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Interview with Amanda Lear on being a celebrity and being an artist: "Everything that happened to me was completely by accident"

Actress, artist, disco diva, television star, lover of Salvador Dalí and a clutch of rock stars, talks about love, fame, fire and pain

Ever since the Sixties, Amanda Lear has occupied a hallowed position at the crossroads of cultural notoriety, mass celebrity and gossip. Her persona has been dissected by art historians and paparazzi alike. As a student at the Beaux-Arts in Paris she met Salvador Dalí and became his constant companion, muse and disciple. She was already a top fashion model and she later branched out as a disco diva, and then a television personality with her own shows in Italy, Germany and France.

But Lear has also been constantly in the news as a friend or lover of every genre of pop legend. As a student at St Martin’s in London she met Brian Jones and went on to conquer everyone from Jagger and Keith Moon to David Bowie and Bryan Ferry, who featured her on the striking cover of the record "For your pleasure."

As an actress she recently starred in "A woman for me" and she has just finished working with Gerard Depardieu and Pedro Almodovar.

Last year she was on the cover of all the European magazines when her estate in Provence mysteriously burned to the ground, destroying her art collection and husband. In large part, Lear has been famous for the ambiguity of her gender and origins. She is a tall woman with a strikingly masculine voice, chiselled features and a contradictory history. Like any real legend it is almost impossible to ascertain the truth of Lear’s life. She may or may not have been born in Hong Kong in 1946 to an English-French father and Russian-Asian mother.

Her own best selling memoir of Dalí, Le Dalí d’Amanda does not offer much help. According to the authoritative biography of Dalí by Ian Gibson, Lear was born in 1939 in Provence as Alain Tap and performed in the Paris transsexual club Le Carrousel under the stage name of Peki d’Oslo. Tap went to Morocco to have "Operation pussycat" and then married a man called Lear chosen at random in a bar. Whatever the truth, Lear remains a much loved cult figure within the art world and homosexual milieu. The show “not a. Lear” now in New York gathers new and commissioned work in every medium by a range of young artists paying homage to her myth. It also includes Lear’s own art, which she has never stopped making since her distant student days.

AD: This exhibition in your honour at Gracie Mansion Gallery has a wide variety of things by young artists based on their idea of your image. Tell us of your own work which we can see here on the gallery walls.

AL: What we have here in the gallery are some ink sketches and some oil paintings on canvas. These are all from last year when I was entering a very dramatic red and black period. Basically I was involved with a whole series of spiritual paintings. It started with the Apocalypse and the Four Horsemen and then on to Christ and the Crucifixion. All very unusual for me because up until then I had been painting Provence landscapes and a lot of nudes. Never anything religious.

AD: Were they related to anything in your life?

AL: No, unless they were a premonition, I don’t know. But obviously there must have been something in my subconscious, a premonition of the disaster that was about to happen. When I was a fashion model I worked a lot for Paco Rabanne. He sees himself as a visionary and announced the end of the world. In any case it was the end of my world, the world I had created over the last 20 years with my husband, when my house burned down with everything in it, and my husband died in the fire as well. I lost everything. But it was all already there in my paintings, because I had no other reason to paint such tragic things.

AD: You had already switched dramatically from bucolic landscapes?

AL: Absolutely, until then I was in love with Van Gogh and Gauguin and the Fauves, always painting with bright colour and blue skies. Then I suddenly started splashing everywhere with this red, which of course is the colour of the fire. Perhaps it was already all inside me. I have no idea what I would paint now.

AD: You were the muse and reputed lover of Salvador Dalí for decades.

AL: My art seems an achievement to me because when I met Dalí I was at art school and I said to him, "I am a painter you know, like you." And he said, “No, no, there are no women painters. Women artists do not exist”. I said what about Mary Cassatt, Suzanne Valadon, Léonor Fini, Berthe Morisot–there are hundreds of women painters. And he said, “No, women have no talent, it is a male thing. A woman can maybe paint pretty flowers, a bouquet, or her children, but never a painting of any power. It is a male thing because the talent is purely in the testicles.” If you have no balls, you have no talent, that was Dalí’s idea. Of course, I was absolutely shocked by this. But it was the beginning of my relationship with Dalí. He brought me to New York and introduced me to everyone, and finally, after many years, I found the courage to show him a painting. I thought, of course, he’s going to hate it; he’s going to say it’s crap. He looked at it and said, "It’s not bad… for a woman!" Which was very reductive (he was always very reductive). But at least it was a start. After that I worked with him. He let me use his brushes, his paint and his canvas, so that I could play around while he was painting for hours and hours in the same studio. Perhaps being a woman is, as Dalí said, a handicap. Being in showbiz is an even bigger handicap because people don’t take you seriously if they’ve seen you on television or on movies. They have the idea that to create you have to "suffer", you have to be in pain, you have to cry and paint at night by candlelight like Modigliani, because he couldn’t pay the electricity bill. I have to tell people: forget who I am, forget what I’ve done, just look at the paintings and judge and say if it’s terrible or if you like it. But don’t buy a painting because it’s by Amanda Lear.

AD: You were originally influenced by Dalí ?

AL: Dalí was my teacher, and you tend to follow what your teacher says as if it were the Bible. He would say, “There are only three painters in the world: Raphael, Vermeer and Velázquez—and all the rest is crap.”

I would paint whatever he thought I should paint. Then I realised I was wrong painting à la Dalí. I went and settled in Provence and started painting what I could see from my window. Slowly, gradually I realised my own personality had to come out, my aggression, my libido, my frustration. That’s how I found my own style. But Surrealism was a good school for me. Listening to Dalí talk was better than going to art school. I learnt so many things from him but he was a tyrant. I think we have to forget everything we have been told, including by Dalí, and start afresh.

AD: And what of Warhol, who launched a lot of what might be called "conceptual" art, very far from personally expressive painting?

AL: Dalí always told me that he discovered Warhol when he was still drawing shoes and he liked him very much. I don’t think Andy was phony in the way of many people I met through Dalí, who had an ability to attract parasites, totally uninteresting people.

AD: Considering the Duchamp "readymade", do you think some people regard you as your own greatest art work?

AL: That’s what Oscar Wilde said: if you cannot afford to buy a work of art, be one yourself. But it’s never intentional. I never intended to be a work of art, to make my life a model for many people. Everything that happened to me was completely by accident. Nothing was ever planned. I never wanted to be famous, I never wanted to be a singer, never wanted to be on TV. All I ever wanted to be was a painter. That’s the one thing I wanted to be. And unfortunately I got to be everything else, by accident. I probably will never be a famous painter which is very strange because it’s the one thing I really like. I’m the typical example of how fame and celebrity make you miserable. I would apply Madame de Stael who wrote, "La gloire pour une femme c’est le deuil éclatant de bonheur" or "success for a woman is the glorious mourning of happiness." It’s true. I am not a happy person. I do not enjoy being successful, glorious, rich. I do not enjoy it at all. I was just lucky to meet Dalí or Warhol or Mick Jagger or Bowie. I was just lucky.

AD: So what do you make of the rest of this curious show?

AL: Well, this show, we had it before in Amsterdam and in Paris. When I first saw it in Holland I was very shocked. What shocked me was all those artists created something without meeting or knowing me or even having heard of me!

AD: You mentioned madame de Stael. What about another 18th-century French figure, le chevalier d’Eon, whose real gender all Europe once debated?

AL: Ah yes, of course the spy who dressed up as a woman to seduce his contacts, including King Louis and even Catherine of Russia. The man-woman thing has always been very attractive. The Greek ideal was the Hermaphrodite, half Hermes, half Aphrodite, and the idea of a woman with a man’s brain or the other way round was always very attractive. In my case, when I needed publicity and to launch my career, we used this ambiguity; it got people talking, got a lot of press and sold records, which is what I wanted. After a bit when I got married my husband said this has got to stop. So we told people it was just a publicity stunt, and they were so upset. What people want are fairy tales, something exceptional. Also, I made the mistake of posing for nude for Playboy and then in Penthouse, to show absolutely no doubt, and people were even more disappointed. I lost some of my attraction, my mystery. When I got married everyone was very disappointed. Salvador Dalí sent me a funeral wreath. When I started selling a lot of records Dalí hated it, he wanted to be the centre of attention. One day we came out of Maxim’s in Paris and the bellboy at the door asked for my autograph and Dalí could not understand how he knew me, why he wanted my signature. He probably bought my record, I explained.

AD: Would you like to be best remembered as an artist?

AL: I would like to be remembered, yes, as a painter who occasionally sang and danced and acted. But unfortunately at the moment I’m just a singer who paints in her spare time. I think being an artist you have the power to express yourself in all the different ways, you can write, you can dance, you can paint, talk, every way of expression. I am someone who desperately needs to express herself in every way.

"Not a. Lear" at Gracie Mansion Gallery, 504 West 22nd Street, New York, 10011, Tel: +1 212 645 7656, fax+1 212 462 4111 (until 20 October)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'It was all an accident'