How We Met: Steve Mcqueen And Johnny Sapong

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The Independent Culture
Steve McQueen (right), 29, is an artist, and graduated from Goldsmiths College in 1993. He has had solo exhibitions, in which he shows short films, sculpture and photographs, at the Museums of Modern Art in Chicago and New York. His first major solo exhibition in Britain is at the ICA, London SW1, until 21 March. He is based in Amsterdam. Johnny Sapong, 29, styles hair for catwalk shows; his clients include Alexander McQueen, Red or Dead and Katharine Hamnett. He lives in Ealing, London

STEVE McQUEEN: I can't actually remember the first time I set eyes on Johnny. We both grew up in Ealing and were part of a group that used to hang out together. We were about 12, I guess, because that was when we really started going out on our own after school to meet up in places like Lammas Park. Ealing is the Queen of the Suburbs and so we were trusted to go out on our own because there were a lot of safe areas to play football, listen to music and have a laugh. It was one of those places where suburbia really had an important part to play in people's lives. No one was pressurised to do anything and there was the freedom to do whatever you wanted.

My earliest memory of Johnny is laughing that kind of laugh with him that you only remember having when you were at school. If I laugh that hard now, it always reminds me of being young. At the time we were laughing at ourselves, as much as at anything else, but Johnny was always cool and easy. He's always treated everyone on the same level and I think that's something really special about him as a person, because everyone judges people in some way. He's always had that about him, and he's always been immediately likeable.

Our friendship developed through two mutual friends, Simon Foxton and John Noel, after the group had fallen away a bit and everyone was doing their own thing. We'd lost contact for a while, because we were both hellishly busy, but managed to keep up with things through John, who was a bit of a go- between. He'd say "Johnny's doing this" and "Steve's doing this", and we'd both say, "Yeah? Great!". We really got back together again at John's wedding about four years ago. Johnny looked like the Cat in the Hat because he had this big hat on, and a white suit, and he was just as I remembered him - that's a good quality of his. It sounds too comfortable, but then most good friendships are; you just fit with someone and it's easy.

These days he's always flying off somewhere. I'm the same, but Johnny does it more, because he's the man, basically. So we don't get to see each other that often. I live in Amsterdam, and Johnny still lives in Ealing, so when I come over I stay at my mum's and I'll see Johnny if he's around. We'll go for a meal, usually with John and his wife, and Johnny's girlfriend. We'll only go out to a party if it's a good party. No celebrity bashes or events like that, because it's just not our thing. I admire Johnny because he's so sensible. There's no rock'n'roll or ego-celeb nonsense with him. It's all about what you do, and if you do the best you can at what you do then that's it. That's how Johnny gets his jobs. He does what he does well and with a wonderful manner. It's just very down-to-earth and, again, I think it's in part to do with this Ealing crowd mentality and the fact that there was never a sense of division or hierarchy. Everyone was cool and everyone was happy. As long as you've got food on your plate, what are you going to fight about?

We're definitely similar in that we both want to do the best we can do and want our environment to be the best it can be. I get the impression we're both people who are vigorous at what we do. Perhaps not vigorous, because it's a very sharp word, maybe considered is more accurate. Same word, but much blunter edges. The philosophy is that there's a time for play and a time for work - and when you're working, get on with it! I'm definitely the more animated one, though. If two things dropped off the table and one went "dud" - well, I'd be the saucer that shattered, because that's my nature. I can't imagine Johnny getting angry, and I wouldn't want to be there when he does, because he's just so chilled-out.

Johnny's also very considerate, and that's another thing that makes the friendship. London is a funny place right now, people are so into their ways that it's almost impossible to get people out for a drink. That's not to say that you should drop everything to see your friends, but there's has to be a kind of respect in a friendship where you make time for the other person. You've got to make the connection, because it's a kind of commitment. With Johnny it's a 50:50 exchange, and then there's the extra. And when the extra is given because you want to, and returned vice-versa, then you know it's a real friendship. With Johnny and I, our friendship is as on- going as our childhood influences. It's one of those touchstone relationships that you have, and they're always there. I think I'll be back in Ealing in 10 years' time, and I suspect Johnny will still be there, because we have such strong associations with the place. In the meantime we'll just carry on as we are: being friends and being nice guys with beards.

JOHNNY SAPONG: The Ealing influence is much more apparent now when we look back at the kids that we grew up with, who are now pop stars, actors, directors or whatever. It's not to say that everyone who came out of Ealing at that time took that path, but there's quite a few references there if you look. I grew up and hung out with the Jamiroquai lot and when we were 14 or 15 there was a definite scene. We would all meet up, or end up at the same parties. Steve was part of that and we had mutual friends and connections. For me the friendship has been consistent since then because I see Steve as a good friend. In those terms it means that you're there for each other if need be, but at the same time you've still got your own vehicles and courses.

He lives in Amsterdam now, and if I don't speak to him directly I hear what's going on from, say, Simon Foxton, a mutual friend, who might have spoken to him because he's around more than me. We're always in touch, one way or another, and when we get together it's not "What are you doing at the moment?", it's "How are you?"

Steve and I both spent time in New York in 1993; he'd just finished at Goldsmiths and I was starting to do session work over there. You could say we lost contact, but to say there was a break here or there is not relevant. As friendships go, it's never been about the amount of time spent together. It's more about just enjoying the times that you have. To judge the strength of a friendship on time is very odd. If I don't get to see him I'm still involved and interested in what he's doing.

I spend most of my time abroad now, and I know that Steve feels sometimes that London isn't a good place for him to work in. That's why he's chosen to live in Amsterdam, and if I could do my work from somewhere like that I would live there too. It's laid-back and easy, with a nice ambience. But at the same time I feel like that when I'm away from London a lot; it's the whole Ealing thing again. I don't do anything in Ealing apart from live there and go about my daily business and there's a certain anonymity. You know who you know, because you've known them for years, and if someone sees you in a newspaper they just shout: "Oi!" There's a certain amount of value in the fact that they just have a chuckle at it all.

When we do meet up we'll go out and have dinner and a chinwag about what's been going on. Steve speaks extremely quickly, although he'd probably say I mumble, and sometimes in conversation he'll be giving me information and it will all come out at the same time. It's like this incredible urgency to tell you things, because he's thinking so fast. It's quite funny, rather like watching a cartoon character. Occasionally when we meet up we'll talk about work, because we're both involved in media, although from relatively different worlds. Our approaches to our work are similar though. For us, it's all about being expressive in your way, and also trying to make a broader point. However, most of my work is collaborative, so although I can see aspects of my visions as an artist, I wouldn't necessarily call myself one. Steve has always had an idea in his head about things and has gone for it, and I think that applies to our Ealing peers as well. The majority of the crowd we hung round with have tried to progress and the view was always that it was down to you as an individual to make things happen.

I wouldn't say Steve's stubborn, but he knows what he wants. From his point of view it's not about shock tactics, it's just about: "This is what it is," which is good because it simplifies things. But because his visions are simple they almost appear complicated, and people are often confused by this. As a person he's wholehearted and very giving and caring. I respect and admire his ability to be himself, and to say: "This is what I see. It's not about me, it's a vision I have and I want to share it with you." We were at a friend's wedding a couple of summers ago and he turned up wearing these pink trousers and some kind of tweed waistcoat. I just thought: "Go on my son!" I was impressed. To look at the pink trousers on a rack is one thing, to wear them is something else. It looked great though, and he carried it off.

I think that's how I'd sum him up. He's got a point of view and he's going to effect it in his way. He's not going to listen to anyone telling him it's this or that. We both have an ample amount of self-confidence and we're not afraid to have an opinion. I think friendships are all about a vibe that you send out and I'm a firm believer that you attract what you project.