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Joe Dallesandro in Paul Morrissey's Trash (1970)
Joe Dallesandro in Paul Morrissey's Trash (1970)

Underground icon: the secret history of Joe Dallesandro

Warhol superstar and rebellious 60s sex symbol, we chart the life and style of Little Joe in response to the LC:M collections

According to film director John Waters, Joe Dallesandro – the actor, muse to Andy Warhol and all-around underground pin-up – "forever changed male sexuality in cinema." A pioneering figure in the sexual revolution, he was a teenage tearaway turned icon of rebellious youth and sexuality. Perhaps now best known as the torso on The Smiths' debut album or as that bulge on the cover of The Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers, there's a lot more to his status as a cult icon than that. Whether intentionally or not, LC:M SS15 was something of a love letter to Dallesandro – Katie Eary sent psychedelic cowboys down the runway, Martine Rose’s denim and leather pairing evoked underground S&M, and Sibling played homage to outcast youth. Here, we map the history of the cult idol.


Raised by foster parents in Brooklyn and Long Island, the young Dallesandro was expelled from school for punching the principal, which was followed by a spate of petty gangland crime. He had a successful escape from a rehabilitation center for boys in New York's Catskill Mountains, where he had been held for a year after crashing a stolen car – getting shot by a police officer in the process. Bad ass.


Dallesandro's career began when, cash-strapped, he started nude modelling for revolutionary erotica photographer and filmmaker Bob Mizer’s Physique Pictorial magazine – a publication that managed to thwart the legalities of publishing nude males at the time by having men pose in homoerotic, wrestling-style images that they called ‘art photographs’. Looking back on his mostly-nude career, Dallesandro explained to Dazed & Confused in 2007, "I really wasn’t comfortable, and that’s the truth. I’d say, 'Sometimes, I’m more comfortable without my clothes on than with my clothes on,' but I was just being a braggart!"


Things changed for Dallesandro when one day in 1967, he tagged along to Warhol’s Factory with a friend and ended in an all-male, underwear-only wrestling scene, the footage later spliced into the 1968 film The Loves of Ondine. Dallesandro went on to star in Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s film trilogy: Flesh (1968), Trash (1970) and Heat (1972), becoming a gay sex symbol. A still from Flesh featuring Dallesandro's bare torso would go on to cover The Smiths' eponymous debut album in 1984.

Paul Morrissey recounted the moment Dallesandro became his muse to AnOther Man in 2011: "I found Joe in a room down the hall and said, ‘Do you want to pretend that you’re a Phys Ed teacher in a scene?’ So, Joe came in, got undressed and wrestled with Ondine. He just got on with it". The pairing found Dallesandro underground cult success – including a mention in Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" which profiled a scene of oral sex, transexuality and male prostitution: “Little Joe never once gave it away / Everybody had to pay and pay / A hustle here and a hustle there".


Andy Warhol's 1968 film Lonesome Cowboys, a satire of traditional Hollywood westerns, was a starring role for Dallesandro. In one notable scene, in indigo double-denim and red bandana neckerchief, him and Eric Emerson wrestle, visibly intoxicated, with Louis Waldon – losing items of clothing as they fight. Dallesandro spoke to Dazed & Confused in 2007, almost 30 years later, about Morrissey's advice on nudity, "Paul [Morrissey] always convinced me that it [getting naked] was necessary, telling me it wouldn’t be considered pornographic. You know, ‘This is art, this is Warhol, it’s going to be shown in museums for years, you got to do it.’"


Arguably the most well known image of Dallesandro appears on the cover of The Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers. A forgotten out-take of a Warhol shoot, labelled as anonymous in the sleeve credits, remains one of the most defining images of British rock and roll. The star spoke to L.A. Weekly earlier this year about the mystery surrounding the iconic cover: "I'm not sure Andy even knew which photo he chose, or that it was me. Someone thought that would be a good one for the iconic cover. I knew it was me. I know it is me. I've seen myself, and I've seen myself photographed down there."