As one third of Andy Warhol’s Superstar triptych, Holly Woodlawn has outlived her Factory cohorts, Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling. Her biography, ‘A Low Life In High Heels’ depicted an often transient existence; a life that was turned on its head by Paul Morrissey. Today Holly Woodlawn is as vivacious as ever - less able physically, but sharp as a knife with a wicked humour. Ladies and Gents, brace yourself for a true Superstar.
Unlike so many of her fabulous and freaky contemporaries from decades gone by, Holly Woodlawn didn’t die young. For a full-blown recollection of her colourful life, read the 1991 autobiography A Low Life in High Heels. A more potted version begins with Holly – born Haroldo Santiago Franceschi Rodriguez Danhakl, in 1946 – running away from her Miami family home aged 15 in the early 1960s and hitchhiking to New York. En route, much make-up was applied, hair was teased and legs were shaved until he-she was ready to unleash her newfound womanly ways upon the Big Apple. This journey and transformation would later inspire the lyrics to Lou Reed’s 1972 hit single ‘Take a Walk on the Wild Side’, produced by David Bowie.
I’ve been called a legend, an icon, but the only thing I really like to be called is: ‘She who must be obeyed!’
Living on the streets or in shared squalid housing, Holly befriended various male prostitutes, drag queens, junkies and assorted maniacs who formed the city’s underbelly. She became a ‘respectable’ housewife to a closet case in Brooklyn for a while, then a go-go dancer, not to mention a clothing model at Saks on Fifth Avenue. She appeared on stage in various experimental theatre productions with her friends, the playwright Jackie Curtis and the ultra-glam drag queen Candy Darling. By the late ’60s, Holly, Jackie and Candy had become the core ‘Superstars’ of the Andy Warhol orbit, revolving around the artist’s studio, The Factory, and the most ‘in’ restaurant-nightclub of the era, Max’s Kansas City. Holly was duly propelled to international notoriety when the director Paul Morrissey cast her in the hugely successful 1970 Warhol-produced film, Trash.
The wonderfully tawdry ‘plot’ of Trash sees Holly playing long-suffering girlfriend to super-hunk Joe Dallesandro. They live in a grubby cellar on the Lower East Side: Holly sustains them by selling garbage she finds in and around the local streets. Alas, Joe can rarely satisfy her rampant lust due to impotence caused by his heroin addiction. In one particularly memorable scene, Holly gets ‘intimate’ with a beer bottle, after Joe yet again fails to get a stiffy. Despite having no formal drama training, she dazzles with an improvised performance throughout the film. So much so, in fact, that the prominent Hollywood director George Cukor petitioned the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Holly to be nominated for an Academy Award. Unfortunately, there was no category into which a man playing a female role could be slotted. Furthermore, Holly was unable to attend the film’s glitzy premiere, as she was in prison at the time, banged-up for embezzling money from the bank account of the wife of the United Nations’ French Ambassador!
Life post-Trash saw Holly staging sell-out solo shows in New York and beyond. She undertook a mix of film roles, was occasionally arrested, and often found herself penniless. For many years she partied hard – really hard – and hobnobbed with all manner of international stars and scumbags. She left New York in the early ’90s, relocating to California where she still resides. In recent years she has popped up in an array of documentaries about Warhol and various underground NYC figures from the past, as well as touring her shows in locations as far flung as Kraków and London. In 2007, a series of amazing and rather poignant paintings of Holly, devoid of frocks and frippery, were made and exhibited by British artist Sadie Lee.
Chatting on the phone today, Holly – who now uses a wheelchair, due to severe back problems – is as charming, funny and sparky as ever. Long may she reign.
James Anderson: So how does it feel when people call you a legend, Holly?
Holly Woodlawn: I’ve been called a legend, an icon, but the only thing I really like to be called is: ‘She who must be obeyed!’ Actually, you can call me anything, honey, but I’d prefer that you call me a limo!
JA: I bet you’ve never said that line before?!
HW: Yeah, it’s all well rehearsed. I’ve been rehearsing it for 40 years!
JA: Where do you live nowadays?
HW: I live in West Hollywood, the gay ghetto of California. I’ve been living here since the early ’90s when I wrote my autobiography. I once lived up on the Hollywood hills and Madonna was my neighbour. You could almost touch the Hollywood sign from my window. There would be all these helicopter tours cruising over where all the stars lived, and me and my friends would be lying by the pool, and the noise of the helicopters got so annoying – so we lay there naked to really give them something to look at!
JA: Did you ever bump into Madonna? Perhaps while popping to the corner shop to get a pint of milk?
HW: No, but I was in Madonna’s Deeper and Deeper video, at the end for about two seconds! She stayed in her trailer all day during the shoot. I saw her when she came on the set, and we both went to each other, ‘You look fabulous darling!’
JA: Do people recognise you when you are out and about in your neighbourhood?
HW: Nobody knows who I am here. I don’t go out looking like Holly Woodlawn. I just wear T-shirts and a pair of jeans and I pull my hair back, I get in my wheelchair and off I go! The people who do know me here respect my privacy and I live in a very quiet and secure neighbourhood.
JA: Do you miss living in New York?
HW: That’s a three answer question. Yes I miss New York. No I do not. Would I live there? On one condition: that I was filthy rich. Because right now, honey, that is the only way to live in New York – to be disgustingly rich. I miss my friends there, the spring and the fall, with Broadway and all the activity there. And Halloween and Thanksgiving in New York is just beyond. But the summer in New York? Forget it! I’d rather be in the Côte D’Azur in the South of France or my favourite place – London! Or Berlin or Amsterdam, Switzerland or Geneva. Paris? You can shove it up your ass! It is gorgeous there but the people, they stink! And they invented perfume there. Why? Because they stink! [Bursts out laughing].
JA: Tell me about the documentary that’s being made about you…
HW: You know, I got tired of being the documentary queen. I would be invited to all of these film festivals because I was in documentaries about some of my friends, who are dead. Most of these films turn out to be so depressing. So I would love to do a documentary about myself whilst I am alive because I want to tell my side, your side and the truth. And make it funny! We started shooting it last year in Miami when I was there for the Basel festival. I was staying at the hotel where my father used to work as a waiter when I was a kid. I was almost raised there when I was, like, 10 years old. I used to hang out there and be running around the place with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Junior, and the other stars who were staying there. So, anyway, at the festival, they asked me if I would like to get up and do some numbers, which of course I did! My father is 93 years old now, and he was there, too, so he got to see me perform – the last time he had seen me perform was in 1974 in Fort Lauderdale. So we started filming an interview with me and my father all about when Holly Woodlawn began…
JA: In your autobiography it seemed like you’d become almost totally estranged from your father after you ran away from home when you were a teenager…
HW: It took quite a while to get back in touch with my parents after I had left and let them know I was basically harmless and that I had some talent. After Trash came out they started reading about me and said, ‘Oh, so you are good! You do have some talent!’
When I moved to New York in the 1960s it was illegal if you even wore mascara. You could be put in jail for Female Impersonation.
JA: Did they actually see Trash? What on earth did they think about it, if so?!
HW: Oh no! They had no idea! I mean, ‘Oh yes, Mom, Dad you have to come and see me in my new movie, it’s called Trash, with naked men shooting up heroin and I play some garbage-collecting whore who fucks herself with a beer bottle!’ Can you imagine?!
JA: Eeek! So, are you planning any new live shows?
HW: I’m putting a show together for LA But I wanna do the Hollywood Bowl once and for all! I don’t like working in LA so much, though. The audiences here don’t really know how to react, but in New York the audience gives energy to the performer.
JA: Do you still enjoy performing live?
HW: Oh hell, honey! Just give me a microphone! You should have seen me in the hospital this morning! I had everyone singing – the nurses were joining in. There I was, lying on the gurney, singing while the nurse is trying to give me an IV!
JA: Well, I was going to ask you if you are much calmer nowadays? But by the sound of it, possibly not!
HW: Oh no, honey, I am completely!
JA: How do you feel about getting older?
HW: All my friends that are getting older, they are getting depressed. And I am the opposite. I am getting younger! The older I get, the better I get! My boyfriend is 38 years old. He brings me flowers and wine. I am like wine, I am ageing well. And I love wine, so I am nicely pickled! Ageing is the best thing that could have happened to me. And, of course, I have calmed down a gazillion compared to when I was younger. It is nice seeing all the kids around and thinking, ‘Oh God, if only they knew what is ahead of them!’ Yeah, ’cause I was one of them once, I was out there wild, doing everything – before it became a fashion. I hope they’re prepared! At least with me it was never dull or boring. I always try to surround myself with people who had character or breeding. But I have had my share of derelicts, too!
JA: Would you say you’re a survivor?
HW: My doctor, who I have been seeing for the last 12 years, said to me, ‘Holly you are amazing, you’re bionic!’ Because my liver is okay – considering what has gone through it! – and my kidneys and lungs are fine. I do have a back problem, though, so I can’t walk, I can’t do the boogie any more. But that doesn’t stop me. I love getting old. I recommend it. It is nothing to be frightened of. With a good outlook you can fight the gravity. People who are unhappy look unhappy. People who are happy look younger.
JA: What is it about you that has attracted artists, writers, film-makers and musicians to you?
HW: I tried asking them this and they all said the same thing: ‘You are one of a kind’. They think I am a chameleon – I can do and be what I want. I never knew that. I always thought I was just taking direction from the photographer. I didn’t know that something was coming across – I was just being me and my idea of what they wanted me to be. I always wanted to experiment and to see what was going on across the street. If someone said to me, ‘You can’t do that!’ it just made me want to do it more!
JA: Do you think your wayward lifestyle in the 1960s opened doors for future generations?
HW: I hope so! First of all, the Stonewall Riots – I was there. It was somewhere I used to hang out and I was there that night. And that is what started the whole Gay Liberation movement. That was 1969 and look where it has gotten us now. We can get married! When I moved to New York in the 1960s it was illegal if you even wore mascara. You could be put in jail for Female Impersonation. The Stonewall Riots stopped that shit! Somebody had to do something. So we attacked the attackers – the police – and we held them hostage. Paul Morrissey put three transgender people in a film: me, Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis. That had never been done before. So kids would see those films and they would realise that they could also have the freedom to be themselves. I am glad I was part of it right at the beginning.
JA: Are you still in touch with any of your old friends?
HW: Some of them, yes. Those who aren’t around now will always be with me. I believe in guardian angels helping you; that is the essence of your friends. When they are gone, all you have left is what they tried to teach you.
I am like wine, I am ageing well. And I love wine, so I am nicely pickled! Ageing is the best thing that could have happened to me.
JA: Do you have any regrets?
HW: Yes I do. I have many. But too many to wallow in. We all have choices and I have made many bad choices and when you add them up, they are my regrets. Okay, so I am not living in a villa in Spain when I could have. Whatever! But when you are offered things like that you have to pay, one way or another. And then you get claustrophobic because that person is paying for everything so you are not free. The essence of Holly Woodlawn is that I need my freedom. But I have lived and I am still living. I am a completely optimistic person, but please be sure that you cannot fuck with me!
JA: Can I ask you some ‘quick-fire’ questions, please, Holly?
JA: What is the last thing you ate?
HW: Erm… okay… the last thing I ate was cheese and crackers, at the hospital.
JA: Who is your best friend?
HW: Joey is my best friend. He was here manning the phones earlier, to make sure you and me wouldn’t be interrupted today.
JA: What is your favourite song?
HW: Love Comes From The Most Unexpected Places by Kim Carnes.
JA: What is your favourite film?
HW: Cleopatra starring Liz Taylor.
JA: What is the quickest way to your heart?
HW: A painkiller, a bottle of wine, a cigarette, flowers and lots of money!
JA: Who is the hottest man you have ever met?
HW: He is sitting across from me right now – my friend Steven. He was Mr Laguna years ago. He is beautiful.
JA: What is your most essential beauty product?
HW: Olive oil! It made Sophia Loren beautiful. I have good skin, pretty much. But once a week you slap it on and steam your face and your skin will glow!
JA: What is underneath your bed?
HW: Let me take a look… [makes various rustling sounds]… there’s cellophane paper, a vase for flowers and that’s it!
JA: What is in your fridge?
HW: Are you kidding me? Well, I get these microwave dinners delivered. Jetted in from the finest chef in Paris, of course! A vial of morphine, a bottle of vodka… and I must get some syringes!
JA: What’s your….
HW: … Oh, honey! Just make something up! Just tell the readers what you think they’d like to hear! That would be fabulous!
Produced by Stephanie Porto
Hair by Kunio Kohzaki at See Management
Make up by Christine Cherbonnier at Art Department
Shot on location at the Chelsea Hotel
Special thanks to Steven Willis