Catwalk Confidential, Part 2: Robyn Peterson on Helmut Newton & Shopping With Kenzo

In part one, we introduced you to Robyn Peterson, the playwright and star of Catwalk Confidential, which opens tonight at the Arsht Center and runs through the weekend. The one-woman show explores Peterson's teenage years in Miami Beach and her role in the tumultuous world of Parisian high-fashion in the early '70s. Here's the second part of Cultist's Q&A with her. 

New Times: When you finally went to Paris at age 16, what was your

initial reaction when you first got there? It must have been


Robyn Peterson: It

was overwhelming, but it was beautiful! It was absolutely beautiful. I

remember being on the bus from the airport into the center of town, and

looking around and passing the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. It was like

something I had never seen coming from Miami. I hadn't traveled or

anything. I had been to New York City, but Paris is a magical place!

It's the queen of the world. I remember thinking in the bus, "I'm going

to live here for a long time." I loved it there.

What was the first major job you booked there?

The first major job I booked in Paris was for Italian Vogue. My agent sent me to go meet with a photographer, and I only had $50, so it wasn't like I could take cabs all over town, and I didn't speak French. So at the time, I had to figure out how to get there on the Metro. It was in Montmartre, so I had to walk up this hill with high heels on. 

I went in, and the guy did some photographs, and he was kind of dark and mysterious. I remember his shoes were spray-painted silver, and I thought it was really weird. Coming from Miami, we're kind of ready for weird. But I figured this was some French thing. 

So afterwards I said, "Can I have some of the photographs you took?" He said, "Well, there isn't any film in the camera. I just wanted to see if you could actually move around the way I need you to." 

I went back to the agent and said, "This was a total waste of time with this guy!" But he booked me the next morning to go to Italy, to Milan, to do Italian Vogue, and it really started me working. 

His name was Jean-Jacques Bugat, a brilliant photographer, and I ended up working with him many times over the years. I also became best friends with the other gal who was on the booking, who happened to be his girlfriend at the time, and we still correspond, which is fun. 

Then I went on to work with many others. The poster for the show, that was done by Alice Springs, Helmut Newton's wife, and that was her first job. She's still doing photographs, and is quite an amazing woman.

I stayed in Paris for about 10 years, and then I came back to America, and went to acting school, and started acting. I've been acting and writing ever since. 

I had a best friend who died, a model named Wallace. She was just amazing, and her death was mysterious. A magazine asked me to write a piece about her, and as I was writing it, I started thinking about all of these women I knew young. 

We were all so young, and we were all friends and living together in this very short little capsule of tie, in this lifestyle on hold, behind this mask of beauty that's not really reality. I wondered, what happened to all these girls who dreamed of all these rainbows? What did they go? What made us all go there at such a young age, when there are other choices you could make? 

So I started writing about all those characters, which is how I started to come up with the idea of putting it together as a play, Catwalk Confidential, to get the story from the model's point of view, not the press' point of view from the outside. 

You really see what happens in there, and the competition, and the significant influence on the fashion world that young women in the early '70s had. You had birth control pills, marijuana, Marvin Gaye, bell-bottoms, pre-Raphaelite hairdos and cowboy boots. It was a whole reinvention of a world that expanded in the early '70s. 

So would you say that the high fashion world ended up being more influenced by the regular girls who came to model? There's a sentence here in the official description of your show that says "the grand couturier houses were in free fall." What do you mean exactly?

During World War II, Paris was basically shut down. The fashion industry was shut down, and the Nazis supported a lot of the haute couture houses when they came into Paris. It was devastated anyways, and after they left, haute couture didn't have any customers who were willing to spend that kind of money. 

They couldn't afford the time it took to go for five and six fittings. Plus, you didn't really want to stand out any more. There was a sense that you didn't want to look like the rich lady who lunched. Those people were getting strung up!

Then you had the young riots; the students were rioting in the street. They didn't want to look like the bourgeois any more. Everybody kind of wanted to break free. 

I remember working with a designer called Kenzo. He was just starting out, and he would go to flea markets and buy pieces of cloth and cut them up and sew them together in a patchwork, and that's now his trademark. But he didn't have money to buy bolts of fabric. 

And they have these syndicates in France, and you have to be a member of the syndicate to buy fabric, to be considered haute couture. So all of a sudden these younger designers came in, and they were doing ready to wear, so you could get it off the rack, and not go for fittings, and not be a zillionaire to get something that looked terrific.

So do you think that was a direct result of the influx of the American, British, and Swedish models who came into the industry in Paris like you mentioned? 

Yes I do, and the young designers who came in also. It was the combination of the models and designers together, and also the photographers. Photography, unlike an oil painting, is a specific image that stops time for that second that that shutter takes to open and close. So you get that vision right then of those three creators together. You've got the designer, the photographer, and the model all together, putting down an image that is marked for time. 

I mean I'm sure you have an outfit or two in your life; we all have one or two I think. I had a brown polka-dot dress when I was a little girl, and in my mind that dress was exquisite. For some reason when I put that dress on, I felt amazing! You know, we all have that. 

Fashion allows us to present ourselves to the world in the way we want to be seen. I thin the influence of young women, even today in the fashion world, the influence of young women and how they see fashion, and their decision of how they're gonna wrap that scarf, put that skirt on with the socks and the high heels, it's exquisite to look at. We all grow in and out of things, though, thank God. 

What made you choose to leave the industry finally?

The work started slowing down, and I decided I wanted to move back to America. I had always wanted to be an actress. Modeling just kind of came along, and I jumped on the bus, and I'm glad I did; I had a great time. There were a lot of ups and downs in the modeling world, and god knows I went through them all. But in the end, it's just a great experience to work with all those talented people. It's like a gift.

Then I came back and went to acting school, and did what i always wanted to do, and I'm doing it now still! I'm not ready to hang the sequins up until I run out of makeup.

My next question is not exactly what took you so long, but what made you decide to broach this period of your life now, specifically, and in play form rather than, say, a memoir?

Well, I did start to write a memoir. But I'm also a performer, and I realized that to fully fill out this story, I needed to include some of the things that happened around me. I thought the best form for doing this in an enjoyable way would be the theater. So there is memoir in it. I like to say it's part memoir, part fairy tale, part romance, but it is based in reality. It has a beginning, middle, and very, very juicy end. 

Any hints as to how juicy it is?

Really juicy, that's all I'm going to say, honey! You won't be disappointed.

How did you re-structure the play from having eight characters into one person? What was the biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge was getting a beginning, a middle, and an end, and keeping a consistent spine. I really wrote the play for women, but it turns out men really enjoy it also. So I directed it towards women, to what we feel as women, because it's a model's point of view. 

It takes place in the model, how she feels when she's walking down the runway, how she feels when she's lost that job to the much younger girl. How she feels when she's going through competition, how she feels when a love affair doesn't work out. It's a survivor story, and a coming-of-age story. So the challenge was keeping it all together, and then chopping it up and getting it all into place.

I got two chances at the new works festival at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, like I said. I had my dramaturge, Luis Alfaro, who won the MacArthur grant, and he was just phenomenally helpful, as well as my director, Tony Abatemarco, the visionary of all time. 

We worked together on this, and over the last eight years I've done readings, and festivals, and I've honed it every time I do something with it, even onstage. We were in the West End last year, and there was a scene I was never really happy with. Every time I'd go onstage, I'd re-write it as I was doing it, until we finally came up with the perfect rhythm, and not have the piece dip so far so that you never get the audience back. 

It's got a lot of music in it, and it's fast, and I think it should be fast and fun. I'm really not there to send a message, know what I mean? It's entertainment.

The version you're going to present here in Miami, is that the final version or do you think it will change again before the next time you produce it?

I don't know, we'll see what happens in Miami! This is a great place for me to do it, because I am from here, and my sensibilities do lie here. When I've done this show in Los Angeles, the reaction is much different than it is in Europe. 

This is really funny -- I have a scene in there where we talk about liverwurst. Now there's not a soul in Florida who doesn't know what liverwurst is. Most everyone in America knows what liverwurst is. But they don't have liverwurst in England! We had to re-write the scene around pate. So we're very happy we get to take pate out and put liverwurst back in!

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Arielle Castillo
Contact: Arielle Castillo