Photos courtesy of Glenn O’Brien and Glen Luchford for Models.com
With interviews becoming an increasingly more frequent occurrence, due to an evolution towards a more digital publishing-oriented industry, we have to stop and reassess the way such conversations are delivered. As with many other things in fashion, sometimes a glance backward is the best approach to a way of moving forward. In another new series here on Models.com, we return to the ways of Warhol’s Interview magazine, where conversations between two industry influencers replace the standard format of Q&A between journalist and subject. It seems only fitting to begin such a series with a man who helped Warhol start the magazine in the first place. He is joined by a photographer who incorporates elegance into not only his visual, but also verbal expressions. Let us all tune into Glenn O’Brien and Glen Luchford‘s private conversation.
When I look at pictures of you as a kid, you look like Montgomery Clift in The Misfits, or something iconic Hollywood — very striking — so I know you know firsthand what I’m talking about. It’s not a particularly new phenomenon. As humans, we’ve always been drawn to beauty, from cave paintings onwards, so when I hear people talk about plastic surgery, which is more and more common, they always speak in terms of covering imperfections and maintaining a visual aesthetic, but I wonder if it’s actually driven more by social likeability — the overwhelming desire to return to the schoolyard and be the cute kid that everyone liked.
Glenn O’Brien: My twelve-year-old son is entering the “awkward age” now. His hair is greasy, his canine teeth are halfway in, and he’s starting to get a mustache shadow, but he’s a beauty. He’s radiant, and everyone notices. The girls at school call him Brad Pitt. He says that Bjork’s song, Venus As a Boy, is about him. Anyway, when I look at pictures of myself when I was young, I think, “God, if I only knew how good I looked.” I had no idea. This is something I’ve noticed in many, but not all, beautiful girls. They have no clue as to their effect. Maybe Mario and Kate knew, because they’re both such good flirts. But I bet Mary, Mario’s wife, who is so gorgeous, probably didn’t know how great looking she is. It’s weird. I think it probably has to do with your parents. My mother was always telling me I was good looking, but I thought if she said it, it must be a lie. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Maybe it saved me. I might have been unbearable.
Maybe I wouldn’t have been a writer. Beauty is a great gift, but it can be a curse, too. I know a lot of beautiful women of my generation didn’t handle aging very well, and you see it clearly among the rich. I was in Miami for Art Basel, and you see all these rich ladies running around with the same face. The all have the same lips. It’s like a horror movie. There are plastic surgery fan websites about who’s had what done and I’m listed on one. All of these people, offering opinions on what work I’ve had done. I haven’t had anything done. I have good bones and I’ve spent most of my life with a blank expression on my face, so I don’t have lines. But I actually think that usually people wind up with the face that they deserve. Beauty is the greatest, but it has its price.
Glen: Yeah, my mother told me that, too, and she genuinely believed it, blinded by Oedipal love. In your case, it was true. Mary Frey (Sorrenti) came up in conversation just the other day in that context — she’s now become the benchmark for forties beauty. Unlike most, she seems to defy logic and become more and more attractive as she ages, plus she carries herself well, and she’s calm and cool, so the whole package works. Which, as you say, is rare and handled badly by most. When digital retouching first hit our set, we used to play a game that one person from the team could have a full retouch to their liking. We’d shoot a portrait, and they could guide the retoucher’s hand to clean up any imperfections or lines, and it was fascinating to see the level of distortion that was desired. It was way beyond what you’d imagine. I was introduced to a top New York plastic surgeon at the time, for a photographic project back in the early 90s, and, before I could introduce myself, he’d walked around the desk and was snipping chunks away from my chin and nose. His final fantasy of me was so terrible, I swore then that I’d never be tempted. Although, if they came up with a way to get your hair back without those pluggy things, I’d be tempted. I’d love to feel thick, flowing hair in my hands again.
So, anyway, moving on — you’ve seen ‘em all, from Warhol factory days, till now. Who’s the most enigmatic, attractive person you’ve ever come across? In my mind it’s Liz Taylor.
I remember, a while back, some magazine airbrushed the tear glands out of the cover girl’s eyes. I used to shoot with Steven Meisel and Steven’s hobby was doing plastic surgery with Polaroids and an X-Acto knife. He gave everybody nose jobs.
Attractive enigmas is a tough question. I met Donna Mitchell when she was on the cover of Vogue every other month. Just an exquisite beauty, and really smart. I think she hated being beautiful. She went out of her way trying to hide it. She wore her awful boyfriend’s clothes that didn’t fit. Maybe Garbo was like that. I had a big crush on her. So did Bob Richardson. We became friends years later. She was still dressed down. We did dozens of radio and TV commercials. She stopped being my friend unexpectedly when I got married. Now she plays older women in movies.
Then there’s Madonna. There’s something luminescent about her, and she has an amazing energy. She’s sort of Napoleonic. I met her when she was dating Basquiat and she was about to be famous soon. I loved her attitude. When she did the Sex book, I thought she was a true genius, and I adored her. But back then I didn’t think of her as enigmatic; I do now. I think she’s an enigma even to herself. Part Mae West, part Joan of Arc, part Joan Crawford, part Gypsy Rose Lee.
Okay, my turn. You shoot fashion, but you also shoot a lot of nudes and you do portraits. What’s your relationship to fashion? Does it interest you? Do you follow it? What’s your relationship with a stylist? Do you ever shoot something you think is ridiculous?
Glen: I was pretty enamored with Madonna, too. I shot her for a cover of something. Realizing there was a certain tension on set, she rolled back on the couch, threw her legs in the air and farted really loudly. Then fell about laughing. The pictures were dreadful, but she was pretty funny.
So, to answer your question, my relationship to fashion has changed a lot. These days it’s predominantly voyeuristic. I’d never think, “Oh, I must have that top next season.” I buy ten pairs of the same crappy pants and t-shirts, and wear them every day. I’m like an accountant who hates to take his calculator home with him. But, as a kid, I was affected by the rapid changes, and, like everyone else, followed it avidly as it mutated from 70s Teddy Boys, to Punk, New Romantic, Skins, Ska, Rockabilly, Soul Boys, Acid House, etc., in a small span of time. It was very intoxicating, and the transformative aspect of it sucked me in. I’m never bored by it. So, my relationship to stylists is obviously crucial, as they bring it all to life. For me, it’s the life blood. The key to it all. The only time I have the thought that something is ridiculous is when it’s safe and boring. I don’t see the point.
When you reflect on the origin of your sartorial style, can you pinpoint a moment — like a Penny Dropping epiphany — or did you just gradually drift into a style-conscious way of living, without much thought or contemplation?
Glenn: I always loved clothes. Movies and television were a much bigger influence on me than my family or the people I really knew. Old movies with Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, William Powell as The Thin Man, Bogart, Astaire, Sinatra, and Jerry Lewis when he guest hosted The Tonight Show in a tux. Later it was Craig Stevens in Peter Gunn, James Coburn, Sean Connery, Peter O’Toole, Michael Caine, Mastroianni, Belmondo, Delon, Robert Culp and Bill Cosby on I Spy, and David Hemmings in Blow Up. I also loved cowboy clothes, especially chaps, shield front shirts, and buckskins. I was always allowed to pick out my own clothes. By the time I got to high school, my taste was pretty much settled, and it’s funny, but I still dress kind of the same way as I always did.
I think that style is something really deep in the personality. I think that, in a way, it’s there when you’re born. That’s why de Kooning was able to make credible paintings when he had advanced Alzheimer’s. Style is close to the core. The way I dress is much more about instinct than thought.
Do you think style in photography is as evident as style in painting, writing or dress?
Glen: I think so. I mean, it is evident; however, what’s also evident is how sadly lacking in originality it is these days. You could argue that it’s the end of a century, and that the globalization of the industry brought about an inert state, but the art market would argue the same. The difference, I suppose, is that fashion is now a group sport, with few exceptions, and with each new voice on set, the level of “pure instinct” is diluted. And that’s the tragedy. I was on a shoot in Italy recently, and the art director was essentially asking me to hand over creative control in every aspect, even where to put the tripod. We came to an agreement and avoided it, but, as a metaphor for the future, it was interesting. The age of the avatar photographer is upon us, on set by name only. And that’s the largest obstacle in my opinion. Digital killed us.
So, my next question: I was on a night flight recently and hit turbulence, and was momentarily lost in a death fantasy. It’s the air pressure or something. Anyway, this particular fantasy had a very heroic tone — big funeral, half the city turned out. There were fashion dignitaries crying in the front row, the heads of acquisitions from MOMA and The Guggenheim fighting outside the church over my archive, you get the picture. Anyway, my outfit was great: a Savile Row top hat and tails, like the one Neville Chamberlain had on for his Peace in Our Time speech, with a high white collar. Very spivvy. So, what does Glenn O’Brien’s last outfit on earth look like?
Glenn: Gee, I never thought about what I’d wear in the box. I’m a pretty cool flier. I fly all the time, as I suppose you do, and I’ve only thought we were going down a few times. Once, I was on the New York to Boston shuttle, and Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen, then of Spy, were on the plane, and all I could think about was who would get top billing. I still worry about that every time there’s somebody famous on the plane, “Oh, shit…there’s Michel Gondry…Hi, Michel.” The worst turbulence I ever encountered was on a flight to Beijing, but I was totally calm and asked for a coaster to put on top of my drink so it wouldn’t fly out. You’ve got to be ready for the reaper. I think people who are really afraid to fly are solipsists who think that if they die the world will end. My mother was like that. But the world is still here. I think John Lurie is like that. He wrote a song called “If I Sleep, the Plane Will Crash.”
I guess I would like to get laid out in my Anderson & Sheppard tuxedo, which is really my nicest suit, but, of course, the wake would have to be after six in the evening. The only other thing I think about is who isn’t invited. I definitely want a doorman.
Okay, when you started out, you were working with models roughly the same age. I remember when I was that age, I always wanted to be with models, but, when I got older, they weren’t so appealing, and, some years ago, I realized I didn’t want to date them, I wanted to buy them something to eat. So, what has it been like going from shooting women your own age to shooting women who could be your daughter?
Glen: It’s a double-edged sword. I prefer it, in one sense. The models talk to me in a familiar, kind of friendly granddad way, which is not a bad thing when you need them to stand for hours in freezing cold and biting wind. They hate you a little less. On the other hand, it’s obviously a barometer of my accelerated decrepitude. We’re always fascinated by beauty, of that there is no doubt, but, for me, it was always the strong characters, or willful, let’s say. A certain confidence, like Jenny Howarth, with whom I spent a lot of time in the 90s. She always had that swagger, great style, and a piercing intelligence, which was all pretty alluring. Malgosia has that, Lesley Weiner, those kinds of women. In my mind, I give the models way too much power, as I need them so much. If they turn up all pissy and miserable, the shoot’s over before you start. So, I’m very reliant, which I don’t enjoy.
I had the thought this morning that the fashion industry is becoming like the Vatican, in the sense that in the past, painters needed financiers or patrons to support their endeavors, and the church was one of the few patrons rich enough for such things, but they put enormous restrictions on what could and couldn’t be done. Like nudity, for example — you couldn’t paint nude humans, so the artists of the day painted naked cherubs instead. As photo shoots become more and more expensive, the restriction become more and more castrating. We’re all slaves to the church of fashion.
It’s funny you mention John Lurie. I recently found some old negatives of him, and there is a picture of us on the street in New York that I really like. I had the pleasure of playing charades with him and Willem Dafoe one night in an Asian restaurant in the old East Village. John was extraordinarily good at it. Maybe the best I’ve ever played against.
So, my question: what does our future look like? You have seen changes come and go. The transitions from decade to decade. Where is this all heading? And can you say something that is positive? Because I moan all the time. It’s a British thing. We haven’t recovered from losing the Empire yet, so we moan all the time.
“Then there’s Madonna. There’s something luminescent about her, and she has an amazing energy. She’s sort of Napoleonic. I met her when she was dating Basquiat and she was about to be famous soon. I loved her attitude. When she did the Sex book, I thought she was a true genius, and I adored her. But back then I didn’t think of her as enigmatic; I do now.”
“I was pretty enamored with Madonna, too. I shot her for a cover of something. Realizing there was a certain tension on set, she rolled back on the couch, threw her legs in the air and farted really loudly. Then fell about laughing.”
Glenn: John is an amazing person, and he’s very good at games. We had epic Scrabble games. I think he’s still angry about me challenging “renailer” and winning. I guess he renailed all the time. He is very good at titles, too.
Obviously everyone is anxious about the future. The end of the Mayan calendar demonstrated that. We’re living in a constant state of apocalypse. Asteroids are aiming at us. The icecaps are melting. The poles are about to reverse magnetic polarity. We think of apocalypse as end of the world, but, in Greek, it means uncovering or revelation, and I think that is what we’re going through right now. It sounds almost corny to say that the internet has changed everything, but it really has. It seems to be breaking up the old monopolies, and all the secrets are being uncovered.
When I was coming up as a writer, it was really difficult to do something different, because you always had to find someone to sponsor you. You had to compromise. If you were a musician, you had to get signed. Now, to some extent, you can do it yourself. On another level, there was a very centralized control of information. There were three TV networks, and a few publishing conglomerates. Everything was pretty centralized. Now, anyone with a camera on their phone can start a news story, and maybe a revolution. I think the atmosphere has changed a lot. Of course, everything is still completely fucked. The planet is poisoned, and there are evil empires everywhere, but maybe the tide has turned. Being an old veteran, I somehow find the young people today more interesting and promising than I did ten years ago, or twenty years ago.
If you look at something like food, you can see that there has been a real revolution. People are going back to old ways of doing things, and avoiding the corporate model of doing everything the cheapest way possible to maximize product. You can get a decent meal just about anywhere now, which amazes me. It amazes me that you can buy organic milk in any supermarket, and that people see Monsanto as the enemy, not the savior.
And we have a black president. He could be blacker. I don’t know if he’s what Fela Kuti was thinking about. But I never thought that would happen in my lifetime. If Obama would just grow a big afro and put on a black leather jacket…
I’ve spent a lot of time in Sicily. It’s one of my favorite places. I know you had a house around Palermo. What took you there and what did you get out of it?
Glen: I love that you find young people more interesting today than twenty years ago. I’m such a Debbie Downer in that regard. I tried teaching for a while, but I found my attitude was all wrong. I wanted to leave the class feeling inspired, and, obviously, that’s not the point. The students are supposed to experience that.
Also, I felt an air of apathy, which was disappointing, or a lack of obsession, which in my opinion is vital. I said, “Ask me anything, and I’ll try and answer, no matter how tricky or technical. I’ll give you any secret,” and no hands went up. Then, finally, to quell the embarrassing silence, this one kid says, “So, yo, when I get my first big campaign, what’s my day rate going to be?” I quit after that. I can’t tell if it’s me, and I’ve lost the ability to connect in to what’s happening, or if it’s simply not happening. My friend’s kid, who’s a super hip fifteen-year-old, says he’s into Zeppelin and the Stones, so I’m currently a youth hater, as they make me sound like my dad.
Anyway, Sicily. I was taken to Palermo twenty years ago for work, and it didn’t seem possible to me that you could find a city like that in Southern Europe. Maybe in the lost jungles of South America. It’s very Fitzcarraldo — an eclectic hodgepodge of lost architecture. Byzantines, Phoenicians, Normans, Greeks, Romans, Goths and Vandals all left elements behind that merge into a kind of Baroque fantasy. I have a very small house on an island, and when I look out my window, I look over the sea on which the Romans fought their most famous battle against the Carthaginians. I love that. You lean your head out the kitchen window, and you can smell the history. I don’t have that experience anywhere else, so I spend as much time there as possible.
Do you have any good jokes? I heard one the other day that’s still making me laugh: “I was raised as an only child, which really annoyed my sister.”
Glenn: Rob Pruitt told me one that still makes me laugh. “What’s the worst thing Willie Nelson can say to you after you’ve just given him a blow job? I’m not Willie Nelson.”
Jackie Vernon used to say, “I called Dial-a-Prayer and they hung up on me.” He said, “This coat was a gift from my wife. I came home early one night and there it was hanging over a chair.”
Shecky Greene said, “Frank Sinatra saved my life. His goons were beating me up and he said, ‘Enough!'”
Steven Wright said, “Okay, what’s the speed of dark?”
I feel like, in my lifetime, food has gotten much better, people are more concerned with fitness, and they care more about their homes and their clothes, but there’s something missing. Beauty is gone from art. There’s not much great music. People don’t go out dancing or have wild affairs. They seem less passionate. There seems to be less romance, less humor, and less adventure. What do you think?
Glen: Is that our age? I think it’s my age. If it’s not, then it’s about something larger, more global. I’m going to try and check my misanthrope hat at the door when answering this.
It was noted that the British sculptor Henry Moore produced a staggering amount of work between the two world wars, and never came close to the same level of output before or after, so the looming sense of global destruction clearly inspired him to great heights, as it did many others. So, maybe what we’re experiencing now is the byproduct of nuclear proliferation and the end of the cold war. The reduction in fear factor has robbed us of our passion. I grew up in the last period of the cold war, with TV shows like Panorama describing in detail what nuclear destruction would look like, and it really traumatized me. Then, as that was dwindling, the AIDS crisis began, which the British press sold as the virus to end human existence. So, to be honest, I didn’t really think I’d make my thirties, let alone old age. Procrastination in 1985, when I left school, felt like a fool’s game. No time to dilly-dally.
The computer probably has to take some heat on this, too. It’s amazing, in one sense. I personally love it, but it does allow people to delude themselves into thinking they actually did something today, when they really didn’t. It’s an apathy enabler, and allows us to retreat, maybe too far. Like computer sex, it’s safe and controlled, but has zero risk. And the chance encounter is what life is about. We’re losing that.
So, my last question: Brighton, where I grew up, was like the Stone Pony in Asbury Park. Every band played there, so we saw a terrific lineup — The Ramones, Bowie, Iggy, The Buzzcocks, Blondie, The Damned, The Clash, etc. An endless supply came through, and I got to see most of it, so I feel like I experienced something as a bystander that was historically significant. You can go one step further and say that you’re part of that history. You were at ground zero, so to speak. Are you aware of your history? Do you allow yourself the odd moment to sit back and think, “Wow, lucky son of a bitch. I did and saw so much”?
Glenn: You mentioned growing up with a sense of apocalypse. I grew up with the same feeling. We had nuclear alert practices in school and under our desks. I had nuns for teachers, and they told us that this was the end of the world. I think that had a lot to do with the sense of revolt that I felt, along with a lot of my peers. When I was a student, there were amazing moments — urban riots, incredible protest marches with Nixon walling off the White House with buses, May ’68 in Europe, the Doors… But, in retrospect, it was like when a pan boils over on the stove, and you turn the heat down and it just simmers again. Nothing changed. The bands you mention represented a more realistic attitude. No future. Let’s dance.
I feel ambivalent. I certainly knew I was in the middle of something important at the time, but I also felt how ephemeral it was. I was lucky to be involved, but that time also set me up for disappointment that nothing much changed. The corporate world is very accommodating. There’s a revolution going on? Let’s buy it and sell it! Then AIDS wiped out a huge part of my generation.
Sometimes I feel a little like the old guy sitting there in his army uniform and medals on Veteran’s Day. I’m proud to have been a part of some great things, but I can’t help feeling like we blew it. We gave up, settled for less and sold out. We let them give us the anesthesia. I mean, I would have loved to Occupy Wall Street, but I had Knicks tickets, and reservations at Mr. Chow’s, and I had on my Hedi Slimane suit, and I didn’t want to get it dirty. Besides, I had a big job the next day.
But I’m not pessimistic. I still think intelligence and beauty are contagious. Don’t you think?
Glen: I do, absolutely, and the reality is that something is happening now that’s risky and vigorous and full of vitality, but it’s probably happening in the Congo, or Venezuela. A student recently asked me what is the best way to get into the industry, and my response was, “Why the hell would you want to do that? It’s like breaking into a bank that’s just been robbed!”