Sirmons Talks to Velvet
Of all the delightful phrases in the tightly
controlled French lexicon, one of the most
apt and evocative is être bien dans
le peau. It literally translates as "to
be good in one’s skin" and connotes
a feeling of self-confidence, of comfortable
with one’s self.
a woman in the world who can be described
as magnifique in her peau, it is
surely Velvet, the multi-talented artist and
plus-size activist who made her stunning film
debut as the title character in Avida, the
fabulously funny and subversive French movie
directed by mad genius auteurs Gustave de
Kervern and Benoît Delépine,
which has just been acquired by Cinema Epoch
and will hit American theaters later this
Velvet in Gustave
de Kervern and
Benoît Delépine’s Avida
If the overused
phrase “ a true original” has
ever been true of anybody, then it is most
certainly true of Velvet. She’s probably
the only woman in the history of the world
of who’s walked the catwalk for Jean-Paul
Gaultier and John Galliano, worked as a maternity
nurse, been a member of one of the two contemporary
dance troupes in France, played the title
role in a surrealist farce and walked the
red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival at
a weight of 300 pounds.
Velvet, I felt I had encountered a true creative
artist, utterly devoid of pretension, who
did exactly what she wanted because it had
never occurred to her to do anything else.
She’s up for anything, accepting all
projects and offers that pique her interest.
It’s an approach to life that can perhaps
best be summed up by a quote from Helen Keller
that Velvet keeps above her desk: "Life
is either a daring adventure or nothing."
with artistic aspirations dream of going to
Paris and living in a kind of fantasy expatriate
bohemia. Yet we stay chained to our cubicles,
convinced that such a life is no longer possible.
Velvet is living proof that we are all wusses.
Twelve years ago, she followed a boy to the
City of Lights. While they boy didn’t
stick around, Velvet stayed firmly put and
has been working as a photographer, model,
dancer, and, now, film actress. After debuting
in Avida, she’s just landed
another role in a film titled Café
Champs-Elysées, which will start
shooting in spring 2008.
As I anxiously
awaited Velvet’s phone call from Paris,
I sipped on a glass of Pouilly-Fuissé,
anxious and more than a little intimidated.
When her voice finally came through, warm
and friendly, I was immediately put at ease.
She was in her Montmartre apartment, tidying
up in preparation for the arrival of a documentary
They were coming to interview her for a documentary,
La nudité toute nue (Nudity
Completely Naked). She wasn’t really
sure what she’d be doing for them, but
stripping down wasn’t going to be part
of the bargain.
not going to get all naked, too bad for them,"
she said. "I’m not often hanging
naked in my apartment, let alone for a free
documentary." Nevertheless, she was excited.
"It’s going to be very fun,"
she predicted. "I told my makeup artist
that I’m going to need body art."
(Full disclosure: In the end, Velvet’s
makeup artist couldn’t make it for the
shoot. Velvet, ever resourceful, came up with
a better idea. “I donned a pink satin
sheet for some frontal coverage and allowed
my naked spine to be revealed in all its glory,”
certainly no stranger to nudity. She surreptitiously
started taking nude drawing classes for college
credit at seventeen (she says her mother "had
a heart attack" when she found out the
models weren’t wearing clothes), was
married to a Frenchman who’d been a
nude model in another class and has frequently
shot nudes in her photography. However, her
experience with the publicity for Avida brought
her into close contact with how prickly people
can get when it comes to exposed flesh.
opened in France, the poster image was
an almost larger-than-life—sized black-and-white
photo of Velvet’s naked body from the
stomach down to the thighs. It was plastered
all over the streets of Paris and caused quite
a stir. (The picture was deemed too provocative
for sensitive American eyes, and a new poster
was made up for the film’s tour of the
US festival circuit.)
I was incredulous
that the French – generally considered
so much more sophisticated in matters erotic
than us Puritan Yanks -- were shocked by the
poster. Velvet explained that the Parisian
pedestrians "weren’t scandalized
by the pussy [like] Americans would have been;
the belly aspect is what scandalized them."
is,” she explains, “the French
are A-OK with the body, but when it comes
to a certain kind of fat body it is much more
scandalous," she said. "I think
there’s an element of human curiosity,
which I think is natural, by virtue of the
fact that fat is virtually divorced from any
media. I mean you’ll see tons of fat
people walk down the street, but good luck
finding any image of fat in any magazine or
on television, let alone in a positive light
or in a sensual way."
causing a petite scandale now and then, Velvet’s
determination to plaster big sexy women all
over the world, as well as her supreme confidence
in her own body, have allowed her to speed
past such road blocks. In fact, it seems as
if people can’t get enough of her skin.
interesting is that literally everything I’m
offered I have to get naked," she said,
the sly amusement in her voice unmistakable.
"I laugh because the only people who’ve
had me in clothes are Galliano and Gaultier.
The next film role I will be naked. Every
single person has such a problem with fat,
and yet everyone’s dying to see naked
about Velvet’s divine peau; what I really
wanted to get at was her heart and soul. My
first question for her was: "Where the
hell did you come from?" I put the question
more delicately, asking, "How [did] you
become this amazing bohemian Renaissance woman,
doing all this cool stuff?"
originally from Rochester, New York,"
she explained, "and I escaped that very
conservative city happily when I was eighteen
or nineteen. Initially my mom didn’t
want me to go to New York City, but I ended
up going to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan."
At SVA she pursued a degree in illustration,
believing "it would be a way to do fine
art and get paid for it." Organizing
her own study abroad program – the school
didn’t offer one – she spent a
year in Florence. It was there that she fell
in love with photography. "I loved the
instant gratification," she says. She
developed a particular affinity for fashion
photography, and has a fond memory of shooting
beautiful antique wedding dresses from a shop
near the Mercato San Lorenzo.
upon her return to New York, Velvet discovered
that changing majors was impossible. "I
couldn’t afford to switch at that point,
so basically what I would do is I would sort
of adapt my illustrations by using photography,
whatever way I had to," she explained.
whatever means necessary" approach to
her art followed her to France, where she’d
‘work intensely for three months, twenty-four
hours a day" as a maternity nurse, living
with couples with newborn babies and helping
to get the infants on regular schedules. The
money she made during those intense periods,
she said, "allowed me the possibility
of being freer to do artistic work."
Velvet put that artistic freedom to good use,
delving into plus-size fashion modeling and
photography while simultaneously dabbling
in other projects like contemporary dance
performances and television appearances. A
move to the big screen seemed inevitable.
is the first film Velvet’s ever been
in, I was curious to learn how she’d
gotten in contact with the directors. She
said she’s been sent to the casting
through her modeling agency, AGENCE PLUS at
And why were
they interested in her for the part?
she said, matter-of-factly, "they wanted
a very fat woman. When I auditioned they let
me know about the background of the character,
that she was a singer. So when they told me
[that], I was like, ‘Oh, I sing!’
and I sang some opera and stuff, and we just
got on really well. Oh my God…they’re
a laugh riot. They’re best friends and
no one ever laughs more than they do."
having done a lot of acting before, when I
auditioned they really supported me. I didn’t
initially get it, some other girl got it,
and then they had to have me come back. We
have a similar sense of humor, and you kind
of have to have a sense of humor to work with
For those not
familiar with de Kervern and Delépine's
films, that sense of humor is absurdist, surreal,
and very anti-establishment. It’s no
surprise that Velvet would feel right at home
with them. Nevertheless, on the surface, the
prospect of playing a loud, fat American ex-diva
with an insatiable appetite for potato chips
in a French film seems degrading enough to
send any self-respecting newyorkaise running
in the opposite direction as fast as her stilettos
could carry her. What was it that attracted
Velvet to the part?
attraction was the fact that it was the lead
role of a film being a big woman. I don’t
go to a lot of movies, but then I sit down
and think of how many millions of fat people
there are, and how many movies there are,
and how rarely we’re represented."
And, I piped
in, when fat people are in movies, it’s
rarely an actual fat person, but Gwyneth Paltrow
or some other emaciated starlet in a fat suit.
exactly!" Velvet concurred. "Or
it’s Eddie Murphy totally degrading
fat people with movies like Norbit. Movies
like [that] are the reason we’re perceived
as a joke. I would never see that movie, but
to me, that movie is a statement on where
we are as a society in terms of how we see
of being in Avida was pushing myself
as an actress, certainly, and also I’d
seen what they’d done in [Kervern and
Delépine’s first film] Aaltra,
and I said point blank I don’t want
it to be something that is made out to berate
fat people, and they [Kervern and Delépine]
totally agreed with that."
that one of my favorite things about Avida
was that Velvet’s character was very
funny, but not a cliché or the butt
of any stereotypical fat jokes. Velvet agreed,
saying that was one of her major concerns
going into the project:
point blank I won’t do anything with
fat jokes – there’s no way."
And after having looked at Aaltra,
I saw that wasn’t what they were into.
And when I saw Aaltra, and I saw
how incredibly beautifully it was shot, it
really struck me. It was kind of like my fantasy
of black-and-white photography come to motion."
I said that
I thought that, while certain shots of her
body were composed for comedic effect (extreme
visual comedy is a huge part of de Kervern
and Delépine’s visual aesthetic),
there were so many incredibly glamorous and
beautiful shots of her in the film.
think so?" she mewed with an uncharacteristic
meekness. "I thought the contrary, I
was laughing because I thought, "Man.
I look so bad."
composure, she added, "Wow! Well I’m
glad you felt that. I’m very much a
glamour sex kitten as I’m sure you can
tell from looking at my pictures, so for me
it was divorced from my work."
the issue further, Velvet mused, "It’s
funny because every time [Avida cinematographer]
Hugues [Poulain] tried to shoot me I said,
‘If you shoot me from that angle, I
will look absolutely hideous,’ and he
said, "I’m going to make you hideous
all the way throughout, and then at the end
you’re going to look killer!" And
I was like, "Oh, OK!" And it was
the smartest thing in the world for him to
say, to get an image-obsessed gal like me,
to go along with it."
I added that,
as a viewer, one specific scene towards the
end of the film, when the suicidal Avida
rediscovers her will to live, thanks to the
rather delicious belly worship of a new-found
lover, struck me as particularly sensual and
she laughed. "That was quite fun. I was
happy with that. I knew that was going to
be in it when I took the role, and I also
knew, like with [Avida constantly
eating] potato chips, that there were things
I was going to be contrary to, but I didn’t
think it was fair that I dictate the role
as an actress or an activist. This was who
Avida was. But the fact that there
is this positive moment at the end, is again
something that you never see in film. Fatness
and positive sensuality are completely taboo."
Being a huge
fan of both Aaltra and Avida,
I had to ask for a little dirt on what it’s
like being on set with Kervern and Delépine.
She told me that almost all the dialogue was
improvised, and that they like to work with
very few takes. "It was incredibly challenging,"
she admitted, "but now I feel like I
can take on anything."
I reminded her of a comment she made about
the "drunken exploits" that occurred
on the Avida shoot, so naturally
I asked for the juicy details.
Velvet mused, “they’re always
stoned, crazy and drunk, so it’s hard
to [pick out one]. The scene where everybody’s
going up the hill, that was very, very crazy
and fun. That was the day all their friends
came and it was a big party. Everybody was
so wasted at one point they couldn’t
even walk. I don’t drink alcohol, so
I was designated driver.”
“They’re incredibly nice people,
too. They’re total anti-establishment
liberal crazies. They’re really kind
people who come off as crazy drunks, but they’re
also really philosophical. They were super
encouraging, so I could not have asked for
But, as Velvet
herself explained, she doesn’t particularly
consider herself an actress. Her goal is to
infiltrate all forms of mainstream media,
in the hopes of making them more all-inclusive
and less boring.
no doubt that Velvet is taking France by storm,
I wondered what it was like being a plus-size
activist in a country where women allegedly
never get fat. Velvet’s response was
quite pragmatic and philosophical. She’s
never felt like an outcast, she explained,
because Europeans seem to be very accepting
of individuals who are true to themselves.
people are so attached to the notion of fame
that they’re willing to adapt themselves
to be known, versus really be[ing] what they
are and reveling in that,” she explained.
“I find that French people [are] quite
willing to accept someone who they see as
being true to themselves, [but] you do have
to make an effort. If you make an effort they’re
amused by you and accepting."
And as far
as the myth of the perennially svelte française,
Velvet was only too willing to shatter that
illusion. She was quick to note that the effects
of globalization and American-style fast food
have taken their toll on the svelte gourmand
center of the world.
tell you," she said, "there’s
a whole heck of a lot more fat people in France
and they’re getting fatter by the minute,
so don’t kid yourself."
saying she’d found a niche for herself
with her involvement in burgeoning French
fat-positive web communities like Ronde et
Jolie, Pulpe Club, and Allegro Fortissimo.
"There’s a growing movement within
France of people who are French and want to
be happier fat," she explained. "So
I guess I’ve found my own little niche
and brought my activist American side of things
here to France, and I just do whatever, on
point of view, the most positive thing she
can do for the international plus-size community
is to "work on herself" and get
exposure in as many mainstream media outlets
For fans stateside,
the most expedient methods to witness this
infiltration should check out her interview
in the August/September issue of Bust, and
as a guest judge on Oxygen’s Fat
Chance: Paris, a plus-sized beauty contest
hosted by Mo’nique and, for the first
time this season, set in the City of Lights.
When I queried
Velvet about what qualities she’d be
looking for in the new Miss FAT, she expressed
an uncharacteristic hesitancy, saying she
didn’t really want to judge anyone.
Did that mean that she would be the Paula
Abdul of Fat Chance: Paris -- the judge who
am," she confessed. "Cause I do
Velvet, it didn’t sound cheesy at all.
For more on
Velvet, visit her MySpace page at
here for Julia Sirmons' review of Avida.
Julia reviewed the film at the 2007 Tribeca