David LaChapelle isn’t the kind of person who gets nervous.
An internationally-renowned photographer, film director and artist, he’s used to being in the public eye. His art adorns galleries all over the world. He’s engineered music videos for the likes of Jennifer Lopez, and regularly lunches with his dear friend Lady Gaga.
But as he stood in front of the high school graduates at the UNC-School of the Arts graduation Saturday, he was shaking in his boots.
His notes lay forgotten on the podium, as he turned away from the crowd to deliver his commencement address directly to the graduates seated behind him.
“Every one of you has a different path, but just remember, it’s not about what you’re going to get out of being an artist,” he told them. “It’s what you’re going to give. The mark you’re going to leave on this world.”
Once upon a time, LaChapelle, too, had sat in the Stevens Center as a School of the Arts senior, which is why the day held extra importance and — inevitably — extra nerves for him.
But if the 121 graduates noticed his nerves, they didn’t let on.
“Oh my gosh, he was fantastic and it was exactly what we needed to hear,” graduate Lorenzo Zapata said. “He was incredibly inspiring because, you know, he’s made it, and he’s exactly where all of us dream of getting to.”
But LaChapelle, like many, had his share of challenges in achieving his dream.
When he applied to the School of the Arts as a 16-year-old, he was a “straight F-student,” who had dropped out of high school in Connecticut after enduring two years of nonstop bullying. Armed only with his less than impressive report card and his portfolio of artwork, he said a prayer and hoped for the best.
“The dean looked at me and said, ‘You flunked tennis?’ then he smiled and I knew I was in,” said LaChapelle, 52. “I don’t look back on high school with nostalgia because I knew at the time how lucky I was to be there. I was lost and this school accepted me.”
LaChapelle had originally applied in hopes of fulfilling his dream of becoming a painter, but instead fell in love with photography. Although he didn’t graduate from the school his senior year — he fell a few credits short — he still uses the lessons he learned there every day, he said.
“I learned the life of an artist is not a paved path,” LaChapelle said. “A lawyer must go to this college, get this degree, x, y and z, but being an artist means being in uncharted waters.”
Forging a new path for himself, LaChapelle left the School of the Arts in 1981, moving back to New York to show his artwork in galleries. Although he initially struggled to make a living, he eventually garnered the attention of artistic idols, like Andy Warhol.
At age 17, LaChapelle was offered his first job by Warhol as a photographer at Interview magazine, the most influential arts and culture magazine at the time, he said.
Within a short time, LaChapelle’s photographs were splashed across the covers of magazines across the country, like Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and GQ, launching him into a successful few decades spent climbing to the top of the industry.
In the 1990s, LaChapelle began exploring other forms of artistic expression, breaking into documentary films, live theatrical events and directing music videos.
He has since directed music videos for artists like Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Lopez, Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears, and has done stage work for artists, like Elton John.
But after 20 years in the business, he decided to leave it all behind and become a farmer.
“People called me crazy, walking away from the pinnacle of my career, but I knew inside I had to do it, so I followed my gut,” LaChapelle said. “They say if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life and I needed to get back to that.”
LaChapelle bought a farm in Maui, where he now lives, in hopes of reconnecting with nature apart from the chaos of his daily life.
But his quasi-retirement didn’t last long. Six months later, he was asked to create artwork — anything he wanted — for an art gallery, bringing him back to his first love: photography.
“I promise you, life won’t go as planned, so how do you know when to keep banging on that shut door or find a new door?” he said. “You have to listen to that creative voice inside you, your inner-GPS.”
His photos now adorn galleries and museums all over the world, including in France, Italy, Taiwan, Korea, Sweden, Argentina and Peru.
In 2004, he created a documentary feature entitled RIZE, which exposed a new dance form in Los Angeles known as krumping. The film, inspired by his love of dance, was chosen to open the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City and was awarded “Best Documentary” at the Aspen Film Festival.
Earlier this year, LaChapelle took the Internet by storm with his video to Hozier’s song “Take Me to Church” featuring Ukranian ballet superstar Sergei Polunin.
“Imagine a world without music, without dance, without art. What would that world be?” LaChapelle said. “It’s always been my mission to make the world a better place through art and UNCSA was my big break for making that happen.”
After watching his artwork transcend the globe, accumulating more awards than he knows what to do with, LaChapelle said he still credits the School of the Arts as the catalyst for his entire career.
“People here liked me for being different: the same reason people hated me in public school,” he said. “I wouldn’t be where I am without those people and the teachers to guide me. This school changed my life.”