, you want experience and you want to be with amazing people. We lived in Karl Lagerfeld’s apartment on the Rue Bonaparte where five of us slept on the floor. Karl was always working but we would spend all day at Café de Flore ordering water until somebody would come past and pay for our drinks.
You brought drama and excitement to Parisian nightlife.
We were always decked out and decadent and La Coupole was my runway. One night I walked in wearing Marlene Dietrich’s lingerie that Karl had given to me. It was made from densely pleated blue chiffon and had a long train and angel wings. When I lifted my arms the light shone through and it was lovely and sheer. I had nothing on underneath. People broke out in applause and popped champagne.
Do you think people are just as daring today?
You have to have the confidence to take what you want. I see people taking selfies on their phones and I think it’s great. People want to shine to get some attention and love. They want to share a moment when they feel at their best. It’s all about love in the end and I think that’s a beautiful thing.
Pat Cleveland is represented by Trump Legends in New York
You recently worked with Steven Meisel for Vogue Italia but you have worked with him before. What kind of relationship do you have?
Steven is a good friend and we have worked together a lot in the past. Back in 1990 we were on set and at the end of the session I wasn’t sure I had given it my all. So, I said to Steven, ‘I don’t think you have it’. He was a little annoyed and replied firmly, ‘Kim, we’re done, I got it’. But I wanted to give it another go, so I told him I blinked in the last image. I didn’t blink and he knew that. He had all his assistants and editors around him and I thought he was going to thrown me out. But he just laughed and held out his hand, the assistant passed the film and we started shooting again. In that last round we definitely got it – a cover for Vogue Italia.
How did you first start out as a model?
I was discovered at this little charm school. The woman that ran the show took me to New York on a convention. She kept telling me that I would do very well as a model because I was picked on in high school. The kids would throw me into the rose bushes and laugh at me. I suffered so much abuse as a child because of the way I looked.
Was high school like boot camp for the modeling industry?
Absolutely, it prepared me to hear negatives. When I first moved to Paris, all I heard was ‘no, no, no’. The other American girls who were cheerleaders and beauty queens couldn’t handle the rejection and they left. But for me it was easy, I had been dismissed all my life. I just kept thinking one day that ‘no’ is going be a ‘yes’ and I’m going to hang in there until it is.
You had a lot of success in Europe why did you decide to leave?
I was 25 when I moved from Paris to New York and I left because I just wanted to go home. When I arrived Elite Models weren’t very positive about my future there. I went on a lot of castings but things didn’t work out. Eventually, I said I wanted to quit and they agreed it was good idea. However my intention was to quit the agency but not modeling all together. In my last meeting I remember the door closing behind me and I heard all the people in the office laughing at me. I felt awful and thought how cruel people could be.
But that didn’t stop you, right.
It did not! I went on to Click Models and soon after I shot for Vogue and I started to do really well in America.
You are very close to your family back in Kannapolis, how did they react to your success?
I would tell my mother that Irving Penn photographed me and she would say, ‘I wish I knew who Irving was so I could be more excited for you’. My mother is very intelligent but fashion is just not part of her world. She was more excited seeing me in the McCall’s catalogue than Vogue because it meant more to her. I think their happiest moment was when someone in my hometown told my father that I was just like Dale Earnhardt the famous racing car driver from Kannapolis. My dad was so proud and for me it was very humbling to be compared to him. He was such a legend.
How does it feel to be back in the industry after all these years?
This industry is hard but it has been really good to me. The best years of my life began when I started modeling. I didn’t think I could come back to it but it’s kind of like getting back on a bicycle. I also feel very grateful, I have been really heart broken because of a divorce but now I am around people that I have missed dearly and I feel like I am healing again.
Kim Williams is represented by IconicFocus in New York
You were born in Austria, how did you end up in Paris?
When I was 19 and I was a law student in Vienna and I took the tram every morning to go to university. A woman saw me on the tram and asked if I had thought about being a model? I soon started working in Vienna and then a scout from Paris came over and was interested in me. He brought me to Paris and I only planned to stay for the summer and return to school in the autumn but I’m still here.
You met Helmut Newton quite early on in your career. How did that happen?
Two weeks after I arrived in Paris, I met Helmut. At the time he was looking for girls for the Vogue, Haute Couture edition. The casting was enormous, I was standing with 100 girls and all of sudden Helmut came out and made a small gesture and pulled me out of the line. He asked me if I would like to work for French Vogue but also if I would like to shoot some nudes.
What did you say when he asked you pose nude?
I have to admit that I immediately said yes. Helmut was a well-respected photographer and I was very fond of his work. All his nudes have power. He searched for strong women that would not allow themselves to be manipulated by men. Do you remember the double page spread in French Vogue, where there are four girls posing in couture and the next image shows us in the same position undressed? The message was that we remain just as powerful with clothing as without. You have to remember that these images were taken in the 80’s during the liberation of women. Helmut’s nudes were not meant to seduce in a passive way but to attract people to the new independent female.
I remember an image of you nude in front of a mirror; Helmut is behind the camera and June sitting to right looking rather bored.
That is a typical nude session with Helmut. His wife June would always be there and as a woman that made you feel very comfortable. When you’re 19, away from home and just developing self-confidence it’s important to be in a safe environment and they provided that.
I have always wondered what June was thinking in that image.
It looks like she was just siting there but she was a big part of everything that Helmut did. For him, June was ‘the’ woman. She was his wife, his lover and his mother. She was everything. She had a lot of influence on his work, always observing, making suggestions and being a part of the process. I think they had the perfect relationship; they met in Australia when they were very young and loved each other deeply until the end of Helmut’s life.
Looking back at that time in your life, how did these experiences shape you?
I didn’t decide to become a model. It kind of just fell from the sky. In the past things have always been too easy for me. I feel very blessed to have had this fantastic life but now I am facing the most difficult period. I am getting divorced and things are a little complicated. But I think this is an important life lesson for me, I need something that will challenge me.
Sylvia Gobbel is represented by Agence Silver in Paris