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What's Up For Today?

New York Cool - Ask Miss Wendy

New York Cool - Interview

Julia 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.

If there’s 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 month.how


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.

Speaking to 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."

Many people 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 crew.

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.

"No, I’m 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,” she explains.)

Velvet’s 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.

When Avida 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."

"The thing 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."

Unafaraid of 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.

"What’s 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 fat people."

But enough 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?"

"I’m 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.

Unfortunately, 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.

This "by 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."

Unsurprisingly, 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.

Since Avida 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 Contrebande.

And why were they interested in her for the part?

"Well," 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."

"And not 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 them."

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?

"A main 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.

"Yeah, 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 fat people."

"Part 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."

I mentioned 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:

"I said 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.

"Do you think so?" she mewed with an uncharacteristic meekness. "I thought the contrary, I was laughing because I thought, "Man. I look so bad."

Regaining her 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."

Contemplating 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 gorgeous.

"Oh yeah," 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."

Prodding further, 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.

"Well,” 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 anything more."

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.

While there’s 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.

"[In America] 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.

"Let me 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."

Velvet elaborated, 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 my own."

From Velvet’s 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 as possible.

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 loves everybody?

"I probably am," she confessed. "Cause I do love everybody."

Coming from Velvet, it didn’t sound cheesy at all.

For more on Velvet, visit her MySpace page at
profile.myspace.com

Click here for Julia Sirmons' review of Avida. Julia reviewed the film at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival.

 





 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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