pat cleveland revisits five extraordinary decades in fashion

She lit up Studio 54, played golf with Jackie Robinson, and inspired a generation of iconic American designers. Trailblazing supermodel Pat Cleveland talks to i-D about her new memoir, "Walking with the Muses."

by i-D Staff and Marquita Harris
07 June 2016, 8:30pm

Pat in a pool in Milan for Linea Italia, by Gian Paolo Barbieri

Iconic supermodel Pat Cleveland isn't particularly thrilled about today's chilly late-May weather, but she's enjoying the pretty blue flowers sitting between us. "These freesias are beautiful! Aren't they beautiful?" She leans in to smell them, touching the petals and closing her eyes. "Oh, that's really nice. We need some freesias in the house," she says, glancing in her husband Paul's direction.

At 65, Cleveland has documented her life for nearly five decades — in diary entries, agendas, photographs, and drawings — and now she's clutching the condensed hardcover version to her chest: her new memoir, Walking with the Muses. "I still gotta smell it, I didn't lick it yet!" she jokes, re-examining the dust jacket. "I can't believe it. It's like a dream come true. I've been writing everything down since I was 16."

The book is packed with astonishing stories. How is it possible that one human rubbed shoulders with so many legends before she was 18 years old? It's one thing to meet icons, it's something else entirely to have them co-star in so many of your life's stories.

With Stephen Burrows, 1970, in one of the designer's "lettuce dresses"

Perhaps it's hereditary. After all, Cleveland's mother — artist and woman about town Lady Bird Cleveland — picked blueberries with Helen Keller and was friends with Eartha Kitt and a bevy of other famous Harlemites during the neighborhood's golden era. Lady Bird's daughter, with her spindly limbs and wide eyes, couldn't have had a conventional life if she'd tried. Her early years were punctuated by book-worthy encounters. She played golf with Jackie Robinson at nine years old, witnessed Bill Cosby's dark side first-hand, and fell in love with Kenneth Eckstine, the model turned "Zelig of homeless people."

Even Muhammad Ali vied for the then 16-year-old's affection. There's a photo of a frosty-eyed Cleveland and boisterous-looking Ali sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on a bus to prove it. And that's how the book goes: story after amazing story, about icons like Halston and Karl Lagerfeld, accompanied by colorful photographs that seem to preempt the reader's every "How is this real?". Had Instagram been around circa 1970, Cleveland would've given Gigi Hadid a run for her money.

Muhammad Ali and teenage Pat

Then again, despite Cleveland's youthful energy and free spirit, she maintains a degree of reserve. Posturing on social media might not have been her thing. When her career was taking off, as a "young kid at fancy parties," she opted for ginger ales instead of champagne. And this was at the height of the coke era, a culture that her Halston-led Studio 54 crowd found difficult to resist. "It all comes from your training when you're young as to what you do and don't do. There's a lot of temptations, but [I would] always hear mama's voice saying, 'Now wait a minute, what are you doing?" She admits to raising both of her kids, model Anna Cleveland and son Noel, in the same fashion in which her single mother raised her. That's not to say Pat never had any fun (quite the opposite), she just never let it sweep her away for too long.

See Pat and her daughter Anna in i-D's 2005 The Feminist Issue.

And it wasn't always about resisting. She gave in to her heart on more than one occasion. "For me, love has gone through so many different changes. And being a female and experiencing life as a female was something that I thought was important for the book," she says. "I love men. I think they're wonderful play toys. They have wonderful equipment and you can enjoy them," she says, laughing. ("Thank you for that," says her husband, Paul, from across the room.)

With Diana Ross, 1977, on the set of The Wiz

Cleveland is known for many things, most notably for bringing unconventional movement and character to the snoozy, runways of a bygone era. Because, never in her 50-year career has Pat Cleveland just walked deadpan down a catwalk; she has danced down them. The stone-faced model archetype is the antithesis of what she stands for. Once upon a time the word "supermodel" was reserved for the women with staying power; the industry supremes who doubled as muses to designers and inspired entire collections. "Pat" (no last name) was one of them. She was also one of the first African-American models to gain super status, paving the way for models like Jourdan Dunn and Naomi Campbell. And best of all, she did it her way, theatrics and all.

"I've been in this business for 50 years and I think holding on to something that's beautiful for so long in your life is a challenge. People change, times change, demands change. Fortunately I've been able to go along with the stream of it. I do think if you have a certain character you can meet certain people," she says. "We're all learning to love ourselves. If you're not loved within something you do, you wither. You need water," she continues, while looking sternly at the freesias on the table again, "You need people to water you."

"Walking with the Muses," is out on June 14.


Text Marquita Harris
Images courtesy of Simon & Schuster

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