Amanda Lepore by Aimee Phillips
Illustration by Constantin Prozorov
You'd think that it would be impossible to forget the first time I met Amanda Lepore, but you'd be wrong. Like Debbie Harry, Madonna or Marilyn Monroe, her face has become a ubiquitous pop culture symbol that often pops up in the strangest of places: the front of a t-shirt in a mall in Tokyo, a painting in a shop window in east London, a graffiti mural on a brick wall in Moscow (all real first hand sightings, by the way.) So in a way I guess I felt Amanda was always a part of my life before she actually was: an omnipresent icon before becoming a dear friend.
Writing anything about Amanda is tricky- there's A LOT of ground to cover both literally and figuratively. Hers is one of the most extraordinary lives that’s ever been lived, in fact it's hard to even wrap your head around her story as hearing just one of the many intricate strands of it would blow your mind. I like to pretend I have a special relationship with Amanda and that I am in a rare and unique position being close friends with someone widely considered to be a living legend and an icon of queer culture. But the truth is that Amanda is an open book. She is kind and sweet and many a disenchanted individual have packed their bags for New York, seeking a fresh start and finding, relatively easily, friendship with their idol.
Allow me to tell you the basics. Amanda came to New York City the same way so many do: running away from her life. What you might not have guessed is that Amanda was fleeing an extremely mundane life as a housewife repressed by her controlling husband and the seemingly “normal” home she had created for herself in suburban New Jersey. Her early life as the transexual child of a paranoid schizophrenic mother more than likely pushed her to seek the stability and comfort of what she hoped would be a normal, low key family life and up to a point she was happy. Eventually though, her husband's increasing desire to keep her locked away from the prying eyes of neighbors took its toll and Amanda's urge to flaunt her newly acquired assets drove her to the bright lights of the big city. Legend has it that she stashed away a bit of her grocery allowance every week until the night she dramatically tossed a single suitcase out the window and jumped on a bus to NYC. She found work as a dominatrix, go go dancer and makeup artist in quick succession in the span of just a few months before a chance meeting with now infamous club kid murderer Michael Alig changed the course of her life. Before long she was one of Michael's legendary 'Club Kids,' touring the world, doing TV talk show appearances and gearing up to be a superstar. Somewhere down the line, celebrity photographer David Lachapelle laid eyes on Amanda and made her his muse, placing her in outrageous contexts including (but not limited to) spanking Courtney Love with a whip, smashing a cake with an axe in an Elton John video, snorting a “line” of 3 carat diamonds off a mirror, and covering herself head to toe in hot pink lipstick to run nude down a desert highway for a M.A.C Cosmetics/Heatherette commercial. If you haven't seen any/all of these, I really can't recommend giving them a Google.
It was around the time of the aforementioned hot pink lipstick scenario that Amanda came into my life. Though I don't recall the exact circumstance of our first meeting, I can probably guess. I started working for “club kid fashion brand” Heatherette in 2004. I was 22 years old and the chaos surrounding the company and its founder and head designer Richie Rich can not be overstated. We produced two completely over the top and outrageous shows a year during New York Fashion Weeks, and when we weren't doing those we were off on tour replicating the circus-like atmosphere in whichever city would have (pay) us: Moscow, Miami, Los Angeles...etc. There were no salaries or structure. We operated almost exclusively on brand sponsorships; Richie would befriend a awkward and vulnerable PR girl and take her out on the tiles for a week straight and before you knew it we'd have money in the bank and a gown made entirely of plastic Gillette lady razors that he agreed to put on the catwalk (yes, that really happened.) It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Amanda was a long time comrade of Richie's, they both worked for Michael Alig and Peter Gatien at the height of the Club Kid madness and were both left terrified and alienated when one by one everyone around them started disappearing off to prison, rehab or an early grave. The thing that saved them both was a shared child-like vulnerability and naiveté that meant that when times got tough they were much more concerned with their respective appearances than drugs or tax evasion. Amanda was in many ways a mascot for the Heatherette brand, and as such was the centerpiece of everything we did. In store appearances, international trips, photoshoots, birthday parties, meetings...Richie dragged her anywhere he wanted to make a splash. Her star turn on the catwalk during the Heatherette runway shows each season was highly anticipated and met with rapturous applause. Their relationship was mostly loving and mutually beneficial but I often felt pangs of uneasiness about the way she was treated more like a zoo animal than a superstar; put in the most absurd situations with minimal information or context and very little regard for her wellbeing. Before too long, I realized my relationship with Amanda was based around my safeguarding her...not only making sure she felt comfortable with her outfits for the fashion shows (she wasn't thrilled with the very off-brand and bulky Priest costume that was initially proposed for S/S 2006 for example) but spending time with her at home and getting involved in all aspects of her life, giving her advice and helping her bat off the endless revolving door of people trying to exploit and take advantage of her. That's the thing with Amanda, once people realize how much she hates to disappoint people and can't say no, they will relentlessly use her without a second thought.
Amanda has lived in a modest, budget hotel called Hotel 17 since she arrived in New York in the mid 1990s. I would generously estimate her entire room to be about 9 or 10 square metres. It is decorated floor to ceiling in an old Hollywood leopard print and red motif and STACKED floor to ceiling with Amanda's spectacular wardrobe: furs in every colour of the rainbow, dozens of bespoke and elaborate matching jewelry sets in clear perspex cases, leaning towers of Christian Louboutin and Jimmy Choo stilettos in their boxes, and, of course, the frocks. A body like Amanda's demands couture. Every single one of the hundreds of dresses in Amanda's collection are either hand stitched to fit her body or modified so heavily that you wouldn't recognize the original garment. But that's only the beginning. There is an almost ceremonial process that takes place when Amanda acquires anything new for her wardrobe. It starts with a trip to the wholesale fabric district in Midtown Manhattan where she will procure a giant bag of tiny Swarovski crystals that match the colour of the item in question. She will then bring the crystals home to her room and, using a tube of industrial strength glue, she will meticulously and obsessively cover every square inch of said item in dazzling crystals. She has told me the process calms her and keeps her focused. I have also made my own assumptions about control and OCD. Either way, the result is her life's work: a truly remarkable arsenal of matching dresses, shoes and accessories, assembled with mind blowing craftsmanship that quite literally look like a million bucks. Let's put it this way, I once went to the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas and can honestly tell you that Amanda's wardrobe gives that old queen a run for his money. I used to sit in that hotel room with Amanda and watch her robotically gluing those crystals on and chatting to her about her life, her fears about money, her endlessly outrageous tales about sex and love, and generally just gossip. I still love bringing her a copy of a trashy celeb magazine and having her tell me exactly which plastic surgeries each starlet has done.
I remember once years ago I had a very vivid and upsetting dream in which Amanda died. In the dream on hearing the news I sprinted up to her block and saw a stream of faceless strangers pouring out of the hotel entrance carrying armfuls of her beautiful things off into the night. I screamed at them and at the hotel staff to stop them but no one would listen to me. I woke up from this awful dream and phoned Amanda immediately to demand that she put some kind of will in place to protect her possessions and make sure her legacy is looked after in the event that anything happened to her. But that's another thing you need to know about Amanda: her affairs are not in order. She has no immediate family and she lives in the moment in a strange and magical bubble where time seems to stand still. She relies on the people around her to give her the advice and resources she needs to get through the parts of life that she doesn't understand or finds too boring to concern herself with. I was lucky enough to be one of those people for many years, and although we still speak regularly there is now an ocean and several time zones between us where there was once just Second Avenue. The distance makes things harder in terms of staying on top of her day to day affairs, and the guilt I feel about abandoning her is akin to what you might feel leaving a vulnerable relative behind and starting a new life in a different country (which is essentially what I did.) I do know that Amanda has a few amazing people around her which makes me feel better (and jealous!) but I can't help but feel she should be officially protected by some kind of national heritage organization the way the Statue of Liberty is. Because like Lady Liberty, Amanda is also a true “masterpiece of the human spirit” and a symbol of opportunity, tolerance and equal rights and should be celebrated as such while she's here on earth. One more thing you should know though about Amanda Lepore: she's probably going to outlive us all. Here's hoping.
Illustrator and stylist Constantin Prozorov is a Berlin-based designer.
Constantin graduated from German Master School for Fashion in Munich in 2013 after studying fashion and graphic design. From 2013 - 2014 he worked at French Haute Couture and Ready-to-wear house ATELIER GUSTAVOLINS. Constantin then worked for Condé Nast in Paris, where he supported the VOGUE, GLAMOUR and MYSELF fashion editorial departments at publications.
He worked as personal design assistant to designer Wolfgang Joop, the founder of the fashion and cosmetics company JOOP! at his Berlin based luxury label WUNDERKIND. He has not established his own dedicated fashion social media agency, specialising in social media and digital content for fashion brands and companies in the spring of 2017.