BY Sean Burns in Opinion | 22 SEP 23
Featured in
Issue 237

The Eternal Glamour of Amanda Lepore

Sean Burns on living with a cherished David LaChapelle portrait of the fashion icon

BY Sean Burns in Opinion | 22 SEP 23

‘I don't know much about clothes, but my hair looks fierce,’ spits the New York nightlife icon Amanda Lepore in her song ‘My Hair Looks Fierce’ (2005). Admittedly, she isn’t known for wearing many clothes. And she’s right: her hair does look fierce. She’s a survivor and, like all the best nightlife doyennes – Joey Arias, Princess Julia, et al. – she’s never stopped going out and giving herself to a scene that, in many ways, has formed around and with her.

David LaChapelle, Amanda as Marilyn in Red, 2007, scan of poster. Courtesy: the artist and Sean Burns 

Lepore is the model and muse of photographer David LaChapelle, whom she said in a 2021 interview with Richard Lynch ‘shaped her appearance’. About ten years ago, I prised a poster of LaChapelle’s Amanda as Marilyn in Red (2007) off the back of a toilet door in the east London club Dalston Superstore. She spoke to me, even in the state I was in. The poster’s tatty edges only amplify its many layers of pop artifice. It’s a folded and trashed reproduction of LaChapelle’s shot of Lepore as the 1950s screen starlet – who, in turn, was a character of Norma Jeane Mortenson – in Warhol’s famous depictions, including Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962).

Lepore understands the power of iconography, and her day-to-day image is loosely based on Monroe. But, as ever, LaChapelle amped it all up in brash colour saturation: the squeaky, rouged lips; the ribbons of custard-coloured hair; the electric-blue eyeshadow, like David Bowie in the video for ‘Life on Mars?’ (1971); and the perfectly circular, black beauty spot between her mouth and her nose. She literally drips with unattainable glamour.

Picture of Amanda Lepore's smile with a Polaroid camera, 2008. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Gabriel Moginot

Whether in New Cross, Camden or Hoxton, Lepore has graced the walls of every room I’ve had. As a serial renter, I can’t fasten her to the fabric of the space with pins or nails, so she’s layered with bits of old packing tape. Something about the precarity of it contrasts with her lacquered layers of immaculate maquillage.

LaChapelle’s Lepore toys with ideas of artifice but, as a viewer, any attempt to reach a neat resolution to the work’s many cultural references eventually collapses into an uninhibited appreciation for her remarkable self-actualization. Some days – quite often – when I’m feeling unsure of myself, she sort of knowingly glances down at me from my wall and intimates: ‘Is this really you?’

This article appeared in frieze issue 237 with the headline ‘Make Over’

Listen to the accompanying playlist, curated by Amanda Lepore, here

Main image: Amanda Lepore attends the Adrienne Landau presentation during New York Fashion Week, 2017. Courtesy: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images

Sean Burns is an artist, writer and assistant editor of frieze based in London, UK. His book Death (2023) is out now from Tate Publishing.