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Person To Watch: Pat Cleveland
The globetrotting life of the first black supermodel
By Terri Akman

21-shattered_2Being a black model in the racially tense ’60s and ’70s wasn’t easy for cover girl Pat Cleveland. But hobnobbing with the rich and famous, gracing the covers of top fashion magazines, and working with famous designers and photographers made her challenging journey worthwhile.

Raised by her African-American mother, painter Lady Bird Strickland, after her white saxophonist father returned to his native Sweden, Cleveland studied fashion design at New York’s High School of Art and Design. The self-described “skinny girl from Harlem with no boobs and a frizz of hair,” was discovered at age 14 by happenstance, when a bus strike forced her to take the subway to school.

“It was a habit that I would make clothes and wear them the next day to school because I wanted to look different every day,” says Cleveland, now 66 and living in Willingboro. “On that particular day I wore my houndstooth miniskirt, a poplin raincoat and I braided my hair in a very long braid and popped a little Scottish hat on top of my head.” The outfit caught the attention of an assistant editor for Vogue Magazine who invited Cleveland to visit the magazine. “I felt like I had the golden ticket,” she says.

Soon after, Vogue published a feature about Cleveland as an up-and-coming designer. But when Ebony invited her to model for their Fashion Fair national runway tour, she set her sights on modeling.

“At that time, the racial divide was very wide and very noticeable,” she says. “There were people who just didn’t understand the cultural beauty that was arising. It was the time of hippies and the love child, and I grew up in the art world where people were OK with each other. So I had the attitude that I was a human being. I took my strength and belief, and went with it regardless of what society may have thought at the time.”

Despite her self-confidence, Cleveland quickly learned about hatred and racism while traveling to Southern cities on the three-month Ebony fashion tour. “We were a bus full of black Americans going on a road trip around America,” she recalls.

“Some young boys called out these N-words at us and threw rocks at us. We were having our Thanksgiving dinner in a hotel, and somebody threw a rock through the window and basically told us to get out of town. It was serious, so we packed up and left. Not that we were running, but we didn’t want any more trouble.”

Cleveland says her lighter complexion made it a bit easier for her than some of her co-workers, because she could use a whites-only restroom. But looking to escape racism and find more career opportunities, she moved to Paris in 1970.

“They welcomed me with open arms,” she says of working with design moguls like Karl Lagerfeld, Valentino, Oscar de la Renta, Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior. “It gave me so much confidence.”

Cleveland made a name for herself with her unique walk and appearances described by her peers as “performance-art pieces.” She returned to the United States in 1974 as a supermodel, appearing on the covers of Vanity Fair, Essence, Cosmopolitan, Women’s Wear Daily and GQ, among others.

In the mid-’90s, Cleveland moved to Milan, where she ran a modeling agency and raised her children, daughter Anna and son Noel. She ultimately returned to the U.S. to care for her ailing mother, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, settling into the Willingboro home her mother had lived in since 1970. Today, Cleveland resides there with her husband, fashion photographer Paul van Ravenstein.

patclevelandbook“It’s a wonderful, convenient place to be,” she says. “I have peacocks, a pool and a garden, and a house big enough to have friends and family. It’s enough. It’s simple, easy-going and there are no fashion police here. There’s a farm next door, and we see sheep in the morning. But now it’s all changing. There were nothing but farms out here. Now there are neighborhoods and malls.”

While caring for her mother, she wrote her recently released memoir, “Walking with the Muses,” which chronicles five decades of rubbing elbows with celebrities.

“I love the process of writing, but it was a challenge,” she says. “Some people think models cannot do a thing, but we have many, many facets.”

One story talks of her relationship with Muhammad Ali, who at the time was still Cassius Clay. “He was a great human being who had a dream,” she says. “He also came up at the time when the civil rights movement was happening. We were both very young. I was 16 when I met him, and he was 22. He had come out of a terrible marriage, and we were both in Florida staying at the same hotel.”

“I had just come out of my show and somehow we got pushed together, back to back, trying to make our way to the elevator,” Cleveland continues. “Before I knew it, there I was in the elevator with Muhammad Ali, my mother and his bodyguard. We were talking to each other like two teenagers with our parents around. We looked at each other, and it was instant chemistry. He told me how much he liked seeing me in the show. He invited me to come up and have some dinner with him and his gang, so my mom and I went to his suite.”

The pair spent a few days together, though almost never alone. Early one morning, Cleveland was sitting on the beach in her bikini when Ali came running by. “He says, ‘Oh no, if you’re going to be my wife you cannot wear a bikini.’ He threw a towel around me, picked me up and ran me back to the hotel,” she says.

On another occasion, Ali took her on a drive in a convertible through a tough neighborhood. “He would say, ‘These are my people,’ and he’d sit on the back of the car and say, ‘I am the greatest.’ People would come around the car and stand there in awe of him. He wasn’t like that really. He was sort of quiet. But he’d do this whole show number. He was just amused by himself.”

Though the friends went their separate ways, Cleveland says Ali will always hold a special place in her heart. Now, she’s sharing those stories at book signings and continues to model.

“I’ve been doing this for 51 years now,” she says, “and I feel like I’m just at the beginning.”


 

Pat Cleveland will sign her new memoir, “Walking with the Muses,” at Barnes & Noble in Moorestown on Oct. 7 at 7 pm and at the Willingboro Public Library on Oct. 29 at 2 pm.

October 2016
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