M on Meisel: He was the first person to introduce me to the idea of reinvention, Vogue Feature on Steven Meisel
Over the years, Steven Meisel has developed an extraordinary body of work, an almost impenetrable mystique—and an uncanny knack for finding fashion’s favorite faces.
By Jonathan Van Meter. Photographed by Steven Meisel.
Once, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away—early-nineties, supermodel-mad Manhattan—I went to a party at music producer Shep Pettibone’s midtown apartment. It was a sultry July evening, and he lived in a penthouse with a huge terrace. The party had a decadent feeling: Everyone smoked; there were well-stocked bars inside and out; the crowd was by any definition a beautiful one. I got the sense that things would still be going on long after I had gone to bed.
At one point, I noticed that Steven Meisel and his tight little clique—which on that evening included a tall, cute blond guy and Naomi Campbell—were languidly slouching about, smoking. I had just run out of cigarettes, and so I turned and asked the group if I could bum one. Meisel, who had a bandanna covering his head and dark sunglasses on, did not even glance up.
The encounter—the first of many times in my life when I would not meet Steven Meisel—left an indelible impression, which was one of intimidating inscrutability. The fact that for so many years he has worn what amounts to a hip-gay-male version of a burka has only added to my perception of him as a creature of mystery. He is always covered up! Even when it’s blazing hot out, he’s got on some sort of headgear and layers of black clothing. It is a look that is designed to obfuscate and to keep people away. And it works.
Over the years, Meisel has become ever more reclusive, rarely going to fashion shows or parties, almost never giving interviews. There have been no retrospectives or gallery openings or lush coffee-table books published, nothing that would require him to face the public. His friends—to a one—say that he is shy and especially reserved around strangers, and they insist that his mysteriousness is not a cultivated affectation; it is just part of his nature.
“I think that he almost has to be that way to protect himself,” says Amber Valletta. “He’s so extremely sensitive.”
Linda Evangelista, who is one of Meisel’s closest friends, sees it a bit differently. “He’s just private. He’s not a media whore. I bet he had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do this story. But it’s got nothing to do with being mysterious. Fame and glory are not going to bring him satisfaction in life.”
Even Madonna agrees that there is, indeed, “a great sense of mystery” about Meisel—so much so that after all these years she feels she still doesn’t really know him very well. “I know that I love him,” she says. “You get sucked into his aura. He knows things.”
She learned this from one of their first collaborations, which was for the cover of Like a Virgin. “Before I worked with Steven,” says Madonna, “I just showed up in the clothes I was wearing, stood in front of the lights, and got my picture taken. With Steven, a team of people descended on me, started to undress me. Someone grabbed my hair, another grabbed my face, another started helping me try on various bits of clothes, and they all seemed to be speaking a language I didn’t understand—the language of Steven Meisel.”
To hear Madonna talk about working with Meisel is like being let in on a long-held secret. She goes on, “Steven had a vision. He had done his research. He had very specific references. I really respected the care that he took with his work, how seriously he approached it, but at the same time he has a great sense of irony. He made me feel like I was part of something important. He treated each photo shoot like it was a small film and insisted that we create a character each time we worked but then would make fun of the archetypes we created. He was the first person to introduce me to the idea of reinvention.” Who knew that Madonna, the goddess of reinvention, learned it from Steven Meisel.
Meisel’s nearly 30-year career as a fashion photographer has been distinguished by two things: his unusually collaborative relationships with women and an almost perverse dedication to constant change, which, come to think of it, is a good description of fashion itself. In his work for, among others, this magazine, Italian Vogue (for which he has shot every cover since 1988), and innumerable fashion-ad campaigns, he has mastered so many different styles—from stripped-down studio shots of models in action to high-concept social satires, from lush couture shoots to high-glam camp—that it can be difficult to pin down whether there is a distinctive Meisel style at all.
“One of the reasons the world has been slow to recognize his contribution is that he is an absolute chameleon,” says Charlotte Cotton, the photography curator of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Cotton, who considers Meisel the commercial photographer of our time, says he belongs in the pantheon of image-makers with Avedon, Penn, and Newton. “It’s a remarkably risky position to take. It’s like starting from scratch every time you go on a shoot, because it’s based on whatever influences you’ve cherry-picked from the culture at that moment.”
In preparation for this month’s exhibition, “The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion,” Harold Koda, curator in charge of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, has been poring over Meisel images from the eighties and nineties. In doing so, he has realized that there are a couple of things about a Meisel photograph that come close to a signature. For one, Meisel is a true postmodernist. “He samples only those things from the past that can be electrified by a contemporary aesthetic,” says Koda.
The other quality that characterizes Meisel’s work is a strange kind of precision. “The thing that looks like Steven is an obsessiveness with an almost chilly perfection,” says Koda. “Even if the models are meant to look tousled, they are perfectly tousled,” he says. “There’s never a moment where there isn’t this intrusion of the photographer into a very controlled image.”
He brings up Meisel’s infamous Versace campaign, shot in over-the-top mansions in Beverly Hills with Amber Valletta and Georgina Grenville, who are made up and posed to look like the most glamorous sixties Stepford wives imaginable. “I think that’s Steven at his best, when he has inserted his own imagination of reality into the photograph and it becomes this kind of hyperreality,” says Koda. “I really see a directorial role in the way he takes photographs.”
If Steven Meisel is like a film director, then his movie stars are, of course, the supermodels. The term was coined by an agent in the 1940s, but if we are to give one person credit for our idea of Supermodels, capital S, that credit would have to go to Meisel. Christy, Linda, and Naomi—no last names necessary. Of course, there were famous models before, but none who permeated every aspect of the culture—and embodied it—in quite the same way.
As Koda says, “He really is a kind of a Svengali in terms of being able to take a range of beautiful women and transform their particular look into the look of the moment. And he has the business savvy to be able to create careers.”
I spent a goodly part of my winter tracking down many of the women Meisel “made.” Naomi rang from a car as a fellow named Yuri drove her around Moscow (she yelled at him only once during our talk). I interviewed Linda while I was sick with the flu. (She offered to have chicken soup sent over.) Christy almost didn’t call me at all, because she was busy studying for her master’s degree in public health at Columbia University. I found Carolyn Murphy living nearly off the grid somewhere in Southern California; Liya Kebede in New York; Coco Rocha in Australia; Amber Valletta in Santa Monica. Stella Tennant called from Scotland, and Kristen McMenamy from a closet in her house in London, where she had to hide so her kids couldn’t hear her.
The first thing you realize is how similarly articulate, funny, and intense these women are. The second thing you notice is that they all view Meisel as the opposite of inscrutable—as a nurturing father figure. “He makes you feel so safe,” says Linda. Carolyn Murphy describes Meisel as a “proud papa. He pays attention, and you know that he’s really interested in you.” Valletta says, “He always inspired me to care about what I was doing.”
McMenamy believes that Meisel empathizes with women, models in particular. “I think pretty much all models have got a hang-up about one thing or another. I have a huge hang-up about my looks. I was always the outcast growing up. When I first worked with him, he made me feel beautiful and comfortable. And there’s this certain magic in that he makes you feel part of the team. He makes you feel as important as he is.”
“He has this incredible gift for being able to find the diamond in the rough,” says Liya Kebede. “He sees you when you first arrive on the set and you look unpolished, and then he finds the girl inside.”
All of the women say that they “owe their careers” to Meisel. “It’s a very strange thing,” says Stella Tennant. “He’s a bit like my fairy godfather, I suppose.” She laughs. “But it was like that! You shall go to the ball! And you shall be on the cover of American Vogue! Because that’s quite a power to have. There are other photographers who have it to some degree, but I don’t think any other photographer can project a model so far and so high into the business.” Meisel’s most recent muse, Coco Rocha, agrees: “If he says it’s so, it’s so. And that makes your career. He’s the Godfather of all models.”
Full disclosure: I have never met Steven Meisel. I have been to a few of his photo shoots over the years, where he works literally behind a scrim. A couple of years ago, I think I might have clapped eyes on him as he scurried from the designated hair-and-makeup area (where I could hear gales of laughter coming from Pat McGrath and Garren) and then ducked back behind the curtain. At a Linda Evangelista shoot I went to, he was working inside what seemed like a black box. I could hear his voice, a barely audible murmur, as he gave Linda direction or expressed his pleasure over something she was doing with her upper lip or her hand.
When I first contacted his office, he agreed to a phone interview, which we decided should be an hour long. We picked a Tuesday at noon and then, weirdly enough, stuck with Tuesdays at noon for several weeks, like it was ironclad and I was his shrink whom he couldn’t bear to see in person.
Meisel was surprisingly forthcoming on the phone—willing to entertain pretty much any question. But he was also brusque and impatient—sort of perpetually annoyed with the idea of doing an interview at all. Because he has such a thick outer-borough New York accent, I sometimes felt as if I were talking to a cranky but very funny old Jewish grandmother. I noticed that he seemed to want to take control of the interview; for example, he would answer one of my questions and then ask himself a follow-up question. And then answer it! At other times he completely relaxed into the process and just talked.
I began to enjoy this unusual process, partly for its novelty but mostly for its strange intimacy. There’s something lovely and old-fashioned about talking on the phone once a week for a month. Who does that anymore?
Turns out Meisel does. “I used to spend hours on the phone with him,” says Anna Sui, who has known him since they went to Parsons together in the seventies. “He loves that.” Turlington also mentions their marathon sessions. “I would talk to him on the phone as I would to a girlfriend in high school, both watching the same TV show, talking through the whole thing.”
It’s clear that, as with everything he does, Meisel likes to be in charge. He insisted on taking me through things chronologically. If I jumped ahead in time, he would stop, put a mental marker on the subject, and then address it when we’d arrived at the appropriate place for it in his story.
Steven Meisel was born in Manhattan in 1954, but he was essentially raised on Long Island. His parents, Sarah and Leonard, moved him and his sister, Robin, to Port Washington when he was about three. (When I ask if his parents are still living, he says, “Still alive! Still married!”) Leonard is 95 (“still cantankerous!”); he is of Russian-Jewish descent; Sarah, who is Irish-English, is 85 and still comes into the city once a week to have lunch with her son.
Though he didn’t appreciate it at the time, he was introduced to a sort of glitzy nighttime world at an early age. His maternal grandfather was Nat Simon, the songwriter whose standard “Poinciana” was a hit for Bing Crosby. Meisel’s mother was for a while a big-band singer; she went to Hollywood for a screen test, hoping to sign a contract with one of the film studios, but Leonard didn’t like the idea, so she quit and became a housewife. (“My grandfather never forgave her,” says Meisel. “He always hated my father.”)
Leonard worked for London Records. “Artists would come from Europe, and my father would take them around the city to concerts and radio stations,” says Meisel. Tom Jones once stayed at their house for four days. Leonard would sometimes take young Steven to Jilly’s, where they would see Frank Sinatra at the bar, or to the Copacabana, where he remembers sitting so close to the stage the night the Supremes performed that he could practically touch them. When the Beatles came to Shea Stadium in 1965, the Meisels went backstage and met them before the show. “Now I see that it was very glamorous,” he says.
Meisel’s cousin was Diane Rothschild, the legendary advertising executive. When Meisel was about twelve, she took him to an advertising shoot the fashion photographer Melvin Sokolsky was doing for a fabric company. What he remembers most is that he watched the models—not the photographer—because he knew who they were from his constant reading of fashion magazines. “I was obsessed even then,” he says.
His mother and sister were stunners in their own right. Sarah, who took Steven along when she had her hair colored at Kenneth, was an icy-blonde beauty—in old photographs, she looks like she could have stepped out of a Meisel shoot. His sister, who shared her brother’s dark good looks, let him experiment with hair and makeup and photograph her. He went shopping with them every Saturday to Saks and Bergdorf and then later to boutiques like Paraphernalia and Abracadabra on the Upper East Side. “I had to go to the stores!” says Meisel. “It seemed like the world that I was looking at in the magazines come to life.”
Meisel soon figured out that he wanted to attend the High School of Art & Design, on East Fifty-seventh Street. It was quite a scene. In the back of the lunchroom there was a table where, according to Meisel, “the groovy crowd” sat. Meisel eventually worked his way into the group, one that included the model Pat Cleveland, future Warhol superstar Donna Jordan, and none other than Harvey Fierstein. “We called him Little Stevie,” says Fierstein. “I was sort of on the very edge of the cool crowd because I had no business being there…trust me!” What about Little Stevie? “Oh, I think he was snapping at their heels,” he says in that basso profundo. “I remember him as a dark-haired, very sweet Jewish boy.”
Even in a school well stocked with creative oddballs, Meisel managed to stand out, says Cleveland, whom Meisel would photograph years later, most recently for the black issue of Italian Vogue. “He had this long, silky black hair down to the bottom of his derriere. He wore really tight little jeans and beautiful shirts. He wasn’t wild. But, you know, when you see someone who is that beautiful, they don’t have to be outrageous and loud. He didn’t have to push his way into anything.”
It was the end of the sixties, and he made a place for himself just as easily in New York’s nightlife. A photographer friend of his sister’s took him to Max’s Kansas City when he was fourteen—he became nearly delirious on the phone one day as he recalled the lighting in great detail, as only a photographer could. That early exposure to the theatrical aesthetic of the demimonde has had a profound influence on his work. When he conjures glamour, as Charlotte Cotton points out, “his frame of reference could be a transsexual’s glamour rather than the real Marilyn Monroe’s glamour.”
One also gets the sense that it was a period in which this famously controlling man cut loose. “Yes. I went to every single club, every single hangout, every single after-hours drug place. There wasn’t one thing that I didn’t do; there wasn’t one place that I didn’t go to.”
After high school, Meisel went to Parsons to study fashion illustration. Along the way, he worked at Halston for a summer, his very first job, where he met Stephen Sprouse, who became a lifelong friend (until his death in 2004); they bonded over their disdain for the older designer. “Everyone would be called into this room, and he would stand there like…like…Kay Thompson. ‘Think Pink!’ Oh, he drove me crazy.” Worse yet, Halston designed a uniform for his young charge to wear: a black ribbed short-sleeved shirt and black slacks. “He would yell at me and say, ‘Don’t just sit around, Pocahontas! You have to do something!’ ”
In 1974, Meisel, drawings in hand, went literally across the street from Parsons to Fairchild Publications, where Women’s Wear Daily’s offices were, and met with the art director, who hired him. Ben Brantley, André Leon Talley, and Bonnie Fuller all worked there.
It was here that Meisel met the fashion illustrator Kenneth Paul Block, the closest he has ever come to a mentor. “He taught me so much about everything,” says Meisel. “He would sit there with this long cigarette holder and a polka-dot bow tie, always a sports jacket, immaculate. He never lost his temper. He had so much style, so much class, so much chic.” Block would sometimes draw Meisel, whose androgynous good looks allowed him to stand in for a woman. (In Block’s fantastic book, Drawing Fashion, which came out in 2008, there is a spread devoted to Meisel that is titled simply “Steven.”)
While at WWD, Meisel started traveling back across the street to Parsons to teach illustration. A young student named Marc Jacobs tried to take his class. “I had seen Steven out and about in New York with his little entourage—Teri Toye and Stephen Sprouse and Anna Sui—but I didn’t know him,” says Jacobs. “But I was such a fan of his drawings and just thought he had a really great eye. I was very disappointed because the first night when I showed up, it was announced that he wasn’t going to be teaching it, because he was off on a photography assignment for W. He had just started taking pictures.”
By the early eighties, Meisel intuited that fashion illustration was on its way out. “I needed to do more,” he says. He started by snapping pictures of his girlfriends. One day, he met a girl shopping and asked if she would sit for him. She was Valerie Cates, the sister of Phoebe Cates, then a model represented by Elite. “So I would shoot Valerie and Phoebe on the weekends,” says Meisel. The B-girls—the bookers—at Elite loved Meisel’s photographs, so they asked him to do test shoots with other newly signed girls. Elite supplied him with film and processing, and Meisel began to hone his craft—while also learning how to make fourteen-year-old girls feel comfortable posing as women. From the very beginning, he did the hair, makeup, and styling all by himself. “I didn’t know any different,” he says.
An editor at Seventeen saw his pictures in a model’s portfolio and called to offer him an assignment. His first magazine shoot was at a country house in Connecticut. “I took these sweet little pictures,” he says. In quick succession he started shooting for W, Mademoiselle, Self, and then finally Vogue. “I was still at WWD, and teaching,” he says. “And there was an editor at Vogue, Mary Russell, and she just loved my work. I went up to the offices and she introduced me to art director Alex Liberman, and he asked if I would go to Europe to do the collections.” Meisel took some time off from WWD to go to Paris and Milan with a model he chose, Marisa Indri. “I didn’t have any assistants; there was no hair and makeup. We would go to Saint Laurent, knock on the door, and they looked at us like, Who are these people? But we went into the different houses, they gave us the clothes; sometimes Marisa and I would go out on the streets. I would do her hair at their cabines, and she would get dressed.” When he got back, Vogue asked him to do the New York collections. “We were in a natural-light studio, and all of a sudden we had hair and makeup. I said, ‘Hmm. OK.’ That was my first job at Vogue.”
Before long, Meisel began working with Polly Mellen, and that is when things really began to click. “It was very, very exciting to work with her,” he says. “The way that she treated models was unbelievable. To her, your model was gold. She was everything. Your girls felt that. They felt like stars.” Meisel is a very good mimic. Here, suddenly, he does a dead-on imitation of Polly Mellen’s singular whispery war cry: “You are work-ing with Tur-ling-ton to-daaaaaay.” He goes on, “Sometimes, looking at the girl as I was working, she would actually cry. She was that moved. It was incredible! It was what I thought it would be. It was what I wanted.”
With surprising swiftness, he established his very collaborative creative process, one that almost always involved inventing a narrative persona for his subjects. As Turlington says, “We started to work, honestly, three quarters of each month. I felt like a house model. We used to work at this place on lower Broadway. I’d come in every day and go into the makeup room and it was like, What are we going to do? What are we going to create today?”
Meisel remembers in glorious detail his first shoot with Linda Evangelista. “I had seen some European magazine that was absolutely nothing, and there was a little picture of her. I remember thinking, This girl has amazing line.” He booked her for a Vogue shoot with several other girls. “I was working with François Nars and Oribe at the time, and they were like, ‘Oh, this girl! We’re crazy about her!’ They were very inspired. François was painting her and painting her, and Oribe kept making the hair bigger and bigger. She came out and she glistened. It was like crystal, like champagne corks popping. That smile! Her gums! Her eyes just twinkled! I decided to shoot the story on just Linda, and we sent all the other girls home. We were just very, very inspired and in love.”
The feeling was mutual. “It was the beginning of our story,” Evangelista says. “I remember I heard something about how they loved my knees. As a model, you are never referred to as a whole person. You are dissected into little pieces. I thought maybe they were being sarcastic, because I got teased my whole life about my knees. There were also comments about my gums. I was like, ‘My gums?’ I didn’t think that my gums would stand out.” She laughs. “So, there you go. My knees and my gums.”
The day of the photo shoot for this piece with all of the women Meisel “made” happened to fall on a Tuesday, which meant that we would miss our standing phone appointment for that week in February. And since I failed to persuade him to let me be a fly on the wall at the shoot—but, oh, how I tried!—I had to wait until the following Tuesday at noon to find out how it all went. “Chaotic but fine,” he said when we get on the phone. “Fun,” he added after a few seconds. “Nice to see everybody.” Another long pause. “Lovely!” he finally shouted. “I mean, I love all of them so much, so it was great.”
It must have been strange for this Svengali to have all of his women together in the same place. He says the day felt a bit like a reunion, replete with hugs and tears and the showing off of baby pictures. He was also struck by the fact that the younger girls had never met most of the older girls. “It was very sweet and very touching,” he says. “Because for some of these women, modeling changed their whole life. It really, really did! For me to sit there and remember the sixteen-year-old girls that I met, some of whom came in with a tattered coat and $3, and then to think that now some of them are married to billionaires.…This job in particular has a tendency to change lives more than most.”
It changed his life, too. He now splits his time (with a boyfriend he won’t discuss) between a mansion in Beverly Hills—like one of those “sick” (by which he means cool) houses he used to stage those Versace ads several years ago—and “a big old prewar monster” on the Upper East Side. When I ask him what his Peter Marino-designed place in New York looks like, he says, “It’s a major apartment. That’s what I wanted. That’s why I work so much: to give myself some of the things that make me feel comfortable. My drapes are heavy velvet. It’s kind of a little…I don’t know…Saint Laurent, a little Chanel. A lot of crystal, a lot of mirrors. One of the rooms has a mirrored ceiling. I know it sounds bad, but it’s so working.” He laughs. “To me, that’s what growing up here…that’s what my city is…or, was, all about.” One almost gets the sense that if he himself could go to Kenneth, as his mother used to, he would.
Of course, the passage of time has meant other changes. The man who is obsessed with retouching to the point of plasticine immortal beauty has complicated feelings about aging. In some ways, his reclusiveness has the whiff of the Hollywood star who cannot bear to show her no-longer-gorgeous face. “Would I rather look 20 again?” he asks. “Uh…yeah? I think anyone who says no would be crazy. It’s difficult. It’s also difficult physically. I don’t have the stamina I once did.” He pauses. “But the other stuff? What are you going to do? I love plastic surgery. I haven’t had any, because it’s very hit or miss. Even with the best doctors…there’s no guarantee.” Here Meisel asks himself a follow-up question. “OK, am I getting plastic surgery?” And then answers it. “I don’t think so.”
A few people suggested to me that one reason Meisel did not want to see me in person might be that he has become self-conscious about his weight. At one point, when I ask him if he has any vices left, he answers with one word—”food”—which seems to confirm this theory. “This week I even tried hypnosis,” he says, laughing. “Still, I see the cookie!”
More than anything, one senses that he misses the time when he was closer in age to his subjects. “What am I going to talk about with a teenage Russian girl who barely speaks English?” he complains one day. It occurs to me that perhaps Meisel doesn’t like to be interviewed because it’s hard for him to dredge up the past. “I definitely don’t live in the past,” he says. “I definitely live in the present. I know people probably think of me as just living in the past. I do like certain periods in fashion. But I don’t live in the past at all. I’m very much now and tomorrow. But when I go through old pictures, yes, I cry. It’s not a sad cry. It’s a melancholy one, but mixed with happiness, too.”
Photo: For his self-portrait, the photographer gathered together the superstars, past and present, whose careers he launched. Clockwise from left, Carolyn Murphy, Liya Kebede, Kristen McMenamy, Coco Rocha, Jessica Stam, Amber Valletta, Linda Evangelista, Gisele Bündchen, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Karen Elson, Natalia Vodianova, Guinevere Van Seenus, Stella Tennant, and Agyness Deyn.
“The Godfather” has been edited for Style.com; the complete story appears in the May 2009 issue of Vogue.
Posted on April 18, 2009, in Madonna and tagged M on Meisel: He was the first person to introduce me to the idea of reinvention, Vogue Feature on Steven Meisel. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.