The Life of Punk Queen Edwige Belmore and the Death of the Old Downtown

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Edwige Belmore died September 22, at age 58, in Miami. She was quickly memorialized on social media: Many posts on her Facebook page had photographs of her — not the typical FB snapshots, but exquisite and daring images by the leading art and fashion photographers of the 1970s and 1980s. Born and raised in Paris, she moved to Manhattan during what is widely celebrated as one of the most radically creative periods in its history, before AIDS, drugs, and gentrification shattered and scattered the old downtown scene. As Vogue’s website put it in a short tribute this week, she “palled around with Yves Saint Laurent, Loulou de la Falaise, Bianca Jagger, and Farida Khelfa. She was photographed by Helmut Newton, Maripol, and Pierre et Gilles; reportedly dated both Sade and Grace Jones…” Other style websites — Purple, Paper, and Vogue Italia also recognized her influence in nightlife, music, and fashion. 

She died of liver failure related to untreated chronic hepatitis. She’d been everywhere fabulous but often lived on the edge of self-destruction. So just who was Edwige Belmore? And why was she so beloved?

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Born and raised in Paris, Belmore’s parents left the city without her. “They gave me $20 to have a life,” she told the website Moco Loco in 2014. “I was having an identity crisis. The little girl who grew up in the convent with parents who were ignorant, racist — I had to find a way to cut off from all that.” She burned all her clothes except for an old, beaten-up leather jacket given to her by a friend; bought a pair of riding pants, a white shirt, a skinny tie, and a pair of high heels; and shaved her head. “The real Edwige was born. The one before was ugly, was insecure, was stupid — that is what my father always told me,” she said. “Now I had the look of an Amazon.” It was 1976, and she was 19.

After that, at least to hear her tell it, she just stumbled into one fabulous sanctum after another. She was in a Paris nightclub in 1977 when two girls asked her if she wanted to be in a punk band. “I never played anything at all and they put me on the drums and away I went!” The band was called L.U.V. — Ladies United Violently, or Lipsticks Used Viciously.

Then Vogue, Elle, and other fashion magazines asked her to do interviews. “They thought ‘Oh! She must be the leader of this new punk movement.’”

Then she “ended up” at a Paloma Picasso party, with her shaved head and leather jacket and riding pants. “Helmut Newton kept on following me around and saying, ‘I have to take your picture!’… All of a sudden I was the Punk of the rich and famous salons.”

Then Fabrice Emaer, the owner of Le Palace (the Paris version of Studio 54), asked her to represent the club at the door. “I was 20 years old, in my little tuxedo, bleach blond crew cut, big red lips, six body guards, and  I was the person who decides who comes in and who doesn’t.”

Then the fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier saw her at Le Palace and asked her to be in his new show. (“It was crazy! We were all street kids and we were taking drugs and drinking champagne to calm our nerves before we got on the runway because we were not models. In the show’s finale, I’m wearing high heels, black stockings with a big tuxedo jacket with marabou feather. I was supposed to sing ‘My Way,’ the Sid Vicious version. But I was so gone. I got on the runway and a little close to the edge and the music started, and some god put me back on my balance because I literally had one foot outside the runway.”)

Then Alan Benoit asked her to pose for the cover of his new French underground magazine Façade, placing a kiss on the cheek of Andy Warhol above the headline “The Queen of Punk Meets the Pope of Pop.”

Then Andy Warhol asked her to come to New York and took her to Studio 54, and then … and then … and then 

Robert Behar, fashion stylist and costume designer, Los Angeles: 

I met Edwige at the Palace — the Paris version of Studio 54 — in 1978 when I was 17. We immediately became very close and stayed close for four decades. She had no family, but we were family. Edwige was a very free spirit, but also a very fragile spirit. She had the irreverence of a punk queen, and if she wanted to do something, she did it, especially if it was against the rules. And she had no regrets. Being around her was like being around a child who makes you very happy because they are giggling and playing and so alive. When she talked to you, she would look you straight in the eye. She was never phony. She could be very hard and strong, but she was kind and nonjudgmental, with an artist’s appreciation of the world, from nature to modernity, in all its beauty and ugliness.

Bart Everly, photographer and filmmaker, New York:

Chanteuse, yogi, model, muse, or guttersnipe, Edwige was a wondrous being with a big presence that could go from being ladylike to tough-as-nails in an instant. Growing up on the streets of Paris, she didn’t suffer fools gladly, but if you got through her tough exterior, you found a sweet and vulnerable child that you couldn’t help fall in love with. She was a paradox with an imposing and polyamorous nature that was intimidating and alluring at the same time. Edwige was always entertaining, sometimes at her own expense, but you were always rooting for her. She lived life so fully and on the edge that you got a contact high from being around her. Her sense of style was original and unsurpassed. Throughout her numerous existences and resurrections, she always seemed to pull through stronger, with her sense of humor still intact. That’s why it’s so sad to know that she won’t rise again from the abyss to thrill us with yet another physical manifestation of her brilliance.

Marcus Leatherdale, photographer, Portugal:

The image of Edwige taken by Edo for Interview magazine in 1978 was my inspiration to move to New York City. Really. And I met her almost immediately after I got here that summer. She was a very accessible person, very congenial. We moved in the same circles. I was living with Robert Mapplethorpe and I knew Debbie Harry. But that didn’t matter — if you bumped into Edwige on the street, she was the same way.

 We were all part of every well-known club from 1978 on: Studio 54, the Mudd Club, Area, Pyramid. There would always be dinners and special events and the silly VIP rooms and all that. There was a sense of camaraderie. We would go to places and expect to see each other there. It was a given. Clubs catered to us, basically — we were part of the so-called “in” crowd, and they wanted us there.

And she was a performer, a chanteuse, and she would have her weekly events, like at Café Loup, where she would sing and everyone we knew would be there. It wasn’t because she was Edith Piaf, but because but she had such charisma that it was totally enjoyable. She was the legendary lipstick lesbian. She was very funny. She loved a good joke.

Julian Vigo, scholar and filmmaker, Britain:

When I told Edwige that I named my son Umesh Edwige, after her, she smiled. When I told others of my son’s name, some would say, “Isn’t that a girl’s name?” and I would respond, “You obviously have not met Edwige.”

Penny Arcade, writer and performance artist, New York:

Edwige Belmore had a kind of authenticity that has become very rare. Her cool was the true cool of the outsider. In the face of Edwige, everyone else was trying way too hard. She represents a time in New York that we all miss and know is never coming back — before it became a simulacrum, an Epcot Center of trendy fashions.

 Edwige was a culture of one. She was an artist without a product. She was a Punk outsider in the Paris salons and at Studio 54, and it wasn’t pandering or posing, it was a confrontation, albeit a playful one. Edwige never changed up, not when she was the Parisian fashion world’s “It” girl, not when she was a mainstay of New York’s downtown club scene, and not when she was in relative obscurity. She was a super-glamorous femme-butch dyke who was honest about her struggles with pain, with depression — but she never dumped that on anyone. In fact, she cheered other people up without lying about her own struggles.

Michael Musto, journalist and Out magazine columnist, New York:

Edwige was such a chic, sultry presence — as vivid a raconteur as she was a chanteuse and a personality. She combined elements of Dietrich and Marianne Faithfull, and though Jean Paul Gaultier called her the queen of punk, she was definitely the nicest punk I ever met. As a co-host at Beige (the long-running gay soirée at Bowery Bar), she had a knack for making people feel at home and entertained. She was one of those people everyone was happy to see — glamorously elusive yet somehow accessible and grounded.

Clayton Patterson, videographer and folk historian, New York:

I was the president of the New York Tattoo Society in the mid-’80s, and we held our monthly meetings at the Chameleon Bar in the East Village. Edwige was bartending there, so she showed me her tattoos. They were very avant garde. It was highly unusual for someone to have words and sentences on their body in the mid-’80s. She also had scars from cutting herself. She was such a beautiful woman, a Paris runway model, and to have her body modified like that was also very unusual because models try very hard to preserve their bodies. She was one of those rare people who had “it” — the charisma to control a room. And she wasn’t a diva. She was friendly, warm, and welcoming, with a ready smile that showed the gap in her teeth. She had all of the classical model qualities, but then she had her own eccentricities, and she never tried to hide them. She had imperfections, but they worked together in a perfect way. She was very tall. She had dark hair. Remember, this was the period of Madonna. Madonna was a stereotypical-looking, Marilyn Monroe–type blonde, while Edwige was unabashedly original. Even her name — Edwige. If you wanted to be a superstar, the one name you would never take is Edwige. 

Avra Jain, developer and historical preservationist, Florida:

I met Edwige around 1985, when I had just moved to New York City. A friend invited me to see her sing. At the time, she had short black hair. She was wearing a tight black dress and her signature red lipstick. And, if I recall correctly, she was barefoot onstage. She was accompanied by just a piano player. I remember her singing “Stormy Weather” in her sultry voice. I was instantly seduced. I ran into her at the same bar six months later, and she was wearing torn jeans and her old leather jacket, and we recognized each other from having briefly met that night. We’ve been friends ever since.

I learned from Edwige how freeing it is to be original — to not care about what other people were doing or saying. She was always true to herself, even to her own detriment. Whether it was Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier — she was a muse for many people. When she wore something, next season it would be on the runway. Edwige did that over and over again. Because she influenced influencers, her reach was as big as the world.

Kendall Werts, model agent: 

I will never forget the first time I met Edwige, at B Bar. Everyone who was anyone attended that party. I had moved to New York City in 2003 from Chicago with no more than $75 in my pocket, no apartment, and no job. I was broke and fabulous. That night I put together a look with the hope that someone might see me, or at least talk to me. Edwige came up to me and said she liked my hair. I think my hair reminded her of Basquait. I said thank you and then said something that she probably found amusing, because next thing I knew, she ushered me over to her table and told the waiter to get me whatever I wanted. From then on, Edwige referred to me and my friend Samone as her children. Edwige was electricity. She existed in a world where very few could enter. She was the quintessential New York cool. She told me everyone has a past, but that the past will never define your future. Unless you want it to.

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Flash-forward to 2011: Almost homeless again, Edwige almost ended her life.

Sandra Schulman, arts writer and curator, Florida:

She had no money, she had lost her job, she was about to lose her apartment, her girlfriend had left her. She took the subway out to Coney Island, drank a bottle of vodka, and walked into the ocean. She was in the hospital for three days, and then they gave her a bag containing her wet clothes and pushed her out onto the street.

Avra Jain:

In 2013, I found out that Edwige was in Miami. Her old friend the French photographer Maripol had flown her to a rehab nearby [after Edwige got out of the hospital after her suicide attempt]. When we reconnected, she was ready for a change that wouldn’t put her back in the nightlife scene that had taken such a big toll on her health. I was restoring vintage motels on Biscayne Boulevard, and she wanted to be a part of it.

 If you asked her what her role was at the Vagabond Hotel, she would have called herself the resident gardener. She really became our “Vagabond” and inspired the #VagabondLife concept as our artist in residence. She loved the plants and the plants loved her. It was quiet and peaceful. But even in her overalls and sneakers, with her toolkit and machete, she had a way of looking stylish and elegant.

The locals, who have just discovered who she was, are surprised to know who has been living next to them for the past couple of years. When she was here, she didn’t have to be Edwige the icon. She was just Edwige. 

Lisa Webster, religious scholar and co-editor-in-chief of Religion Dispatches:

I met Edwige at an ashram in upstate New York in 1988, where she’d been living for a year — being clean, being happy. She was, of course, the person assigned to welcoming guests, sharing the house rules. Doing the door, in other words. She became my beloved, my guru, my frustration and joy, for the next five years in New York, then Seattle and Miami Beach. We went to India together for four months, too. Our breakup was just a jolt in the road — I have held close to her great heart for more than half my life. Her greatest grace? She loved fiercely and without fear. Edwige could cross a border like nobody else: high-low, fashion-street, church-ashram. Her two career aspirations as a child? Nun and race-car driver.

Robert Behar:

She kept her glamour all the way through her life. She could always get us into any club, anywhere. She would walk right up to the doorperson and say, in this deep voice and French accent, “Hello, I am Edwige,” and the doors would open. She had a style that could part the Red Sea. I felt honored to be with her — lying next to her — in the hospital bed when she died. I revered her.

Sandra Schulman:

When I saw her in the hospital right after she died, her beautiful face looked very peaceful. Her friends had put flowers around her head, and she looked like a Frida Kahlo painting. It was a lovely way to go. She had so much love and support in that room. I was grateful that she could go that way rather than drowning at Coney Island, and that she had an extra couple of great years.

Penny Arcade:

The massive outpouring on Facebook in response to her death has to do with the shock of it for people who lost so many friends to AIDS in their 20s and 30s and now are being confronted with the kinds of deaths that happen after age 50. Although Edwige hobnobbed with lots of celebrities, she was also a doorperson and a bartender when New York nightlife was king, so thousands of people met her. She was a very nice person — not the usual character of a doorperson or many celebrities, either. We all remember her kindness.

Marcus Leatherdale:

She had her ups and downs. She was a sad soul. Unfortunately, she would disappear and go into rehabs. She had her issues with substance abuse. We chatted in the past six months, and she told me that she was not well, she went blind in one eye — very few people, when they have abused themselves with heroin to that extent, and then Hepatitis C comes into play

Clayton Patterson:

She was butch and feminine. She was punk with total elegance. A Paris model with scars and tattoos and a gap in her teeth. All these weird combinations that worked because she had “It.” Edwige was a hero and an eccentric and had true presence that had to be experienced in the flesh, not on iPhones. When Edwige died, she hadn’t been in New York for a couple years, and anyway, the scene had been over for a long time. Yet look at her Facebook page today — how could she still have that much presence and influence for so many people? This is New York, after all: The moment you leave, you are forgotten. I don’t think Bloomberg would get the same response.

Marcus Leatherdale:

Edwige was one of a kind. It was an impossible act to follow, there will never be another one. But then again, there will never be an era like that again, either — it was a time that created incredible people, and it had nothing to do with money, it just had to do with charisma, and being an eccentric and a true artist and original. That is lost now. Who is going to replace all those people, like Warhol? The list could go on and on and on. Unfortunately, Edwige is another icon who bites the dust. Every month I hear of someone else’s death. People who lived hard — by the time they get to be 50 or 60 years old … We thought we would be 20-something forever. Wrong.