From the surreal beginnings of the tragedy of star-crossed lovers and an adopted family that made the Sopranos seem tame, the heady story of BillyBoy*’s youth doesn’t even hint at the incredible life he has led. This European born, American life begins to sound like a who’s who of ‘art royalty’ and it might be easy to lose oneself in the fantasy of perception until you meet this highly original, creator and artist. It doesn’t matter that he was Warhol’s student, Onassis’ protégé; he is unmistakably, every inch, his own man and don’t be lost in his doll collection either… feel the life, see the love and listen – that’s what I did recently when I interviewed this immensely down to earth and still very much ‘real’, cultural icon.
PP. Where do we even begin? Your life is like a fairy tale, a treasure chest filled with jewels of the most precious kind.
BB*. That’s a hilarious way to think of me, but sure, we can start with my childhood, a looooooong tale, a bit like Romeo & Juliet with a dash of Pop Art.
PP. I am all ears.
BB*. I was born in Vienna, Austria to a mother who was 14 and a father who was 15. Their families were extremely religious Theologians, my dad’s family Jewish, my mom’s Catholic. They exchanged ideas on Theology and I guess… let the children play together.
When I was born it was an immense shame to the families, literally the moment I was born, I was taken away and put in care of an orphanage, but a sort of private school of orphanages, almost chic, though I clearly don’t wish to imply this place was chic. It was for very rich, very aristocratic illegitimate children, to be secreted away.
So, I am a Catholic boy who has a very Eastern European, Viennese Jewish look. I am a reject to both religions according to their perspective rules, so I have never had much “foi” but I adore all the imagery of the religions and the symbols.
PP. What happened then?
BB*. My mom and dad wished for me to carry the name, which was a big both legal and emotional battle for years. An aristocratic Russian family living in Manhattan then adopted me. They ran away from some revolution or something and settled in New York and became very big in the Russian mafia. But I was treated like a little angel/cherub. I was adopted at the age of four and sent to these Russians.
My real mom and dad, now 18 and 19 committed suicide. In their (respective) wills, I was sole heir, with the stipulated wish I carry their names, both names.
My adopted parents, in a conundrum, decided to call me BillyBoy* after a British Earl’s family member they had, named Boy and Billy after Wilhelm (or actually Vylyam) and the other names: Zef Sh’muel Roberto Atlantide. Atlantide because I am a double Pisces. I added the asterisk of course.
PP. So you must be an extremely emotional being?
BB*. So, from a dire, quite bleak and austere Viennese orphanage to a very big, very loud, very exuberant Russian mafia family living like royalty in Manhattan. It was extreme. I am like a typical double Pisces, either too emotional (which I usually hide) or dead stone cold. I have learned how to moderate and through the years realised extreme feelings are not good.
I think now, with my knowledge of life, I have found a nice place in the middle. In saying that, I think that my feelings are tainted with these experiences, which were extreme and when I do express let’s say, an unpopular opinion, I defend it to the death… and this can make me seem extreme as well as annoy people. So I have learned how to be diplomatic, especially since the rest of my family were diplomats, notably in France during the 30’s and 40’s.
Now, when I think something is grotesque or stupid I just say nothing. I don’t have any wish to get into big discussions with people, not like when I was really young. Well, USUALLY I say nothing! I have had some seriously annoying discussions once in a while despite my wish to be light about things.
PP. Lets talk about your Manhattan years and your discovery of arts.
BB*. I grew up surrounded with a lot of artists and such around me. My aunt was Schiaparelli’s big mannequin mondaine, and best friend to Dali. As my family was large I had loads of aunts and uncles everywhere and they were all surrounded by artists. One aunt was a Ziegfeld showgirl in the 20s and 30s and her children were in all the arts, music, literature, theatre and painting.
I saw the first Silver Factory of Andy’s which was at 231 E. 47th Street. “It was a strange surreal place which smelled of cigarettes, paint, people and ‘old place’ smell. It had one of those fabulous embossed tin ceilings which for me, were so ultra New York architecture which I was so nostalgic for. The place had a dirty odour also which for a child was so strange it would stick in my head forever after. I remember the clothes of the time and the black glasses worn indoors. I was a child of 5 or 6 at the time and I don’t really recall much more than that. I had brief glimpses of Edie Sedgwick, just about the time she broke up with Andy. She turned into a folk-y type hippy and my cousins saw that Bob Dylan-influenced side of her, because the silver-haired Youthquaker was long over for her by that time.” The quote is from my book. It pretty much sums it up. I have been friends with many of the other Superstars, notably Jackie Curtis, Holly Woodlawn, Ondine and Taylor Mead. I was supposedly the “last Superstar”, the “dauphin” according to Andy at the time and the elder ones now.
I recall Edie and all those Factory people a lot because my cousins and aunts were really into the Pop thing, hanging around with the crowd which is now, I guess you’d say, famous.
PP. Now with a certain distance from that time, how do you feel about those years?
BB*. I was lucky in that I got to see my era’s underground and also very conservative highbrow cultures at the same time, I saw a lot of theatre and musical venues, concerts from Yehudi Menuhin to Janis Joplin. I think I was lucky as I was not raised with a dull family despite the setbacks. I was steeped in amazing cultural experiences from the most conservative to the most underground. I was raised with a private tutor and a Montessori school, which I feel saved my life.
PP. Saved your life in what way?
BB*. My education was the best thing that came out of my childhood, I mean, my adopted family could have been anyone, and they had the intelligence to give me a very good education instead of making me into one of them. I am indebted to my adopted family for this and in a strange way to my real family, my parents who, literally, died, to help me. What I inherited from them was money, but I think I more importantly received their genes, their minds and souls so I don’t think I turned out too badly. I feel close to them… so between their souls, minds and the money, and the fortune of my adopted parents to give me an unusual education, I guess, I turned into myself or rather had an easier time turning into myself.
My education saved my life in that I feel by letting me just be myself. That too opened many doors for me. I think it takes half a century just to become yourself, the first 20 years, you are like a sponge absorbing education, so you are just getting your mind and body prepped for life. 20 to 30 it’s a mess because you are not grown up nor are you young. 30 to 40 you realise you are mortal and in 50s you can finally get started on being yourself since you at last have some experience. Then you realise you better hurry up and living life as fully as possible. If you are super lucky you get to really do what you have in you to do. I think I have been living life fully but only now, I commence to have the real wisdom you require to live life, in the best way possible. I feel really better than ever before now though I have incorporated mortally into the picture, with is bittersweet of course.
PP. You are certainly a man of many talents. What was your first job?
BB*. My first job, I was a TV commercial actor and model. I posed for ads and did commercials for toys, candy, hair products and teen music records, at that time advertised on television. In those first things, I look like a very simple and nice boy with pretty eyes.
I am always flattered to hear people might think I have “many talents“. I have no idea what I have, I just do my thing, with a lot of conviction and people seem to like it. But in truth, the people I admire for talent, I am nothing compared to them. I admire scientists and stuff like that. Being an artist for me was my only option. I had no other skills at all. Being an artist was my only possible life direction since I am much too undisciplined to do any thing else. My artwork is a result of the chaos of aesthetics bouncing within me all day and night long.
PP. Do you think that being an artist is an option or one is simply born with it?
BB*. I think you are both born with a predisposition and it is then encouraged by nurturing. My adopted mom always says I was an artist. From the first day she saw me she says I was born the way I am and I had my own personality from the beginning. She would know, I guess.
I know when I was in the orphanage I was different from the few others. I didn’t have much contact with other children but I was different.
PP. Isn’t that also the case with being gay?
BB*. Oh yes, I think so. My adopted mom is a militant lesbian. My dad did Athletic Model Guild soft-core porn when he was a teen. They not only accepted my being gay, but actually, I can tell you this anecdote:
My mom when I was a young teen said, “Billy, I have to ask you something very, very important. I know you express yourself as you want, we’ve always wanted that, but this is very important for me to know”. I thought she was going to ask something of such a huge importance, I started to get a bit frightened, I couldn’t imagine what she wanted to know. “Are you gay?”, was her serious question. Within one second after this super serious question, my reply was a blank, “oh, that, yeah” (little did she know!) for which she embraced me and nearly crying said, “Oh, thank God, thank God, I was afraid you might not be, you’d have such a dull life as a straight and straights would NEVER get you at all!”. She thought I was doing that just to pretend to be gay to shock the neighbours. I questioned her sanity for a few moments there”. I am quoting my autobiography here.
My mother was very much into my being in Gestalt therapy since I was adopted. She was into “expressing yourself” She really wanted me to “Express myself” but with a capital “E”. If I’d had asked to be sent to the moon to toe dance, it’d have been possible.
PP. So you tell me this is not a fairy tale. People, just don’t have lives like you BillyBoy*.
BB*. I don’t know. I don’t live other people’s lives and from what some of my friends say, ones who had supposedly “typical” family lives it’s all so different, for me that is more fairytale. Once, I guess in my 30’s, I wished I had had one of those “normal” upbringings, a little more normalcy would not have hurt me. I used to get jealous when friends would say they are going home for Christmas and stuff like that.
PP. Have you ever thought of making a film about your life?
BB*. Well, I wrote my autobiography which is represented by Jeffrey Simmons in London. Jeffrey always feels he’ll sell the rights for a film easily. I was always told that but I haven’t ever pursued it. You know, you can take any life… with the right filmmaker, it can be astounding. I think every single person in the universe has a fascinating life compared to someone else.
It would be very funny to take isolated periods or moments in my life and make a film because my life has been very tragi-comic in so many ways, and that is what film should, can and often be.
My autobiography My American Family, In One Era, Out The Other was bought and paid for in 1988 by Crown Publishers on the huge best-seller success of my Barbie book, Barbie Her Life and Times, The BillyBoy* Collection which came out a year before. They paid a fortune for it and by some miracle I am glad it happened this way. Jeffrey took it back and I got to keep the payment; it had something to do with the contractual deadline for publication. Anyway, the book back then was just about my successes and my positive outlook on life. Now, 20 years plus later I added all the sadness, the negative things and all those years of experience. It’s a much better read. I also talk about my sex life, which, without it, makes my life not very understandable. Now it’s a much better book I think.
PP. When did you move to Europe from New York and why?
BB*. My parents sent me on three world tours from age 8 to 15 years old. I moved permanently at the end of the 1970s to Paris where my aunt lived. I was really not that happy in the USA, though I have divine memories of New York and all over the USA actually. The last thing I did before moving back to Paris was buy a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Oregon on the coast and open a gallery and to do this I drove across America in a vintage Cadillac. It was divine. I think I saw the last of Old School Americana before the internet and chain malls wiped it all away. I was super-lucky in this regard. Seeing all that American Vernacular and Route 66 style life. It was fabulous. I cherish the memory of America in those terms.
I learned a lot from America. I really did, but Europe is my home and my birthplace. People have often made the mistake that I am American born and raised. I just borrowed America for a few years, that’s all.
Mattel, when I designed Barbies, said in a booklet something obscure: “Some say he was born 6,000 years ago in Egypt and found floating down the Nile in a lime green basket. Others claim he was born on another planet. But when asked, he says he was born on Earth – and more specifically, planet Earth, although his past remains a mystery. BillyBoy*’s future looks exciting…” [Mattel, USA, 1987]
I would love to think I sold my soul to the company store, but in truth, though Mattel themselves are hideous corporate America at it’s worst, it was hilarious being part of that whole machine. They even mystified my own birthplace though in truth, I wrote it and they just cut and pasted it because what THEY wrote was a lot worse… and out there in space sounding.
PP. Oh this is fantastic!
BB*. You think so? I think it is utterly absurd, Theatre of the Absurd.
PP. Absurd perhaps, but never the less fabulous I believe.
BB*. Diana Vreeland, I was her protégé, and I was Jackie Onassis’ protégé as well… and Diane LOVED to mystify herself so when my career got going thanks to both of them, (and others), she said all of it is good, even the ridiculous was good… and Jackie said nobody will ever write the truth about me, so I might as well not get upset ever at ridiculous things. So between the both of them, Diana (who by the way, one called Diane, like du Poitier) and Jackie, I learned to embrace the absurd.
PP. Tell me about your Paris years please.
BB*. Paris, I was super lucky. I had my aunt, a legend in Paris, I had the friendship of Bettina, the model from the 40s, we were very, very close, and many others. I knew pretty much everyone and anyone you can mention in art and fashion from Dali, Leonor Fini, Boris Kochno, Line Vautrin, Jean Schlumberger, Diego Giacometti, Bernard Buffet, André Beaurepaire, Eliane Bonabel, Botero, Courrèges to YSL; from Jacques Griffe, Hubert de Givenchy and his lover Philippe Venet, Marc Bohan of Dior and master illustrator Réné Gruau who did Mdvanii’s logo and a Barbie drawing for me (the one I did for Mattel) and of course the dear Monsieur Alexandre de Paris hairdresser to royalty and stars, who did all my hairstyles and Mdvanii’s later on when I’d invented her. I shaved my head the day he died as a homage to him. Since he was gone, I had the best, nobody could do better, so I did not need hair anymore.
Lala and I did a homage to Monsieur Yves Saint Laurent with Lala’s song “L’Amour n’a pas de prix” for Diane Pernet’s AVSVOFF3 festival at Centre Pompidou in Paris. He was a great supporter of my work. He wrote about me in the 80s. “It was with surprising pleasure, thanks to BillyBoy*, that I discovered my childhood again. For it was by making clothing for my sister’s dolls that it all began. As one can see, my apprenticeship started quite early, and even though I may have learned a lot since, I can never forget these privileged moments by the Mediterranean Sea, when I first discovered the secret of an art which was to engage my whole life.
I have never seen dolls since without thinking of that period of my life when I believed that clothes were just part of a wonderful game, with colors and fabrics playing together in endless happiness.
I’ve learned since then how difficult this craft is, because if it gave me many great joys, it also gave me doubts and anguish. I hope with all my heart that these dolls attract today’s children and that they find, through dolls, the road to their vocations.” [Yves Saint Laurent, 1984]
I still knew Dali, who drew me as a child. We were rather close when I was a kid and teen. Paris was a very happy time for me. I knew a lot of the old stars like Marlene Dietrich, Arletty and Suzy Delair. They gave me Schiaparelli stories and even clothes.
But most significant thing was that I met Lala! MY LIFE CHANGED!
It was the first real boyfriend I had. And it was the first time I was in love!
I met Lala! Wow! I was so lucky!
It was amazing. All of a sudden, I felt really sorry for all the people who claimed they were in love with me in the past. I couldn’t really understand or even believe them, and I am convinced I seemed put-offish and a bit cold, as youth is – speaking in my defence a bit – but suddenly I was really in love and I knew if I were to be brushed off by Lala the way I brushed people off I’d have died. Fortunately he loved me back. It was 1983.
PP. What was so special about Lala that made you fall in love?
BB*. Lala… well so much… he loved me for the real me. He made me feel protected and understood and that has never changed in all these years. He was talented, he was a very unique musician with some certain success, a singer and an artist; we complimented each other in so many ways. The sex was great which cemented (ahem) the deal, he was a totally fabulous person and I worshipped him.
PP. And you still do.
BB*. Yes, I still do, I adore Lala, he and my son make my life valuable, much more than any achievement or possession or even my own expression. I adore them. Lala – life would be quite meaningless without him, really. It’s as simple as that.
We immediately were creative in all ways together. He was so understanding about my many flaws and he didn’t give a hoot about my past. He did not judge me. I am so easily judgeable, people love to make a decision on how they believe me to be and they judge me on that, condemned without a trial.
PP. You also have been working together and came up with some extraordinary artworks, jewellery, dolls… Have I forgot anything else?
BB*. Well, we do videos, music, our artwork which is Mdvanii who happens to look like and seem like a doll, jewels, writing, photos… “Extraordinary”? You are sweet. It has been very hard for people to understand what we do though we have had a great deal of success. I am not sure if people really understand just yet. Of course, some do, but most people don’t invest the time it takes to understand what we do.
I think in many years from now, long after we are gone, our work will be really understood for what it is, as contemporary art. We have really had to do quite a few things, exhibitions etc just to get people to understand. We have had support from great curators, which helps. I think a good curator is AS important as the artist. It’s like speaking a crazy foreign alien language and without the interpreter/ curator, it’s not so easy.
Anyway, the short answer is Lala and I have done many things for a long time. We work now since 15 years with my son who is an artist in his own right and has nothing to do with what we do when he does his own work… a work I think is quite marvellous, very youthful.
PP. Well in that case I will also have to interview him one of these days, and Lala as well.
BB*. Well, yes, Lala is a very articulate person and I think a very different kind of person than I am in some way, which for me, makes him so amazing. My son, Alec Jiri, I am super protective of. As I share my son with Lala, we both are in fact. He’s very, very shy, and like a Prince. He has princely qualities and I am devoted to him. He is one of the sweetest people I know and it’s not because he’s my son. Gosh! I sound like a typical dad! I guess as he gets older and expresses himself more with his work people will discover that on their own.
Thinking about your last question, we work as a family in fact, and I must point out something about our work, there are those who do understand. I think more and more people understand much more quickly. It seems lately we have made ten paces forward which in the past would have taken much longer. It’s the times they are catching up with us and I guess for some, our work is very much understood, more and more. Maybe it’s the communication vehicles.
I think as I get more mature and the work gets more mature, you continually rethink the dialogue to simplify it even more to get the message clearer and with more grace. I would hope this is what happens in our current work.
PP. People are becoming more understandable or conscious I believe these days, maybe because of the internet. It is much easier to communicate effectively now.
BB*. I invented many things which are very common now. The way in which I started my career, the way I looked at things in art and fashion were considered really way, way out there but have now not only become accepted but the norm. Of course, I did not do it singularly, but the immense publicity I received and reviews for my work popularised a number of things which have become standards. So now, my dialogue is streamlined, and more mature, though as I get older I think “my goodness, it’s all getting crazier and crazier” and I feel more and more like a child.
Communication, yes, I think people are simply more aware due to easier access to information. The down side of that is many people, very unqualified people feel that their small, not very deep opinions matter to the world… zillions of blogs and chats and groups and websites of meaningless drivel.
I would sometimes like to go back to the days of LESS communication, where people read every line of the newspaper for culture, news and entertainment. Sometimes I think it’s too much.
On one hand, I feel our work is better understood in some ways, and in other ways less understood because so many people have misinterpreted it, and it’s OUT THERE, for good or for bad, for well interpreted or not, it’s out there it seems indelibly.
I am not very optimistic with the outcome of all this communication and in the end, what I want the most is Lala and my son and I to live healthy, calm lives, create works which express beauty and it’s re-interpretation… and make people feel new ideas. But I don’t want an avalanche. Lala (and my agent) tells me that when my book comes out, due to the controversial nature of so much of it, my language, opinions, freedom, will cause all sorts of allies and enemies. I don’t want to have enemies but I am not ready to censor my ideas. It’s a mini conundrum. You cannot please everyone however, that I know.
PP. What is your biggest dream?
BB*. Oh, my biggest dream… well, first off, health and calm for my immediate family and friends. Concerning my work: publish my book and get a dialogue going with people on a positive level… amuse people. I publish excerpts once in a while on Fierth, this is new to me and fun. I excerpted a piece about Lee McQueen, who I knew in a peculiar way as I explained in the piece. I enjoy sharing parts of it. I enjoy the feedback.
PP. When will the book be published?
BB*. The book is with my agent right now. He is deciding whether my Schiaparelli book which is finished as well and which took me literally 30 years to do should be published first or not. It’s called so far, “Frocking Life – The Life of Elsa Schiaparelli”. I am thrilled with the result to tell you the truth, it’s a question of which should be published first Schiap or my book.
We have many projects which are being prepared for, museums shows, exhibitions in Russia, New York, Tokyo and Switzerland, videos and book for this autumn and early next year and I’d like to see them realised and done. I think more in terms of immediate future than long term since my long term dream was to have a husband who loves me and my son be happy and that is the case, so I can’t improve that dream for the time being.
I wish sometimes I had pursued my acting career. I’d have loved that, but I was represented by Triad in Los Angeles and what I saw of Hollywood was so ghastly, it was totally not for me. But acting, I adore it and wish I’d developed this in my life. I was in tons of Warhol things and commercials and stuff but I’d have liked to have made something interesting with acting.
PP. Well I certainly can’t wait for both of your books to come out. Thank you very much for your time BillyBoy*.
BB*. Thank you. AND I admire your work greatly and am so happy to be a teeny part of what you do.
Images: Courtesy of BillyBoy*
Text: © Predrag Pajdic, Augist 2010