The word muse is applied a little too liberally in the Fashion world. Scarlett Cannon is the real deal. Blitz kid, cover girl, artist and yes – muse. A muse who has inspired four decades of creativity. This week the exhibition Scarlett Woman opens at The Gallery Liverpool – charting and celebrating Cannon’s influence on popular culture and London’s 1980s club scene. Beauty Papers spends the day with Scarlett and her rescue dog Lady Maude, in a flat stacked with art and fashion – most of which is created in her image – a testament to her enduring, effulgent spirit.
Interview and Portraits JOHN WILLIAM Archive SCARLETT CANNON
Beauty Papers: How did the exhibition in Liverpool come about?
Scarlett Cannon: So the curators are called DuoVision, and one of them Martin Green is a very old friend of mine and the other one is a new friend of mine, James Lawler. They have a gallery space in Liverpool and in the last maybe six years or so they’ve been putting on very, very good shows. Martin first spoke to me about it in 2013 when Club to Catwalk was on at the V&A and everyone was going all-a-bit-80s and he said: “We’d love to do an exhibition of you as a muse because nobody has ever done an exhibition of the muse.” So obviously it’s not my work, it’s all other people’s work but of me, so it’s a kind of interesting angle.
BP: What are you digging out for it?
SC: Well they’ve curated it, so they’re doing the digging. They’ve been to my place and there’s things from here that they’ll be borrowing, like the Slim Barrett clock; things that can’t be reproduced. I’m really leaving it up to them because they’re very good curators and I’m quite happy… Things like my doll, that will probably go in.
BP: She is gorgeous.
SC: She’s good. She’s got a combination of makeups on that I’m known for and her little Hermes headscarf of course. She’s sort of a pastiche.
BP: What’s it like constantly revisiting that quite specific period? Is it something that you ever get tired of?
SC: Well it’s not constant. You see it didn’t happen for years and years. Up until about 2012 I really did think it was just my life and it wasn’t that important. People have said to me over the years “it’s really important” and this and that, but it would make me cringe. But I had a lot of clothes, special things I’d worn in the club days and all of that, things that had been made for me and I wanted a new kitchen so I sold them in 2012 through Kerry Taylor Auctions and it was Kerry who actually stood here and like a big sister, put her hand on my shoulders, looked me in the face and went “You’ve got to understand how important your role in all of this was.” And actually that was a real turning point for me. Somehow it got me over that cringe thing. It’s a reference point, isn’t it? I think for a lot of fashion and makeup students I’m a bit of a reference and that’s great! I’ve never chased the money, which is just as well because we never really made the money in the 80s! I have friends that teach at fashion schools all over the world and they send me pictures of their students’ mood boards that have got old 80s pictures of mine on it and I just think that’s fantastic. If you can inspire one person, that’s fantastic and if you can inspire more, actually… If that’s my role in life this time that’s okay.
“I think for a lot of fashion and makeup students I’m a bit of a reference and that’s great! I’ve never chased the money, which is just as well because we never really made the money in the 80s! I have friends that teach at fashion schools all over the world and they send me pictures of their students’ mood boards that have got old 80s pictures of mine on it and I just think that’s fantastic.”
I didn’t really understand that until I was teaching horticulture. I was teaching beginners and working with different groups of people and I used to teach adults on a Saturday all day, and as they were leaving and I was seeing them out of the garden they would hug me and say “it’s been so inspirational.” And I really felt that it was… And so I realised to inspire people, in all ways, is a great thing.
BP: When you stopped modelling and stopped collaborating, was it a conscious decision or a natural conclusion?
SC: It was a combination of both. I was modelling quite a lot in the 80s and I didn’t have an agent and nobody would touch me even though…
BP: Even though you were on all of these [gestures to the framed magazine covers adorning the walls.]
SC: I know… Thierry Mugler phoned me up at home in my little flat and said “could you come over and do our show, me and Jean Paul Gaultier?” I honestly thought it was a joke at first and it was only when he went “No, no, no it’s Thierry Mugler. Let me put you on to my assistant who’ll make all the arrangements” and I just thought “Gosh!” So even though I was doing all that sort of stuff I wasn’t commercial.
BP: How did you define what you were doing back then? Did you call yourself a model?
SC: I didn’t really define it. I was doing bits of modelling, I was also working in a shop. Back in the 80s, you did lots and lots of things, cause nobody had any money, and you didn’t make big money modelling then. You know if you made a hundred quid for a day you’d be lucky. If you made three hundred you’d be rolling. Whereas now, you can make that for a show. But everything’s relative, isn’t it? I did Gareth Pugh’s show a couple of years ago and it was the first time I’d walked on the catwalk for years and years and I really, really enjoyed it but I was astounded that there were so many models! “Why are there like forty models?” And he went “Well cause there’s forty outfits!” and I’m thinking “What?!” Because in the old days you’d change four times, three times if you were lucky!
So it was very different then. You really earned your money, I have to say. I was going to Japan a bit, for work, and it wasn’t easy. You get off a plane you’ve been flying on for ten hours and it’s breakfast and they take you to a breakfast fitting and you’re knackered and then they work you, really work you for like four days and then you go home. So you might as well have been in Catford, quite frankly. I’m not saying models don’t work hard now because I don’t know, but you certainly did then. I was getting a bit bored with it if I’m honest. I was backstage, in Japan, waiting to do this show. The clothes weren’t that exciting and there was this girl there, very commercial, really boring and loved the sound of her own voice… and she started telling everybody that she really loved modelling because it was so interesting and I remember thinking “Shoot. Me. Now” if you think this is interesting.
So in 1988, I started gardening professionally. I was living a double life at the time because I was also running a night at Heaven in the Star Bar, and if you told people you were a gardener in the 80s they would laugh at you. Now, of course, it’s very fashionable to be a gardener but I’m always ahead of my time. [both laugh] It’s true!
BP: Have you always loved gardens?
SC: Always. I’ve always loved gardening since I was a child. It was the one thing I really, really had in common with my Dad and it was the one way that I could spend time with him and connect with him properly.
BP: Did he have a greenhouse?
SC: He had an allotment and a greenhouse.
BP: Tomatoes? My Grandad did tomatoes.
SC: Yeah of course. Always, and rhubarb in the garden. He had an allotment and I used to go and help him and I just loved it. But then, of course, you grow up and you’re living in bedsits and flats and you don’t always have a garden. When I moved here which was the end of 87, and had a garden, I couldn’t quite believe my luck. So everything sort of came to a natural end. It wasn’t sudden but there was a decision on my part that went “I don’t know if I wanna chase it anymore. If something great comes to me I’ll do it, but if it doesn’t I’m just not that bothered anymore.”
“So in 1988, I started gardening professionally. I was living a double life at the time because I was also running a night at Heaven in the Star Bar, and if you told people you were a gardener in the 80s they would laugh at you. Now, of course, it’s very fashionable to be a gardener but I’m always ahead of my time.”
BP: I wanna talk about makeup.
SC: I love makeup.
BP: Have you always loved makeup?
SC: I’ve always loved makeup.
BP: What is your first memory of makeup?
SC: I loved my cousin Carol because she was glamorous and it was the late 60s and she wore her hair in a beehive, which I adored, and she had lipstick. As I child I loved watching black and white films – they are one of my strongest influences of my entire life. Sunday afternoons, there were always black and white 30s or 40s movies on television. Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Harlow.
I also remember seeing the punk girls. I didn’t wanna be a punk but I loved the makeup. I loved the way they looked and I loved the hair. So what I was tryna do when I was seventeen was a bit of a cross of both. I wanted to look like an old black and white movie, so that’s why I had very pale skin and dark eyes… that bit of old Hollywood glamour but with a crazy hairdo. Ross Cannon did all of my fantastic do’s in the 80s. The crucifix head, all of them. He was just a genius.
BP: What was the process? Would you sit down and he’d surprise you?
SC: Well we were very, very close. He was really my best friend – he knew me very well and I trusted him. He’d say “I’ve had this idea and we’re gonna make it look like the top of your head’s been cut off and then we’re gonna colour the ball of your head like a brain and then I’m gonna attach wires to it like blood vessels,” and I’d just go “yeah, okay.” We did it and it was fantastic. When he said “I wanna shave your hair off and leave the crucifix” I was like “Yeah okay, it’ll grow back if I don’t like it.” That was always my attitude. I was kind of like a canvas for him in many ways.
BP: How did you meet?
SC: We met on a bus in 1979.
BP: When you were out and about glammed up, was London like it is now where people didn’t really give a shit or was there a bit of danger to it.
SC: There was plenty of danger to it. Times were very different. There was danger to it but at the same time I never felt threatened because I just thought “No one’s gonna start on me, I’m gonna look too extraordinary for them to start on me.” And they didn’t, but I did know friends of mine…Yeah, queer bashing was a sort of sport back then and it did happen a lot, but people learn to be tough. The other thing back then was we really stuck together. You’d all go out together and then you’d all go back to somebody’s place and have a party and then you’d all sleep on the floor together. Safety in numbers.
BP: You’ve talked about being on student mood boards – now you are the reference. When you were creating some of these iconic images back in the day what references where you working with?
SC: My references were Hollywood, punk and things that I’d dreamed up in my head. I’m sure a lot of people still do that now, I’d like to hope so. I had this thing when I was young where I liked to dress as an old lady, so I think that’s a really good look on somebody very, very young. I did a lot of twinset and pearls, granny boots and tweed skirts. It would always be hitched in with a great big belt because it didn’t fit me cause I’d bought it in a jumble sale for 20p. I always quite liked that juxtaposition of old and young. I guess cause I’ve always felt like an old soul.
BP: When do you think you started looking extreme? I think that’s a good word for a lot of your previous looks.
SC: It’s hard to say. Look, here’s the thing: I grew up in suburban south London. I used to go to the Missionary March and get fabulous old clothes in there. In the 70s old clothes were 1940s, 50s and 60s. Take them home and you would dye them in the pot with your Mother looking on disapprovingly cause you bought what she thought was some old shit from a second-hand shop. And she’d go “I threw suits like that away after the war!” And I’d go “Well I wish you hadn’t Mother cause they’d fit me!” Nobody else was really doing that so I guess that was extreme in its way. But when you say really extreme, I guess when I left home.
“My references were Hollywood, punk and things that I’d dreamed up in my head. I had this thing when I was young where I liked to dress as an old lady, so I think that’s a really good look on somebody very, very young. I did a lot of twinset and pearls, granny boots and tweed skirts.”
BP: And was being conventionally beautiful part of the agenda?
SC: No cause I was never conventionally beautiful and I never will be. Did it inform my look?
SC: Yeah it did because you work with what you’ve got. I always had an enormous jaw. I’ve grown into my jaw. Obviously, as you get older things go soft but you look at those older pictures, my jaw’s extraordinarily enormous and I knew at that I wasn’t conventionally beautiful in any way, shape or form.
BP: And how long before you were able to look in the mirror and go “Yeah, that’s it!”
SC: No, it never is that, because you’re always evolving it. For me, there’s never a point where I go “That’s it. That’s what I wanna look like.” I went through a very natural golden girl look in the 90s. I wasn’t conventionally beautiful but I was just doing it my own way. Then I went back to red lipstick. Also, you adapt with age. I know I’m talking a lot about age but it is relevant. You don’t wanna do mutton lamb, but you do wanna do yourself so you adapt things.
BP: Bette Davis said “Getting old…”
SC: “…No place for sissies.” She was quite right.
BP: What’s been a shock about getting old?
SC: Having Fibromyalgia if I’m honest with you, and that’s not really to do with age because young people get it. That’s been the biggest shock cause it made me feel older than I was. I was always very, very strong and very fit physically and when the Fibro got really bad I could barely move and I still have days where I barely move. I won’t do very much tomorrow because I’ll need to rest.
I was on holiday with my friend Pam last week in Norfolk and we were laughing cause she has osteoarthritis in her knee and I have this thing and there was one point where we were heaving ourselves along after having walked too far along the beach. We were heaving ourselves back to our cottage and she said to me “Do you remember looking at people like this when you were young and thinking ‘Oh my God, what could ever be that bad that we would be moving like that?'” And of course you do! [Laughs] You do remember that. It’s really funny because things just do start to hurt anyway as you get older and you get things like osteo and stupidness, but it’s part of life. I just say keep going, innit. That’s the biggest shock of getting old. [Laughs]
BP: Tell me about Andrew. [gestures to the Andrew Logan sculpture of Scarlett sat on a mirrored plinth]
SC: Andrew Logan? Well, I’ve known Andrew since I was seventeen. I went to an opening of his in 1980. We just became really good friends and then he used to come down to the club when I did the Cha-Cha with Judy [Blame] and Michael [Hardy]. That’s how I got to know most of my friends, cause everyone came to the clubs. I’ve been Andrew’s muse many times. He’s very inspirational and very uplifting actually. When I met Andrew that opened up a whole new world for me – going to art opening and exhibitions – which not only were a source of meeting fabulous artists and seeing different work, but also food because they gave you snacks [Both laugh] and we were young, we didn’t have money so that was like dinner! It all sort of went hand in hand with your lifestyle.
BP: What’s he like to sit for?
SC: Great. “Do you want a cup of tea? Are you okay? Okay. Sit still.” But he’s very, very easy and he’s very nice to work with cause he’s a nice man and also I like his energy, it’s very, very positive energy which I adore.
BP: Some people have got the recognition they deserve, even if they’re suddenly not with us anymore. I think Judy is being recognised. Is there anyone who you think, before the days of social media…
SC: Died before their time? Loads of people who died before their time. Mark Lawrence was a designer, again died before. Ross Cannon, my hairdresser, genius, died before it could all happen. There’s plenty of people. I mean, to be honest, we lost probably two-thirds of creative London with the AIDS epidemic. We really did. Judy and I, when we first started the club, we were really having a laugh and we used to say “If a bomb went off now, half of creative London would be wiped out, would be just gone” and actually…
Beauty Papers: When did you first meet Judy?
Scarlett Cannon: Judy I met in the coat check at Heaven. Judy and Michael Hardy. We ended up doing the club together, the three of us. I was seventeen. He was devastatingly beautiful and we just hit it off from the moment we met. He looked great and I looked great and we weren’t full of bullshit.
One of the things I said at Judy’s memorial a few months ago was that he really, really had a lot of integrity. It’s one of the most important qualities a person can have. [Scarlett pauses for a minute] That really upset me, just talking about him. Isn’t it funny? I’ve been alright, actually, but it was just then… I think I see so few people with integrity around anymore. Everyone just wants to fucking get one over on each other and climb on each other to get to the top and Judy never ever sold out and I love him for that, in his work but also in his person, in his friendships, in his being. He had fucking heaps of integrity and I think so did I, and you recognise that in other people and I think that’s why we were friends. And he never had any airs or graces and I never have either, right up until the end. It was always just Judy.
You know stylists didn’t exist then. There was no such thing as a stylist. I used to laugh because in the eighties everyone was a stylist, everyone, and actually it meant you were unemployed. [Laughs] “What you do?” “I’m a stylist.” Okay, on the dole, like all of us. We used to style our own shoots, it just wasn’t called styling. [Laughs]
BP: [Laughs] Just called getting on with it?
SC: It was called getting on with it, exactly!
“You know stylists didn’t exist then. There was no such thing as a stylist. I used to laugh because in the eighties everyone was a stylist, everyone, and actually it meant you were unemployed. ‘What you do?’ ‘I’m a stylist.’ Okay, on the dole, like all of us.”
BP: Our current issue is an exploration of the word Glamour. What does the word glamour mean to you?
SC: Glamour? Glamour is very important because there is natural glamour. I didn’t know I had natural glamour until I was probably about 32. I always wanted glamour because my idea of glamour was Hollywood glamour, but I didn’t realise I had natural glamour until I was in my early thirties and suddenly thought “you are actually really glamorous in your way.” When people would say to me “you look great in jeans and a shirt” I’d look in the mirror and I’d think “actually… yes!”
I think glamour is very important. But what does it mean to me? Well, who can say? Put your lipstick on. That’s very important. Put your lipstick on. Without my lipstick I don’t feel glamorous. It used to be high heels and now it’s not. I think I don’t need high heels for glamour but I used to. I used to love things very fitted even though I’m very skinny so I’d look like a tube hobbling along. That was my idea of glamour. I think you can make anybody look glamorous by dressing them in glamorous clothes…
BP: Tape and mirrors?
SC: Tape and mirrors, that’s the one! But I do, I think to have glamour is a different thing.
BP: Who else has glamour?
SC: There’s a question. Andrew Logan has glamour. Andrew Logan is unbelievably glamorous. Judy was very, very glamorous. Even in what he would call work wear. Very glamorous, even just wearing nothing special.
BP: I wanna know something. When you were a teenager, if you’d won the pools or if you’d been given a magic credit card, where would you have gone to blow your load?
SC: Well, I would have got myself to Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana because…
BP: Glamour, glamour, glamour!
SC: And slightly space-age glamour, right?
“Glamour? Glamour is very important because there is natural glamour. I didn’t know I had natural glamour until I was probably about 32.”