Interview by Antonia Nessen and photography by Niklas Alexandersson.
Ken Moody worked with Robert Mapplethorpe during three years in the 1980s. Together they created some of Mapplethorpe’s most iconic pictures. We met Moody when he was in Stockholm for a retrospective of Mapplethorpe’s work and talked to him about his experiences working with one of the most important photographers of the twentieth century.
Did you know Robert before you started working together?
– We were never friends, Robert and I. I don’t know why people are surprised about this, but Robert and I didn’t get along. We didn’t really like each other. We had nothing in common. I am very conservative for a liberal-minded guy. I didn’t have this crazy life. I did well in school, I had the same friends and I had a nice little life. But I wanted to be in front of the camera and he managed to get me there.
When did you start working with Robert?
– I met him in 1982. I was working out of my gym at the time and one of Robert’s friends Dimitri approached me and he said: ”I think you need to meet Robert Mapplethorpe”. I had just heard of Robert. I wasn’t that sophisticated as far as art goes, but photography had always attracted me. I had just seen the book ”Lady” with bodybuilder Lisa Lions and I was knocked out by it. Two weeks later, his friend was handing me his business card.
So the two of you never hung out after the job was done?
– No, and when we did spend time together socially it was very uncomfortable. We didn’t match well at all and that is what I think is strange because as soon as the camera started clicking he and I were like born to be together. As soon as the camera stopped, we didn’t know what to say to each other.
How did Robert prepare for shoots?
– There was always a plan. Robert was very methodical, very professional and he didn’t fool around. He usually had his assistants set up his lighting, set up the backdrop, he had an idea, and sometimes he even had sketches. He would show them to me and I would play with the idea, he would see something and say ”oh, stop, hold that”.
Did you realize that he would become such a legend?
– You saw it happening. In New York buzz moves very fast and everybody was talking about Robert Mapplethorpe. So, there I was sitting in his living room, with all this beautiful furniture and these gorgeous photographs and he had a beautiful collection of vases…
Wasn’t his partner an art collector?
– Yeah, I never met Sam Wagstaff, I didn’t know anything about him.
How long were you modeling for?
– I’ve been modeling for a long time. I’m 50 years old. I started when I was 22. I’ve done nudes, I’ve done portraits, I’ve done fashion, I’ve done advertising, I’ve done runway shows, I’ve done everything.
What makes a good model?
– I was in a Thierry Mugler show in 1990 in Paris and they put Naomi Campbell together with me and another baldheaded man, who is now a movie star, Djimon Hounsou. Naomi was difficult the entire time. But when that music started and she was on that catwalk, oh you would never know, you would think that everything was right in the world. So, to answer your question, I think you feel it, and you go on instinct. When I am in front of the camera I know what the photographer wants.
You had an impressive body. Have you always worked out a lot?
– Yeah, in fact that was what I did for a living. I was a trainer. I retired from fitness a year ago and now I work for Michael Kors.
What do you think Robert first saw in you?
– There were very few young men in 1982 with bald heads. What made me different is that I don’t shave my head, I lost my hair, and there is no hair on my entire body. No eyelashes, no eyebrows, no beard, no moustache, nothing. When I was 12 I started loosing my hair, by the time I was 16, I was bald. People with alopecia are very healthy people, but for some reason our bodies don’t hold on to hair. It looks like I planned it, but I didn’t.
Robert’s work was considered quite controversial. Did you get any strange reactions from people at the time?
– Oh, I still do. Because people think that I have done sexual photographs, only because I worked with Mapplethorpe. I have never done sexual photographs in my entire life. I have never done a picture with an erection. I have never done anything sexual in front of the camera. I don’t know where they get that it is me, because if you see a photograph that doesn’t have my name on it, it is not me. Some of the photographs he doesn’t name, so we don’t know who it is. Like ”Man in polyester suit”.
Which one is that?
– It is a man wearing a suit and his penis is hanging out of the fly and it is a huge one. There was this woman last night at the opening party, she was a bit drunk and she said: ”Oh, I saw that picture of you with your penis”. I said, ”What made you think it was me? There are a lot of penises in this exhibition, why that one, why did you think that was me?” You will never see a penis with the name Ken Moody on it. I have been saying that for 25 years and still have to say it, because people just believe what they want to believe.
Do you have a favorite Mapplethorpe picture?
– It is the back of me, I’m wearing a black thong and my arms are directly in front of me so it looks like my arms are broken off. And my spine has a little twist to it. It is very Venus de Milo.
Robert died in 1989. Did you know how serious it was?
– Well, I had heard. We stopped working together in 1985. I knew that there had to be a reason, because I knew he wasn’t sick of me. Then I found out that he was slowing down, because he was starting to get ill. I called the studio maybe sometime around 1986, just to see if there was any truth to it. They made the announcement pretty fast that he had an AIDS-related condition and that he was fighting it. It was so much death around and at that point having AIDS was a death sentence. I mean, there were people like Robert who really believed that they could beat it. It was a bad time. You had to be really careful with sex. But such beautiful work came out of that time.
Robert shot you and your boyfriend Tyler together a few times, didn’t he?
– I love the pictures of me, Tyler and Lydia Chang. That was my favorite shoot.
– It was nice to have people that talked and had great, big personalities in the studio, because Robert didn’t. Robert didn’t have a big personality and he never talked. Robert was just quiet. Robert liked to sit in a corner and watch people. I used to see him in this particular bar in New York and he was sitting in a dark corner just watching everybody. I thought he was scary. I would go over and say hello. He would smile, he was always very polite and he would always buy me a drink, but then he would slink back into his corner. He was the classic observer. I think that if he could have chosen at certain times, he would have wanted to disappear.