Is David LaChapelle the 21st century’s Andy Warhol? — (The Evening Standard)

SSRI Ed note: Artist diagnosed with bipolar knows that antidepressants do not work for him.

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The London Evening Standard

By Vassi Chamberlain


The first time I catch sight of the American photographer and artist David LaChapelle, he is deep in conversation with a smart-looking man wearing a dark blue velvet jacket and a dog collar. Has the wicked religious imagery and nudity of LaChapelle’s work offended the church? We are, after all, at the opening of his London exhibition, Rape of Africa, and Naomi Campbell’s naked breast (an inescapable feature of the show’s title work, inspired by Botticelli’s Venus and Mars) is pointing directly at us.

The priest leaves and a throng of skinny-jeaned boys surges forward, hoping to commune with this god of 21st century pop-and-porn art. Thankfully, LaChapelle has clocked the gallerist’s attempts to introduce us. He looks at me and taps his Pimm’s-filled glass.

Glossily captivating: David LaChapelle with works from his show The Rape of Africa at the Robilant + Voena gallery in Mayfair

“I like this drink,” he says, with a smile. “Is it alcoholic?” Oh yes, I say. “Then I’d better dilute it with soda water,” he replies camply, holding it, and a sprig of lavender, aloft.

Oh, to live the life of David LaChapelle. Ever since he ran away from his strict upbringing in Connecticut at 14 to live it hard and fast in New York with Andy Warhol and the Studio 54 set, it’s been a rollercoaster ride of gay sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. He’s shot more than 150 covers for Rolling Stone magazine and worked with almost every celebrity misfit and music icon that popular culture has given us.

Stories of his epic partying, not to mention his stint as a rent boy and his three mental-institution sojourns, only add to the legend. This new exhibition, a collection of satirical photographic tableaux centered on religion, corruption and exploitation, consolidates the more message-driven and artistic direction his work is taking.

In the Nineties he segued into shooting album covers and music videos for the likes of Mariah Carey, Gwen Stefani, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera and it emboldened him to make his first film. But it wasn’t the celebrity-fest his fans were expecting ­ the thoughtful and critically acclaimed documentary Rize (about the urban dance craze popularly known as “krumping”) gave a voice to South Central Los Angeles’s poverty-stricken, gang-ridden inhabitants.

Today, his work is still as brash as ever but its subject matter has evolved. Well, up to a point: three portraits of Michael Jackson (shot in Hawaii just before his death, one of which is entitled American Jesus) are as glossily captivating and candy coloured as ever.

When we meet again a day later at Robilant + Voena, the gallery where his work is on show, I’m reminded how handsome, fit and, well, virile-looking he is. He’s wearing grey jeans, a grey T-shirt, a pair of dark blue and red Puma high-tops, a Virgin Mother pendant and three man-bracelets. Aged 47, his hair is chocolate brown (possibly dyed), and he’s tall and tanned. The dark shadows underneath his brown eyes look like sexy make-up smudges. I can see why his great friend the late Isabella Blow, who styled many of his shoots, loved telling him about her sex life. Has he ever fancied a woman? He looks at me in horror.

Our conversation is less Q&A, more monologue, delivered in his slurred Californian drawl. His story is a good one, though. I’d assumed he’d escaped home because of his homosexuality. “Are you kidding?” he says. “I had plenty of boyfriends. No, I wanted to go to Studio 54 and dance ­ God, I loved disco. I’d spend days putting outfits together.”

Glossily captivating: David LaChapelle with works from his show The Rape of Africa at the Robilant + Voena gallery in Mayfair

He first got into New York’s most exclusive nightclub because he was pretty and holding hands with a boy. As a regular, he took cocaine and tried snorting heroin, but hated it. “I’ve done stuff but really never to the point of addiction or f*****g up jobs,” he summarises. He met Warhol, who liked him, and whom LaChapelle cleverly stuck by until he commissioned him to shoot for his magazine, Interview.

This first New York stint was cut short when his late father, a tobacco executive, made him enrol at art school in North Carolina, a move he is deeply thankful for. On his return he began his ascent in the magazine world, while working as a wedding photographer and as an escort. “I think you call them rent boys over here,” he says.

He soon became known as the photographer for whom artistic vision was everything. When American Vogue editor Anna Wintour asked him to shoot Lauren Hill and The Fugees wearing Tommy Hilfiger, he told her he’d shoot Hill on her own in Galliano. When she said no, he walked away. Not that he cared. He thinks The September Issue, the documentary shot at American Vogue, is dreadful. “Gaaad, did anyone crack a smile in that entire film?” he asks. “You don’t see a second of laughter, not one molecule of it.”

Instead he worked for Rolling Stone, Interview and Vanity Fair, shooting a young Paris Hilton lying in the Malibu surf, $100 bills floating around her, laughing manically, a breast exposed. He shot Lil’ Kim naked, her body tattooed with the Louis Vuitton logo. He’s photographed Pamela Anderson so many times, he probably knows her body better than a lover.

He’s also close to aristocratic fashion muse Daphne Guinness. “Ah, she’s so sweet and gentle,” he says. The pair first met on a Tatler shoot in Paris 10 years ago through Blow, who took her own life three years ago. “Why did she have to be so sad, Issy?” he asks. “I really tried to get her out of London.” When he got the call that their friend Alexander McQueen had also died, he rushed over to Guinness’s New York apartment. “I found her crumpled in the library,” he recalls. “I spent the night with her and we sat all day in her closet putting McQueen outfits together.”

The flip-side to a life that radiates glamour and famous friends has been LaChapelle’s struggle with bi-polar depression, a condition characterised by hyperactivity and sleeplessness, followed by crushing lows. “I was last hospitalised 18 months ago,” he says. “I’ve finally found a doctor who understands that antidepressants don’t work for me. My cure is sleep and exercise.” He makes light of it all (“each time the police took me away in an ambulance I was singing, naked, but very happy”), recalling how he’d sit at the hospital window overlooking LA’s Rodeo Drive, laughing at the people below. “There they were with their shopping bags and cell phones and we were like: They’re the crazy ones.’ I met beautiful people in hospital. If you can be happy in a mental institution, you can be happy anywhere.”

Even when he sold himself for sex? “Those were different days,” he says, suddenly serious. “Please make that clear. I don’t want anyone to think what I did was cool. It wasn’t. Most of the men had never been with another man before. I would listen to their stories, really talk to them, about things that interested them like Tennessee Williams. No one ever asked me to do anything funny. Today, you meet people over the internet. You don’t know who they are ­ it’s so dangerous.”

He regularly retreats to his 20-acre farm on the Hawaiian island of Maui where his Lithuanian-born mother, who is suffering from cancer, and his sister often visit. As does his friend Lady Gaga. “She’s so smart, just nice,” he says. “She writes her own music and she plays the piano like nobody’s business. She’s Freddie Mercury come back to life.”

He recently shot her for Rolling Stone even though he has generally given up magazine work. “When I ask my interns,” he says, “what their favourite magazine is, they don’t know what I’m talking about. Print is not the medium of the young.” But what about love? He rarely speaks about his private life. “I’m very happy at the moment,” he says. “I’ve just started seeing someone so I’m never lonely in terms of having someone to sleep with. Sex is one of the gifts of life but I’m not a promiscuous person. I love flirting and talking to someone and you know that first kiss? Aaaaahhhhh, I’m so into that.” Is it different being gay now?

“It’s harder because pornography has become such a commodity. I do it myself with women but I never shoot a penis. Penises are too distracting, I am trying to communicate with everyone, not make them giggle.”

We’ve now gone into hiding from his next interview, cooped up in a narrow stairwell sitting opposite each other, legs perched on the wall like students. He is charming and sweet and even sings me a couple of lines of Michael Jackson’s Speechless: “That’s how you make me feel. Though I’m with you I am lost for words and nothing is for real.” By the way, I ask, who was the priest, was he for real? “Yeah. He was some Church of England guy who interviewed me for my Jesus is my Homeboy show,” he says, of the exhibition featuring rappers at the Last Supper.

Are you religious? “I don’t want to live a life without the possibility of miracles. I have a lot of faith, I know there is something beyond this life.”

I later find out the priest was Father Nicholas Cranfield, art critic of the Church Times. This is what he wrote following his first meeting with LaChapelle: “I was not sure what to expect of the artist … but in this self-chosen project I found a deeply spiritual enquirer using his real skills to proclaim the Christian message.”

How apposite of Father Nicholas to have found God, of all places, through David LaChapelle’s lens.

David LaChapelle: The Rape of Africa is at Robilant + Voena, 38 Dover Street, W1, until May 25.