Steven Meisel - Photographer
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Join Date: Mar 2010
Steven Meisel is no stranger to controversies, though he’s played his out on smaller stages until now. Both his private life and his career have been filled with contretemps. The first to hit the press was his falling-out with Teri Toye and Stephen Sprouse. More recently, Meisel fell out — and back in — with Conde Nast’s American magazines. He’s also had public spats with Bert Stern and with model Christy Turlington. After she was profiled in New York and spoke about her break with the Trinity (“Model Model,” March 9, 1992), she and Meisel stopped speaking.
Today, Turlington politely declines to discuss Meisel. He, too, refused to be interviewed. He also contacted many people and “asked all of us not to talk,” says the advertising director for a major American designer. “Steven is like a publicity hound, so I don’t know why he doesn’t want this.”
Nonetheless, matters of both loyalty and Meisel’s influence on their bottom lines kept many from talking. Some of fashion’s biggest names — advertisers, designers, photo stylists, models, and magazine editors — declined to discuss Meisel. “I’d hate for our girls not to work with him,” a top model-agency executive explains. “He makes them. If they work for him, they work for anyone. He’s that powerful because he’s that good.”
But some were willing to talk — more than 75 in all, including many who work with Meisel. “He has lots of faults,” Valentino’s Giammetti admits. “He’s a very difficult guy. He asked me to get out of the studio once because I made him nervous. He’s artistic enough to be respected despite his hysteria and hang-ups.”
Leslie Kramer, an agent for hair- and makeup stylists, was one of many who whispered about Meisel’s fight with Oribe, one of fashion’s hair gods. “He gets disappointed with people,” Kramer says of Meisel. “He wants his team. So when an Oribe wants [to take] a job [with another photographer], Steven will get upset.” \ (Oribe’s agent, Omar Ismail, denies that his client and Meisel have had a problem and calls questions about why they don’t work together “inappropriate and unfounded.” Ironically, Meisel’s companion works for Oribe.)
Lexington Labs co-owner Kim Zorn Ca-puto and her husband, Alberto, have worked with Meisel for more than a decade. “I remember when Steven began bringing his work to the lab,” she says. “The long raincoat, long hair, and floppy hat. I liked him. He was humble and worried a lot about being misunderstood. Not always able to say what he wanted, he knew how he felt. Years went by. The size of his orders grew. He seemed to become more and more isolated from technique, and unreasonable.”
Then, in January, a bag of film arrived at the lab, “in the usual Meisel fashion, without any notice of its contents,” Caputo continues. Lexington processed it, filed the negatives, and sent proofs to Meisel. Prints then went to the book designer. Suddenly, “Madonna’s lawyers sent us a letter accusing us of selling prints out the back door,” says Caputo. “Her lawyers asked us for $50,000 to make it all go away. It was like extortion! It’s all hype.” She denies that her lab leaked any prints and says she asked Meisel to speak up for her. He didn’t, so the Caputos told him to pick up his negatives and send his work elsewhere in the future.
“Alberto and I felt really betrayed after all these years,” Caputo says. “We pulled him out of some really tight spots, meeting absurd deadlines and making him look good. I hate to say this, but Steven and [Madonna] seem to have something in common. They both climb over all the people that helped them get where they’re going and shout, i made it myself.’”
Caputo also thinks Meisel is upset with Madonna. “Really upset and strung out,” she adds. “He didn’t want to talk about it.” Through an intermediary, Madonna denies it. Is it true? Does it matter? Genius!
Until he was about 25, meisel lived at home with his parents in Fresh Meadows, Queens — three blocks south of the Long Island Expressway — in several apartments, each no more than a block away from the last. He was an indulged child who went with his mother to watch the legendary Kenneth do her hair. He started reading her fashion magazines about the time he was in the fourth grade. They were his “escape mechanism,” he’s said. He’d even cut school — with his mother’s permission — to read them the day they were published. “I was obsessed with the magazines, absolutely,” Meisel once told me. “I was totally insane with it.” Cheerfully, he admitted that his interest was “a little peculiar.”
In the sixth grade, he began pestering model agencies, posing as a photographer in order to get copies of the modeling promotion cards known as composites. “I had to see other pictures that weren’t in the magazines,” he recalled. The masquerade went further still. When Twiggy came to New York, he claims, he called her agency, put on a phony accent, said he had to change a lunch date with her, and asked if the agency could tell him where she was. “Like fools, they did,” he said, smirking.
Meisel was also fascinated with show business. His grandfather Nat Simon was a composer and lyricist who co-wrote the hit song “Poinciana.” His mother, Sally, had sung with Sammy Kaye before marrying Lenny Meisel, who worked at London Records.
After a brief flirtation with ballet, their son became an art student. At the High School of Art & Design, Stevan (as he spelled his name then) studied fashion illustration. He went on to the Parsons School of Design but never graduated. “It was boring,” he said. “I’d been going out and getting information on my own at night. There was a new movement happening. Great bands.” For Meisel, punk sure beat Parsons.
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