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Daphne Guinness: David LaChapelle, Elton John, Bowie tributes and being a pop star in your fifties

Feb. 18, 2020

It is an archetypal vision of American suburbia: picket fences, manicured lawns, timber-clad houses in pleasant pastel blues and greens. Suddenly, a sleek black sports car smashes into this calm world, bashing over postboxes, causing parked cars to explode, and screeching to a dramatic halt after crashing into a lamppost. Out of the wreckage floats the fashion icon, philanthropist and aristocrat Daphne Guinness, her trademark tower of hair, coloured in waves of black and white in apparent homage to the stout invented by her Irish ancestor Arthur, atypically worn down. Guinness looks remarkably serene in her diaphanous Gucci gown and Jimmy Choo stilettos, considering the absolute chaos she has just caused.

“Can we get, like, something between a hurricane and nothing?” commands David LaChapelle to the man operating the wind machine, because the truth is we’re not on a suburban street at all. We’re on the set of Desperate Housewives, aka Wisteria Drive at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, and LaChapelle is directing a feature-sized crew on a shoot that is contributing to the third act of Guinness’s already highly unusual life: being a rock star.

This is the first day of what proves to be a huge undertaking, ostensibly the video for Guinness’s dancefloor-friendly single Hallucinations, but also a series of stills and short films that are a product of LaChapelle’s friendship with Guinness, 52, and the visual world they have built up after a decade of working together. LaChapelle’s hyperreal vision typically features profound messages about modern society buried under layers of kitsch, and it has made him one of the most influential fashion photographers and film-makers of modern times. He’s shot everyone from Michael Jackson to Hillary Clinton. He turned Kanye West into Jesus. Guinness, however, remains his favourite subject. Why? “She lights up the room.”

The following day there’s an even bigger shoot, this one outside an abandoned Hollywood strip mall renamed Revelations, where scores of extras attack each other, form prayer circles, make out in the street and generally engage in the kind of societal breakdown the “end times” will inevitably bring while Guinness, in a see-through dress and silver platforms, glides through the mayhem. For the third and final shoot she appears as an angel above a crowd of worshippers, next to an apparition of Jesus on the wall of a parking lot, wearing a suitably celestial dress by the Dutch designer Iris van Herpen. It feels like all aspects of American life have been crammed into a surreal world of Christian mythology, apocalyptic foreboding and disco glamour. It is a lot to take in.

“In a sense, both of us escaped the fashion world,” says LaChapelle, slumping on a sofa in a room above his studio in Hollywood, when he and Guinness meet the evening after the shoot comes to an end. “I’ve always been an outsider in fashion circles anyway. It was always, ‘Oh gosh, not that guy.’”

Instead LaChapelle, a dark-eyed 56-year-old with an air of authoritarian intensity, and yet also something of the overgrown adolescent to him, built his own universe, a part of which I have just witnessed. In the studio there are countless assistants, most of them young, male and pretty, alongside a cheerful 19-year-old called Peanut, who has been something of an adopted daughter to LaChapelle. Peanut first appeared in a shoot for Interview magazine with her mother, the make-up artist Sharon Gault, and a naked Tommy Lee of Mötley Crüe, when she was only a few months old. “I was in David’s Christina Aguilera video when I was one,” she says. “Her sparkling dress is my first memory. I guess I’ve grown up on set.”

“Fashion should come with a health warning,” says Guinness, sitting down next to LaChapelle on the sofa to take the weight off her feet, which is considerable given they are encased in foot-high platforms by the Japanese designer Noritaka Tatehana. “Now I go through that world with caution. I wear the clothes; I support people like Iris van Herpen because she is an artist and everything she does is laden with meaning, and I’ll do what I can with scholarships for design students at St Martins [the London college of art and design]. But I try not to get involved too much.”

“Kids come up to her and say, ‘I’m going into fashion because of you,’ ” interjects LaChapelle. “And she’ll say, ‘Are you sure?’ The bottom line is, you’ll have to be pretty good at designing handbags to survive.”

There is a song on Guinness’s new album, the suitably titled Revelations, called Other People’s Problems, which features the line: “You’ve got nothing mystic in your shade of lipstick.” It seems to sum up her approach to being deeply involved in the fashion world while also keeping herself one step removed.

“These days people speak like they’re going to solve the meaning of life with a new lipstick line,” she says. “They put undue meaning into fashion and take it all so terribly seriously, which is irritating but also rather funny. There are a lot more laughs to be had in a recording studio than in a fashion studio, although David’s is the exception.”

Daphne Guinness is known for her look, with high platforms and a hive of hair turning an elfin frame into a towering one, and a style that evokes an ancient, almost Arthurian quality, while embracing modernism through her patronage of fashion’s most avant-garde designers, van Herpen included. Her lesser known passion, however, is music. Revelations is sophisticated disco by way of classic French chanson – Serge Gainsbourg meets Donna Summer, wrapped up in lush orchestration – and it’s fantastic fun. It follows two earlier albums, 2016’s introspective Optimist in Black and 2018’s glam-rocking Daphne & the Golden Chord, all made with Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti. It is the latest stage in a career that only began in her late forties when, traumatised by the deaths of the stylist Isabella Blow, the designer Alexander McQueen and her brother Jasper, Guinness reassessed a life that from the outside looked gilded but was not pleasant for the person living it, something she faced with the help of a lot of tequila.

Before music came along she was a train wreck,” announces La Chapelle in a theatrically camp tone.

“I wasn’t a total train wreck …” protests the now teetotal Guinness, a little sheepishly.

“. . . Sometimes the train did come off the tracks,” La Chapelle asserts. “But then she got on the sooooooul train and she’s much happier now, much more together, and no longer self-destructive. Why is she doing this? She’s got the lifestyle already. I know that she doesn’t feel the need to be photographed because she doesn’t demand close-ups like most pop stars do. She obviously doesn’t need the money. It must be because she loves music and art and creating visuals in an interesting way.”

“This album is about coming together, and being present, and not overthinking everything, which I have a tendency to do,” says Guinness. “It took me a long time to get here.”

She was born not only into money, but also into a family with the kind of secret history explored by writer Kazuo Ishiguro in his novel The Buried Giant. The daughter of the British peer Lord Moyne, aka Jonathan Guinness, and his second wife, the painter Suzanne Lisney, Daphne Guinness grew up between Ireland, London, St Mary’s boarding school in Oxfordshire, and a monastery in Cadaqués in Spain, where Salvador Dalí was her mother’s close friend.

“He was really nice, actually,” she says of the great surrealist. “The problem was his wife, Gala. She didn’t like children and she was really scary, so if Gala was around you had to stay in your room. She lived in a castle on her own and Dalí had to get written permission to visit her. She offered to buy my brother Valentine a Ferrari to be her lover.”

“A Ferrari?” repeats LaChappelle, losing for a moment his air of unflappable authority.

“Eventually my mother had to step in,” sighs Guinness. Valentine never got the Ferrari.


I hid in Elton John’s closet. The irony wasn’t lost on me
Guinness’s early musical tastes were shaped by her elder brothers’ Bob Dylan, Velvet Underground and Doors records, meaning she had to listen to infra dig pop names such as Abba and Michael Jackson in secret. She also grew up in the dark about her beloved grandmother’s past. Diana Mitford left Daphne’s grandfather, Bryan Guinness, the 2nd Lord Moyne, in 1932 for the British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, with even a spell in Holloway prison during the Second World War failing to weaken her devotion to the cause. Also among the deeply eccentric Mitford sisters were the novelist Nancy and the communist Jessica, while Unity – with whom Jessica shared a childhood bedroom – was a devotee of Adolf Hitler. Days after Britain declared war on Germany, Unity shot herself in the head.

“Unity wasted a bullet on herself. Why didn’t she shoot Hitler instead?” asks Guinness. “It could have stopped the Holocaust and the Second World War. It could have saved my family the shame that has followed us ever since. I knew there was something different about our family – there were things that weren’t mentioned by the grown-ups – but I didn’t know the facts until I was at boarding school and got bullied about the whole thing, which carries on to this day. The Mitfords were a product of extreme times. I had to do a lot of work on myself because of the family I’ve been born into. As a result, I went the other way.”

Guinness was all set to leave St Mary’s for a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and train for a career as a lieder singer, when life had other plans. In 1987, while skiing in Switzerland, she met Spyros Niarchos, second son of the Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos. They married soon after. She was 19.

They had three children, Nicolas, Lex and Ines, and lived what sounds like a life of luxurious solitude in Greece and New York. “I hardly saw anyone at all and my only escape was classical music. I had a music teacher in New York – I even auditioned one time for a toothpaste commercial – but it was all very much under the radar. I would go to the opera on my own, movies on my own, and the only thing that kept me going in Greece was walking around with my Walkman, listening to Wagner, Mozart and Beethoven. And singing in the forest.”

David LaChapelle’s early life could not have been more different. Born in Connecticut into a lower-middle-class family and moving to North Carolina when he was nine, he ran away to New York aged 15, chiefly to escape bullying at school, and fell in with Andy Warhol and the Studio 54 crowd. Three years later, Warhol hired him as a photographer for Interview.

“I was desperately sad and lonely when I was a kid,” says LaChapelle. “When I got to New York I would go out dancing all the time. I would go to the disco and it made me feel so free. I loved it. But then my boyfriend died of Aids – I thought I would die of Aids – and I learnt the one thing that has stayed with me ever since: work is at the core of everything. It has changed Daphne’s life and it has always been there for me, working through sad times, happy times, life’s obstacles, whatever is going on in the world … All of life’s experiences can influence you to create.”

LaChapelle claims that at the time of his death in 1987, Andy Warhol wasn’t respected in America, with his series of dollar sign paintings and collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat not selling. “The New York Times did a review of a Basquiat show in which they called him Andy’s lapdog, a washed-up has-been,” he says. “Jean-Michel was a loner and when he read that his career was over, he believed it, went back on heroin and died. That taught me how fast people go and how fickle everything is.”

Nonetheless, LaChapelle’s most famous images have entered into a canon that transcends trends: turning the rapper Lil’ Kim into a human brand on the cover of Interview by covering her naked body in the Louis Vuitton logo, having the transgender artist Amanda Lepore snort lines of diamonds, and putting a Jesus figure into a variety of urban settings for the Jesus Is My Homeboy series. His work has been dismissed as pandering to celebrity culture, not least when he turned his lens on Kim Kardashian (“Not one designer would lend us clothing for that shoot. Now people are paying her to wear their clothes”), although the apparent kitsch comes from a rather serious soul, and a Catholic one at that. It is the religious elements in his work, he claims, that shocked his audiences the most.

“In Eighties America, Christianity was embraced by the right and rebranded as ‘family values’,” he explains. “You had the preacher Jerry Falwell saying Aids was divine retribution for being gay, so the idea of Christianity wasn’t cool at all. You might get a pass if you were black, but if you were white and you went up to thank God at the Grammys, it was like, ew! I didn’t want people like Jerry Falwell perverting the truth, which as I believe in it, is a beautiful guide to living. Seeing all those people in the parking lot yesterday, staring up at the apparition of Jesus and Daphne as an angel … It was touching. Even if they were only acting.”

David LaChapelle first met Daphne Guinness in 1997, around the time of his legendary Burning Down the House shoot for Vanity Fair. Since acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, it features Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow running away from a castle they appear to have set on fire. This was not long before Guinness’s divorce, when she was moving away from wealthy domestic isolation and helping out her old friend Blow, whose boldly eccentric fashion sense had a profound impact on her own.

“Not long after that David and I ran into each other at a party in London,” adds Guinness. “He complained that he had to get on a plane the following morning and he hated packing. I said I would help him, but he was staying at Elton John’s house and he wasn’t allowed to bring anyone back, so he had to sneak me in. It was two in the morning and we were giggling away when suddenly there is a knock on the door, and then we hear Elton’s voice: ‘David, have you got someone in there?’ David goes to me, ‘Quick, quick!’ and I find myself hiding in the closet – at Elton’s house. The irony wasn’t lost on me.”

“We were the naughty children and Elton and David were the parents,” says LaChapelle. “We hit it off from then on. I liked the fact that while a lot of people in her position drift from party to party, she’s very well read, very appreciative of poetry, and hard-working.”

Since then, the two have built a bond that is based on trust: her trusting him, that is. In 2014 LaChapelle directed the fantastical video to Guinness’s Bowie-like song Evening in Space. She had no idea he was getting her to make love to an alien.

“It took me six months to figure that out,” she confesses.

“She’s very innocent, really,” says LaChapelle. “But most of all, it takes courage to do what she does.”

It also takes Herculean levels of patience if the Cecil B DeMille-like shoot I’ve just witnessed is anything to go by. For both days, Guinness was in hair and make-up for at least five hours. “That’s nothing,” she says, brushing it off with a single-note laugh that Mick Jagger calls “the unmistakable Guinness cackle”. “David always says he put me through modelling boot camp, which is true because if there is something very dangerous that nobody else will do, he can get me to do it. Last May, he had me in a microlight, which is a plane about as big as a hang-glider. It was freezing and the plane kept breaking down over the hills of Maui. I’ve been left up mountains, placed on the edge of volcanoes, been made to stand entirely still for ten hours … Everything else is easy compared with working with David, but it isn’t nearly as rewarding.”

In 2006, LaChapelle stepped away from celebrity photography, feeling burnt out and somewhat disgusted by the commercialism and vanity he was a part of. He went to live on an organic farm on Hawaii, where he still stays for six months of the year. “I thought I was done with pop stars. We started a farm out there. We built an eco-house, kept goats, and felt how precious it is to get your feet into the soil because the tropics are changing so fast now that you can’t take anything for granted. Then, 12 years ago, I got a call to show in art galleries again. Now my life has come full circle.”

Guinness’s life is rather more itinerant. When I ask if she lives in London, she replies, “I think so. Oh God! I’m so hopeless. I live in mid-air.” Prior to the LA shoot with LaChapelle, she was locked away for months in a recording studio in Holland Park with her manager and musical director, Malcolm Doherty, whom she met while doing backing singing in Tony Visconti’s Bowie revival band, Holy Holy.

“The style wanders through different landscapes with each album, but there is a constant, which is Daphne,” says Doherty on Guinness’s musical output. “She reminds me of a painter who goes through their blue period and so on. We’ve just had the mirrorball period, and for the next album we’re heading somewhere between Talking Heads and Philip Glass. We’re going through the looking glass.”

She has something to help her go through that looking glass now and then. There is a song on the new album called Permission to Dance, which she describes as “mushroom disco”. It makes me wonder if Guinness, now clean-living but very colourful and more creative than ever, has taken magic mushrooms.

“Has she ever had them?” says LaChapelle, looking at me as if I’m an idiot. “She’s on them right now.”

“I did have some this morning,” she confesses, before letting out that unmistakable Guinness cackle. “I hope I don’t get arrested. Mind you, they do grow in the ground. Next to cowpats.”

“She does them all the time,” LaChapelle elaborates. “Everybody needs something.”

When our few days together have come to an end, I can’t help but feel that Daphne Guinness and David Lachappelle have, at 52 and 56, found each other. He is an American gay/alpha male photographer who has built a modern equivalent of Andy Warhol’s Factory in Los Angeles. She is a high-born English lady who went through wealthy domestic isolation and the madness of the fashion world before launching her musical career in her late forties. Together, they have magicked up something that, as Guinness describes it, is “a wonderful universe to live in”. One question remains. Isn’t Guinness ever worried that, in one of her extreme modelling assignments for LaChapelle, she might actually die?

“Oh no,” she replies, with the kind of breezy insouciance that simply isn’t possible for anyone concerned with something as middle class as health and safety. “As long as the pictures are all right, who cares?”

Hallucinations is out now. Revelations is out on Agent Anonyme in June

Shoot credits
Stylist Brett Alan Nelson. Make-up Anthony Nguyen. Hair Laurent Philippon. Production company Maaven. Executive producer Coleen Haynes. Production designer Tom Foden. Key hair (background) Larry McDaniel. Key make-up (background) Karen Richardson. Choreographer John Byrne

Source: The Sunday Times Magazine

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