The celebrity snapper on his crazy life of sex, drugs, and celebrity – and why he won't talk to Madonna (but loves Mariah).
In less than 12 hours, Mariah Carey will arrive at David LaChapelle's Los Angeles studio to be photographed for her Christmas album. LaChapelle chastises himself for telling me ("it's meant to be a secret"), then shrugs: "Well, I've told you everything else." We've been together all day at his home, by his pool, in his bedroom and now at his cacophonous, warrenous workspace, ricocheting this way and that around a life of sex, death, celebrity, drugs, depression, art, disco and — he insists — miracles.
On a series of stage sets, as his friend Michael Jackson's songs pound from the music system, LaChapelle's team are garlanding fake windows with lights and arranging presents under a hideous silver tree. LaChapelle's close friend Sharon Gault, Madonna's former make-up artist (and his "unofficial wife"), is organising food. Carey, says LaChapelle, "isn't a diva. She never pisses on the little people." There is a graffitied city backdrop of night-time blues and sulphurous yellows. Fake snow is in bags. "That's pretty," I say, looking at wooden cutout reindeer. "Mariah wanted real ones," LaChapelle says, rolling his eyes. The boyish 47-year-old photographer is in jeans, scrappy T-shirt and hoody and speaks in a spacey Californian drawl. "Flown from Nebraska. Can you imagine, real reindeer?"
Well, yes, we can imagine. LaChapelle is famed for his gaudy, extravagant, some have claimed grotesque and empty, celebrity portraits; although he says he has mostly given them up, and now takes pictures only of favourites such as Carey and Lady Gaga.
His photographs are now iconic. More mischievous than Annie Leibovitz's staged tableaux and less in thrall to his subjects than Sam Taylor-Wood's. In his hands — his work has appeared in Interview, i-D, The Face, Details, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, GQ and Vogue — the portrait becomes a circus, a playground, an explosion of glamour, body worship and sexual innuendo in saturated colour. He has captured Eminem with lighted fireworks covering his genitals, Isabella Blow and Alexander McQueen in period dress in front of a burning castle, Kanye West sporting a Christ-like crown of thorns, David Beckham oiled and glistening in tube socks, and his good buddies Pamela Anderson and the outré transsexual Amanda Lepore, "who's a woman to the nth extreme". He's directed pop videos (including Christina Aguilera's Dirrty) and an Elton John stage show in Las Vegas that featured enormous inflatables of phallic fruit, lipsticks and hot dogs.
"I am interested in paradoxes: celebrity, our response to it, excess, disasters, glamour, beauty," he says. "Yes, my images are outrageous, but I never set out to shock. When one of the most downloaded videos on the internet is [the former hostage] Daniel Pearl's beheading, there's nothing you can do to out-shock that. I want people to be stunned. I don't want it to look like contemporary 'art', which often people don't understand. I'm trying to speak a visual language as powerful as the written or verbal that people understand."
Critics have long been split over his artistic worth. He has been variously called "the Fellini of photography", exposing celebrity as the ridiculous pantomime it is, and "the loud child in the living room", luxuriating at its altar.
In 2006, LaChapelle had said "all I could" about celebrity and bought a 20acre organic farm in Hawaii. Courtney Love bought the entry gates for him as a housewarming gift. "I'm a farmer," he says, enthusing about his honey bees. Gaga has written songs at the property, "walking around in a dress made of vine leaves. She made pasta on my birthday. She's gifted, really intelligent." LaChapelle hasn't hung up his camera. He's photographed a series of pictures of people underwater and next exhibits — as part of a London show — an image that "took me a year to plan and drove me mental". The Rape of Africa, which goes on show in London this week, is inspired by Botticelli's Venus and Mars and features a breast-revealing Naomi Campbell (who has already been photographed nude by the photographer) and a young man as Mars. "It's the god of war versus the goddess of beauty," LaChapelle says. "Then there is the idea that the pursuit of gold in Africa is rooted in greed and has led to incalculable suffering. Gold and bricks and money buy the illusion of security. In trying to stave off our own deaths we're killing Africa, the cradle of civilisation."
To many, though, it will be seen as a jokey, lurid picture featuring yet another supermodel mate with her boobs out, but LaChapelle is inured to the now-familiar charge. "People find it offensive because it's a serious message dressed up in make-up and heels. It looks pretty. It doesn't mean it hasn't got something to say. My photographs in magazines were illustrations of the guiding principles behind popular culture at that time — glamour, plastic surgery. This isn't so different. I haven't changed what I do. One critic said he'd rather my pictures were grittier, but would you look at my images for that long if the black woman was covered in scabs? That's photojournalism. That's not what I do."
LaChapelle's home, where we first meet, is modest by Hollywood standards and decorated almost drably. "That's because of my mother; she's about to move in," he says, laughing. He is fresh off a flight from Arizona. "I've got this family stuff going on," he says wearily. His mother, Helga, the first person he photographed, when he was 6, has cancer. "She's had chemotherapy and she's too ill to move. She's coming here, I've had a lift installed. It's such a shock. She's been healthy her whole life. She met my dad on the third day she arrived on Ellis Island from Lithuania. He was poor but smart and made his money in tobacco. When people ask me how I can do advertising campaigns for tobacco firms I tell them, 'I wouldn't be here without tobacco'. She was a vegetarian, a hippy, but on her terms. My dad was a Catholic. After he died, I saw Warren Beatty hit on her when she was 65 at the Chateau Marmont pool. But she's not a cougar. She was very flattered but she turned him down."
Why was LaChapelle in Arizona? He looks winded. "My older sister Sonja just tried to kill herself in Florida. She was always happy, she always took care of other people. She was a nurse, then she worked in housing and for victims of human trafficking, and last year she was let go. She's unmarried and in her fifties. She took an overdose of pills and was in a coma. The nurses gave us no hope. If she had permanent brain damage I planned for her to live with me. I'm praying to my dad, God, Michael Jackson" — he laughs — "and the next day she came out of it a bit. It was a bad decision taken in a dark moment. Now she's in this rehab facility in Arizona. I'm not sure what we'll do next." Her sudden recovery was, for him, a miracle. "To think we just live on this plane cuts off so many possibilities. Living with magic and the possibility of miracles makes life so much more bearable."
As a boy growing up in Connecticut, he was "a mess". He says that at the age of 5: "I told my mother not to buy me a car when I turned 16 because I'd have an accident and kill myself. I was shoplifting, a truant, I joy-rode and caused a few accidents. I don't know why. I ask myself now, 'What did you have to be so upset about? You had these great parents, a stable home'."
Much of it may have been down to homophobic bullying at school. "I'd wear this fitted cowboy shirt and they'd shout, 'Where's your horse, faggot boy?' Gangs of boys would beat me up. I hated them, but I didn't want to be like them." At 14, La-Chapelle contemplated suicide. "I was going to slit my wrists in the bath, but I didn't want to punish my parents. One day, I thought, 'Why are you torturing yourself?' I was suppressing being gay and at that moment I stopped suppressing it."
He dropped out of school "and ran off to New York — my salvation". He remembers his first visit to Studio 54, at 14. "I saw Andy [Warhol, his eventual employer at Interview magazine]. It was a party for the Village People's Can't Stop the Music and everybody was there: Bianca Jagger, Liza Minnelli, Margaux and Mariel Hemingway, Halston [the fashion designer], Steve Rubell [one of the club's founders], Calvin Klein. I got into the VIP area, probably because of my youth, and I was kind of good-looking so got a lot of attention. I didn't talk to anyone. I loved disco, the glamour, celebrity, sure, but they were artists doing stuff. There'd be Jean-Michel Basquiat, Grace Jones, Keith Haring would doodle something for you. I woke up singing I was so happy. My idea of success was only ever to have enough money to create what I wanted." He snuck into some life-drawing classes in a grand old building. At 17, after a gentle intervention by his father, LaChapelle went to art school in North Carolina. As soon as he started taking pictures there — of his fellow students' nude bodies, male and female, many of them dancers — his passion for photography took root. "It changed my life," he says.
LaChapelle returned to New York in 1981 and saw Warhol at a Psychedelic Furs concert. "I told him I wanted to be a photographer for Interview. I showed him my pictures of my naked friends and he said they were great, but I later found out everything to him was 'great'. I finally got my first photograph published — of the Beastie Boys in Times Square — in 1984." LaChapelle worked as a busboy at a nightclub, tried snorting heroin — "but I hated it. Any opiate, even Vicodin, finishes me off for days" — and lived a healthy life, "running six miles a day, eating macrobiotic food". He also became a rent boy.
"I was not in a good place. I had a choice and chose to do it. I didn't want to have a job. I wanted to be a photographer. But you're cheapening this thing that can be beautiful and sacred. It takes a lot of time to regain that, which I did. I'm not saying there's a right or wrong way to experience love or intimacy, but I would hate for those kids who look up to me to think this was in any way cool. It wasn't."
His first boyfriend, the dancer Louis Albert, died of Aids in 1984. "I had a premonition about it. It was horrible. This was before tests, before 'safer sex'. He went home to die in Ohio. His parents didn't want me there or at the funeral, which I understood. I represented New York to them."
In 1984 he came to London and photographed the gender-blending fashion and clubbing scene for The Face and Interview: "I saw way too many club darkrooms and nothing of the English countryside." He took "lots of Ecstasy". He also married the pop star Marilyn's publicist. "Why? I don't know," he says. "To get into the UK. It was a disaster."
He dashes to show me some William Blake etchings in the hall, which he bought in a shop near the National Gallery, where he fell in love with the artists of the Renaissance, Michelangelo especially. "They tried to reclaim the nude for what it was, something sensuous, not shameful. Today we're in our own dark ages. When photography encounters the naked body now, it's for porn and in contemporary art the body has to be deconstructed, made ugly, to be thought of as 'art'. I want to reclaim the body from the notion that it is something to trade and to make it beautiful."
His first magazine portraits were black and white, the predominant style of the time. Where did his trademark high- colour, deranged aesthetic come from? "It's so grey in England. For English magazines I thought colour, lots of it, screaming Hollywood, California, would be cool. The top photographers then were known for black and white and grunge was happening. I wanted to do something different. I never want to make someone look bad. I'm living my fantasy through those pictures of fame, beauty, glamour and stardom. I want them to look larger than life." Celebrities trust him [only Jeff Goldblum, "like, whatever", turned him down]. The pictures and pop videos may be wild, but he says that he didn't drink or take drugs on set, "although we had a blast" he laughs, recalling one Mariah Carey shoot in the middle of nowhere in which some strippers in a club tearfully told the star that they had named their children after her, and LaChapelle got it on with a guy in the back of a limousine who, afterwards, looked up and said, "I'm not gay and I've never been in a limousine".
Making his critically acclaimed, charged urban dance documentary Rize in 2006 was a turning point, as was turning down directing Madonna's 2005 Hung Up video. "She's really hard to work for. I didn't want to be yelled at. She wanted to film a subway scene with people running out. It was just after a subway bombing and I was worried it might be insensitive, but apparently she doesn't read newspapers. We haven't spoken since. But I don't want to direct Hollywood films. I was offered Juno but turned it down."
LaChapelle dismisses Hollywood as a "bullshit world" and is relishing his new gallery show-focused life. He has started a series of photographs of partially smashed heads in cardboard boxes from wax museums and recently completed an homage to Bruce Lee using a lookalike actor.
"I am criticised for retouching my pictures," he says. "You'd be surprised how much we design for real." He is a perfectionist in slacker's clothing. "David goes over every pixel," one of the team says. "His passion seeps into everyone as osmosis," says another. One of his staff is playing Walt Whitman (complete with bushy beard), a great hero of LaChapelle's, for another series. These endeavours sound crazy, but less so than celebrities and their agents and the phone ringing. "I can choose what to do now," he says. "I'd never realised that when I was doing 20 jobs at once and shooting pop videos." He would love to shoot Barack Obama — "in some kind of repose. He's a physically beautiful man, which, at that level, is a bit of a first."
In LaChapelle's office are a hat and umbrella that belonged to Michael Jackson. He vigorously defends Jackson against all the allegations of child sex abuse. "I know good parents who were happy to leave their children alone with him. It was disgusting the way he was pursued and hunted. He was a good, sweet person." LaChapelle's last picture taken of Warhol is framed and sits on the floor, alongside a picture of the two of them during the shoot. Quietly, he says, he is fulfilled: he doesn't fear ageing or death.
What's his biggest failing? "I still deal with anger. I lose it very quickly," he says. "I say hurtful things, feel remorseful, apologise. One of my assistants said to me, 'Don't worry, I assumed the insanity wouldn't end with the photographs'. But it's happening less and less." LaChapelle has bipolar disorder and has been in hospital twice. Both times, barely clothed and behaving erratically, he was arrested. "Antidepressants don't work," he says. "Being bipolar feels good at the beginning, you're bursting with ideas, then you get delusional and think you can survive walking into traffic. I've got a good psychiatrist. Two consecutive nights of unbroken eight hours' sleep work for me. I don't want to 'cure' it. It feels like a gift."
There is an informal "family" around him, Gault and her daughter Adelaide at its apex. "Luis" is tattooed on his knuckles: Luis Nuñez was his studio manager of 16 years, who died in 2001 from a heart defect. They'd had a nasty argument that day and hadn't reconciled. "I lay in bed, numb, trying to figure out what to say at the funeral," LaChapelle says. "Suddenly I felt this immense warmth and Luis guide me to write down, 'Love as much as you can. Laugh like a child. Ride your bike'. The first two lines — got those. The last one though? I said it and his best friend started crying. Luis had just bought him a bike. It was a message for him." The words are written in red on his office mirror.
At about 1am, Mariah preparations wind down. LaChapelle is going out ("just for a minute or two") to a club. He grimaces at his photographs being described as camp or kitsch. "They're just words which mean people don't want to look. I've seen people stop and look at my work in galleries. Not just at the bodies, the genitalia, but really look." If he's the cartoonist his critics claim he is, he's a serious one and obviously happier with his work on gallery walls than in magazines. But you know that, through his lens, snowflakes whirling and tinsel shimmering, Mariah will never look more Christmassy — even if the reindeer aren't real.
David LaChapelle: The Rape of Africa is at Robilant + Voena, 38 Dover Street, London W1, from Tuesday to May 25
By Tim Teeman