Interview with Connie Fleming - Part 2


Monika: You did a lot of modeling for Vivienne Westwood, a legendary British fashion designer, largely responsible for bringing modern punk and new wave fashions into the mainstream. How do you recollect working for her?
Connie: The Arts and Clubland communities of London, Paris, New York, always shared a deep connection since there's no language barrier between New York and London. The influences and shared experiences were more concrete in a way. By the late 80s, I’d made enough of a name for myself to snag an invitation for the Vivienne Westwood show at the Limelight. I was a rabid fan and was so excited to get in for what was to be one of the biggest events of the New York season. The show was incredible as usual, but what made it super special was Teri Toye, the pioneering Trans model, and muse of Steven Sprouse. She was making her triumphant return to NYC from an incredible season in Paris, where she’d worked for Mugler, Gaultier, and Chanel.
It was wonderfully inspiring and gave me a real sense of hope. I was well into my transition and the potential my Art/Performance community saw in me started to take hold even in my heart and mind. Later that year on the heels of the emerging voguing dance craze the HOUSE OF FIELD and DISCO MODELING SCHOOL crews were invited to London. We were to showcase the new dance that in a year would sweep the world.
On the night of our second performance, I would meet Vivienne in passing. I didn’t think I made much of an impression but around two years later the house of Westwood was set to do a show at the Limelight again and I was requested by the house. She had remembered me, seen my first walk at Mugler, and was excited and happy for me. I was totally overwhelmed but then I remembered, she was the Art/Fashion/Clubland community that believed in and pushed for me.
The early 90s saw Westwood transcended cult fringe to become a venerable house and would make the move to Paris. The Grand Hotel show in 1993 would be one of the shows that solidified Westwood as a true visionary couturier and international force in fashion. It would be my second show with her. I was so beyond excited for it would be my opportunity to be seen as something else than just a novelty or trend. .
Monika: Teri Toye was an amazing model. And I guess she was the first transgender model that made a career as a transgender model. Caroline Cossey or Tracey "Africa'' Norman started their careers in the closet whereas Teri Toye conquered the fashion world openly as a trans woman.
Connie: For me, Teri stands as a pioneer of pioneers. She is proof that a Trans woman didn’t lower or discredit a label, it wouldn’t implode because of her presence but bring life, beauty, innovation, and inclusivity, all traits that elevate. Her very presence on the runway changed the alchemy of shows bringing electric energy that pushed the envelope beyond just the latest thing but into the realm of total modernity. A state and energy that’s incalculable that one hopes for and what one pays the big bucks to supermodels for. She embodied the moment, legendary moments in fashion like YSL’s BALLET RUSSES or THE BATTLE OF VERSAILLES. Changing moments that one is lucky to witness, that changed me and my soul, my hope, my life.

Photo by Francesco Scavullo, 1990.

Monika: You could boast a special bond with International Chrysalis and other trans sisters. 
Connie: The trans journey makes for such deep connections that I never feel disconnected from any of my brothers and sisters, not by time or distance. I feel we imprint and share our experiences with and for each other. 
When Chrysis passed away in the early 90s, she was a forerunner in the trans community. She’d begun making her name in her teens, being one of the youngest girls in the historic 1967 film THE QUEEN. She’d been chosen by Flawless Mother Sadrina aka Jack Doroshow the great organizer and director of Drag beauty pageant and performance scene of the time.
Still being underage, her parents tried committing her to mental institutions, a fate that would befall many of that era, like that of Marsha P. Johnson, the African American Gay/Trans rights pioneer, who threw the historic shot glass at the Stonewall Inn. She was a black, homeless, sex worker, and she would be repeatedly arrested, committed, and neutralized for months after a spinal injection of chlorpromazine.
Chrysis and Marsha were in the 70s performance troupe The Hot Peaches. And Crysis would tell us how long it took for Marsha to come back to herself after being locked up. This was the world their generation came of age in, a world that closed all avenues, making it easy and convenient to exterminate the LGBTQ+ life and existence. But these incredible Trans women went through fire for us, for the steps I made and the steps that are being made today.
In 2013 Codie Leone: the best friend and one of the roommates I’d transitioned with also passed. A deeply devastating loss. But I know and can feel the paths Chrysis, Marsha, and so many others paved. To lead and guide us on all levels seen or unseen. That we all add to and make greater with each step and each soul.
Monika: Some of our readers can remember you from your appearance in George Michael's video for “Too Funky.” Was it fun? Did you have a chance to make friends with George? 
Connie: “Too Funky” was an incredible experience. Aside from the 22 hour filming day and the battle of the Titans “Michael - vs - Mugler”. It stands as one of the many moments the arts stood together for the greater good. This coming together to fight, fundraise and educate a devastated LBGTQ+ community.
On my first day on set, George’s assistant came and said George wanted to chat with me about a scene. I turned around and there he saw. He said: How he’d loved my walk at the APLA benefit show in L.A., which sparked the idea for “Too Funky”, and the Mr. Pearl/Mugler collaboration cowgirl look was one of his favorites. 
I stood there in shock and tongue-tied that he was actually chatting to me. I don’t remember actually answering him, but hopefully, I did without totally fanning out. He was so gracious and kind and suggested a shot he thought I’d be perfect for. That afternoon was when ideas as to the direction of the video came to a crossroads, hence the battle of titans. But fate would have it that the incredible Linda Evangelista was on deck. She went between camps and negotiated the peace, reminding both of our true purpose of being there, to honor the great loss of friends and loved ones, and to do our damnedest to comfort and save those who remained and bring this disease's march of death to a halt. She taught me wonderful lessons that day. That the creative artist must be a conduit and facilitator of solutions always aiming to bring light.
The last image in George’s version, the animated script directed by? I think it is for us all that day. We came together for a greater good and purpose, to make art. Not just for art's sake, but to bring healing to a broken community’s heart.
Monika: The professional life of a fashion model is rather short. How did you prepare yourself for the after-life?
Connie: By the time Westwood’s Grand Hotel show came along the trend of drag in fashion had run its course. And I'd been labeled difficult. I hadn't gone along with the narrative of drag in fashion being a cute flirtation with the subversive hidden underbelly of society. I made the mistake of not denying my past and wanting to be truthful about being Transgendered. My dresser at that show was none too happy with having to work with me. After the first show a friend told me that the press was lurking and asked Vivienne about the man in drag in the show, she replied: "there are no men in drag in the show".
So I knew the daggers were coming. Before the second show, my dresser stood by nodding in my direction as a reporter went around asking pointed questions. When she got to me I spun the pointed question in a totally different direction making it about something else entirely. This angered my dresser greatly, to say the least, I was dressed by someone else for the second show.
I knew then my run was coming to an end, and I had to fly away before the fate of Mallarme's Swan befell me. So I took the lessons I had learned in the business and parlayed them into a new career in fashion production and casting. From my beginnings as a performer through to modeling, it was always there to take the lessons learned and make lemonade out of lemons.

Photo: Patrice Stable.

Monika: Of course, I have to ask you about your photo session for Candy Magazine, 2012 where you looked exactly like Michelle Obama. Who came up with this idea? Was it difficult to shoot?
Connie: Actually the original idea was that of an Afro-American Trans presidential candidate. Around 2009/2010 the wonderful editor-in-chief at Candy Magazine Luis Venegas and I spoke about working together. Later on when we spoke again, and all he said was “Donna Karen’s 90s advertising campaign featuring Rosemary McGrotha”, and I understood exactly what the idea was; a homage to the pictorial representations of the female political figures.
At that time the Obama administration had run and won a second term, and the idea of a female presidential candidate was no longer far-fetched. There were some templates that existed of the female leader, Margaret Thatcher (England), Gilda Meir (Israel).
So these questions needed answering.
Hillary Clinton first ran in 2008 but then came the 2016 run, or as I like to call it the witch trials. Ripe with antiquated rhetoric that a woman can’t be President because of the monthly cycle, or my favorite you just can’t trust-A-bitch. All these misogynist tropes that clouded the Clinton campaign and got us you know who floated in the ether clouding all it touched.
So to have a trans woman of color on the cover as President couldn’t stand and had to be lowered to farce and imitation. From the beginning, the resemblance was evident, kismet, and for our part of Michelle Obama taking her rightful place as a style icon and political force that wasn’t relegated to a hostess or arm candy but an equally powerful partner.
My focus and inspiration was Shirley Chisholm, the African American Congresswoman from New York who in 1972 became the first woman ever to run for president. To me, she was a supernatural force. I was too young to fully grasp the magnitude of her run but in the years to follow the adults around me told the story. This was an Afro-American woman that spoke truth to power, dismantling the male power structure, and the tyranny of institutionalized racism.
When the story came out I had to digest that this was my first ever cover. That the press turned it into drag, insincere imitation with a dash of not so veiled racism was to be expected. One had to question my transgenderism with my drag beginnings rendering me inauthentic and dishonest. It's then easy to hide society’s racism and Trans/Homophobia, pit the LGBTQ+ community against itself and most importantly discredit, shame, and alienate the original subject.
This very predictable uninspired narrative didn’t anger me anymore. I'd grown to know it well for modeling and I wasn’t about to let it lessen this moment. My first cover with a Hollywood twist that it would be filmed for the reality show “It’s A Brad Brad World”. To quote Brad Goreski “We’re making fashion history”.
It was electric, groundbreaking, and incredible fun. Winning!!!
Monika: Do you still coach young girls about modeling? What key messages do you usually tell them?
Connie: Yes! It’s been an inspiring journey. As a performer, you’re taught everyone whether front or behind stage all come together to make the magic happen. A lesson I carry with me and bring to my teaching. I impart that a model is an independent contractor of sorts, honing your relationships with clients, colleagues, and management influences and drives your career. It's as important as your look and walk.
Secondly, knowing that pretty might have gotten you in the door, but one's attitude and professionalism speak volumes. No model gets there on their own; the artists behind the camera, HAIR, MAKEUP, STYLIST, and PHOTOGRAPHER. All come together to create the images you embody, everyone’s integral in the success of the project.
Careers have been made with a haircut or the bleaching of an eyebrow. It’s then up to you your work ethic and relationships that insure being booked three to six months from now, which ultimately is all that counts.
Fashion is a perpetual cycle of the new and the next, one's time in the sun is limited, you must make the most of the time you're given. All this information/advice goes into building the outside form within. The body and mind are your tools, honing them builds confidence that shines from within, becoming more brilliant with each experience. With each shoot and runway show, you learn something. It’s a tough game that can render one into a fine powder.
You must ready yourself for the curtain to fall. Take in all the experiences, good and bad, and let them inform your journey in the business and in life. Then when all is said and done and no stiletto strikes fear in your heart. You witness the blossoming of confidence, a truly beautiful thing to behold.

2012 Candy Magazine. Photo by Danielle Levitt.

Monika: Are you working on any new projects? Can we see you on stage again?
Connie: I hope. Once we’re out of Rona Quarantine, I'd love to do a show of my work. Throughout my life art has always saved me, fed my mind, and given me hope. Sharing this creative energy that came from this time would be wonderful and hopeful.
Quarantine has also given me time to really organize my thoughts, build and formulate ideas for writing my biography. SCARY!!! Yes, but I am up for the challenge. There are also some music and film projects that have been percolating during the lockdown, so fingers crossed.
Monika: You paved the way for many transgender girls that are successful models these days, just to mention Isis King or Leyna Bloom. Looking at them, are you proud of yourself and what you have achieved?
Connie: I am proud and excited for a future of ever-widening possibilities and opportunities for us all. Pioneers always stand as Saint Sebastian, taking the brunt of the arrows. Those who follow take their place in front, advancing, gaining ground, standing tall in the face of the charging arrows in battle.
I came about pre-InterWebs. LoL!!! And I wasn’t allowed a license to my narrative. I was championed by creative people that saw talent and ability, proving again that we do not lessen or weaken. We are catalysts, inspirations, the advancement in the evolving human condition. It’s difficult to think of oneself in that way. At the moment, your thought is survival, making the most of it, and doing your best.
Even now looking back it’s difficult to perceive through self that ground has been gained. It’s like the finale episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the last scene after the great battle, Willow says “I can feel it we changed the world”. I know, TOTALLY SUPER CORNY but it’s less about achievements and more about the betterment of society and the future.
Monika: Connie, thank you for this interview and your beautiful legacy that will stay with us forever.

END OF PART 2

 
All the photos: courtesy of Connie Fleming.
The main photo credit: Cruz Valdez, Interview Magazine.
© 2021 - Monika Kowalska

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