Festooned with tambourines around her neck and elsewhere, raconteur Wendy Stuart Kaplan darted through the cavernous main theater of the famed La Mama performance complex. No one could ever call Kaplan shy, let alone at a loss for words. At Brian Butterick’s memorial, this author/personality was one of the speakers who celebrated the late gay activist/founder of the famed Pyramid Club and shared her memories of him.
Memories. Kaplan has been writing her memoir, “She’s The Last Model Standing,” all her life; it’s that she’s lived her life to be memoir-worthy. By the time the willowy bon vivant met and married renowned photographer Alan Kaplan, she had already carved out her perch in New York as a bona fide scene maker and observer. Born and raised in the Bronx, she exited her suburban confines to embrace many bold faced names such as Andy Warhol and became a regular at such NY haunts like Studio 54, Elaine’s, Area and Xenon.
Kaplan was already famous for photographs that graced the pages of GQ and Italian Vogue when he met the free-spirited Stuart. He encouraged her to become a model and advised her to travel to Europe for work and maybe, fame and fortune. What she found instead was a season of misadventure, so she returned to the States and she did what any Jewish mother would love a daughter to do, she got married — in Wendy’s case to Kaplan. Their partnership flourished as they began roaming the globe filming and established “Model with a Mission Visual Journeys” which documents unique stories of indigenous people and endangered species through Alan’s keen eye and Wendy’s quirky way and compassionate heart as the on-camera host as well as series producer. They also released “She’s The Last Model Standing” which garnered praise and finished “Whisperers and Witnesses,” a film which won the Best Documentary award at NYC’s Chelsea Film Festival.
Q: How long did it take to get the book done?
WSK: I’ve been writing this book my whole life. This book is about my life from the time I came to NY in the late ‘70s all the way up to now. But it was hard getting it together because a lot happened over that time period. I had to go back through photo albums, I have over 250 photo albums. Pictures of everything that came down the pike from the late 70s up to now and all the things I did. So I started looking at the pictures and started writing paragraphs and there was no timeline, nothing made any sense. It was almost stream of consciousness, like James Joyce. I showed somebody the draft and I was lucky enough to meet David Wallace who ended up becoming the editor and was able to work with me that way.
Q: Was it easy or did you need to get James Joyce involved?
WSK: We didn’t need to James Joyce but I had to beat up Wallace a couple of times because he kept trying to change my words. Those were my words, my life experiences, my voice, nobody else’s.
Q: When you’re writing a book how do you know when to stop from adding new things.
WSK: This is the easiest thing in the world because you know where you start and where you’ll end within the month of doing the book and that’s exactly what happened. It ended on one of my trips when I was making films about people in remote parts of the world. It was easy enough to end the book on one of those projects. You always want an audience to want more.
Q: When did you decide you needed to write this and did you have you to stop your life to write this book?
WSK: I’ll give you an analogy. You got all these bloggers. What is a blog? Half the time it’s someone’s very uninteresting daily memoir. What makes a book different is that you have a story in you. For someone like me it was always a running monologue of “Oh I should be writing this down — this is an incredible story.” I took pictures and knew one day I would share the stories behind them. When someone writes a memoir, that’s a historical record of their life. You’re probably thinking, “what makes your life so special?” It’s just a thing a person knows. You go to cocktail parties and share experiences or when you’re at a job and you tell people what you do. You can tell by the reaction you get. I have to be honest, more than a few people said “you should write a book.” So I did.
Q: And no one else had those photos to refer to.
WSK: My story is a very unique one. There’s not a lot of people that came out of the whole club scene and are still movin’, shakin’ and can remember what happened.
Q: Uptown or downtown clubs?
WSK: Things have come full circle for me because now the last five years have been spent in the downtown scene, and more recently, the Brooklyn scene; let’s not forget that. But my club culture started out with Studio 54 and everything that went with that. I remember what went on then and the other clubs around then. I went to all of them — Limelight, Roxy, Paradise Garage, and more. The thing is with me, I never stopped going to clubs. I remember being eight months pregnant and dancing on a party boat in New York in a leopard dress.
Q: Where’s this poor child now?
WSK: Actually, the child is brilliant,. She’s 26 years old, and getting her first apartment. She's got a job that can pay her rent, and is really an incredible writer, but totally different from me. She’s been schooled in writing and I’ve been schooled in club culture.
Q: Does the disco beat seem frightening to her?
WSK: It’s not frightening but she doesn’t connect with what I am about. She’s never read my book. She said, “I’m just not ready to do that yet.” Maybe it’s because I’m her mom.
Q: How do her friends react? Do they think you’re cool?
WSK: I’m like a goddess to a lot of her friends, they totally look up to me and they do wanna hang out when they’re over. But they’re her friends, I say I don’t want to monopolize your conversation. People came here to see you, not me. The stuff I’ve lived through really interest them. I really interest them. Because their parents, most of them, are not like me. You find a few, because after all, this is New York.
Q: You still have your disco clothes?
WSK: Someone asked me to audition for something today based on my fashion background and they were very intrigued that I have my disco clothes. We don’t call them disco clothes though — they’re “vintage”. Vintage is the proper fashion term for them. So yes, I still have my disco clothes and I’m proud to say I’ve carried those clothes forward and mix and match them with what’s going on now.
Q: Do you have a glittery Halston dress?
WSK: I have a glittery dress, I’m just not sure if it’s a Halston. I have every Betsey Johnson thing, and a lot of Haute Couture. That’s when Couture was a size 8 and not 0 or 2 or whatever. I’m proud to say I’ve maintained the exact same size and body weight as I had back in those days. I have a lot of no-name brands as well, from stores like Rainbow.
Q: How about from Fiorucci, the very fabulous Italian brand?
WSK: I love Fiorucci. That’s collectible, the shoes are above and beyond.
Q: I knew the club-tastic Joey Arias whom I met when he was working at their legendary midtown store.
WSK: I love Joey. He had a Cabaret act at 54 Below. I adore him. He had a retrospective with polaroids from back in the day and writings and photographs from [the late] Klaus Nomi [Both of them performed with David Bowie on SNL].
Q: Who else is memorable to you in a profound way?
WSK: The other day I had lunch with Rollerena. She’s still a major icon, just that she ain’t rolling anymore [smiles]. But still so fabulous. We talked about how you didn’t have to become anything in those days, you just were. Rollerena was a Wall Street broker by day, fairy godmother by night. She’d roll around the dance floor at Studio 54. After work from her Wall Street job, she’d go uptown, get into her Fairy Godmother outfit, and roll from 6th Avenue and 57th street down town on 6th Avenue. She’d roll against traffic so everybody noticed her. People in those days really went against the grain. They were the real deal.
Who did I know in those days — Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli, Calvin Klein, Joe Dallesandro. It’s in my book; Andy offered me a role in one of his movies with Joe, but it never came to fruition. I’m just a kid from the Bronx and there I was, rubbing shoulders with celebrities like Warhol. I remember going to a Halloween party with Cornelia Guest. C.Z. Guest, Cornelia Guest, those are names you don’t hear a lot of anymore. But in those days, Cornelia Guest was a big deal. There was a Halloween contest at Studio 54 and I was a finalist and she was a judge. I came out and people were applauding and I heard her say, “Ugh, she’s tired.” I hated her, HATED her for saying that.
Q: Who else did you hate?
WSK: Honestly, not that many people. There’s no room for hate in my life.
Q: Who do you love the most from those days?
WSK: I love the purely creative people like Andy Warhol. I know there’s been a lot of stuff in the negative said about him. I never had to deal with him on that level. He was a creative genius. His exhibit at the Whitney, it was above and beyond. Debbie Harry was in some of videos. I knew Debbie then and I know her now. I have such incredible respect for her transcending the decades. Unfortunately Warhol never got a chance to do that and maybe that’s what was supposed to happen. People had put his films down, put his actresses like Edie Sedgwick down, they put down the Campbell Soup cans, and just about everything else. Now look at it. When you go to the Whitney and see his body of work,my god, this guy was such a visionary. I wish he lived longer. Calvin Klein was a guy I used to see out a lot. I admired him because he never seemed to age. Ironically now you don’t see him out much anymore. I used to think he slept with intravenous embalming fluid because he was so handsome and always looked the same.
Unfortunately the times that we’re talking about is when AIDS wiped out everyone. It wiped out Halston and some of the brightest most creative people that existed. I was on the board of an organization that took care of the pets of people who had AIDS; it was called POWARS: Pet Owners With AIDS Resource Service. That was a very empowering time for me because it was the only way I felt like I could do something. I lost everybody and so did so many other people too. Three phone books I went through of people who died.
Q: How many phone books did you have in total?
WSK: Probably 12 from back in the day. The rest are from after what I call the Holocaust, cause that’s what it was. There are two things that impacted New York; you can’t talk about all this without talking about the AIDS epidemic and 9/11. Those were big game changers. For me personally, nothing was the same after that.
But you always have to repackage, reinvent, and move on. I’ve had a whole life of reinvention. Still modeling, still acting but now I do brand ambassadoring for clients and have moved into a whole different area.
I was auditioning for travel shows. Maybe it was the impetus for the book, but I went up for a show called “Ms. Adventure” — it was either Nat Geo or the Discovery Channel that was doing it. I had all the qualifications. I had lived in the Amazon and had leeches on me, lived in Nigeria, my book opens in Nigeria where I was living in a village up in the area of Nigeria where the Boko Haram were. They were there then under a different name. There I was, blond hair down to my waist, free as a bird, thinking absolutely nothing can happen to me.
When you’re in that age group, you don’t think those things can ever happen to you. All these things led up to me auditioning for this show, but I didn’t get it. Not only that, but I didn’t even get called up for the audition. That’s when I started to understand the way things work. I had all the qualifications and didn’t even get to audition. I had to reinvent myself, get my brand out there, and let people know about it.
So with my husband, a brilliant videographer and photographer, we started combining our work and going to remote places around the world and I wrote these very loosely put together scripts. They were very reality based; we called the project Model With A Mission. We told the story of elephant rescues in Thailand. Our most recent film, “Whispers and Witnesses,” — which is about Rachel Hogan from Ape Action Africa and Dr Sherie Speede from Sanaga Yong Chimpanzee Rescue, who are both saving primates from the bushmeat trade in Cameroon — won best documentary at the Chelsea Film Festival. It was made because I became a member of the Explorer’s Club so I met these two women who have rescue centers which are working in Africa to stave off primate extinction.
Q: You’re involved with the Explorer’s Club, aren’t you? It’s a curious place.
WSK: I do the tours, I’m a docent there. My tours are different from others. My tours are based in history but there’s an awful lot of juicy stuff about our explorers, including the polar bear. I encourage people to take a selfie in front of the polar bear. That was the impetus behind the film, I heard these women speak there. There was a fundraiser to bid on this trip. I was making these films two years ago and didn’t have a project. I thought Cameroon sounded interesting. I looked at the bid sheet and no one else’s name was on it. I won the trip and they called me a week later to tell me I had won it.
Within three days I used my frequent flyer miles and then they called me and said they’d give me some dates and I said I was going to come there to shoot a film about these rescue centers for animals. They said you need a letter from the government so I’m like ok, when can you get me one? When I have a vision I go through with it, nothing stops me. The women said they have to get me a visa, I didn’t know what no tourist infrastructure really meant. You think they have your name on a sign. My name was on a sign, held by a BEAUTIFUL man, about six foot four, completely dressed in uniform. We get there, we’re exhausted, this man is gorgeous, has an enormous gun and a sign with our names and I say “Hi I’m Wendy Kaplan and this is my husband.” He said, “My name is Kennedy, my English not so good.” I thought to myself, don’t even talk, just let me look at you. He had to be the most handsome man on the face of the earth.
Nobody spoke English but everybody spoke French, so it forced me to use my high school French. I said where is the super market in French, and he took me right away to the one supermarket. I bought 50 bottles of water for drinking, bathing, washing hair. Do not use local water for anything. Even if they tell you the local water is purified, there’s that 8% and that 8% is gonna get you. It was an experience but I managed to get as close as I am to you right now with gorillas and chimpanzees. I got to tell the wonderful story behind what the women are doing there.
Q: It’s a feature?
WSK: It’s 42 minutes. I call it a “shlong” because it’s between a short and a long. I came up with that. If you know film festivals, they’ve got these categories that are so confining.
Q: How does your husband keep up with you?
WSK: I fell apart in Africa. Alan actually did much better than me. He doesn't keep up with me easily because all I need is five hours of sleep, I read all the time, and love meeting people. But Alan is very grounded and when I was in Africa I was freaking out thinking I was gonna die there. One guy I interviewed said he was recovering from typhoid and malaria; and I heard about things that crawl under your skin and lay eggs. By day eight, I thought I was going to get all those things. But I got through scot free.
Q: What’s happening now?
WSK: I’m working on getting an expedition going. I’d like to go to Madagascar. Patricia Wright studies the lemurs there. There’s a leech expert I know from the Explorers Club who is there. I begged him to take us. The Explorers Club has these great experts from all over the world about everything. I want to make films about them but you can’t put just an academic film out there. I can find the hook to bring it into your living room. Alan shoots amazing video and I’m the comedic relief freaking out in a foreign country.
And “Whispers and Witnesses” is at the Africa, Women, and Arts Festival in Tanzania. I would love to have gone there… And I’ve got the African Film Festival coming up in Dallas. I also run panels for them.
Plus, I’d like to do a follow up to my book “She’s The Last Model Standing.” I’m a baby boomer and I’m up for us to be as fabulous as possible. 40 to 50 is the new 20, yes it is. We’re all aging backwards. I have the fashion background and I’d like to work with fashion designers who aren’t designing things for 20 year olds that are size two. Boomers are the ones with the money. Women come up to me all the time and say they can’t find clothes. And I then find them what they need. That's what I am -- a connector.
Wendy Stuart Kaplan's Endless Conversation With New York and The World