The iconic Amanda Lear and artist Francesco Vezzoli discuss finding pleasure in being alone and being original
There’s a fascinating duality to Amanda Lear, the artist, model, performer, and gay icon, who’s seemingly done it all, in addition to playing creative muse for the likes of Salvador Dalí, David Bowie, and more. She has stomped on Jean Paul Gaultier’s runway, and her discography—largely dancey, disco tracks with names such as “Fashion Pack” and “Queen of Chinatown”—consists of 17 Euro chart-topping studio albums. But while much of this life of loudness has been splashed onto tabloid covers and broadcast via T.V.—since the late 70s Lear, a favorite of Silvio Berlusconi, has starred in and hosted several long-running Italian and French television shows such as “Stryx,” “Premiatissima,” and “W le donne”—the other has been clouded in mystery. Throughout the years, many of the details of her own origins—including birth date, nationality, biological sex, and even name—remain unclear. Saigon is commonly thought of as her place of birth, while other tales mention Switzerland and Transylvania. As far as gender, Lear’s has been a topic for discussion since she first came to the limelight, with many alleging she was a preoperative transsexual. (Her 1978 “Playboy” cover would later prove the rumors false.) Another story later suggested that Lear was born Alain Tapp, a man for whom Dalí paid for a sex-change operation in Casablanca, Morocco, a notorious locale for reassignment at the time. “There is nothing the pop world loves more than a way-out freak,” Lear—who has both denied and encouraged these theories of her past—once famously said.
Francesco Vezzoli grew up watching Lear on television. The artist, who is Document’s first guest curator, has long used pop culture as a method to re-entertain history and to explore reactionary moments vis-a-vis the generational gap. His recent showing at the Fondazione Prada in Milan this past summer marked a shift from practice to oversight, as he presented his curatorial debut, “TV 70.” A large-scale exploration of Italian television as a driving force for political and social change, the works included images from some of Lear’s most popular performances. Here, the two discuss the history and humor of those times and the need for newness today.
Joshua Glass—Amanda, you have played the muse for so many important people, and Francesco, there are so many that you look to as sources of inspiration. What are your thoughts on the muse as a concept?
Amanda Lear—Well, Francesco, I saw that you used some of my pictures in your show [at the Fondazione Prada], including excerpts of me from “Stryx.” I was wondering why you did that because it was bloody awful!
Francesco Vezzoli—[Laughing.] You didn’t like “Stryx”?
Amanda—Well, no, I did, but that show was 30 years ago! We were all young and trying to be very provocative and shocking. We were trying to change the mentality of Italian television, which was very traditional and very uptight. We were trying to open the way to something more free and more daring, but when I see myself on the big screen like that I’m a bit embarrassed.
Francesco—All the art critics were crazy about it.
Amanda—Yeah, they liked it? Oh, good.
Francesco—They loved it. All the important curators came to see the room-—especially the Americans—who thought, “Wow, we could never have anything this avant-garde on American television.”
Amanda—It’s true. It was very avant-garde.
Francesco—So I don’t see anything awful in it. I hate to go against you, Amanda, because you are the greatest thing to me. You’re my kind of muse. For me, that moment of Italian television was really its best.
Amanda—My darling, you were a child, a baby then!
Francesco—Yes, but those were the influential years. You see “Stryx” on television, it shapes the rest of your life.
Amanda—It reminds me of the time when I met [pornographic actor] Rocco Siffredi, who told me that when he was a child he would watch me on Italian television and masturbate because I was so sexy. I was a bit shocked to hear that, but perhaps he owes me his career now since he was masturbating to me every day. [Laughing.]
Joshua—Amanda, can you share with us what you have been up to most recently?
Amanda—I did a long season in the theater. It’s very tiring to do a show every night. I needed the rest, so I stopped last month. Now I am in the South of France, and I’m painting every day again. I’ve realized that painting is fantastic therapy—it helps keep me sane, thinking clearly, and relaxed. I don’t know about you, Francesco—because you are also a great artist—but if I couldn’t paint, I would be very unhappy.
Francesco—It’s the same for me with embroidery. To do it, you have to be alone.
Amanda—And you need a lot of concentration.
Francesco—Yes, it demands a lot of concentration—you have to be careful. I didn’t learn it when I was a child, so I’m still struggling. Any practice that allows you a lot of privacy is extremely healing, especially for you, Amanda, or anyone else who is in the public eye.
Amanda—Absolutely, I need to be alone. My friends always complain about loneliness. They say, “Oh my God, it’s so depressing. I am alone.” They are my age, 65, and they all say, “I feel so lonely, my husband is gone.” I think you should be bloody happy, because it is wonderful to be alone. When you are alone, you can do what you want: you go to bed when you want, you dress how you want, you watch T.V. when you want. I can’t understand people going on about loneliness. I need to be alone. I am just like Greta Garbo: I love being alone! Everyday I am surrounded with stupid people. When I go onstage, when I do a show, too many people adore and love me. They want to touch me. They want to be near me. In the end, I want to go home. I want to go home all by myself and be with my pussycats. I live with my 12 pussycats and my garden.
“Sometimes, I’ll have sex with somebody and then I’ll call them a cab. ‘Goodbye, thank you very much.’ I always call them a cab, you know.”
Francesco—So you are ready to abandon all of us?
Amanda—Yes, I am ready to retire. I want to retire, but my friends tell me, “No, not you. Are you crazy? You can’t retire!” I am tired, I’m old, I’ve sold 26 million records. I’ve made movies, I’ve made T.V. shows, I’ve been in the theater. I’ve accomplished all of my dreams. All my dreams are realized. I had sex with the most beautiful men in the world. I had wonderful boyfriends. I can die now, happy. I don’t know what to expect from the future: Am I really going to go back onstage? Is there any path for a woman of my age? I don’t know. I really don’t know what is going to happen.
Francesco—I think I know what’s going to happen.
Amanda—Oh yeah? I’m going to marry you. I’ve done it all. I see the girls today—Rihanna, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Mariah Carey—doing what I was doing 20 years ago. They are trying to stalk me. I’ve done all that.
Francesco—That’s why I put you in the exhibition. I am slowly realizing now that there is a certain generation of performers and creative people that, in a certain moment of history, changed the rules, and you were among them. You and the groups of people you were hanging out with in the different moments of your life were game-changers.
Amanda—It’s true. I was very lucky, because nothing was planned. There was no plan in my career, but I must say that destiny is very important. One day I met Andy Warhol, one day I met Salvador Dalí; then Robert Mapplethorpe. All those people that came across my life were just by accident. I never plan anything. I’m just sitting there waiting for it to happen, and if it happens then it’s wonderful. Perhaps tomorrow I will get out of my car and run into Woody Allen. I believe in destiny. All my life has always been like that. I wasn’t expecting anything. I would be very happy to just sell flowers.
Francesco—Well, if you open a flower store, it’s going to be the most glamorous flower store.
Amanda—The “Amanda Flower Shop.” I don’t know if it could pay the rent.
Joshua—I’m curious, we’ve been talking about this fantastic history you’ve had, Amanda, and Francesco, while an artist, is very much an academic as well. How do you use that sense of history and knowledge in your work and practice today? How does that affect you as a person now?
Amanda—When I met Salvador Dalí, I was a student in art school. He told me, “Women have no talent. Forget about painting, there has never been a woman painter.” I was very upset: “What about Frida Kahlo or Mary Cassatt?” He’d say, “Oh rubbish, bullshit. They just paint babies crying and bunches of flowers. It’s very wishy-washy.” To me that was a challenge. I said, “Fuck him. I’m going to show him that I can paint,” but he absolutely refused to see my paintings. It was very frustrating for me. So only now—finally now—am I trying to put a little more personality into my work. Perhaps one day I will be able to pay the rent with my painting like Francesco pays the rent with his art.
Francesco—It’s very strange for me, because whenever I think of you, Amanda, I feel all the things you don’t want to hear. When you speak, it gets even worse. You’re so articulate, intelligent, and cultivated.
Amanda—I know, it scares people. Especially Italian men, they are terribly frightened of intelligent women! Some, like David Bowie, were great artists, and they were attracted to my personality and my brain, not just my tits and ass—my body. But the rest of the men—the normal men, the everyday men—they just want a bimbo, they just want a girl. If you are a little too clever, they say “Oh my god, this one is going to take all my money.” It’s very difficult to have a relationship. Sometimes, I think it’s very clever to pretend to be stupid. I have had to do it often in my life. I pretend not to be very intelligent, not to be very bright. It makes a man feel superior and they like that.
“I think it’s very clever to pretend to be stupid. I pretend not to be very intelligent. It makes a man feel superior and they like that.”
Joshua—What sort of things would you do? Would you not speak up or would you play dumb—how did you appear that way?
Amanda—I have a very difficult relationship with men. Of course, I’m attracted to beautiful men—I’ve had many lovers, many boyfriends—but it’s very difficult. I’m extremely jealous, I’m extremely possessive, and, most of all, I’m very, very bossy. I want to show them the way. I want to tell them, “You’re doing it wrong, let me do it for you,” like a control freak. In the end, that’s why I’m all alone. I feel very happy about myself. Sometimes, I’ll have sex with somebody and then I’ll call them a cab. “Goodbye, thank you very much.” I always call them a cab, you know.
Francesco—Call a taxi. That’s the best way. A man loves to hide his lovers, and an independent, strong, intelligent woman is like a cuckold. They don’t know what to make of it. You embody all the qualities of a great mistress, and all the qualities of the greatest families. You have the courage to be who you are, and you’ve been like that since I first watched you on T.V. You’re clearly the most ironic public persona we’ve ever had on Italian T.V. You threw jokes at yourself and at the guests. It was a very important cultural element.
Amanda—What you say Francesco is very important. If I cannot laugh about myself, then you know I will not accept people laughing at me. Of course, when you are a public figure, people will make jokes about you—they will make fun of you, critcize you, and you have to accept that. That sense of irony actually saved me, which is why I am still there after 40 years. If you take yourself too seriously, forget it.
Joshua—We’ve talked a lot about these legends that you both admire, what do you look for today in terms of new inspirations? Where do you find new excitement?
Amanda—I don’t like anybody. [Laughing.] Not one of them. I like Cher, that’s it. She’s an old trooper like me, she’s a survivor, she’s still there. Most people from that generation are gone now. The next generation—all the Madonnas—are not interesting to me. They are all just copying what we have been doing for years, so it is difficult to come up with something totally new. Lady Gaga is interesting because she is a good singer, but she has no sense of dressing. I like her, but the rest of them, they are just wiggling their asses with fans blowing their hair-extensions. It’s not singing to me. Singing is a different thing.
Francesco—I’m not going to compliment you, Amanda, otherwise you’ll scream, so I’m going to put this in a way that doesn’t sound like a compliment. After having worked with Lady Gaga, with Natalie Portman, with all of the greatest people that I’ve been so blessed to work with, my most recent project was to make this exhibition an homage to the people that have really inspired me. I feel that I was lucky in the past 10 or 15 years to work with these people from the youngest generation, but now I’m done. I’m working on my sculptures, I’m working on my needlework, and I’m working on my installations. I no longer rely on the performance of other people. I have exhausted that kind of fetishism and it’s now a different stage of my life. I totally share with you the point of view that there are very few inspiring people at the moment. At least very few that are taking a real risk. I love the risk takers. When someone says “There is a transvestite on the cover of ‘Vogue,’ isn’t that amazing?” I say “Are we still discussing gender in 2017?” All these issues were deliberated 40 years ago by the people that you mentioned. It’s unbelievable that we are pretending that there is anything new in bending genders on a cover of a magazine. I’d rather see a cover with Greta Garbo.
Amanda—I love Greta Garbo. The creative process is a very lonely situation. An artist is alone—by himself—and that’s how he should work. The minute you collaborate with somebody else, or need somebody else to create, it’s completely different. It’s not personal anymore. So I agree with you. I think it’s a very lonely process. You are by yourself, you are very lonely, you are full of doubt, you are full of anxiety; “Am I doing it right?” Or, “What I’m doing is stupid.” It’s crazy, but that’s how it is. Nowadays, everyone continues to create shows, performances. They put so much talent together—the choreographers, the directors—that in the end the result is a team work. I’m not into that, I’ve always been very lonely.