IIn the late 60s, Pat Cleveland was one of the most popular models in New York, working with the most famous photographers: Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Hiro. Still, she couldn't get on the cover of Vogue. The photographers "were all very upset," she says, "because they shot my covers and sometimes the editors would say," Wow! This is the cover! "Then they would replace me with a Caucasian girl. I'm just fed up with it."
She made a vow. "Why am I going to waste my time in the US," she wondered, "if they aren't interested in people of color?" In 1971 she moved to France and promised not to return to the US until a black model was on the cover of US Vogue.
Paris was a promised land. She slept with her colleagues Corey Tippin and Donna Jordan as well as Vogue illustrators Antonio Lopez and Juan Ramos on the floor of one of Karl Lagerfeld's apartments. She fondly remembers the young (ish) Lagerfeld: “He was like a muscle man back then. He had this gym in his house, all mirrors and dim black lights and calla lilies. “The illustrators sketched the models until midnight when everyone got dressed and went to the nightclubs – Le Palace and Nuage.
"Every time we went out we thought we were the Folies-Bergère" … Cleveland ate a sandwich at the 1973 Battle of Versailles. Photo: Fairchild Archive / Penske Media / Rex / Shutterstock
In 1973, American and French designers were asked to take part in a legendary fashion show, the Battle of Versailles, which took place in the historic palace. French designers like Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior and Hubert de Givenchy competed against Halston, Bill Blass and Anne Klein. The Americans displayed their designs on a group of models that included 11 African Americans – which was unprecedented at the time – and unexpectedly emerged victorious. "Black was popular," says Cleveland. The mood among the models was comradely. “There were no catfights. It was like, "Hey, let's get it!" We had our routines – every time we went out we thought we were the Folies-Bergere. "
The following year, black model Beverly Johnson appeared on the cover of US Vogue. Cleveland was as good as her word. She returned to New York and spent her nights in Studio 54.
In the 60s and 70s, she says, you had a choice. “It was like, are you going to hang out with the hippies all lying around in bean bags with ripped jeans and fluffy hair? Or will you comb your hair and go out at night and eat mimosa and steak au poivre and dance with the supremes? "
Mick Jagger was "one of the gangs". They made a date, but rock star friends weren't a big deal: “body else was around. It's not like you can go shopping in a regular grocery store. You always had to buy in a specialist shop. "
One summer in Florida, Muhammad proposed Ali to her. “He was just a big, fluffy teddy bear; shy and southerly with lovely soft hair. He had this convertible Cadillac with two bodyguards in front and he would take me to drive it. He always said things like, "OK, watch out!" And then drove to a poor area where all people would recognize him, like, "Muhammad! Muhammad!" He got up and said, "Yes, it's me! You put your money on me and I will win for you." He would say this with a rhythm like "hip-hop rhyme," she says. "I think he started it."
Ultimately, however, she and Ali were not sympathetic. “One morning he saw me in my bikini, jumped over to me with a towel, wrapped it around me and said, 'Well, if you want to be my wife, you can't wear that. & # 39; I thought, 'Oh, it's too strange for me! & # 39; ”
"He was just a big, fluffy teddy bear" … Cleveland with Muhammad Ali in 1966. Photo: Lady Bird Cleveland
Andy Warhol was also a friend and she was a regular for afternoon tea with Salvador Dalí. "I would sit there and act like a little dog and he would never draw. He would just walk around the table and look at me." Surely it got boring being a muse? "Oh no! I am not the muse. They were my muses. I have observed and studied them."
Cleveland has painted since childhood and was educated at the Art and Design High School in Manhattan (alumni include Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs, and their lifelong friend Lopez). Most of the people she met were too busy looking at her to realize she was looking back in a moment.
We'd go for a walk and be approached by racists who throw stones … I just threw stones back
As a kid in Harlem in her 50s, she had learned to stand out from the crowd. "I haven't seen anyone who looked like me or what I was." She was a girl of mixed heritage who grew up in an area that was diverse but still in some ways separate. "Sometimes I went to the Irish bar or with my Jewish boyfriend, then my Puerto Rican friend taught me Spanish, then they sang on the corner in the black neighborhood, 'Doo-wah, doo-wah …" "
Her father, a jazz saxophonist named Johnny Johnston, returned to his Swedish homeland shortly after Cleveland was born and had her raised by her mother and aunt. Her aunt was one of the black bohemians who traveled to Europe years ago to get rid of prejudice, as her niece would years later. “My aunt worked, made clothes and danced in the opera house in Paris, and when she came to us she brought all of these things with her. Everywhere you went was a creative mess of fabrics, colors and drums. “Dancers who had worked with renowned choreographer Katherine Dunham came to Cleveland's living room to practice. "So there were always men, half-dressed, doing all this drumming, and I got up in the middle of the night and went dancing with them."
"Designers and artists are brought here to make the world beautiful" … Cleveland in accordance with designer Stephen Burrows. Photo: Pierre Schermann / Archives Condé Nast / Corbis
Cleveland is still a model – she went for a walk at New York Fashion Week last fall for designers Nicole Miller and Chiara Boni – though "danced" is a better way to describe it. "There is this open space in front of you and when the headlights are on you feel as if you are flying towards the sun. They feel the energy of the people and can hear their hearts beating. Then you think to yourself," Oh, these are my people ! I have to make her happy today! "
When we talk about video chat, she's in her New Jersey studio surrounded by brushes and half-finished work, mostly colorful collages, some of which include her model shots. At 70, she seems to be unchanged. She still has that flare that has garnered invitations to every party worth going to for the past 50 years.
It is easy to imagine that she was sitting on her mother's knee as a child. Lady Bird Cleveland worked as an artist at the end of the Harlem Renaissance, specializing in black history subjects, and raised her only child with the help of friends such as photographer Carl Van Vechten and opera singer Marian Anderson. "Sometimes I drink the water from the watercolors," says Cleveland. Her mother would say, "Well, if you don't drink the paint, you'll never become an artist." Our call is suddenly interrupted. "Can you hear that?" She says. "The peacocks!" She and her husband keep them as pets. It seems appropriate.
Cleveland has an affinity for designers because when it started it was. As a tall, slim 15-year-old, she couldn't find anything suitable and began making her own clothes. She was invited to sell her miniskirts in a boutique next to the Cheetah nightclub in Manhattan. "At the weekend I would undress, go dancing, come back, pick up my money and go home," she says.
Her outfits caught the eye of a Vogue employee on a New York subway platform in 1966 and she appeared in the magazine as an aspiring designer. When she started modeling, there weren't 1,000 people trying to get a seat. It wasn't fame. It was more like you wanted to work with the designer, you know? "
That year Cleveland was invited to attend the Ebony Fashion Show organized by Eunice Johnson, the pioneering black businesswoman and co-founder of Ebony magazine. Black people were excluded from fashion and some clothing stores at the time, so the show provided access and inspiration. Johnson "was the richest black woman in the United States," says Cleveland. “She went to the shows in Europe and bought the entire collection. Then she showed these clothes in selected (US) cities where the cream of black society was. She put Yves Saint Laurent on the map. She had Cardin, Dior, Givenchy, Chanel. She had it all. "
"Black Was Popular" … Cleveland at a Halston party in Studio 54, New York, December 1977. Photo: Guy Marineau / Shutterstock
Cleveland had previously experienced racism, particularly when visiting her mother's hometown in Georgia. "I had cousins who weren't as fair-skinned as I was and we were walking around town and we were approached by racists who threw stones. I was from New York so what did I know? I was just throwing stones back I thought it was a game, but we could have been killed. "
When she toured the south with the Ebony fashion fair, the models received death threats and were turned away by “only white” institutions. "It was pretty dangerous to be on a bus with millions of dollars' worth of clothes and 10 black girls," she says. "The driver had to pack pistols." Despite all the ugliness and restlessness, she learned her craft here. "Every evening we put on a show, sometimes in a church on a table set as a runway, with a light at the end. You have a lot of experience walking on such a shaky table."
Back in New York, she signed with Ford Models, but boss Eileen Ford made it clear that she saw little potential for black models. “I was the only one there. Me and maybe a girl named Charlene Dash and – oh my god forget it, they would never take anyone darker. "
In 1982 Cleveland married the Dutch model and fashion photographer Paul van Ravenstein. They had two children; Her modeling work became rarer but never stopped. Her daughter Anna Models and the couple also ran for Chanel and appeared together in campaigns for Zac Posen and Lanvin.
Cleveland founded her own modeling agency in 1995 – in Piedmont in northwestern Italy – inspired by her desire to correct an industry. "They gave me all the money because I was American, the star, and all these Italian models – really high quality, beautiful, excellent models – were paid very little. These were my Italian friends who always had my back, so I did founded an agency. This is how I brought them the good money. "
The only moment of our conversation that Cleveland is speechless is when I tell her about the racial profiling of British Vogue editor Edward Enninful. In July he described how he was instructed to use the loading dock by a security guard in the magazine's offices. "I'm freaking out over here," says Cleveland. "I have to take a minute to absorb this … I mean, if he was in America, they'd brutalize him." After a few deep breaths, she looks up again and smiles: "You know, if you are a fairy, you will be trapped in cobwebs. You train to be what you really are, a light like those little light bugs that do light up the night. You were born this way and that is your energy. "
"When the spotlight is on, you feel like you're flying to the sun" … Cleveland is walking for Nicole Miller at New York Fashion Week in September 2019. Photo: Aurora Rose / Patrick McMullan / Getty Images
This energy has taken her through some extraordinary experiences. In March 2019, Cleveland was in Paris for Fashion Week when she developed colon cancer and was hospitalized. She lived two floors below when Lagerfeld had died a month earlier. "I think I had a visit from his ghost," she says. “There he was on the edge of the bed. He just said, "Don't worry, dear. You will be fine."
This turned out to be true. A crowdfunding appeal from her husband to cover her medical expenses received donations from Jacobs, Posen, Helena Christensen and Katie Grand. "I didn't know I had so many friends," she says. "Thank god for Instagram!" This is how Cleveland stays in touch with their fashion people these days. “Because we love pictures. We like to keep it shiny and bright and try to create the atmosphere we like the world in. w, even though a whole range of things are going on – and we get it – designers and artists are being brought here to make the world beautiful. "
If you've only seen Cleveland on the catwalk, you might get the impression that it hovers over the world's troubles. But that is not entirely true. As her Vogue vow – and her participation in a recent Black Trans Lives Matter event – shows, she has always been ready to stand up against discrimination. But her gift is her connection to beauty. Like her peacocks, she is grounded – and fabulous.