For Alexis del Lago Life Is So Much More Than Just Cabaret
Eduardo Gion Espejo-Saavedra,
Alexis del Lago is the proper definition of a star. Actress and costume designer for cinema, she has worked for Jack Smith and Jackie Curtis, posed for Mapplethorpe and Gilles Larrain’s lens and declined to work with Warhol when proposed. Clearly, she is a woman who has lived life to the fullest – and on her own terms.
A version of this exclusive interview first appeared in the pages of the 15th issue of ODDA Magazine.
You were born in Puerto Rico. How was your life in Latin America, your childhood and your adolescence?
Mine was an aristocratic family from Italy who settled in Puerto Rico in the 1920s. My father was a distinguished doctor. He and my mother had a very loving marriage, at least for the first decades. There were four boys. I was the oldest. Our parents were loving and understanding. I had a double life – in school I was serious and professional. After school, I would hide in one of my aunt’s rooms I called “The Studio” where I created my fantasies: collecting pictures of movie stars, designing clothes and painting.
Why did you decide to leave from Puerto Rico to New York City?
My father brought me to New York in 1956 when I was eighteen to study Fashion Design at Parson’s School of Design in Greenwich Village. He put me under the care of my eccentric aunt Pat, who lived on Riverside Drive. Parson’s is, even today, widely regarded as one of the most prestigious art and design schools in the world and ranks as the top art and design school in the United States, so I was very thrilled.
At a party at your school, you dressed for the first time as a woman in front of all your teachers. How did they react to it?
It was soon after my arrival at Parson’s. I told my roommate I would go to the school party dressed as Mata Hari. He said, “You wouldn’t dare!” I said, “Oh, yes I will!” When I arrived, the teacher asked, “Who’s that tall girl over there?” They said, “That’s not a girl, that’s Alexis.” “Alexis? Tell him to come over here.” And do you know, they didn’t like that I expressed myself like that and I was told I couldn’t continue in the school. I was very upset. But my mother was wonderful and she found another school just as good called Traphagen School of Design on West 57th Street.
Where did you study Design?
Parson’s and then Traphagen’s for a total of three years. Ethel Traphagen was a famous award-winning designer who helped New York City become a rival of Paris as the Fashion Center of the World. Her husband was a painter of the Old West. I remember they had a life-size model of a horse in their living room. Mrs. Traphagen was a Shakespearean-looking lady and she said to me, “You could be the greatest designer, but you have to put the nose to the grindstone.” But I was, well, too many parties, too many guys, too many gowns, too much freedom, so I went another direction. But I did later design dresses for Gloria Grahame and Dolores Del Río and had my own line of clothing in Puerto Rico many years later.
How was the city of New York when you arrived?
New York in those days was the Paradise of Intellectuals. There were three outstanding leaders in the Underground world of the arts and performance in New York City in the 60s: John Vacarro had a theatrical company called The Ridiculous. There was Charles Ludlam who started with Vacarro but formed his own ridiculous theatre company a few years later. And, of course, there was Andy Warhol and his Factory. I went with Charles. Jackie, Candy and Holly went with Andy. And the more artistic serious ones went with John Vacarro. It was wonderful. That was the Underground. Tennessee Williams used to come and see us, can you imagine? So did a lot of famous people. By 1975, everything was gone. Then, when Jackie, Andy and Charles died, forget it. Oh, everybody died and so it was over. After that, I left New York and returned to Puerto Rico for a few years where I became a designer, which is what I intended to be at the beginning. I was very successful, mentioned in the magazines. I returned to New York for a short time, and then in the early 90s I was persuaded to come to Hollywood and I have been here ever since. But I must say, L.A. was a new world full of uninspired situations.
Were you dedicated to the world of cabaret during those years?
I became a cabaret performer in New York in the 80s under the direction of Scott Wittman who I call “Mr. DeMille.” Scott is now a fabulously successful Broadway writer, lyricist and director, you know. In the 80s I wasn’t doing campy drag anymore, but focused upon presenting an image of sophisticated glamour, and people started treating me like a star. But, to me, a star was Dietrich, Chaplin, Stroheim. Those were the ones I looked up to.
Did you work for a few times with the designer Pauline Trigère?
After I graduated, Mrs. Traphagen got me the job working for Pauline Trigère, the famous designer. She told me, “None of this Marlene Dietrich thing here. Curb that! You have to become a gentleman here.” Well, it was the early 60s. My first assignment was looking for buttons. She liked the collection I brought her from the 20s and 30s – very original and unique. You know, Pauline Trigère had such a long career. She had started in the 40s and was working right up to early in the 21st century. By the way, Madam Trigère designed the dresses that Patricia Neal wore in the Audrey Hepburn movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
“ANDY WARHOL WAS VERY STRANGE. HE WAS SITTING THERE DRESSED IN BLACK SAYING NOTHING. HE WAS A SOCIAL CLIMBER. HE WASN’T A PERFECT PERSON” – ALEXIS DEL LAGO
In 1968 you met Jackie Curtis. How was that meeting?
I saw an ad in the Village Voice stating they were looking for actors. So, I went downtown and saw Jackie Curtis performing in the Theatre of The Ridiculous production Glamour, Glory and Gold. It was Heaven. Everybody was in drag. Everybody had pieces of dresses because they didn’t fit really well so they made skirts out of blouses and blouses out of skirts. They had a script, but they said what they wanted. It was fabulous. And when I saw that, I said, “Oh, I want to be in there!” After the show I went backstage and met Jackie. And Jackie said, “Okay! But you need a stage name.” I said, “Alexandra Del Lago,” after the Tennessee Williams character in Sweet Bird of Youth. Later, I changed Alexandra to Alexis, and that was the beginning. Dear Jackie. Offstage, she would put on an apron and a bandana like Garbo in Ninotchka and – boom – go in the street. As I said of her in Craig Highberger’s movie Superstar In A Housedress: “Jackie wasn’t a man or a woman, he was a way of life.”
Jackie introduced you to Andy Warhol at the Factory. Andy proposed that you make a film with him, but you rejected it. Tell us how was that experience with Warhol.
Jackie invited me to a party at the Factory. It was in a raunchy part of town. Very tacky. Everyone was doing drugs. Andy Warhol was very strange. He was sitting there dressed in black saying nothing. He was a social climber. He wasn’t a perfect person. I liked Jackie better. I never did drugs and I never made a movie with Andy Warhol because I didn’t want to make movies about common people. I wanted to make movies with glamour like Dietrich and Garbo.
You worked with Jackie in Amerika Cleopatra in 1972. Was it a great job for you?
I played Charming Gail, the Hand Maiden to Cleopatra. Jackie was Cleopatra. I also made Jackie a beautiful dress in velvet and gold braids. The Village Voice called the show “uneven, frenetic and a bit of a hodgepodge affair and a mishmash production.” Well, that was THEIR opinion. The theatre was packed. Everybody was there. It was sold out. The scene stealer Harvey Fierstein got great reviews as the Jewish mother. Jackie Curtis was brilliant. Oh, Jackie had so many facets, like a diamond. It was wonderful to see him act! As far as the rest of the cast, the kind of friendship we had with everybody was like lawyers or people in the White House: “I love your face and oh, I kiss it too!” Smooch!
Your style always reminds me of the movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age and the German films of Josef von Sternberg with Marlene Dietrich. Even the women of Fassbinder’s cinema. Do you love cinema as a way of life?
Yes. As a child and ever after I have been inspired by the movies of Garbo, Maria Montez and Marlene Dietrich. They created a world of fabulous glamourous. I loved the color, the fashion and the costumes, not to mention scripts, the stories.
You have been photographed by great masters of photography such as Gilles Larrain or Robert Mapplethorpe. I would like to know how it was to work with these two wonderful photographers?
Gilles Larrain asked me to bring the entire cast of my play Shanghai Loca to his studio to be photographed. But everybody complained that he made them look distorted. He made me look pasty and terrible. And that’s how he saw us. He saw us as strange people, as creeps. I made him stand in front of a mirror next to me. He was fat and NOT sexy.I asked him, “Who would you like to be, me or you?” At the time I felt his photographs were too harsh and grotesque. Now looking back, I realize they are beautiful. As for Mapplethorpe, I wouldn’t pose for his usual “sexual things”, but in the early 70s I did allow him to photograph me wearing a tuxedo sitting on a sofa.
I would like to know if you were also part of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures which is one of my favorite pieces of underground cinema of that time.
I appeared briefly in that film. I arrived one afternoon to play a showgirl. Jack Smith took ten hours to prepare the scene! We got tired of waiting, and I finally said, “I’m leaving!” Still, I can be glimpsed here and there. Mario Montez is in it too, but it seemed that Mario liked waiting. He had the patience of a saint.
How was it to work with other artists like Holly Woodland or Candy Dar- ling? Tell us any anecdotes that you had with them.
Holly was very sweet and very difficult. I met her in 1969 at the Factory. She would not make friends with you until she was sure about you. She was funny and made me laugh. She considered herself a star – and she was. She was my friend until the very end, which was just a couple of years ago. We said our goodbyes at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Candy was very sweet and friendly. When we met for the first time we kissed and hugged and became best friends. Candy was tragic and beautiful and intelligent. She wanted to be an actress. She said, “I’m going to be like Sarah Bernhardt, and you?”, “I’m going to be like Marlene Dietrich.” I was so proud of her.
“REMEMBER DARLINGS, BEAUTY AND GLAMOUR NEVER DIE!” – ALEXIS DEL LAGO
You worked a long time as a movie costume designer. Is it your true passion? Do you create your own clothes?
Of course it’s my passion. The secret is love what you’re doing. If you don’t love it, why bother? I first made the sketches and then designed all my clothes and costumes.
Currently you work with film director and photographer Craig Cal- man. Let’s talk about Caprice.
Darling, by the time we made Caprice in 2010 (I can’t believe that was eight years ago!) I was already over 70 and I felt my time was just about up. I said to Craig Calman, who has been my photographer and director for more than twenty years, “Craigy, I am willing to make one more video, and this will be my FINAL appearance before the camera.” I had so many photo- graphs from my glamorous days of the 60s and 70s just sitting in a drawer. Craigy took them all and digitized them, then he created a musical video montage of the photos accompanied by the soundtrack of one of my favori- te musical compositions Capriccio Espagnol, by Rimsky-Korsokov and performed by the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra (very appropriate, no?).I trusted Craig Calman because he did a wonderful job directing me in his very strange movie The Calistra Zipper Story, where I played (guess what?) a glamorous Hollywood Movie Star of the Golden Age. For Caprice, Craigy filmed me in several different outfits of my choosing in which I reminisced about my days as a student at Parson’s, being photographed by New York photographers, and about my development as an artist and cabaret performer. Very rare clips from some of my stage shows were included. I talked about Candy and Jackie and Holly and the whole Andy Warhol experience very candidly.
I compared our wonderful world of creativity then with this pathetic era. Then, there is a final montage of photos Craigy has taken of me during the recent years, during what I call my period of being “a woman of a certain age.”
It was very fitting that Caprice had its premiere at the Silent Movie Theatre in Hollywood, which had large framed photographs of Garbo, Gloria Swanson and Pola Negri on its walls; alas, The Silent Movie Theatre, which has been in existence since the early 40s, has recently been closed down due to a sex scandal. By the by, Caprice turned out NOT to be my “last time be- fore the camera.” Not at all! During these last eight years I’ve continued to be photographed and to do shows. I appeared on the television show Trans- parent in 2014 with dear Holly, and in 2016 I returned to The Silent Movie Theatre as a guest in a live event hosted by the lovely Transparent producer Zackary Drucker. And then last July I starred in two very successful and wonderful shows at the Gardenia Club directed and hosted by the talented and handsome artist Adam Dugas. Darling, it is 2018 now and I am STILL being photographed!
What will be next for Alexis del Lago and Craig Calman?
God only knows. I’ll be 80 on my next birthday in November. I’ve had three strokes and this last one was a horror. I’ve been through the mill. Now it is forever: the door to fashion, beauty and being pretty is closed. But both Craig and Adam are planning to create books of my photographs and Adam has a film in development. Remember, darlings, beauty and glamour never die! Looking back, I will say that I shouldn’t have been so real: it took everything out of me.
Filmmaker, Journalist and documentary.
For several years working as an assistant director of short films and feature films in 35mm. His documentaries have been shown at festivals Festival de Cinema de Sitges, New York Film Festival, Portland Underground Film Festival, San Francisco Film Festival, and others.
Worked at events “080” in Barcelona, collaborating with photographers Miguel Villalobos for the production of the tribute to Thierry Mugler.
Writes and produces reports for magazines “Candy Magazine” to Luis Venegas, Also works for the magazine “Paraiso Magazine”, and Features Editor at ODDA Magazine.
Eduardo Gion Espejo-Saavedra
Filmmaker, Journalist and documentary. For several years working as an assistant director of short films and feature films in 35mm. His documentaries have been shown at festivals Festival de Cinema de Sitges, New York Film Festival, Portland Underground Film Festival, San Francisco Film Festival, and others. Worked at events “080” in Barcelona, collaborating with photographers Miguel Villalobos for the production of the tribute to Thierry Mugler. Writes and produces reports for magazines “Candy Magazine” to Luis Venegas, Also works for the magazine “Paraiso Magazine”, and Features Editor at ODDA Magazine.
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