Homa Taj In Conversation with PLAYBOY’s Artist in Residence – Olivia De Berardinis

A friend recently asked me, “How do you segue from writing about a Byzantine scholar to Playboy bunnies?” He was referring to my last interview with Professor James R. Russell, The Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at the Department of Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University.

My response? I had two words for him: Empress Theodora (c. A.D. 500-548). My fascination with the powerful wife of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I began nearly two decades ago. Theodora was the most influential woman in the Eastern Roman Empire. She was one of the first women’s rights activists whose influence on her husband’s polity substantially improved the position of women in that society. According to Procopius’ titillating account of Theodora in The Secret History (c. 550), Her Highness was, also, particularly fond of staging notoriously scandalous performances of erotic nature… in public.

So, here, Christopher. Here is your answer. Now, on with the Bunnies!

As a traditionally trained art historian and scholar I take my work very seriously. I allocate equal amounts of time researching pre-medieval Empresses as I do contemporary Pin Up artists, burlesque performers and fetish models (notice the teasers for forthcoming articles!). Needless to say, I spent many laborious hours studying my latest subject, the most famous living female Pin Up artist, Olivia de Berardinis. Olivia – as she is simply known to her fans – whom I met earlier this year in Las Vegas, has also been Playboy’s Artist in Residence, since 2002.

My investigation into her body of work, which spans nearly four decades, led me to peruse through numerous books and articles on aspects of erotica (a favourite subject of mine) as well as visits to a healthy number of websites which celebrate men and women’s sexuality – popularly known as porno.

HT – How did the daughter of an aeronautical engineer who was trained as a painter on New York City end up illustrating Pin Ups for men’s magazines?

ODB – As an only child, I was raised mainly by my mother, a working woman, since my father was mostly away travelling for work; so I was often alone – a latch-key child. I would be given stacks of papers and boxes of pencils to amuse myself. Both my parents are real characters, my mother imprinting me the most, being my first muse. She was a disgruntled tomboy glamourpuss and would entertain me with terrible imitations of Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn and Zsa Zsa Gabor.

In art school, I barely showed up for classes. I moved to Soho in the early 70’s where I lived with artists, and doing minimal paintings. NYC was a very exciting place to live as a young artist, in late the 1960’s and early 1970’s. I was waiting tables in the downtown art bars. In those days, Soho came alive after the factory workers left and the streets became territory to do all things, and call them art. There were days I walked the neighborhood and people were performing in the middle of the streets and on fire escapes. You would occasionally run into John and Yoko yelling up at buildings for entrance, (common in those days). Andy and his entourage arriving at many Leo Castelli shows. It was an exciting, drunk, drugged time of my life where everything and nothing seemed possible.  Soho was filled with young artists and everyone was bursting at the seams with creativity. It was very much a boys’ club in the “fine art” galleries. I did not see many women getting into shows. That is why I started painting erotica for sex magazines; it was fun to paint every day and I would work fanatically. It became a real high, and paid my bills. There was a real thrill about seeing my work in a magazine, unlike my brief stint in the fine art world, I could actually get somewhere and see my art in print. I thought it would be temporary, that I would go back to that world, but instead I have put that energy into what I have become: a Pin Up artist.

HT – You worked with Nancy Friday! How do you describe the nature of your relationship working with a writer? Where you ‘illustrating’ her stories or erotic visions…?

ODB – Wow, that sounds great! No, I cannot remember the details and don’t have the magazines anymore, but it was for female sex fantasies in Swank magazine, around 1975-76. The art director handed me a script and I would take off to my apartment. The column was hers, at first, then I think it became derivative. These paintings were fun to do, and a lot of work, since I had to make things up. Unable to afford models, I would improvise concepts. I would have adult magazines, books on Félicien Rops, Franz Von Bayros and everything else from Frank Frazetta to Norman Rockwell strewn all over the floor. I worked around the clock barely leaving my west village aptartment: I loved the “so wrong it seemed right” feeling of it all.

HT – What other artists had the greatest influence on your work as a painter?

ODB – I love a lot of different schools of art, but in erotica, too many to list; Gustav Klimt, Katsushika Hokusai, Egon Schiele, Aubrey Beardlsy, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Alphonse Mucha, Alberto Vargas, Enoch Bolles, George Petty, Gil Elvgren, John Singer Sargent, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Bob Fosse.

Olivia De Berardinis, Dita von Teese, Courtesy Olivia De Berardinis

HT – More specifically, there is a long tradition of female Pin Up artists, from at least, the late 19th century onward such as: Mabel Rollins Harris, Laurette and Irene Patten, Joyce Ballantyne, Pearl Frush and Ruth Deckard. Where you aware of any of them? If so,… can you elaborate.

ODB – I had to Google quite a few of these names, some of them were forced so underground that they had to change their names. I admire the tenacity of these women; they didn’t have a chance in the traditional art world. They were not my influence. Their work was too sentimental for me, but that was the era they came from, though, I can appreciate the scandalous thrill it gave them. When I started illustrating, I decided that I would paint a very direct, sexually knowledgeable woman. When I began in the mid 70’s, the 50’s Pin Ups from the time that I was growing up were everywhere: cloyingly sweet and politically incorrect, just as I was. The feminist movement was in full roar, & sweetness was not in vogue. A sexually aggressive and curious woman had emerged and that was who I wanted to paint. Barbarella, who unashamedly broke the orgasmitron, was one example… and finally, my favorite fantasy woman of all times, Sigourney Weaver’s character Ellen Ripley in the Aliens film series.

For my work in Playboy I go back and study old copies of Esquire magazine with George Petty; Playboy with Vargas; Film Fun with Enoch Bolles; and Gil Elvgren who was the Norman Rockwell of Pin Up. Each of these artists created a character very much like Marilyn Monroe did with her personae. That’s magic, and that’s what I’m after. It’s not as simple as rendering a woman. There are so many elements that I have to juggle, it really keeps me interested because it is a challenge to capture the joy, the flirtatiousness, the sensuality without bringing in too much reality.

HEF (Hugh Hefner) is my muse, now; he’s the icon-maker who has created some of the biggest sex icons of the past half century. I have to keep him interested, work in his arena. He is the legend who started his career with the love of Pin Up.

HT – When did you start to work with Playboy? How would you describe your relationship with them?

ODB – I illustrated a few editorials on and off, since the mid 1980’s. in 1985, the West Coast Photo Editor Marylyn Grabowski came to New York and asked me to work with her on a 15-page pictorial and cover for Playboy, in which Lillian Müller dressed and imitated my artwork. My husband, Joel & I flew out and were brought up to The Mansion and met Hef.  His then girlfriend Carrie Leigh commissioned a Valentine’s Day portrait of herself. When she talked to us about the commission, we sat in the back yard of The Mansion. There was a five-tiered table filled with lobsters, oysters and topped off with a dish of caviar while a large Emu was pecking at it. Flamingos and cranes and peacocks were walking around us…, it was memorable. Two years later, we moved to Malibu in ‘87, and became regulars at The Mansion. My work was used for many of the party invites, but I was not in the magazine very often back then. By 1995, Hef started using my Bettie Page paintings with his captions in the magazine. He was testing me out and eventually moved me to the Vargas spot. Now, every month I do an illustration and he does the captions. My work has been used for about 25 of Hef’s private parties dating back to ‘85. That was pretty awesome because Hef has a pretty impressive guest-list which he would send invitations to, and on the nights of the party a blow-up of the invite would greet everyone in the grand hall entrance.

“I have posed for Olivia and Alberto Vargas, and both have created profoundly beautiful works of art. Olivia is a remarkably talented artist who has deservedly inherited the mantel of Vargas.” Mamie Van Doren (private correspondence with Homa Taj)

HT – What is it like to work with Hugh Hefner? In addition to the private events, does he commission you with specific images… etc?

ODB – Working with the icon whose entire career is based on Pin Up, whose empire was started on that aesthetic was a pretty intimidating job. Hef has been very generous to Joel and I, opening his home to us for over 25 years. He is a good friend and we love him. However, it can be a bit nerve-wracking when I submit scans of art pieces that I have done to him. Sometimes I get a call from him complaining that I am going in the wrong direction, and others he writes a caption for right away. Yes, the captions are all Hef’s!

He has old school ideas about what Pin Up should look like: no tattoos, no flat shoes, etc. Sometimes I have submitted pieces that push his boundaries, which he has rejected. Also I know this may be surprising but he has a great fondness for well-endowed blondes. I have a different viewpoint and have painted many models with them in my books, the newest one of which is coming out soon. Malibu Cheesecake [see accompanying image] has a large number of Playboy pieces. There is also a lot of work that was not done for Playboy, including some Dita Von Teese paintings and the commissions I have executed for Margaret Cho as well as adult film actresses, Nina Hartley and Taylor Wane.

HT – You have managed, single-handedly, to revive interest in all things Bettie Page. How did your interest in Page arise…?

ODB – I knew the man who was the first person to publish retro Bettie Page books in the mid 70’s. He managed me very briefly and let me use some of his pictures of Bettie for my work. Along with Robert Blue, I painted her early on. But around the early 90’s, Dave Stevens really brought the spotlight on to her with The Rocketeer (1991). Her fame was based on this counterculture phenomenon that influenced fashion and sexual tastes.

HT – Did you ever meet Bettie Page? What were her responses to your work…?

ODB – At a big party in the 90’s, Hef told Joel & I that Bettie was at The Mansion, incognito. He was very pleased that she had come for a visit. That’s when I met her which was pretty amazing since, by that time, I had been painting her for 20 years. Bettie, who was in her 70’s, was dressed in a red plaid flannel shirt, and she had the famous BP hairdo. We did know her, all the way to the end. She’s buried 20 high-heeled steps from Monroe. There’s a recording of her saying how much she loved my work on an NPR’s Studio 360 piece and it will be transcribed in my forthcoming book. Bettie had a tough last few years.

HT – Do you consider your work pornographic? Why yes or no? (FYI, I don’t. I think that the playfully Pin Up nature of your work for Playboy often renders your paintings more sensual than sexual…)

ODB – I have no problems with pornography. My work is in men’s magazines because women don’t own sex magazines. Fashion and celebrity magazines fill the female porn arena. Everybody is going to have to draw their own limits, mine has always been: no harm to anyone and leave the pets alone.

HT – Who are the most famous models (including actresses) with whom you have worked?

ODB – Many of the models whom I portrayed weren’t famous when I first painted them; it was fascinating to watch Pam Anderson and Dita Von Teese become famous. Margaret Cho, Courtney Love, Masuimi Max, it’s great fun to have them as muses. Margaret Cho, the sweetest, funniest person, showed up at our shoot with her own full sized China-town dragon. Courtney showed up with attitude, which is what you want from your Courtney Love, I wasn’t disappointed.

HT – To what do you credit the rise in popularity of burlesque and Pin Up art and fashion, over the past several years?

ODB – My book American Geisha is inspired by the artist in my models. It references some of the first known Pin Ups that were the Japanese Geishas. Their pictures and prints were among the first mass-produced images that were collected and “pinned up.” The Geishas were admired for the influence they had on women and fashion, very much like the beauty icons of today. They were also “pinned up” by many of the later 19th century European artists and had great influence on the Impressionist and modern art movements. I think many of my models have been created by and have become the muses of the fashion world. Today, my greatest audience is comprised of women; so this time, I think that it’s the women who are fuelling the fire for Pin Up and burlesque. They not only perform in it, they own it.

I define some of my models as walking works of art. Many of them are performance artists like Dita who is a burlesque superstar. She single-handedly revived elaborate Swarovski-studded burlesque. This and her 1940’s pinup style, has influenced a number of top international designers. Also the revival of Bettie’s uniform of bullet bra, 7″ heels, black bangs and a whip has been a mainstay in the fashion world …ever since Madonna came out with her Jean Paul Gautier bra. Masuimi Max is another of my favourites; she is my anime Pin Up. Masuimi does burlesque with fire. My newest model, Claire Sinclair (The Playboy Playmate Miss October 2010), will be performing at The Crazy Horse Paris.

HT – What is the ideal characteristic of a Pin Up model? Be it a (set of) personality trait(s) or physical quality(ies).

ODB – As Margart Cho said, it’s like doing drag. Some models are easier than others to render. For me it’s all in the face which is the soul, it’s in the eyes, everything else follows. Some models get the connection to this history in what I do, others sadly are either too young or uneducated about the aesthetics of old screen and stage sirens. Even if they are a mix of Marilyn Monroe and Betty Boop, these influences have shaped the models’ personas and what I’m seeing when Joel shoots them is those influences reinterpreted in their sexuality. Every woman is gloriously unique, but in modelling, it comes down to possessing the talent to show this inner spark.

HT – Your husband Joel Beren is a collector of erotic art. How much of his taste in erotica and collecting influences your production?

ODB – Joel and I have been married for 31 years; we have been partners and collaborate in many aspects of my work. His influence on me is invaluable. Even our battles over paintings shape their direction… and, whether I like it or not, they are integral part of the art. I get the glory he gets all the other stuff. Joel creates and publishes the books, grumbles, manages, and does the photography. He has an incredible eye and has been collecting many forms of vintage erotica: everything from Weimar images to 50’s fetish photos, and fetish shoes. He also has an extensive collection of 1920’s French postcards from which I love to paint. And he has been collecting stereographic photos on all sorts of subjects dealing with the nude, from artist-models to street prostitutes that date from the late 19th century through the 1930’s. Some of these are very beautiful, & the women are all varied and different. Joel will be publishing a stereographic book of many of these pictures from his collection, sometime next year.

So, yes, all of these do influence me. I think that we are both very lucky.

HT – How would you describe your collectors? Do they commission you to paint …?

ODB- Commissioned paintings are quite personal and often have no commercial value, so they are very expensive. Margaret Cho and Courtney Love, each of whom has a very different personality type, commissioned their portraits. I loved painting both of them whose images will be in my new book. I have had many different clients; my favorites are women who purchase the art for themselves. Recently, we had the CEO of a company fly over in her private jet to pose for her commission. In her corporate world, the only thing that gives a hint at her racy side is her red lipstick.  Many powerful women have come to me for private commissions.

HT – I think that (American) Playboy is quite conservative, designed to appeal to Middle America’s apple pie aesthetics of … well, the-girls-next-door. Do you see them changing their direction anytime soon?

ODB – Yes, Hugh Hefner likes the girls next door, but he lives in a very different neighborhood.

In memoriam Empress Theodora