The Sunday Review May 19, 2002


He’s worked with Warhol, partied with Leigh Bowery, introduced Pamela Anderson to her true love ... But photographer David LaChapelle is most famous for taking outrageously epic, wildly imaginative celebrity portraits in which anything goes- usually the clothes. He talks to Stephen Saban about awkward actresses, temper tantrums and why getting David Beckham bench pressing doesn't come cheap.

In a luxury bungalow at the Chateau Marmont hotel on Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, Elton John is on a television monitor singing a line from one of his songs. The same line over and over again. His latest music video, "Original Sin", is being scrupulously edited in this room by a dark-haired young man hunched over two com¬puter keypads. "Spencer edited Star Wars," David LaChapelle announces randomly, even though the busy Spencer Susser would in fact have been in nappies when the original Star Wars was released. "Anyway," LaChapelle says, laughing, "he's a very in-demand editor and I'm very lucky to have him."

David LaChapelle is very in-demand himself, and Elton John is very lucky to have him. LaChapelle could have employed the editor of Star Wars if he'd wanted him; the photo¬grapher is now at the point in his career where he gets what he wants, whether it's the best editor or the perfect green-tea smoothie. He’s made a name and a fortune for himself as an artist whose theatrically conceived, extrav¬agantly produced, highly polished and artifi¬cially sweetened photos leap off the pages of the world's most stylish magazines. And he's now directing some of MTV's dreamiest music videos. (Under LaChapelle's direction, Moby's "Natural Blues" won Best Video at the 2000 MTV Europe Music Awards.)

The photographer is staying at the hotel for a few days to oversee post-production of this latest project. "Oh, I love it!" LaChapelle squeals suddenly when pop star Mandy Moore pops up on a monitor. "She's so dorky! She's like a 15-year-old pimplehead." The brainchild of LaChapelle, Elton's new video is a kind of flipside to last year's "This Train Don't Stop There Anymore", in which Justin Timberlake, as the young Elton, circa 1976, moves in slow motion through celebrity strewn backstage corridors, his lips in sync with Elton's voice. "It's what a superstar goes through to get from the dressing-room to the stage," explains LaChapelle.

"All the phoniness, the air-kisses." "Original Sin" takes place on that same day in 1976, but from the viewpoint of a homely, Elton-obsessed teen (Moore) who can only dream of going to his concert. This time, LaChapelle has Elton singing the lyrics out of Moore's mouth ("It was going to be Christina Aguilera," he admits. "But she didn't want pimples.") He has also plonked Elton and 70-year-old Elizabeth Taylor (in white turban and full Cleopatra makeup), playing Moore's parents, on a vinyl-covered couch in the living-room of a San Fernando Valley house so 1970s-kitsch that it has been used by LaChapelle as a location before.

Friends of LaChapelle's drop by the bungalow. He has Spencer switch the monitors to show the climatic, Wizard of Oz-inspired scene in which Mandy magically dematerializes in her bedroom and reappears - transformed into a rock goddess - in the VIP section of Elton's concert, finding herself among the (looka)likes of Farrah Fawcett, Sonny, Cher, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli ... It's oddly moving. "Yeah, the transformation scene's out of control," says LaChapelle with a big smile. "I was born in 1976," Susser realises aloud from across the room.

One week earlier, I'm in the LA suburb of Burbank, inside a stifling house on the final day of the five-day shoot. Sadly, it's the day after Elton and Liz's visit. But Moore is here, all made up and in costume and lying on a bed in a closed room filled to capacity with technicians, assistant directors and David LaChapelle.
LaChapelle, 37, is wearing green tracksuit bottoms, white V-neck T-shirt, black leather beret, red Pumas, and a tiny gold Puma puma on a chain around his neck. He does not carry a riding crop or a megaphone and doesn't throw fits or his weight around. He's laid¬back, affable, polite and, although his crew dutifully defer to him as if he were a sultan, he's not grandiose, not the monstrous prima donna of legend. At least, not in front of me. "I don't know how I got that reputation," he says later, as a pretty young woman approaches with a tray of decaf green-tea smoothies, his favourite. We're sitting in the living-room that’s been "dressed" to appear as if Elizabeth and Elton actually live in it: framed photos on the mantel of a young Liz, a "family" portrait on the wall. "But I'm glad you brought it up," he says, "because I know people think that about me. I got into a fight the other night at a club because some doorman was being rude to one of my friends; I can't stand misplaced bloated authority." He takes a sip of his smoothie and places the cup on the floor next to a slew of others. "But I don't have battles on the set because I've earned a certain respect. People coming to work with me know they’re going to get something interesting. I'm just trying to get interesting stuff."

And he does. My favourite LaChapelle images tend to be the ones with naked, wheelchair-bound fat ladies with oxygen tanks or the nude, awe-inspiring transsexual Amanda Lepore with a succulently placed watermelon in her lap, or a topless Angelina Jolie being nuzzled by a horse. But I can't look away from his no-less-compelling portraits of Lil' Kim, Uma Thurman, Madonna, David Duchovny, Naomi Campbell, Leonardo DiCaprio and Whitney Houston that have appeared in such publications as Rolling Stone, The Face, Details, Playboy, Flaunt, Interview and Vanity Fair (which currently has him under contract).

One critic called his photographs "an alternate universe of polymorph us perversity, all bright colours, buff dudes and bodacious tatas"; who could argue? LaChapelle’s images are wildly imaginative, immediately timeless and deceptively spontaneous. In fact, his setups can sometimes be as complicated, costly and time-consuming as any scene in a full scale Hollywood film.

LaChapelle describes a nude session he'd orchestrated in this very house with all seven of Hugh Hefner's girlfriends, a muscleman, a female body builder and LaChapelle's muse, Amanda Lepore. "But when I booked the house," he says, "I didn't tell the owner that anyone would be naked. It's difficult when it's the Valley and you say nudity, because they think you're going to do porn and get cum all over the walls and furniture - even though the furniture's covered in plastic. So the owner was freaking out, like, 'I can't have this in my home!' But really it just came down to giving her $500 more and she was like, 'Nudity? No problem. Just don’t let the neighbours see”.

It would seem that LaChapelle has never met a subject he couldn't get naked, so his celebrity portraits are often controversial. "Most of the time they want to [get naked] anyway" he says. When Drew Barrymore showed up at his studio in 1994, LaChapelle knew from reading the tabloids that she'd just had breast-reduction surgery and was extremely happy with the result. "And she'd just got divorced, so she was free," he says. "And I thought, you know, she's going to want to do some crazy shit and take her clothes off." Sure enough, LaChapelle couldn't get her to put her clothes on for the entire day. "She was even eating lunch naked," he remembers.

He famously shot Britney Spears cavorting in a bedroom in her underwear. And last year he got Ryan Phillippe to pose semi-pornographically in Flaunt magazine, after explaining to the pillow-lipped actor that he wanted to explore how he'd made it into legitimate films while others of his beautiful ilk had had to resort to adult films. "I'm always interested in where fate takes you," LaChapelle says. "Living in California, you see this weird duality, you know, of the haves and the have tos."
But it's not only nudity that creates a stir. Rapper Tupac Shakur volunteered to pose as a slave after LaChapelle told him that rap music stemmed from slaves in the American South calling out rhymes to one another in the cotton fields. "He said, 'I'm down with that,'" says LaChapelle. "He got it, and I didn't have to say another word. I did a black-and-white photo of him with a mule, a mammy and a little girl in a plowed field." Missy Elliot, however, was not down with the idea of posing as the American pancake-mix icon, Aunt Jemima, even though LaChapelle had planned for her to be "giving the finger with a gold fingernail".

What mattered to LaChapelle, though, was that before Missy Elliot rejected the concept, she understood it. It is the important "getting it" that he respects, and it can make the difference between an inspired shoot and a passable one. I mention to him that his recent Interview cover photo of Thora Birch is a rather pedestrian portrait, that it doesn't have the impact of a full-on LaChapelle production. He blanches. "I had the full-on ready for her and she didn't want to do it," he says bitterly. "She didn't get it. It was beyond her mentality as a 17 -year-old." (She’s 20) He'd had an all-white set built for the Ghost World actress and a white Viktor & Rolf dress flown in from Paris, and it was to be a very surreal and beautiful picture. "But she wouldn't even do a Polaroid," he says passionately. He looks as if he could burst into tears at any moment. "She's in a Thora Birch bubble and she's, you know, living the bubble moment like nobody else matters. I felt insulted and I felt like my crew was insulted. Our time is valuable and we're not going to waste it on people who don't get it."

Waste not, want not. At 10pm, LaChapelle says, he called his friend, actress Christina Ricci, and asked her to come over and step into the dress and on to the set meant for Birch. So as not to embarrass either star, he kept them apart; neither knew the other was there. “The genius Christina Ricci," he says, "is worthy because she gets it, because she is an artist, because she doesn't need to come with an entourage of handlers telling her what and what not to do. She got it and she gets it and she will have a really long career. "Collaboration is very important in the making of a long career," he says. "Marilyn Monroe understood that". The picture I did with Christina is one of the best photographs I've taken in years. The picture is going to be in books, it's gonna be on museum walls."

LaChapelle once had Tom Arnold, the actor and ex-husband of Roseanne Barr, on the floor, posing "naked like a baby". But when Arnold's publicist walked into the studio and caught her client wearing only Speedos and lying on a zebra-skin rug, she put a stop to it. "So I didn't use that shot," LaChapelle says. "I will never use a picture that somebody doesn't want me to use. And I will never take an unflattering photograph. I don't ever take a photograph that will be bad for someone's career, that will damage them in any way. And I won't add anything [afterwards] to a photo¬graph unless it means something, unless there's a reason, for doing it."
Which brings us to the Mira Sorvino incident. “Honey, you've done your homework!" he says, his face reddening when I mention the actress. "Yes, years ago there was a problem. I'll get you the New York Times article on the scandal; they wrote a full page and ran the before-and-after photos. But I just can't, you know, my lawyers ... I just can't talk. about [it]." But I can. Troubling though the affair still seems to LaChapelle, a week later, in an unusu¬ally accommodating gesture - and though it's hardly in his best interest to do so - he has his people send me the promised Times story and some other published material to refresh my memory. In fact, after giving it some thought, his people subsequently retract their generosity and strongly request that Sorvino not be mentioned in this piece. (Is LaChapelle living in a bubble of his own, perhaps?")

It was in 1997, when Oscar-winner Sorvino inadvertently afforded him the kind of media coverage money can't buy, that anyone who hadn't already heard of David LaChapelle became aware of him. In a collaborative effort for Allure magazine, LaChapelle went against Sorvino's wishes and, through the magic of digital manipulation, altered a shot of her posing as Marlene Dietrich to make it appear as if she were Joan Crawford, in full Mummy Dearest garb - with the unexpected addition of little Christina in the foreground. When the issue hit the shops, Sorvino hit the roof. Tabloids and talk shows buzzed. And despite Richard Avedon defending LaChapelle by saying he had the potential to become the digital genre's Rene Magritte, Sorvino's powerful PR outfit, PMK, had the final say, announcing that its entire roster of top-shelf clients - Tom Cruise, Jodie Foster, Michelle Pfeiffer - would be forever off-limits to LaChapelle. "It was a loss to their clients," says LaChapelle now, shrugging. "And, you know, at the end of the day I'm better off not working with clients who don't want to work with me or publicists who don't want me to work with their clients. Because I won’t get along with them; they won’t understand what I want to do. They want the kind of photographs there are safe, and I don’t do safe photographs.”

Five years later, the PMK ban (which hardly damaged LaChapelle's career at all) has been lifted and the digital-manipulation issue is moot. Except for some finishing touches and colour enhancement, LaChapelle claims he's had it with the technology. "I was a pioneer in digital photography, but I got so sick of it," he says. "I'm not a computer person. And, you know I didn’t invent retouching; it’s been around since before Joan Crawford. They were probably retouching cave paintings." The whole Sorvino brouhaha is probably best put into perspective by Greg Pond, Details magazine's picture editor during the 1990s and LaChapeIle's early champion. "If a star is nervous or apprehensive or a publicist is overly protective," he says, "David's not going to make the green light. With David, you kind of have to say, 'Well, why not be naked dancing on a mushroom?’"

We’re eating lunch on loungers by Chateau Marmont's pool. It’s not very sunny and there's a chilly breeze. I'm trying to get some biographical information out of David, but he's not a stickler for chronology and there are frequent interruptions from his agreeable entourage. Today, there is Fred his former boyfriend and current assistant, Colleen his producer, Rebecca his executive producer, and a wardrobe assistant, Speedy. And there are two actors who have cameos in tile "Original Sin" video: Jeff Stewart, who plays Ryan O'Neal, and Cole Williams, who plays his own father, singer-songwriter Paul Williams. David LaChapelle took his first photo at age six, while on a family holiday in Puerto Rico: a balcony shot of his Lithuanian mother Helga ("an artist who never got to be an artist") in a Frederick's of Hollywood bras¬siere, holding a cocktail. I ask if he still lakes snapshots on holidays. "I can't," LaChapelle says, "because it turns into a job and I can’t stop. It’s ridiculous. In front of the Eiffel Tower I’'II be like, 'Aunt Margaret, open your shirt!' And then I want to retouch."

David cadges a cigarette from Cole, lights it awkwardly, then screws up his face as he inhales. While smokers everywhere are trying to step, LaChapelle is convinced he should start. “If it hadn’t been for the tobacco industry,” he explains, coughing out smoke, “I wouldn’t be here.” His parents, he says, met while picking tobacco in Connecticut. David was their third child, born on 11 March 1965. (His sister, Sonja, works with the sick and elderly; his brother, Philip Jr, is a mechanical engineer. In 1974 the LaChapelles relocated to North Carolina. The move had a dramatic effect on young David. "While we were waiting for our house to be finished, we lived in an apartment complex," he remembers, "and it was full-on 1970s with, like, wild divorcées and gun fights. And this woman named Beth, with this beehive hairdo and false eyelashes and wild sexy clothes with nipples poking out, lived upstairs. Every time I saw her I was shocked. One day she climbed up on her husband's car and starred smashing the car with a hammer, crawling on all fours."

In 1979, the LaChapelles moved back to Connecticut, and David, then 15, crawled on all fours to New York City. He sold his stereo to pay for acting classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse on East 54th Street, but that was "just an excuse to be in New York," he says. "I didn't want to be an actor." With boyish charm and good looks working for him, he began rooming with A "punk-rock lesbian" nightclub waitress and scored a gig as a busboy at Studio 54. Oh boy. Dressed in basketball shorts and sleeveless black T-shirt, LaChapelle spent his nights in the swirl of outrageous celebrity at arguably the world's most notorious disco. "I saw some crazy shit there," he admits.

By now, of course, he had dropped out of high school in Connecticut. He'd been tormented by his classmates who "hated me because I was going to Xenon and Studio 54 and the Mudd Club in New York and dressing in Fiorucci." Not to mention being openly gay: "I couldn't go into the lunchroom because food and milk cartons would come at me from every angle." He was eventually accepted into North Carolina School of the Arts, a kind of Fame school for talented children, mostly dancers. He took up photography in the visual-arts course. "There I was like a celebrity because I'd lived in New York and had my picture in Women’s Wear Daily, on the Same page as Grace Jones, dancing on the speaker at Studio 54." Being there, he says, "saved my life".

In 1981 LaChapelle returned to New York with a portfolio of what he calls "new-wave kiddie porn", an accumulation of photos he'd taken of his School of the Arts friends naked in their dorms. ("When I look at it now, it's funny how similar it is to what we're doing today," LaChapelle says, using the pronoun "we" because he considers all his work collaborative.) After being summarily shooed out of Vogue, he took the naked photos to Andy Warhol at Interview. "I never missed an issue when I was a kid; it was the most glamorous magazine in the entire world. Andy looked at my photos and was like, 'They're great.' I didn't realise he said that about everything." It might have been around this time, or perhaps later (the photographer's storytelling can be as rococo as his picture taking), that LaChapelle was invited to London by some "kids" he'd met on the nightclub scene in Manhattan. The kids just happened to have been achingly trendy Leigh Bowery and his partner Trojan, BodyMap's David Hola and Stevie Stewart, designer Rachel Auburn, filmmaker John Maybury, and dancer Michael Clark. "My first week in London," says David, "I was modeling for Leigh Bowery in his fashion shows and taking pictures of Trojan and Leigh and the whole BodyMap scene. And I thought, 'Man, these people in London are really crazy! ' I didn't realize until later that this was a really special group of people, that I was in the epicenter of eccentric, outrageous London artists. I went for two weeks and lived there for a year."
LaChapelle believes it was in London that photography finally clicked for him, so to speak. "And the one thing I learnt from London that has been so crucial to everything I believe in is originality, not appropriating things, not copying other people's art. It's a common thing [in the US], so common that people don't even look down on it, they don't even question it. "But in London you can't walk down the street if you do that - they'll throw eggs at you. So since I've been back that's always been my thing, that's something that I've tried to maintain as a standard for myself. I have very little morality - anything goes. But that's the one boundary I don't cross."

Back in the US, LaChapelle kept going back to Interview, but it wasn't until he had a small show of his photos at 303 Gallery on West 22nd Street in New York that the maga¬zine's art director at the time, Marc Balet, came to his senses and started to give him jobs. LaChapelle's photos in Interview led to his working exclusively for Details. "The first time I hired David it was to do a portrait of David Byrne," says Greg Pond. "And he shot him with an umbrella, taking a shower; he was drenched. And the minute that picture came in, we knew there was somebody out there who couldn't possibly live in another magazine. The next thing he did was a portrait of Sherilyn Fenn in the corner of this dilapidated mansion in the West Village, kind of topless, with these beautiful red fingernails, looking like a seductress. It was the most beautiful picture." "Greg kept pushing me," says LaChapelle. He'd say, 'Don't do anything we've seen before. Don't do anything you've done before. Go crazy.'" "And you did. You're known for being very expensive," I say. (Recently, his semi-nude, fully glam photo session with David Beckham was said to cost GQ close to £30,000.)

"Yeah, good things cost, you know," he says. "You want bargains, there are plenty of bargains out there. But the pictures I take, whether they're advertising or editorial, take on a life of their own, reprinted and run in different publications and all kinds of photo books. They're not for just one magazine that gets thrown in the garbage at the end of the month and never seen again.

LaChapelle keeps a two-bedroom flat in New York, but treats it as a hotel suite for when he's in the city. It's the three-bedroom 1929 Spanish-style house in the Hollywood Hills that he calls home. "I always wanted fruit trees and a pool," he says. Plus he's got a two-car garage to house the two cars he doesn't know how to drive: a Chevy pick-up and a "pimped-out" 1974 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud with a "total ghetto sound system" that he bought from actor Adrien Brody. His assistant Fred drives the cars.

For a while, LaChapelle, who is not in a relationship, motored around LA in the Rolls with Pamela Anderson, listening to Kid Rock at full volume. He turned Pam on to Kid Rock's Devil without a Cause and then, almost haphazardly, to Kid Rock himself. "When we went to see him perform at the Divas Live concert," LaChapelle says, "I told Pam, 'That's your next boyfriend.'" At the after-show party, he introduced the two tabloid stars - though he'd never met Kid before ("He thought I was Tommy Lee!" says David) - and coaxed them into kissing. "I totally hooked them up," he says proudly. The two are now engaged. LaChapelle gets a kick out of playing matchmaker. His producer Rebecca and his wardrobe man Speedy owe their two-year relationship to him. "I was like, 'She likes you. He likes you. He's here now. Come over now.' That kind of thing. I pushed them. Because I love to see people hooking up. I mean, it used to bug me that people were having sex when I wasn't. But I've matured and it's OK now that there are other people having orgasms right now in the world."

Just before I leave, LaChapelle calls his sister on his mobile, then hands the phone to me and makes me ask her what her surname is. She says it's LaChapelle. "He wanted to know if LaChapelle is my real name," he tells her when I hand the phone back to him, "like I'm such a prima donna that I made my whole family change their last name for my career."

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