David Bailey has seen it all: as the King of Swinging London, Mr Love Pants himself, he knew everyone, snapped everyone, slept with - well, nearly everyone. So how does he pass the time now?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
BEFORE I meet him, I think, in my patronising little way, that it must be incredibly annoying to be David Bailey, mutely witnessing the alleged resurgence of Brit-cool though no longer being considered an integral part of it. Bailey is, after all, the man who's done it all. Commoner than Alexander McQueen, sexier than Jarvis Cocker, a whole lot wittier than Messrs Gallagher (not hard, admittedly), and edgier than all of them put together, he was once a cocky, strutting one-man ad for groovy Britishness. He discovered vicar's daughter Jean Shrimpton, lived with her for three years and made her the most desirable woman alive. He married cool-but- torrid Catherine Deneuve ("Don't worry, love," he said, photographing her naked for Playboy. "I'm a homosexual.") He also married Marie Helvin, opined that she had the best body in the world, and lived with her in a house with a black drawing room and 100 parrots, until he caught psittacosis.

It goes on, and on. He dated funny-looking model Penelope Tree, daughter of a billionaire father and of socialite diplomat Marietta, one-time doyenne of smart New York political life. He hung out with the Stones, and the Beatles, and was the alleged inspiration for the David Hemmings character in Blow Up. He had an amazing amount of column inches devoted to him. Blah blah. You know. Swinging London's fave snapper, Mr Love Pants himself - and a good, boundary- breaking Cocknee Sparrer to boot: no wonder it took me about a week to plough through his cuttings ("David Bailey Makes Love Daily").

However. Let us be brutally frank: Bailey is not a name that trips off the lips of today's more cutting-edge fashion-makers. He is no doubt revered and cherished and referred to with great admiration, but his famed triple relationship with British, American and Italian Vogue, for instance, ended decades ago (he used to have his own personal printer at Vogue House). In the current issue of Elle magazine, 12 photographers were asked for a potent cover-image for the new millennium. David Bailey's is reprinted the smallest of all of them, which I expect pissed him off a great deal. Still, he churns out books of his pictures, the last of which, The Lady is a Tramp, featured his fourth wife, Catherine Dyer, in an array of poses from hot lezzo encounter to having a poo. The South Bank Show devoted a programme to Bailey and the book, so we also got to see his home movies of Catherine in labour, screaming. Apart from that, he's been busy directing over 500 commercials, and occasionally starring in some himself ("Oo do ya fink you are? David Bailey?" went one, for Olympus). He also paints - large canvases featuring lumpen little creatures in ointmenty colours. He is far from un-busy, and to be fair to him he said "I stopped working for magazines 10 years ago" in 1989. The reason? "They don't want it good anymore - they want it new." They still do.

So anyway there he is, grand old man and all that, ploughing his no doubt well-remunerated furrow. It's, you know, really cool and everything, and I'm sure Bailey has done some thrillingly shocking things in his time, but, well, here we are in 1998 ... Perhaps Bailey (never "David" - annoyingly, I chickened out of telling him to call me "Knight") thought this too, because a year ago he jumped at the chance when Channel 4 approached him to make a series about modelling. There has, in the past year, been an abundance of TV programmes on the subject, and I can't say any of them gripped me very much. So it was with a heavy heart and a great urge to nap that I sat down and watched his. To my surprise, I was gripped, and my initial plan (watch one and pretend to have seen the rest) went awry. Apart from the fact that the Bailey had unprecedented access to everyone in fashion, darling, one time supermodels actually talk, at length. Bailey has a weirdly successful interviewing style, consisting of not saying much and giggling a lot, which has the effect of making people blurt. The result is extraordinarily revealing, both of the modelling industry (enough vile, reptilian men to make your hair curl) and of the models and photographers themselves. Sex, drugs, bile, bitchery, tantrums, growing old - the films tell it like it is in minute, visceral detail.

They also tell us a little bit about Bailey. Since the interviews are straightforward, one-on-one conversations, Bailey and whoever he is talking to naturally address each other as "you". Except that is, in the third programme, when most of the models interviewed speak (unprompted, no doubt) about the joys of "working with Bailey". "I love working with Bailey," they say to Bailey. "Bailey's great." "Bailey - now he's fabulous." Bailey, understandably, says nothing directly to camera, but you know he's there, being all quiet, which make the solemn paeans of (well deserved) praise faintly comical. This goes on for about 10 minutes, and strikes one as an oddly - not to mention transparently - insecure little ploy.

Anyway, the films are very good. So here I am, in Bailey's not-quite- Clerkenwell-but-nearly studio (he lives round the corner in a converted factory in King's Cross). As I am saying hello, my eye catches a huge black-and-white print of an enormous black penis. To its right is its partner picture, a very big close up of a hirsute vagina (white). Framed by genitalia, Bailey looks relaxed and friendly (he has, in the past, been an occasionally spiky interviewee). And indeed, he is charming, having ascertained my credentials. "Are you nice?" he says. "Delightful." "You're not a libber, are you?" "No." "Good," he says, looking pleased. We sit down. I can still see the enormous willy out of the corner of my eye. He says he likes my name. "I'm sure I'm Indo-European myself," he volunteers. "I mean, do I look English?" Less and less, actually. "Good. I hate the word `Brits'," he says, kyboshing (or anticipating?) my notion that he feels left out of Brit-cooldom. "I hate it as much as the word `football'. I hate that kind of comfortable, cosy, Brit attitude. It makes me ill, actually. I feel unBrit, slightly foreign." Funnily enough, I do feel that there is something of the exile about him, a sort of sharp disengagement mixed with wry amusement and a tiny pinch of bemused disapproval. But then I'm very suggestible, so who knows.

I say how odd it is to hear Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell et al speak in the films. "No one's zeroed in on modelling properly," he says enthusiastically, wriggling himself into his armchair. "I knew I could get to all of them - they're all mates. And I'm not a journalist," he adds, beadily, "so I wasn't going to stitch them up." Bailey segues with the suggestion that modelling is not a particularly shallow profession. Really? "No." (He doesn't say "nah", incidentally. "I don't `tork loik vat' anymore," he says later. "I don't know why people say I do.") "It's no more shallow or superficial than selling lightbulbs," he says. "I mean, it's all shallow. I'm shallow. You're shallow. Selling BMWs is not exactly deep. We're none of us rocket scientists." Are models stupid, I ask, with particular reference to Naomi Campbell? "She's ... she's ... she's very kind-hearted," he says. "But she's an angel with horns. Now Penelope Tree [whom he lived with for eight years] is incredibly intelligent. As is Shrimpton. Lots of fat little journalists can't bear that some of the girls are not only beautiful and rich, but also quite bright. They're not necessarily educated, obviously, but they are streetwise. Kate Moss is bright."

I say that I found a particular little segment in one of the films poignant. This follows a talent scout from Elite model agency in South Africa. He ends up in a township and homes in on a beautiful 15-year-old. She is holding hands with her friend and laughing. We see the scout talk to the girl's puzzled mother about taking her to Cape Town for some test shots. On the day, the girl is wearing a starched Sunday-school type dress, like a small child. She's never been out of the township before, let alone to Cape Town, and next we see her, wearing pristine little socks and sitting very straight in Elite's blond-wood- and-chrome (and white-staffed) offices. I thought the image was pretty good shorthand for the corrupting power of the modelling industry - you can't bear it for the girl, knowing what the film tells you about drugs and sex and predatory lechers. Bailey nods: "Yeah, yeah, absolutely," he says, looking me straight in the eye. Oh good, I think, he put that bit in on purpose, being subversive, biting hands. So I ask, does he know what happened to the girl? "No, no. Anyway, there's a province in China where people, girls, are 5ft10. I wanted to go there but there was no time." No idea what happened to the girl at all? "No. Five ten, they are! Amazing." What was her name? "Can't remember."

Appropriately, since Bailey is now 60, the films are also good on the cruelty of ageing in a profession which so values youth that the angel- faced Christy Turlington talks about being "old" (she's 30). The amazing- looking and fabulously named modelling veteran Carmen del Orifice still occasionally graces the catwalk, and also talks about her looks. I was fascinated by her face throughout the first two programmes. In the third, she talks bluntly about being made out of silicone. This saddened me: the woman is in her seventies, and still striving for physical perfection. What does Bailey think? "I think Jean [Shrimpton, who is filmed wind-swept and make-up-less and wearing grubby pumps] hasn't bothered, and Carmen has," he says, somewhat dismissively. "It's all relative. Anyway, models are going to get older. It's going to be the New Old." He leans forward, and fixes me intently. "I'm part of the New Old," he says, not looking best pleased. "I'm not moving over for anyone. The young can move over for me." "The New Old" is a phrase he used as far back as 1990; I expect it preys on his mind even more than he is willing to let on.

He looks a bit weary, as you would. Does he still get excited by a beautiful face? "It's always amazing," he says, sounding like he really means it. "It's like a flower you've never seen before." Which, written down, sounds clumsily faux-lyrical - but when he says it, there is no doubting Bailey's sincerity. "I can never get it right," he says "Never. That's why I carry on. I mean, I find it all a bit torturous - it's hardly like eating a knickerbocker glory. Photography is so hard, because it looks so easy. My portraits aren't about photography, anyway. Photography is the tool - but there's always a white background, and no help. You have to draw the person out with your own personality ... Mind you, I'm not mad about that blond, generic, Scandinavian look. I like the not-normal idea of a model - I've always gone for the peculiar ones. I treat them more like portraits than fashion pics."

He has spoken before about his dislike of technology, and of how glossy magazines' new ability to alter girls' faces in their art rooms was spoiling things for photographers. He doesn't seem to recall this, or perhaps he doesn't want to seem old-fashioned, because he says, "There's only so much you can do before the girl starts looking like an illustration." But does he find any of the newer girls - e.g. eyebrowless Mancunian Karen Ellison, who appears in his films talking about being nicknamed "The Freak" - ugly? "Fashion is just a circle," he answers. "Except that it is going round faster and faster. It is very, very difficult to do anything new. Art died with Picasso in 1973," he adds, not un-melodramatically (his daughter, now 13, is called Paloma).

I thought that in the Sixties - and subsequently too, presumably - Bailey was something of a New Lad prototype: there is a discussion in one of the Models films between him and a sleazeball agency owner, during which the two men discuss the number of models they have slept with - about 500 each - and roar with laughter. But it turns out Bailey isn't a fan of Loaded and its ilk. "I hate all that," he says. "It's obscene. I don't understand it. And I don't get that working-class Gary Oldman thing, either. I mean, we were working-class, but very well-mannered - bourgeois, almost. There was this strange kind of discipline. But bad things sell, and so what, really? It appeals to the lowest common denominator. I think there's got to be some kind of limit."

I am initially surprised by his vehemence, but then it all falls into place: Bailey isn't an oiky one-dimensional man's man at all, though he occasionally strives quite hard to give a testosterone-filled, gorblimey kind of impression. Although he liked cars and girls and dandyish clothes, there was, and remains, a sort of effeminacy about him, underneath the growly bear-like bluster. I imagine that in his youth he was that most blissful of creatures, the heterosexual man who thinks like a queen - giggly, bitchy, culturally literate, visually aware, beauty-loving, good- looking, randy. It's an appealing combination of virtues, and he still exudes amused naughtiness (he has a faintly mincing walk, too). So of course he doesn't like New Lad culture: Bailey is nothing if not fastidious.

I went to interview David Bailey wondering whether he'd served his purpose. He did an amazing, groundbreaking thing, revolutionising photography - if it weren't for him and his subsequent imitators, we'd still be looking at pictures of poised, angular "gels" in white gloves and ballgowns, standing rigidly, finger on chin. Apart from that he is, of course the chronicler of the Sixties: he has laid them out in front of us in black and white. Anyway, half an hour or so into the interview I started feeling ashamed of myself: what have I ever done? Bailey is charming, articulate, funny (when the interview was over, he said "Hello, Mr Photographer," to Andrew, who was taking our pictures. Andrew was too busy setting up to hear him. "Christ," muttered Bailey grumpily. "I hope his eyes are better than his ears."), and I'm told by people who know about such things that he still takes pretty good pictures. He is also a great deal cleverer than he lets on, or possibly realises. For all the bluster, there is a kind of faintly wounded sensibility about him, which explains the defensiveness and which is endearing. I don't think he has anything to feel defensive about: groundbreaking is enough. As far back as 1965, the Daily Mirror was asking whether, at 27, the only way for Bailey to go was down. It wasn't, and I don't think he's about to start now.

! `Models Close-Up' begins on Channel 4 on 16 September.