Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present this exclusive interview with former model, actor, photographer and fashion icon, BILL CURRY
He has been called a legend and a fashion icon. Chances are you’ve seen his face or his work even though you may not know his name. He has over thirty years (30) in the modeling, acting and fashion industry. He has graced the covers of some of the biggest publications in the world like GQ and has over 200 runway shows to his credit. He has worked with some of the greatest photographers of our time including Richard Avedon, Bruce Weber, Irving Penn, Arthur Elgort and Steven Meisel. Bill learned photography from these legends and is now a master class photographer in his own right.
Thank you for granting us this interview!
BC: Modeling came first. In 1977 I found myself in NYC pursuing the impossible dream of world travel. Fashion was never on my mind but travel was. I met a Wilhelmina model on an airplane when I was a flight attendant for Eastern Airlines. She suggested I give modeling a try. She was a top model at the time and a former sergeant in the Israeli army. I was wearing my Mark Spitz mustache and polyester uniform. She set up my first photo test shoots in New York, so I quit the airline and pursued getting accepted by one of the three top agencies in NYC at the time: Ford, Wilhelmina, and Zoli, but none of them wanted me. At 24 they said I was too young; the guys working then were all in their 30s.
After six months sleeping on floors of friends of friends and being turned down twice by each agency after showing my portfolio I gave Wilhelmina one more chance. The men’s director, Dan Deely, kept me waiting for two hours and when they were closing, he said “Oh, Bill Curry from Ohio – sorry we don’t want you.” I got on the elevator on the 12th floor and headed down to the street to get a cab to the airport and go back to Ohio. The elevator stopped on the 7th floor which was the TV division of Wili. And when the door opened there was all six foot of Wilhelmina getting in. She said, “Hi, honey. Are you new with our agency?” I said, “No I did not get accepted.” She smiled and rode down to the bottom floor with me. She said, “Well, you are now.” and she pushed the button back to 12 and up we went. She took me into Mr. Deely’s office and said, “Dan, I want you to meet Bill Curry from Ohio. He is going to work editorial, high-fashion advertising, commercial, catalog, runway, and probably film one day. Take good care of him.” [It was an] awkward, surreal moment. She turned to leave and said, “Bill, please come to my office after you get signed up.”
My first trip to Europe in 1978 with Nino Cerruti was to Greece. The female model on the trip was former Miss Universe from Sweden. At night the team would eat at the local family restaurants and we would drink Ouzo. It was there that I took the first photos I ever had – snapshots. I had bought a Canon AE-1 for the trip because I knew I was going to go to Milan and then Paris to work. [After] that booking, I stayed to tour the original Olympic site in the sanctuary of Elis on the Peloponnese peninsula. I took photos there and on the islands of Hydra and Spetses. [At that time], photography was still not anything but taking snapshots for me.
PT: Such incredible experiences! Something many would dream about! So what happened next?
BC: Over the years I worked with the true masters of photography. Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Horst [P. Horst], Victor Skrebneski, Jean Pagliuso, Palma Kolansky, Aldo Fallai, Arthur Elgort, Marco Glaviano, Patrick Demarchelier, and many more. I learned about light and the angles of fashion photography, about being in the moment and catching the glimmer of magic. Being in front of the camera and working with all different manners of photographic approaches trained my eye. I began traveling the world: Morocco, Tunisia, Bora Bora, Mexico, Senegal, South Africa, Jamaica, Haiti, and all over Europe. I would find local artists to photograph or I would go live with tribal people for a few days and do documentary photography. Travel was my greatest education. The exposure to so many different cultures including the Manhattan night life was uplifting for my life experience.
PT: Did you ever seek out formal training in photography or modeling? If so, what was it?
BC: I had no formal training either as a model or photographer. Both were on-the-job training.
PT: Wow! So we’d say those are what could be called gifts! Describe some of your modeling experiences. Tell us about your most interesting, most fun, and most difficult or challenging shoots.
BC: Traveling first class to Peru for the Yves Saint Laurent (YSL) campaign in 1980 was an amazing opportunity. We stayed in Lima for two days and sat by the hotel pool, drank Pisco sours, and got tans. Then we flew up to Cuzco, got off the plane and there were military with loaded rifles on the runway to escort us off. Cuzco was [at an altitude of] 13,000 feet so the first drink at the hotel was coca leaf tea, to become acclimated quicker. We began shooting the YSL campaign the next morning at the Temple of the Sun. It was like a dream to be in the capital of the Incas. Very exotic. The music, the faces, the large stone walls, the alpacas…
We went to Machu Picchu on a yellow train through the Sacred Valley and were let off at the bottom of the mountain. A rickety truck took us up to the jewel of the Incas Empire. It was breathtaking beyond words. We stayed on the mountain that night in a stone structure and got up at sunrise to take photos for the world wide campaign. That trip was awe-inspiring.
I also had a trip for a German cigarette campaign for large money (about 25K). They flew me first class from NYC to Paris then to Zurich; then [I took] a train to Interlaken then finally on to Zermatt where the iconic Matterhorn mountain looms large. It was a 20-hour trip to [finally] get the little train to ride up the mountain into Zermatt. I got in at one in the morning and there was no note from the client with a call time. I was hungry and of course there was nothing to eat, so I got into bed. Instantly it seemed the phone rang in the most obnoxious way that only a European phone in 1984 can sound. I jolted out of bed picked up the phone and in a strong German accent the voice says, “YOU WILL BE DOWN STAIRS IN TEN MINUTES.” Whoa! I was out-of-body, jet-lagged, and could barely get dressed and splash water on my face in ten minutes! I went down and the clients were there with the photographer. I was told we were taking a helicopter back behind the Matterhorn to Glacier Lake. Okay, off we went! No breakfast – “Too early,” they said.
[We took a] helicopter ride in the dark, we landed, and got out on snow. It was COLD to the bone. They unloaded the gear and clothes. I stood freezing with my teeth chattering, waiting 15 minutes for the helicopter to fly away. “Get the model dressed,” the art director said in the most perfectly war-movie German accent. The stylist put me in three layers of clothes including Nanook of the North fur boots and hat. Did I mention, even though I had been grateful that I was finally toasty, I had not even had a cup of tea yet? Well the sky was beginning to lighten. Maybe it was too early for something to eat!
They walked me over to a frozen lake and said, “YOU WILL STAND THERE, YA?” I said, “No, I don’t think so.” “Was ist das!!!!! You stand there it is safe.” Now the sun was lighting the sky to a dim white behind the mountain. I felt like I was under water. No food for a day, no sleep for nearly two, and now standing on a glacier lake at the backside of the Matterhorn. They walked about forty yards away and the photographer began to take a Polaroid yelling at me to relax and look natural. They bent down to wait on the Polaroid to develop in the cold as they sipped from their steaming mugs of tea. Suddenly there was a loud crack under my feet and I dropped through the ice. COMPLETELY under the ice with five hundred pounds of wet Eskimo clothes. The shock was profound enough for me to forget about sleep or food. When I came up, I gasped, then reached for the side of the land before I went under again. Now I was fully in shock. I dolphin kicked and clawed my way out, then dragged myself onto the snow bank beside the lake.
I got to my knees then tried to stand but my wet knees were frozen to the ground. With of all my body strength, I stood and began to try to unzip the clothes to get them off. I finally managed to peel my jacket and hat off when I heard screaming and the next minute the client and photographer were near me yelling at the stylist to “HURRY UP and get the DRY CLOTHES!” I mumbled that I was in shock. Of course blue skin and uncontrollable shaking were lost on the man from Munich. The stylist and her assistant were peeling the sopping freezing layers off. By the time I was in a robe I was shaking uncontrollably. I told them I must get warm. Finally – a way to get a hot tea. After two sips the client was yelling for me to get dressed. When I refused, it got me a daylight ride back off the mountain to the hotel in a two-seat, bubble-front helicopter with a big red Swiss cross on it. It also got me a warm shower, hot FOOD, and a call from my NYC agent saying I was dropped from the campaign because I was a defective model.
PT: That is totally unbelievable! What a harrowing experience!!! Wow. Well, tell us, what do you think has changed the most about the modeling industry from then to now?
BC: When I began it was a very small group of guys and girls working the world circuit as fashion models. It was an elite few who got to do it all: the designer campaigns; the pret-a-porter collections in Paris or Rome or Milan; the editorials for GQ, L’Uomo Vogue, and Italian Bazaar; and the commercials for cinema in Europe. I traveled for nearly ten years, 40 weeks out of the year to shoot jobs. There were some of us who did many TV commercials as well as model. But when the girls crossed over to the film industry and made movies, the guys were not welcome in that world. And when we did have the opportunity to study acting and get in front of a casting director, if they said, “Oh, you look familiar,” the standard response became, “Maybe we eat bagels at the same deli.” We never fessed up to being a male models. Models were seen everywhere in media culture – sometimes I had as many six ads in one major magazine and three TV spots running including during the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl. But no one knew my name. No one except the aficionados of the fashion world. We were film stars without the paparazzi following us. Celebrities would never be caught in a print ad back in the 80s because it was demeaning to their craft of acting. Now a model can’t get a magazine cover or an ad campaign because the actors are doing it all…and paid much better than we ever were. Celebrity sells. Pretty boys with dream bodies are a Bitcoin a dozen.
In recent years, there are a plethora of agents in every nook and cranny of every city and there are multitudes of models and all kinds of genres. Now people are body models, Urban/Hip-Hop models, lifestyle models, ethnic models, reality TV models, music video models. In the 80s we borrowed a term from cricket: ALL-ROUNDERS. We did runway, advertisements, designer campaigns, TV commercials, editorial, catalogs, and book covers…Pre-Fabio. The budgets nowadays are slashed extensively, so very there is very little for on-location trips; everything is shot on digital so it has to be quicker and five times the number of shots in a day; the day rates for models are abysmal and there are no buyouts or billboard bonuses. Also, in TV commercials in the 80s and early 90s there were three basic networks so the residuals were abundant – major market payouts. Now the SAG residuals are very low due to the many, many markets and sub-markets where the spots are shown. [Fortunately] male and female models have a much greater opportunity to be in films and TV shows now. That stigma is long gone.
PT: So things really are very different – it sounds like for both the better and for the worse. How do you think social media and things like Photoshop have changed the landscape for the better and/or the worse in the modeling world?
BC: Social media made Andy Warhol’s prediction of “15 minutes of fame” become a reality and a reality show. Everyone is a star in the Instagram world.
Photoshop has made the photographer have to be his own darkroom printer, re-toucher, editor, and art director. It’s placed a huge burden onto the photographers. As for the models they can all look blemish-free and 20 pounds too light.
PT: What did you learn about photography from modeling?
BC: I learned that photography was a tough job especially in the days of pre-digital film. You couldn’t see what you just shot so from a technical aspect, there was immense pressure to get it right. For example, on a trip to the rain forest in Borneo, there were no computers to download your photos; you had to rely on your expertise as a photographer to make it happen. At the end of a trip with 100 rolls of undeveloped film with production costs at $60,000 you’d bet those guys would have been anxious about the outcome – while they sat on a flight across the world to get the photos developed. There could be lots of pit falls on the way to get that film back to the client. Today there is a tech on set with a huge monitor and every frame is scrutinized by the art directors and the client. So now the photographers have a different type of pressure, the eternal sense of instant gratification and decision by committee on every frame. Tough in both eras.
PT: We know you’ve worked with some incredible people. Tell us about specific elements of photography which you learned from some of the greats.
BC: Arthur Elgort taught me the importance of kindness to everyone on set. Aldo Fallai was indifferent to the technical rules of photography – but he had passion and artistic flair. Steven Meisel has the keenest styling sense of any photographer. [Richard] Avedon had an elegance and calm. Bruce Weber has enthusiasm and vision. Peter Lindbergh has great production skills.
BC: The great photo journalist photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event,” and “I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us.”
The quote from him I have taken to heart is: “To photograph: it is putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis”
I have loved living, sharing stories, dancing with and laughing with people from all walks of life. For me getting to know the other person or place before even looking through a lens is the most important part of making a photograph before it has ever happened.
In NYC I leaned about production and setting the tone of a fashion shoot by the great masters. I got to just walk into Irving Penn’s studio once and the decorum of respect in his presence was so great that everyone was awed. Same with Richard Avedon and Palma Kolansky’s great studio with fresh flowers, fine food and always a plethora of beautiful women to lay my head on their shoulder for some makeup or perfume advertisement.
Robert Mapplethorpe was bohemian in his approach. Aldo Fallai is a completely disheveled Italian genius working in his palace of Napoleon’s brother’s home. Some [photographers] were so relaxed that when you left the set it felt as if a photo had never been taken. Some were so formal it was excruciating to feel so controlled, although the results were masterful. The true masters allowed you [the model] to feel as if you were just as important to the photo’s final results as they were; and even though it was not always true, the feeling of inclusion and specialness always enhanced doing the our job of selling whatever it was we were wearing or presenting in the most high-caliber way possible.
PT: Do you believe photography can be taught beyond the mechanics, or do you think there are certain special characteristics of photographers that must come from more than knowing how to simply click a button?
BC: With the advent of iPhones and digital cameras, everyone is a photographer, just like everyone today is a “model” or an “actor” on a reality TV show. There are some amazing iphone photos taken by amateurs and semi-pros alike. Taking one fine photo does not make one a photographer. To “see” the photo before it is in front of you; to be able to create a lighting technique in harsh conditions under the pressure of a deadline; to be able to relate to people who do not speak your language and still get the travel portrait; to be patient enough and humble enough to go back to a location maybe five times before you are trusted to get THE MOMENT in the moment that is not artificial – it all takes great skill and wisdom. The difference is making a photograph rather than taking a picture.
PT: You’ve photographed countless people, places, and things. Tell us about some of them that are most special to you.
BC: Jamaica has always been special to me since my first trip there in 1974. I got to speak with Bob Marley and see him play soccer before he was known outside of Jamaica and then I got to go back many years later and photograph some Reggae legends like Jimmy Cliff, Third World, Sly and Robbie, Toots, and Gregory Isaacs. I lived barefoot for three months on a 100-acre island in the Maldives on the Indian Ocean; I photographed the resort in its entirety including diving with manta rays and whale sharks. I got to attend three Olympic Games and took photos from the stands. I’ve been back stage at the Academy Awards and photographed celebrities in relaxed situations. I was fortunate to be at the Ultimate Fighting Championship 2 in 1994 and met the Gracie family (which later led me to study Brazilian jiu jitsu). I have photographed cage-side for King of the Cage, The Ultimate Fighting Championship, Bellator, and many other live MMA events for the last twenty years as well as many hall of fame fighters. I was asked by representatives of Prince Saeed bin Tahnoun of Abu Dhabi to come and photograph 400 grappling and submission wrestling champions from around the world in a tournament in 2000. I have photographed a week-long traditional Indian wedding in California that required the assistance of two additional photographers. We shot over 13,000 images that week. I went to Costa Rica for two weeks and created hero shots of a future six-star, organic resort jungle property along with its waterfalls, parrots, howler monkeys and poisonous snakes and ended up getting into a wrestling match in the rainforest with a real jungle man.
PT: What have you not photographed which you would like to?
BC: My dream has always been to be chosen to go on a National Geographic assignment to Mongolia or New Zealand or Cuba. I did go to Havana for my 40th birthday but was more interested in smoking a real Cohiba [cigar], drinking mojitos, and meeting the priests of Santeria (called Babalawos) than taking photos for some strange reason. Never regretted that decision.
PT: But maybe next time you’ll take some photos! So, now tell us about the retreat and how you and Laurie Pettigrew both came up with the idea and melded your dual backgrounds and interests.
BC: We both came out of the modeling industry and went onto spiritual and healing journeys. Laurie was a clothing designer and founded The Art Ranch, a non-profit camp for children [that allows them to] experience music, art, sustainable living, and study indigenous cultures. Then Laurie began adult retreat programs with safari tents, organic food, healing modalities and wellness programs. Laurie was offered a property by Eli Parker, the son of famed actor Fess Parker (who portrayed Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone), on their 700-acre property to host the retreats. Kurorte Retreats is reminiscent of the spas in Central Europe from the French Revolution to World War II, which were Meccas for art, education, and healing retreats. Laurie and I reconnected via Facebook and saw the parallel healing arts paths we were both on. I am a craniosacral therapist, medical massage therapist, and have spent thirty years involved in Native American ceremonies as has she. We decided to create a photography retreat incorporating the loves of nature and wellness and art.
PT: The retreat sounds like an incredible experience. Even life changing on some levels. Tell us what people can expect to learn about photography and themselves.
BC: The retreat is a place where art can connect one to the spiritual aspects of self. People slow down their normal pace, turn off the monkey mind, and revel in the moment – days of moments. Photography is about seeing through the lens but it can encourage one to see first from the heart and be fully present in the natural world. Along with meditation, breathing exercises, jiu jitsu, ceremony, and experiencing photography with a fresh approach, the retreat is unique in its perspective of photography as art from the heart.
PT: What advice would you give to someone with an interest in photography who is just starting out?
BC: Take up medical school or a get job at Google instead.
PT: (Laughs) Okay, so what advice would you give to someone with an interest in modeling who is just starting out?
BC: Take up acting classes and skip the modeling world.
PT: (Laughs) Okay!! We also know you have acted, written, and produced films. Tell us about those experiences.
BC: My first acting class was with the great teacher Larry Moss in NYC. Then I had a professional scene study class at Juilliard for three months with Steven Aarons. And I was blessed to study with legendary Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse in his professional actors’ class for over a year, plus a five-week retreat at his the- island home of Bequia.
My first role was in Club Paradise shot in my favorite place in the world Port Antonio, Jamaica. The cast was led by Peter Toole! Lawrence of Arabia himself!! And Robin Williams, Twiggy, Joanna Cassidy, Reggae legend Jimmy Cliff, Rick Moranis, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, and directed by the late, great Harold Ramis. What a six weeks that was!
I auditioned and got a role in Dances with Wolves. All I knew about the film was that I was going to get to be in period costume, ride a horse, and shoot at Kevin Costner for two weeks, never imaging it would win an Academy Award in spite of my ten-second appearance.
My most challenging film participation was shot on the Streets of NYC in 1992. It was a slapstick comedy about a taxi driver picking up an Irish Research Council lady, an urban hip-hop gangster, a Chechnyan mad professor, and a disgruntled Saudi prince who all turned out to be people with political agendas who were willing to topple sky scrapers for their causes. I was lead actor, producer, cab driver, and teamster union go-between who, when they kept driving their trucks and blowing their horns and ruining our street takes, had to negotiate with them. Forget about it! Once I told them we were not a low-budget movie but a NO-budget movie and offered them a PBJ and a coke for lunch, they left us alone. We shot the film with $60,000 of my money. Did I mention it was a dark comedy about terrorism and when we had the 16mm rough cut and a financial backer, the first World Trade Center bombing happened? Not a funny movie any longer.
I have played Jesus in a two-man short film, the other man being, well, Lucifer, on the coldest, darkest nights of a Montreal winter. I was cast as a high-school teacher who was actually a monovalent alien from some far away planet and had four hours of special-effects makeup a day. I was honored to play opposite Frances Sternhagen, a living stage legend, in a film about a 1930s hurricane as the ghost of her long-departed love. And in there somewhere was a stint on General Hospital, a live TV show with Lena Horne, and a music show called Max Music with my long-time friend John Oates from Hall & Oates.
As a producer and organizer of the four-day environmental event “Ride Through an American Forest” with mountain bike inventor Gary Fisher, musician Bobby Weir, John Oates, Carole King, and the late River Phoenix. I got to meet you – producer, director Wayne J. Keeley – and we documented the trip in the film Evolution’s End: The Clear Cut Facts. And of course that led to our joint script for the film Phantom Heat. Wayne, I am still waiting on the lead actor role and a co-producer credit. When are we making it?
PT: (Laughs) Soon, Bill, let’s hope!! So, tell us what other pursuits and interests you have.
BC: For the last year I have been going with a professional treasure hunter named Katya Luce to document her search for the Forrest Fenn treasure, which is worth nearly two million dollars. It’s hidden somewhere between Santa Fe and the Montana border with Canada. I am a full-time student at the University of New Mexico, getting a BLA with a focus on Integrative Heath. I teach Brazilian jiu jitsu and I attend as many ceremonies at the Taos Pueblo as I can. (See Pillow Talking’s Interview with Treasure Hunter “Wild Kat” Katya Luce.)
PT: Busy man! And yes, we know you live in Taos, NM. What made you settle there?
BC: It is my true spirit home. The Pueblo has been here for over a thousand years. I have been coming here for 25. Incredibly special light and the landscape are beyond words – incredible. It is nearly surpassed by the creative light of the many painters, soul poets, musicians, healers, colorful characters, and photographers who live here.
PT: Well, we can’t wait to come visit!! Okay, now, we have done this in other interviews and our readers really enjoy it. Instead of playing “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” let’s play “Six Degrees of Bill Curry.” You’ve worked with everybody – legends, icons, award-winning actors, etc. So for the lightning round, out of everybody with whom you’ve worked, off the top of your head, answer the following. Who was:
Most inspiring: Lena Horne
Most intimidating: The iconic master designer Valentino at his palazzo in Rome
Most giving: Young, great Columbian fashion designer Esteban Cortazar
Most laid back: Clint Eastwood aka Josey Wales
Most beautiful: Inside and out, Brooke Shields
Most demanding: Any German catalog photographer I have ever worked with. They were also the most efficient and exacting.
Most conscientious: Grammy Award-winning musician and sacred seed keeper of the Taos Pueblo, Robert Mirabal
Most artistic: The legendary Andy Warhol, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame musician and songwriter John Oates, and Cuban painter Salvador González
Most charismatic: Jack Nicholson
PT: Wow – what phenomenal answers!! Now tell us, what, if anything, has been your biggest regret?
BC: Not taking Andy Warhol up on his offer to draw something for me.
PT: Yes, we could see that as a MASSIVE regret!!! Maybe in another life! And, here’s the big one – If you could sum up your life and career thus far in one word, what would it be?
BC: How about a film title? “A Forrest Gump Life.” Or AMAZED
PT: (Laughs) AMAZING! Thank you so much, Bill!!