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Being McQueen’s muse

It’s been over a decade since Alexander McQueen put a naked woman in a glass box at the centre of his SS01 runway – Michelle Olley tells her story

You might not know her name, but you've seen her picture. It was September 2000 when journalist Michelle Olley (formerly of fetish magazine Skin Two and the short-lived reboot of Penthouse) got a call from Alexander McQueen’s right hand Sidonie Barton, saying she had a proposal for her. Olley had been put forward by casting agent she knew through the London club scene to be the centrepiece in McQueen’s monumental asylum-themed SS01 show VOSS, where models prowled around a padded room, their heads bandaged. For the show’s finale, the glass walls of a box in the centre of the runway fell down and shattered, revealing a naked Olley reclining on a chaise longue in an image that referenced a picture by American photographer Joel-Peter Witkin. As the audience broke into rapturous applause, Olley's fate as the focal point of one of the most powerful and provocative fashion shows in history was sealed. On the show's fifteenth anniversary, she reflects on her experience. 

“Sidonie phoned me and asked, ‘Do you fancy coming in to the McQueen office tomorrow? We’ve got something that you might be interested in doing.’ So there I was the next morning sat in the office looking at this rack of clothes behind me with all of these McQueen classics, things with horns sticking out. They sat down and Lee said to me, ‘Well basically it’s going to be about beauty – it’s going to be really beautiful, but it’s also going to be about death and rebirth and you’ll be completely naked. Well, you won’t be completely naked, you’ll obviously be covered in moths – some of them will be dead – and you’ll have this tube coming out of your mouth’ and he wasn’t even looking at me in the eye, he was sort of visualising it.

‘There’ll be like, a tube that will go up to the top of this box and the box will be made of glass but you won’t be able to see in it because it will be painted and what will happen is that the box will fall open and all the glass will explode and all the moths will fly out and it’ll be really beautiful.’ And all the way through this I’m thinking, ‘Moths, glass, naked… oh my God!’ And the crazy thing about that as well was how even though I’d been working at Skin Two for years, the whole idea of hoods was not my thing. I was very much on the disco party side, I wasn’t really into the S&M bit. So out of all that stuff, I’m thinking that I’m going to have to wear a hood, and I don’t like hoods! 

And suddenly, it just came to me, I just looked him in the eye and said, ‘I’ll do it but I want you to know that I’m doing it for art,’ and he looked at me like, ‘Oh God, we’ve got a live one here’ and then he just sort of glanced down and said, ‘I thought we all were weren’t we?’ and ran off! From that moment, we got on really well. I think because I came out with that ridiculous statement he just sort of felt like ‘Okay, if she’s saying that, she’s not doing it for any other reasons.’ I don’t even know why I said it, it just felt important to say it for me. Now I look back at it and I have to laugh at myself because that was a ridiculous thing to say.

“So then all the gears of the McQueen machine started moving. I had to go see a guy from the English National Opera who fitted my head for the mask – they did a mould of my head to create the thing because it was actually like two pieces of rubberised cement that they glued to my head, so it was quite big. Then we went up to some old movie lot to check what it would be like when the box actually opened – Lee's boyfriend at the time George stood in it so I could see what it was like. That was very reassuring, because obviously I’m thinking ‘Oh my God, it’s glass and I'm naked and what’s going to happen and is it going to cut me’. We had a really nice day that day because we all went up there: Me, Lee, Katy England, George and the driver and we all had a chat and I found out that me and Katy were from the same sort of place in Warrington, Cheshire so we had a lot in common.

The next thing we did was the actual show, and really I was just a witness to this amazing production that was happening around me – I just had my part that I could do. I had this lovely French make-up artist who did my make-up, I didn’t really have much on but Guido who did the hair for everybody bandaged me up. You can’t really see it, but I’ve got the same bandages as the models have in the show. And then there were ear pieces inside my ears which were painful because they were like plastic, so that was a bit hard core. I wasn’t actually breathing through the tube, I was breathing through the eyeholes which I could see through. I could just about see myself in the mirror when they were putting the mask on and I remember Lee saying, ‘It needs some bird shit on it, it needs to look like a statue, it needs to look like stone,’ so Guido put some white make-up on the top and I remember the pair of them giggling about it and that was a funny little moment. 

“I could just about see myself in the mirror when they were putting the mask on and I remember Lee saying, ‘It needs some bird shit on it, it needs to look like a statue,’ so Guido put some white make-up on the top and I remember the pair of them giggling about it” – Michelle Olley

Then there were these two entomologists, this nice couple from Richmond who were moth experts and they brought this massive tray of dead moths from their moth sanctuary, which were all glued on me by these two French make-up artists. Then I was put on the chaise longue and it was 7:15 and I believe the show started at 10:20 because we were waiting for Gwyneth Paltrow – she was stuck in traffic – but I was expecting it to be late. By that time, it was really weird in there... It's the bit I find hardest to talk about, because it was actually a really strange type of reality, a really strange little bubble of time – it felt really quick, but it also felt really slow at the same time. I was very excited, I was sort of hyper-aware of the sounds around me. Before I went in the box, I remember looking around and all of the first two rows, they’re always named so that could be Isabella Blow, there’s Ronnie Wood.

I had to stay really, really still in there for three hours because all these moths that are put on are with eyelash glue. So I’m lying back in the pose and thinking yoga thoughts. Just like, be in the pose, be aware of any tension and release it and that’s how I did it, really. I yoga-d through it. I also had this big sort of hula hoop with a net attached to it which was full of live moths and I had a scalpel, so when I got the message from the guys in my ears that they were going to open the box, I could slash it open and release the moths! So that was quite exciting. It wasn’t dark – you can see a bit of it actually, you can see me shaking the basket just a tiny bit at the end just before it opens. Look at the bottom left hand corner, there’s a bit of activity. And then the slightly mad bit was staying really still and hearing all the applause and it was so exciting and I had to stay still. And then try to figure out when was the right moment to leave because nobody came and got me! So I was like, ‘Is it alright to go now?’ And then I sort of grabbed my trainers from under the chaise longue and a little robe and crunched through all the glass and then got them to take the head thing off and oh my God my head was so hot! I looked like a real tufty monkey, all my hair was sweaty and wet and gross and was really hot. Which was probably from three hours of that thing. 

And then got changed and I saw Lee and he said, ‘Michelle! Michelle! You were brilliant! Come here!’ and he pulled me into this sort of black little tent and his mum and dad were in there and he introduced me to his mum and dad and it was just really lovely. They were just very sweet and I remember just saying to them, ‘You must be really proud of him’ and they said oh yes. And I was thinking that was so cool that his mum and dad were here. Then I remember seeing Hilary Alexander and Isabella Blow who sort of stuck together and they just looked like mischief… they were very much in their element and I remember Isabella saying to me, ‘I loved that bit when your fingers moved just like that’ and I’m like, ‘Did they?’ I thought I was being really still! But she’s right, they do. It must have been an involuntary twitch.

“When at I look at the pictures of myself in the show, I get this sort of…‘ahhh’ feeling. It’s like when you see a picture of yourself at school or you see a picture of yourself on a holiday or your sister’s wedding, it’s a moment in my history and it brings back a lot of really good memories as that was a really good adventure. I’m glad I did it. It also kind of makes me laugh because it was a little bit mischievous – sitting there naked in this crazy hood thing is actually quite funny. I think it also reminds me that life is short. It’s funny to think that that’s going to be the bit of me that lives on. To me, first and foremost, it was a caper and I enjoyed being part of that world and I enjoyed the adventure throughout the weeks and I met some really great people and had a really good time. But I think that that’s just a nice little myth bubble that lives out there. It’s got its own life now and I have a small part in a bigger thing and I feel just very grateful and fortunate to have been asked.

It taught me that I’m braver than I thought I was. And that was one of the reasons I did it as well, to be honest. I won’t jump out of a plane but I will sit in a box, covered in moths in front of a load of fashion people with no clothes on and a big ugly-ass hood on for three hours. That will do! And I did do it for art. I did do it for the spectacle. It was such a ballsy thing to do – and I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about McQueen. I think what he did there was to present something ugly as something beautiful and I think he succeeded. And I think if you think everything around that show, the whole thing about the asylum and the craziness and the kind of sense of unease that he was presenting there rather than pure classic beauty, he was kind of twisting something. He was messing with the format and that’s where all change and evolution comes from, from messing with the format. I try not to over-analyse it, because at the end of the day it was a caper and a laugh and good fun. But its come to have more meaning that I thought it would.

“It was such a ballsy thing to do – and I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about McQueen. I think what he did there was to present something ugly as something beautiful and I think he succeeded” – Michelle Olley

Until that point where we spent a week together and I was in his studio every other day and getting fitted for this that and the other, I was more following him from the outside, like everyone else. And it’s a bit like what Ryan O'Neal said about Stanley Kubrick after they filmed Barry Lyndon – when you’re in the movie, you’re in the movie together and you’re in that moment together and that’s all that matters. And then when the movie has gone, that’s sort of gone. We had quite an intense week where we were sort of in each other’s orbit for a bit but then we also went out a couple of times after that because again, we have mutual friends. We went to Simon Drake’s house for Halloween for an evening and sort of spent the night hanging out which was nice, but also I could sort of see the pressures he was under on a daily basis. Because I know he used to like to go out in the real world and people like to come up and they want an autograph, and a photograph and they wanted this and they wanted that, he just wanted to be out and be at a party – live his life. So I can sort of sympathise a bit with the pressures he was under. I remember thinking I’m kind of glad this isn’t really my regular life.

The fashion world is too hard core, I don’t know how you do it. There’s so much pressure on getting it right. There’s so much pressure on finding the next thing and the next thing and staying there if you’re there and getting there if you’re not there. I think it’s a bit much for me! But that’s my story really. It was an amazing thing to be a part of. Again, it was like being in a Kubrick movie – you know, the level of talent and commitment and dedication that was going into it, you knew it was going to be special. It felt like something that the times demanded. It was a little moment where everything was possible – I’m not saying it won’t be possible again, I’m sure it could be. But there’s something about that combination of people like Isabella Blow, Alexander McQueen, his ability as a craftsman and his ability as an artist and ability as a trickster and mischief maker, it’s like those things all came together in this slightly perfect storm.

He came to the launch of a magazine that I did called Fable which I did with a guy called Paul Hunwick who used to be one of the editors at i-D, which was very kind of him. And I remember him saying to me at that party, ‘Why are you still working on magazines, you should be writing a book.’ Which I guess is because I had sent to him that diary that I did. And I remember him saying that to me and it’s still sort of there – maybe one day. I’ve still got him there as this sort of Jiminy Cricket on my shoulder going, ‘You’ve got to write a book!’ If I do ever write a book, I’ll dedicate it to him.”