Pat Cleveland, the first black supermodel

Valentino, Oscar de la Renta, Yves Saint Laurent, Thierry Mugler, Diane von Furstenberg and Christian Dior.  Halston.  Karl Lagerfeld

Getting a lesson in modelling from someone who’s worked with all of the above and Guy Bourdain, Irving Penn, Steven Meisel, Richard Avedon, Salvador Dali, Gian Paolo Barbieri … and Andy Warhol, is full on – ‘beyond the lens’ she encourages, the gaze. 

The energy firing from Pat Cleveland is on all spiritual cylinders.  A devotee of Siddha yoga: ‘Five surya namaskars is sometimes more nourishing than 100’, she sits cross-legged, eye contact, before looking down into herself to gather energies. 

Her fave film is Avatar, she’s got that pixie look – a warrior of parties, good times, the privilege of being a girl, with good face.  She broke down racial divides.  The first black supermodel.

Touring every state on a Greyhound bus with her mum as a chaperone, Cleveland came up in the civil rights movement, modelling from the age of 13 for the Ebony magazine Fashion Fairs (run by the great Mrs. Eunice W. Johnson, who founded the Johnson Publishing Company and ‘bought all the trunk shows’).

‘I was lucky to be born a girl.  Life’s a catwalk – a runway,’ she says in her friend’s flat in West London, with white flowers sent by Tom Ford and black and white photos of fashion glitterati running up the walls.  ‘And if you can run away into that runway, away from what my mother had growing up in Georgia, a woman of colour, in America there was slavery … the beautiful opportunity myth, it had to be molded through music and arts.  I was really good in school and decided to go with fashion because it gives us opportunities.  That was the only escape … And Mrs Johnson [Eunice Walker Johnson, founder of Ebony magazine] would gather black women of doctors, lawyers, teachers, on the trunk show and came through to educate the blacks – I learnt fashion is a luxury, a necessity, and it’s amazing.  Without her, I’d never have known anyone…’. In her book, Walking With The Muses, she also talks of the influence of a Madame Metcalf, who was friends with Isadora Duncan and Gertrude Stein, encouraging visits to the library and sold her on the wilds of Europe. 

‘Pictures are about telling it all in a condensed way, you get the colour vibrations, in black and white you get the feelings.  Colour you can see, the colour of hair, but black and white are like a word – words are the imagination.’ 


This is an excerpt of ‘Pat Cleveland. The first black supermodel’, an article published exclusively in Cold Lips II. To read the full article, you can purchase a full copy in select shops or in our online store.

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