"I was coming up the escalator at Tottenham Court Road, and I could see, bit by bit, a billboard, unveiling itself. I saw the legs, then the knees and then our faces, lip-locking. I thought, at first, 'That looks kind of familiar, it's kind of pretty, it's kind of hot.' I just remember staying there for a while and looking at it." This was the first time Elena Charbila, a one-time model from Greece, saw her face on a 90-by-10 foot poster on the side of Centre Point, central London's tallest skyscraper. "I remember thinking it was much bigger than I expected, but looking back now I still didn't understand how big it was going to become."
Sixteen years on and The Kiss, a tender image of two women embracing in bed in simple and logo-less Calvin Klein-style underwear, is a contemporary icon in the United Kingdom. Like the red and black Rorschach of Ché Guevara, or the still of Audrey Hepburn as a sparky Holly Golightly, The Kiss adorns the walls of university students the world over. It's on the walls — virtual and real — of nascent lesbians and even the bedroom of ultra-beta-male Scott Pilgrim in the 2010 film Scott Pilgrim Versus the World. Elena, the photo's blonde, once went back to a date's place and discovered The Kiss on the wall above the bed. Tabitha Denholm, the brunette, got a picture message just last month from an ex, alerting her to the poster in a Berlin dive bar.
Following the sudden and tragic death of Tanya Chalkin, photographer of The Kiss, we take a look at where her most prolific and touching work, an image which continues to symbolize love, tenderness, a Sapphism designed by women and for women, began. And what it became.
In late 2000, the Twin Towers stood proud, mobile phone screens were black and green, Tony Blair's New Labour was still a grinning success, and Bob the Builder was at number one in the charts (Eminem's "Stan" following closely behind). Section 28 meant homosexuality couldn't be "promoted" in schools, Sandi Toksvig and Angela Eagle were the only two lesbians in British public life. The previous April, three people were killed and 79 injured by a nail bomb let off in Soho, London's gay quarter, by a Neo-Nazi as part of a trifecta of hate against minority groups including black people and Bangladeshis.
And Centre Point, two minutes' walk from Old Compton Street, would soon form the backdrop for the biggest emblem of lesbian visibility the world had yet seen. Dotcom boomer queercompany.com were about to launch its site offering specifically tailored financial services to LGBT people. "I'd commissioned a war photographer to do a set of black and white images," says Henrietta Morrison, co-founder of queercompany.
"The brief was to make images that were aspirational — I was fed up of seeing Gay Times all full of gay male porn and sex content. I wanted images that would really stand for something. He did these beautiful images of guys together, and two women running along a pier along with the slogan 'Sorry mom, no white wedding.' But we needed another image. As usual, there was a deadline in a few days time and I remembered Tanya — she'd taken a photo of me and my business partner when we set up queercompany. I called her and she said 'Yep, I'm free tomorrow.'"
The Express, 29 December 2000
"I'd just been to Burning Man and was feeling very fluid," explains Tabitha, "So when my agency asked 'Would you do a job kissing a girl?', I was like, 'Sure, it's not such a big deal.' I did have a boyfriend, but in my mind, it was just going to be this little job in the back of a niche magazine." The shoot took place in Bethnal Green in December 2000, when, as Henrietta puts it, "east London was a desert, Great Eastern Street was a one way street with one little vegan café on it and that's it."
Elena, a former child actress who'd become friends with Tanya the previous summer, remembers the set-up well: "I saw this really big white bed and a ladder on top of that, Tanya was test shooting downwards. The original idea was to do it like John and Yoko, so we had some shots of Tabitha in a fetal position. But I was a bit more shy when it came to showing more sexuality and affection, so we sent someone out to get vodka and started to play music." Whether that same someone was also on their way to buying the models' clothes is uncertain, but according to Henrietta, the costume department had previously been lacking: "I turned up to the flat to see how it was going, and the two women were in bed naked. I was like: 'No, guys no, this is not what we want!' It was right after Sophie Dahl had done that Opium advert…" — which was banned by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) in November 2000 for its nudity — "So we wanted something that looked sexy but not porn. Somebody got a couple of t-shirts at the market at the bottom of the stairs."
Once the shoot wrapped, both models thought nothing much would come of it, but queercompany had other ideas, and a lot of luck. The Kiss, placed on a white background with the slogan 'Thank God for women' along with a mention of the website, was never meant to get such a big billboard. But as Steve Bustin, who did PR at queercompany explains, "We had a call from one of our media buyers, they said 'This billboard is going to be free at a lower price, would you be interested in taking it?' and we knew it would be the best piece of PR. We had our posters on billboards across London and on tube platforms, but that was an iconic site. As soon as it went up, I had the Financial Times ringing me and asking to talk about it."
Tabitha, who discovered herself on the billboard while hungover, explained: "My phone had been going absolutely bonkers and [The Kiss] had become this tabloid news story of 'We're gonna find the girls!'"
The Kiss was spoofed in the Daily Express. Nigella Lawson complained in her column for The Observer that though "most [women] simply have a fantasy about having sex, in a non-defining, non-exclusive way, with other women," The Kiss was "stylized, cold and not in the slightest bit sexy… a couple of model-thin boy-girls in an artful embrace." Janet Street-Porter's column for The Independent reads: "the whole premise of queercompany is distinctly shaky," and insisted LGBT people didn't need their own dedicated media. "Everyone benefits more from a mixed economy, while this company seems to stick gays back in the ghetto. Nice ads, shame about the people behind them."
Then, 50 formal complaints were made to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). A spokesperson from Family and Youth Concern spluttered to The Sun: "Parents will be distressed. Who knows how these pictures will affect youngsters." queercompany fielded hate-mail, one letter reading, Henrietta recalls: "Something like: 'I had to walk a different way to school because my kids are really fragile and if they see an image like this it will muck with their heads.' It was brilliant, Tanya was such a great photographer."
Meanwhile, the tabloids' hunt for the "girls" triumphed, and within a week, under the headline "I've Been Ad by Women and Men." Tabitha admitted to the News of the World, "Yes, I am bisexual" and that "I'd have done a full-on snog if they'd asked me to. Everyone laps it up."
Now, she explains, it was all for the £10,000 fee: "They said if I wanted to get paid I'd have to admit I was bisexual. I was like 'okay'." As for that NotW photo shoot, "It was so far removed from the original thing. The photographer had been pressuring me to go topless, and then Jordan turned up because she was friends with the makeup artist and that was her life, she was just there. She just screeched: 'You know you can make some money out of this, just get 'em out!' But though I'd done topless modeling before, this wasn't a celebration of the female figure; I didn't need to titillate."
Under the headline "Parents' shock over the girl on the gay billboard," Tabitha's mom told the Daily Mail: "I am extremely angry about this. To put it up is an extremely dangerous, irresponsible, and stupid thing to do. I have no problem with people wanting to be gay or lesbian, but please don't include heterosexual people with that… they are using people and putting my daughter in danger." And Tabitha's father threatened: "If I find out who has put it up I am going to take them to court." Her parents have since passed away, and Tabitha explains: "they were strait-laced, puritanical, and Scottish, homophobic in the very uninformed way, not an aggressive way. It had been a shock when the papers had called them up to say 'What do you think about your daughter being a lesbian?' They were furious, and I felt bad upsetting them, but I was happy to be associated with The Kiss."
And besides, for 25-year-old Tabitha, the money was too good not to speak to the tabloids herself. "The News of the World told me I wouldn't get paid the full amount if I didn't go topless, but I took the money I did get paid and went to L.A., and now I live here!" Elena, meanwhile, refused to do any interviews: "I just thought they're only interested in me because of my image, I want to do stuff with myself and my career and I didn't want to be pinned as the girl from The Kiss poster."
After a month-long run, the poster was taken down "And we thought, 'What on earth do we do with it?'" Steve tells i-D. "So we ended up auctioning it at the Stonewall Equality Dinner with a proportion of the donation going to Stonewall. An American trans woman flew over from L.A. and she was bidding on this thing furiously, she stood up and fist-pumped the air and cheered about how pleased she was to have got this thing. Quite what she did with it, I have no idea."
i-D reached out to Stonewall, but the charity's records don't stretch that far back, so the woman who travelled from L.A. to bid thousands of pounds on a giant poster of The Kiss remains a mystery.
By January 12, 2001, queercompany.com had received one million hits and the advert had been cleared by the ASA, finding, the Guardian reported: "It was not sexually explicit and was unlikely to affect children." The ASA also noted: "it was clear that many of the complainants had not seen the poster."
Unfortunately, we will never know Tanya's creative motivations for The Kiss. But Tara Joseph, a close friend of Tanya, describes her attitude to work: "Everything had to be perfect and she was never prepared to compromise on that. She was trying to create something that was sensual but classy. I don't think she ever thought she was going to be changing the world but she always had this gut reaction and instinct as to what would work and what would look beautiful."
queercompany launched a magazine called Fable at the end of 2001, featuring writers such as Miranda Sawyer, Todd Solondz, and Julie Burchill. But after a dip in advertising revenue following 9/11, queercompany's Nordic oil investors, who'd initially given them £3.5 million for the launch, stopped funding the venture. Henrietta is now CEO of Lily's Kitchen, a gourmet dog food company, and Steve is a media and communications expert. Meanwhile, over in L.A., Elena continues to act and makes synth-pop music under the moniker Kid Moxie. After forming female DJ duo Queens of Noize with Mairead Nash, Tabitha went on to do artwork for Florence Welch and now works as a video director.
As for Tanya, a spokesperson for GB Posters, where she would sell syndicated copies of The Kiss, tells i-D: "She did extremely well out of GB and was on a phenomenally high royalty rate." She continued to work as a photographer and is survived by two loving parents and her beloved cocker spaniel, Romeo.
Text Sophie Wilkinson