Mr Michael Roberts
Michael Roberts was there for magazine publishing’s golden age. Now living in Sicily, he relives the time of high fashion, extraordinary glamour and long expense accounts. For Issue Seven GLAMOUR John William interviews the fabulous Renaissance man.
Interview JOHN WILLIAM
Illustrations MICHAEL ROBERTS
During a career that spans over 40 years, Michael Roberts has worked as a designer, writer, stylist, photographer and illustrator. In fact, his CV boasts more directors than Cannes: design director of British Vogue, fashion and art director of Tatler, fashion director of the New Yorker, fashion and style director of Vanity Fair – he has even directed (and written and produced) a documentary about his friend Manolo Blahnik: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards. His work has been iconoclastic and ostentatious, from Vivienne Westwood as Margaret Thatcher on the cover of Tatler to supermodels cavorting in bombastic ’90s couture and his illustrated book (one of many) Fashion Victims: The Catty Catalogue of Stylish Casualties. He even rustled the Queen’s gown for an Annie Leibovitz sitting. Roberts defies the clichés so perfectly distilled in his satirical illustrations. In the flesh – or rather in navy cashmere – he is quiet, elegant and measured. An arbiter of a particular luxury you don’t really see in fashion these days.
John William: Was it Tina Brown who got you over to New York?
Michael Roberts: It wasn’t actually; that’s one of the great myths about who did what at Vanity Fair. I worked with Tina on Tatler, and, I must say, Tatler was fun. The fun about Tatler was that it was manned by people who were from that world, but who weren’t averse to sending it up and making fun of it. Plus it was great to try to get famous photographers to do things for it, even though they paid pennies. Also the photographers weren’t aware so much of the social background, which was very important to Tatler. I worked a lot with Herb Ritts and with Helmut [Newton], and it was good. Then it was bought by Condé Nast so we all had to move to Hanover Square and Tina became a bit disillusioned then because it was corporate. I found the corporate thing very irritating, and Tina obviously did because she came in one day and announced that she’d had enough and that she was off, which left us rather like motherless children who ran amok in the nursery. And so I was called one day by Alexander Liberman, who was the grand person in magazines. Not just Condé Nast, every magazine. He was the White Russian who presided over the fall of Mrs Vreeland…
JW: Who called him the first yellow Russian she’d ever met.
MR: Yes. I mean, I liked Alex. I have to say he was very like a smooth villain in one of those Hollywood movies. He was so mean to people. He would psychologically punish people enormously, which is funny if you’re watching from a distance but not of course if you’re being punished yourself. So, anyway, he rang me, one day when I was crumbling at Tatler, and said, “Come over dear boy. I need some fun in this magazine. Would you do it?” So I was completely seduced by him, flown over, put up in a very grand hotel, swept in, met the team and everyone was ignoring me because they didn’t see what was wrong with the place. [Laughs.] They loved what they were doing and so I was totally cold-shouldered by the staff. I was already working at Vanity Fair when suddenly the newsletter came around that Tina had been made editor-in-chief. And then she rang, and said, ‘It’s really exciting, we’re going to do Tatler all over again!’ Oh God, Tatler all over again in America. Anyway, to cut a long story short, she asked if I could help her out just for a while, so she put me up in a hotel, and I think I had the record of staying the longest time in a hotel at Condé Nast’s expense. Way different from how it is now! But coming from London where it was all tight budgets and tight this, tight that, and doing everything on a shoestring, it was marvellous.
JW: Writers at that time at Vanity Fair were getting paid astronomical amounts.
MR: They got paid a fortune, absolute fortune when Tina came along. And a few photographers too: Annie [Leibovitz], Herb Ritts, Helmut [Newton]. I did my first cover for them with Helmut in LA. We did Daryl Hannah.
"Tatler was manned by people who were from that world, but who weren’t averse to sending it up and making fun of it. Plus it was great to try to get famous photographers to do things for it, even though they paid pennies."
JW: Is that the one where she’s blindfolded?
MR: She’s blindfolded, she’s like Blind Justice. She’s holding an Oscar in each hand. Tina liked it but everyone said, ‘No. Cheap and nasty.’ They hated it. We did the story because Tina came in one day and kept walking around the art room saying, ‘Blonde ambition. Blonde ambition. We have to do something about blonde ambition.’ We all thought, ‘Oh, you mean we have to do something about you?!’ [Both laugh.] She’d been to see Scarface with Michelle Pfeiffer, and Michelle was just amazing in that, so she wanted to build something around the new blonde actresses who were up and coming in Hollywood. So we went down there with a bunch of clothes I’d got together, and Dominick Dunne, who’d just written this novel and was really big then. We went to meet up with Helmut who was staying at the Chateau Marmont, as he did every year ’cause he loved the heat. I remember we arrived in the rain. It was raining for the first time ever in that period, it’s usually quite bright, and Dominick turned to me and said, ‘What are we doing here? I don’t understand!’ Anyway, the big thing was waiting for Michelle, this thing was only gonna happen with her. And so we waited at this place called Musso & Frank’s, which is one of the old Hollywood hangouts of producers and film stars. It was a hamburger joint, basically, and we waited, and in walks this woman – dark glasses and beautiful, but with dark brown hair.
JW: Brunette ambition?
MR: Not really… And these are the days before the massive amount of retouching that you can do nowadays.
JW: Did she still have the bob?
MR: It was grown out and she looked great, but the fact is you couldn’t lead on Blonde Ambition with a brunette. Anyway we did her, and he put her in a bit of light and she was fine and then I had to do the cover. So I made sure it was a very blonde Daryl Hannah who got that cover, even though you couldn’t see her face, and that was the start of her career, really. But Dominick Dunne, from then until the last time I saw him before he died, still didn’t understand why the hell we’d gone out there to do this story, which was very funny. That was very much how Vanity Fair operated in those days. I mean no one knew about Vanity Fair. Every time I rang up to ask for a movie star – because I was probably one of the few on the magazine who actually watched movies and watched TV avidly – you would call up the leading agents, and say, ‘Oh I’d like Tom Cruise.’ And they would say, ‘Vanity Fair, are you the lingerie company?’ And you’d say, ‘No, it’s actually a magazine.’ Then you’d have to send them the magazine.
JW: How would you seduce a tricky photographer into getting on board with one of your ideas?
MR: By pretending it was their idea.
JW: Who was the most difficult to seduce?
MR: Annie (Leibowitz). Annie was a different person in those days. She’d come from Rolling Stone where she was queen of the hill, and she loved the idea of Vanity Fair. It gave her a sense of history, because it was considered one of the greatest magazines of all time in the ’30s under the editor Frank Crowninshield who was an erudite, brilliant man. So she loved the idea of being in that setting, but she was so neurotic, in a way that is so un-English, I suppose. For my peace of mind I liked working more with someone like Bill King who was very happy-go-lucky and his pictures were always upbeat, and they’d provide everything that Vanity Fair wanted, even if it didn’t know that it needed it. He would throw a bucket of water over those Olympic athletes and Raquel Welch in her ermine or mink. [Laughs.] He was marvellous. He died way too young, I loved Bill, he was the only one providing those kind of pictures. That weird, hysterical pent-up energy that then rocketed out across the pages. I was the only person he ever allowed to smoke in his studio because his studio was like a clinic with people in white coats, with white gloves.
"The fashion department always seemed to be having a party – whooping and hollering and people dancing around."
JW: Isn’t that funny – because there didn’t seem to be anywhere that you couldn’t smoke at that point.
MR: Yeah, exactly. I smoked like a chimney back then.
JW: You don’t now?
MR: No I’ve stopped, years ago, but at that point I was chain smoking.
JW: Did you ever work with Irving Penn?
MR: I did once. Irving Penn came late into my life when I was at the New Yorker where he had a special contract which allowed him to say if he would like to do something. So I was dispatched to his studio with the ten ideas that we’d all thought would be kinda nice. ‘Come in dear boy,’ he would say and I’d sit there and he’d talk about what he was doing. And then I’d say, ‘What would you say to Michael Jackson?’ ‘Oh no, dear boy, that’s not really for me. Give it to Avedon.’ ‘Now what about blah blah blah?’ ‘Hmm. I’m not too sure. No, I can’t see myself doing that.’ Every week it would be like this. Then one day I said, ‘What about a shoemaker called Manolo Blahnik?’ ‘Oh! I like him,’ he said. ‘Sorry?’ ‘He’s got an interesting face. Interesting. What could we do with him?’ I said, ‘Well, we could do him with a heel of a shoe or something. Like a stiletto. He’s famous for his shoes, and stilettos, and so therefore if we had the heel it could be like a dangerous weapon or something.’ ‘Oh I like that, I like that. Can you get him to make something like that?’ And that was the one person he said yes to in all my years at the New Yorker. He would sit down any time and talk to me. ‘Dear boy, so nice to see you. Come and sit down and have a cup of tea. Talk to me about this and about that and what’s happening in fashion.’ But to get him to do something was just like a fucking nightmare.
JW: Did you see him work?
MR: Yes. Very quiet. Oh my God, he barely breathed. It’s like when you work with the Queen, you barely breathe, because you daren’t have anything go wrong.
"Photography’s not just sometimes take a snap and that’s it. It’s an idea that needs to be formulated with the camera, and tweaked and perfected and then it’s ready to come out."
JW: Was there a big technical set-up?
MR: No, tiny, small – same small studio, same couple of lights. One assistant. No fuss. He hated fuss. He’s completely the opposite to Annie, but then Annie is more comfortable with 30 assistants. Twenty-five women she needs, nine different alternative backgrounds. Ten scenarios, bits of furniture, and so it’s a very different thing.
JW: Correct me if I’m wrong, but nowadays people are working in a really convergent way, and you have people changing specialisms. It seems like you were doing this multitasking way before it was accepted by the industry. How was that received when you first started diversifying?
MR: Well, people didn’t like it. Everyone’s got their own category to defend. Photographers were really nasty to me, except [David] Bailey. Bailey was very nice. Bailey and Helmut. I actually did a lot of homages to Helmut. But definitely Bailey and Helmut were about the only ones who appreciated that I wanted to do photography as well. It’s not like I’m saying I’m good at photography, what I am good at is my own ideas in photography. In other words, rather than thinking up the ideas and giving it to the photographer and then kind of cajoling them into tweaking it to get it right, I’d rather cajole myself, because it’s really fucking painful, to go through this process. ‘Oh, I don’t like it Michael. Are you sure this is working?’ ‘Yes, it’s gonna work. If you just bear with it and think it through.’ Photography’s not just sometimes take a snap and that’s it. It’s an idea that needs to be formulated with the camera, and tweaked and perfected and then it’s ready to come out. Frankly, I got sort of tired of being bullied by photographers into giving up on things before they’d really materialised. It’s a lot of hard work to think up a decent idea, really. So why was I gonna throw it away on some unappreciative arsehole?
JW: Tell me a bit more about illustration, because that’s where you started. You won a competition right?
MR: I did, when I was at college.
JW: Which college did you go to?
MR: High Wycombe. Like Stephen Jones. Not at the same time, obviously. I was studying fine art and then I was going to be a graphic artist and I went to the graphic department for a year and I loathed it, the people were real go-getters, ambitious, so extremely exhausting. Then next door was the fashion department which always seemed to be having a party. It was whooping and hollering and very exciting sounds of people jumping up and down and dancing around. I thought, ‘Oh God, am I missing out?’ So I went to the fashion department. That was kind of nice because I did learn how to make things and that really helped me later when I became a fashion journalist. I knew early on though that I didn’t want to be a fashion designer, and so I started illustrating and I won a competition by J Walter Thompson to go to New York and hobnob with the famous, like Warhol and Avedon, and did drawings for Women’s Wear Daily and had a great time.
JW: Tell me about Molly Parkin, because she’s a real character.
MR: Molly was part of the jury on the illustration competition, and when I came back from New York she asked me to do drawings for Nova. So I hung around with the Nova crowd
for a bit, and then she was suddenly gone, and she’d gone to The Sunday Times. She suggested I go and work with this wonderful woman called Professor Janey Ironside, who was the professor of fashion at the Royal College of Art, who in her time actually discovered everybody – Ossie Clark, Zandra Rhodes, Bill Gibb, all the huge designers of that era. So I assisted her and then one day Molly called me and said would I be interested in being her assistant at The Sunday Times. Up to that moment there had been a woman called Ernestine Carter who was the fashion editor. She was American and she was old school, more like an ambassadress. She was very, very, very social, but elitely social. The girls had to wear gloves, for example, her assistants in the office. ‘Where are your gloves, dear?’ They had to wear gloves and dress properly and speak when they were spoken to, that kind of thing. She was a very strict old woman. Terrifying. But then things changed, she was shifted out and suddenly Molly was in charge and I was her assistant. Molly, was particularly fabulous and unique in that she didn’t give a fuck about anyone, and she would take our expenses, arrive in Paris, she’d demand to know where the most fabulous place was for dinner, we’d go to dinner at something like Alcazar, with its drag queen cabaret, and then by the time we woke up the next morning there were no expenses left. [Both laugh.]
These were expenses for ten days or for a week or something. And this was my life with Molly. I never met anyone with such a capacity for fun or humiliatingly embarrassing situations. We went to Balmain, we got there so late because we’d been out drinking all night, and in those days they closed the doors, they would not let you in. So we arrived at the top steps and just as we’re going in – bam! – the doors were closed. And so we missed the Balmain show, which was very important in those days. Then another time, we went to…I can’t remember, it was something like Dior. So we arrived and we sat down, and all the major people in the world in those days were obviously all in one block, Americans over there, but all the English ones were very, very, very old. Really, the matrons of English fashion in those days in the press were really ancient. Someone called Alison Settle, she was about 95 or something. Anyway, we’d all be sitting there, then Molly would bustle in really late and sit there, and I’d sit behind her whispering into her ear. And Alison said, blind as a bat I think, really, ‘Molly dear, what would you say those feathers are in the hat?’ And Molly in a huge loud voice, literally sounded to the back of the room and said, ‘COCK, dear. That’s COCK.’ At which point I just slithered into my seat. It was very funny. She was marvellous.
JW: Brilliant though, you need that!
MR: Oh, I know, but I was young and impressionable once, so I was sort of embarrassed by anything in those days. She left after a while. Suddenly fell in love with the idea of being a novelist, and so she thought that fashion was really beneath her and didn’t want to be a fashion editor anymore. So she left, and left me in a rather awkward position. I was sitting there, at a time when no one could champion me in terms of being black, and a guy, and gay and on a newspaper like The Sunday Times. So they didn’t quite know what to do with me, whether to shove me, throw me out or not. So I kept quiet, I just kept quiet and gradually they got used to me being there week after week, so by default I got the job. I started writing because Molly was too much the worse for wear and couldn’t go to the Paris shows. I’d never written before and I’d certainly never been to Paris on my own before. The idea that sort of got me through it was the fact that I knew about new-wave journalism in America, Tom Wolfe and all these people, and the eyewitness style of writing, that was so immediate. And so I wrote in exactly that style. The double spread came out and people thought it was very funny, and so that was the start. I got congratulations from all these journalists at The Sunday Times, the legends like Ken Allsop and these people. So that was it, I was kind of saved by that. I was there for another ten years. I’ve sort of done ten or 12-year lumps.
JW: So you’re always learning by doing?
MR: Yes, exactly. It’s like now I’m doing pots and tiles with people in Caltagirone in the south of Sicily. Do you know their stuff? Sort of hand-painted. So this is a new departure.
JW: How these things lead onto each other, constantly dipping into new territory and this evolution your career’s had, do you think it’s because you’re excited about the next thing or bored of the last?
MR: Oh no, I’m not bored with the last thing. It’s like juggling, I suppose in a funny way. I kind of like juggling different things in the air at the same time. If I’m involved in doing a New Yorker cover, for example, with cut-outs, then I quite like the idea that Vanity Fair asks me to go and photograph the team from Brideshead Revisited. I’m writing less because I find of all the things I do, writing is the hardest. It’s very, very hard to find the right words, and it’s very hard to write as though it was effortless. I hate effortful writing, and so to write as though it’s been no effort, and in a way that flows and totters with humour as well, is really difficult. When it works, it’s great, but when it doesn’t work it’s like torture.
"I knew early on I didn’t want to be a fashion designer, so I started illustrating and won a competition to go to New York and hobnob with the famous, like Warhol and Avedon, did drawings for Women’s Wear Daily and had a great time."
JW: People don’t realise how difficult it is.
MR: I had some fun with pieces for early Tatler under Tina, I think, because she’s a good writer and she appreciated the writing. She never said to me, ‘You can’t say that,’ because she said it herself. Like my piece on Joan Collins, which was funny.
JW: Tell me a little bit about Joan.
MR: Joan! ‘Our Joan’, I called it. I did it just after I’d done a piece on Liza Minnelli, which was really only done for the title: ‘Liza with a “zzz”’ and the ‘z’s like snoring, you know. When they do it in comic books. Well my ‘z’s fell down the page. They went to sleep. [Laughs.] Anyway, Joan was great. I got Helmut to photograph her and he did the cover where it’s super close up with a veil. It was in-your-face, and she had on these giant diamond earrings and he did these marvellous pictures of her at her Hollywood home where she’s sitting by the pool in her red sequinned dress and it’s autumn and no one’s actually swimming, so it’s been neglected by the pool boy. So there’s all this detritus floating around in it. In her front room she had every single cover that she’d ever done.
MR: Yeah. Like, one right next to each other. [Mimes placement of covers on wall.] Something like 200 covers, it was huge. Yeah it was lewd and tacky at the same time. It was a very good issue that, and then there was the funny story about Paloma Picasso. ‘She was only a painter’s daughter.’
JW: All of these incredible women and men – who is the one for you who personifies glamour?
MR: A personal favourite of mine is Angelina [Jolie]. She’s unreal. I mean, it’s like, did God really create that face? It’s extraordinary in real life. A lot of people, when you see them in real life, it’s kind of a disappointment, because in magazines and pictures that have been manipulated, they’re manipulated to be the best of themselves. So, in reality, up close, they obviously fall short. But Angelina is just like some robot. I mean, something from another planet, an alien. Everything is so, not big, but just exaggerated, do you know what I mean? Sculpted face, the eyes… And she’s nice, actually, she’s really very nice. I liked her, a lot.
JW: Who did you shoot her with?
MR: I shot her with Patrick Demarchelier. She was gorgeous.
JW: You were in New York with Warhol, in London with the Nova gang, Bianca Jagger, Hollywood stars. You’ve been part of these very glamorous, exclusive sets. Is there a particular period or memory that you look on as the most glamorous?
MR: Hmm. I’m not really a party person, and what used to amuse me was the fact that I was said to be at a place where I wasn’t: ‘Oh, I was at this party and I saw Michael Roberts,’ and I wasn’t there. So when I realised you didn’t need to be there to be in, it was fabulous. [Both laugh.]
JW: Did you have glamour in your childhood?
MR: I suppose my mother was quite glamorous, really. She loved dressing up. She wasn’t anyone famous or anything, but in the countryside where I came from – Buckinghamshire, near Windsor – my mother was stylish. She had a beautiful leopard coat, I remember and a big camel one, huge, which I commandeered when I went to college and cut into a short jacket. But she was kind of stylish. My grandpa was quite stylish, in a dapper very English way. Paisley scarves and trilby.
JW: Where were Mum and Dad from?
MR: My mother’s English, my father was from St Lucia.
JW: Did you spend any time in St Lucia when you were growing up?
MR: No, I was born in England, in the countryside.
JW: What’s your opinion of the industry in terms of publications now and the editorial? Do you associate with the idea that the landscape is narrowed and that the voice of the creative isn’t being heard as much?
MR: I think magazines are a dying thing.
"In The Leopard, the famous novel by Lampedusa, which is the biggest Italian novel – he was also Sicilian – he wrote, ‘In order to change you have to remain the same.’ I love that."
JW: You used the expression earlier, talking about a Vanity Fair cover, “It made her a star.” Magazines used to have that power…
MR: They were the new Hollywood, really. In the late ’80s, early ’90s, magazines had star power, and the editors-in-chief were stars. It was almost like the old Hollywood system. It’s very different now. I don’t understand how big companies can expect to survive when they ask their employees to pay for their own tickets to go to the collections. I mean, does that make sense? Who is that desperate to be in a fashion magazine that they would actually pay out the hefty chunk it costs to get to Paris and then stay there for, what, over a week?
JW: You’re in London for a flying visit but you live in Sicily?
MR: In Taormina. Ever been?
JW: No, but I love Sicily.
MR: I moved there just over a year ago. It’s been interesting. I love it there, I’ve been going there for nearly 40 years.
JW: Do you speak the language?
MR: Yeah, and when I did my book Shot in Sicily, which is all photographs, I’d already been going there for about 25 years. It just seemed more convenient to live there, rather than keep going back and forth all the time. Although now I still keep going back and forth all the time. [Laughs.] It’s quite cut off, still, Sicily. It’s not exactly modern living.
JW: Great, though, lots of red wine and pasta. I read that you were telling your friends who come to visit, ‘Put your Rolex away. Dress nice and dress a bit dowdy. You wanna be accepted, right?’
MR: I think they’re a great people. Sicilians are like concentrated Italians, and one of the things is that if they like you they really like you. They kind of adopt you. If they don’t like you, don’t go back. [Both laugh.] Because they’ve all got members of the family around, who could somehow deal with you. Italians are much more peacocks. They love fashion. Whereas what they wear in Sicily is the practical, everyday version of what Dolce & Gabbana would glamourise. I find it very glamorous, otherwise I wouldn’t have moved there. I think that they adapt very carefully to the modern world, which I like. They haven’t swung themselves down into modernity, but they will adapt. In The Leopard, the famous novel by Lampedusa, which is the biggest Italian novel – he was also Sicilian – he wrote, ‘In order to change you have to remain the same.’ I love that.