Sunday Morning with Bebe Buell
We were honored to have the chance to catch up with Bebe Buell, a prominent figure in the 70s NYC music and social scene. She has worked as a Ford fashion model, fronted many of her own bands, and has inspired well-known icons and artists along the way, many of whom she calls personal friends. She continues to empower people to be themselves and inspire love through many artistic endeavors.
Read on to find out more about Bebe's adventure-filled history, how music changed her forever, and tips for keeping a positive mind in a troubling world. We had ourselves a ball hanging out with her and photographer Emily Beaver in our Electric Thread headquarters. All photos by Emily Beaver, unless noted. Styled by us.
It was impressive watching you work in front of the camera for this shoot. You really knew how to make the clothing come to life. Was modeling always a natural thing for you, or did you have to learn techniques over time?
I think as you're in front of the camera more and more you learn what works for you. What angles are your best, and you begin to understand lighting. It comes with experience and being photographed a lot. I love the art of photography itself, so I really embrace the bond that forms between the photographer and the subject. If you're working with someone you have a chemistry with, that's when the magic happens. However, when I was a young model I would have to sometimes make really ugly clothes look good and wearable. I formed that skill doing catalogue shoots and product advertising. I've always enjoyed being in front of the camera so that helps, too.
What has the fashion industry taught you? Any cool stories you'd like to share?
The fashion world is unique unto itself and when I first started professionally back in 1972, things were very different. Models were "healthier" and more athletic looking. Not so emaciated. Although, that appears to be a reversing trend. I'm noticing that the ALL Sizes Movement is growing and more and more models are "personalities" as opposed to "clothes hangers." The fashion industry taught me a lot about "quality" and fabrics. Things that are well made just hang better and look better. I'd rather have five great classic pieces than dozens of racks of junk. I've been lucky in that I've worked with some of the greatest designers and photographers and they always allowed me to be myself. Maybe because right out of the box I was a rebel. I wrote my own rules. However, I was a professional so I sometimes had to work garments that I'd never wear in real life. But I learned right away to just be myself and let the clothes shine when it was appropriate. I never let the clothing steal my spirit or how I wanted to present the piece. I tried to do my best—to do my job, which was to sell the product.
What was it like meeting Eileen Ford for the first time? How do you think starting your career at a young age shaped you? Looking back, would you have done it any differently?
My Mother sent my high school graduation photo and a few snapshots to Eileen. I didn't even know she did it, I was just busy being a teenager and hanging out with my friends. I think my mom and I were both very surprised when Eileen summoned me to NYC immediately after getting my mom's packet. Meeting her the first time was scary. She was a larger-than-life-character and famous for being blunt. But, it took only ten minutes for me to become a Ford Model and I was on my way at 18 to living in NYC on my own.
Looking back, I think I would have been a bit more responsible and not taken the blessing of being with the biggest agency on the planet so casually. Right out of the gate my heart was imbedded in music, so I put that above my modeling career. I still did a lot of great work and I'm proud of the early pictures I created, but I could have gone much further if my heart and soul had not been so tied to rock n' roll.
Throughout your life, what is one piece of clothing that has meant the most to you?
I've had a few, and the one thing I still have from the 70s is a pair of embroidered boots that Steven Tyler bought me at Harrods in 1976. I've saved all my vintage t-shirts and there's one dress I can't part with—my Yves St. Laurent pink dress that Ric Ocasek from The Cars gave me as a gift after I finished my first record. I also collect Calvin Klein black jackets—I've got several. It's my go to look—a simple black jacket, jeans, and a statement top or piece of jewelry. Calvin is a great designer for women—his clothes fit perfectly. I love Anna Sui and Marc Jacobs, too. They understand the rock n' roll heart. And, I wish Alexander McQueen was still alive—he was brilliant. He really understood the art of the stitch. Right now, I'm in love with the new Gucci line. It feels like they went into my closet from 1973-1978 and ran amok!
There have been a lot of trends in the fashion world that have come and gone. Which has been your favorite? Least favorite?
I have a particular dislike for the 80s and shoulder pads. I will always gravitate to the classics—simplicity and glamour. However, one thing that seems to never leave and keeps coming back every season, on every runway, is leopard. It's one of the mainstays and I adore it. I'm kind of known for my love of leopard and glitter. And that's just fine with me. It just amazes me how they keep leopard fresh year-after-year. But they do, and black will always be my favorite color for fashion.
What was the craziest party you've ever been to? What are the do's and don'ts of party etiquette, in your opinion?
Probably the craziest party was when Alice Cooper's record company thew a party for Billion Dollar Babies in a subway station, or was it The Who? I can't remember! They took over a wing of one of the stops, and turned it into a party headquarters. There were people breathing fire walking around. Topless women carrying drinks on a tray. Everyone was served their own dish of caviar. There have been many but that one stands out, even though I can't remember which band threw it!
Depending on the situation, almost anything goes at a rock n' roll party, but it is never polite to arrive uninvited or to bring too many extra people along. I've always respected that it's the hosts who invite the guests—I try to always ask, too, if I can bring extra people. It's always nice to bring a small gift and to never be the first in line at the buffet.
Did modeling and music go hand-in-hand for you? Do you prefer one over the other?
Of course it did. Models and rock stars have always had an affinity for one another. They travel a lot, wear great clothes, and keep crazy hours. But for me, music won the battle. I just decided to devote my entire self to my music so any modeling that I did from, say, 1979 onward was just to make art or to accompany an interview I was doing. In 2003, I returned a little bit to modeling and the thrill of working with fashion great Francesco Scavullo was a highpoint. He passed away shortly afterwards, so I've always felt blessed to have been one of his last photo shoots. At this stage of my life, I feel very fortunate that I can still create great photos with talented visionaries and have it go hand in hand with my art—my music.
Was there a certain moment that made you fall in love with music? If you could form a supergroup, who would be in it?
Music has always been in my DNA—in my blood. It was when I saw The Beatles and then The Rolling Stones on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1963 that made me a bonafide rebel with a cause.
A supergroup? WOW! More like an orchestra—I can't narrow it down to just a group. Let's see, I'd have John Entwistle on bass, Alvin Lee on guitar, Malcolm Young on rhythm guitar, Sandy Gennaro on drums, and Jerry Lee on keys!! We'd be called "Bebe & The Badasses."
What is your writing process? Do you usually collaborate with your band or prefer to write alone?
It's always different. I usually come up with the title, the hook, and the idea. Lyrics sometimes come in one swoop and other times they develop with whomever I'm writing with. Songs usually descend upon me. I love writing with other people—usually one or two. But sometimes I just sit alone and let the songs spew out of me. Then Jim will help me sort it out and arrange it.
Who are you listening to right now?
The National have a GREAT new album, as does one of my heroes Stevie Van Zandt. I tend to keep up with what's going on with Sirius radio in my car. But I'm also one of those people who loves the classics and the entire Tom Petty catalogue. The Stones are part of my body at this point. Music is like food for me. I can't live without it. It would be impossible to narrow it down. I listen to everything and love so many types of music. I'm a massive Frank Sinatra fan. I adore classical music, too. Even a little Enya when I need to relax.
Blackfoot Gypsies are my favorite live band right now. Along with Thee Rock N' Roll Residency. Brandon Flowers is a clever one. Have you checked out Lawrence Rothman for atmospheric music? He used to be Lillian Berlin in Living Things—he has a ton of visual going on and several cool looks. I will always adore The Cult—another great live band.
You moved to Nashville a few years ago, what brought you here? What do you like about it? What are some of your favorite spots around town?
I came here in 2012 to sing on an Eddy Arnold tribute record for Plowboy Records and sort of decided on that trip in May 2012 that I wanted to pull up stakes and move here. I was pulled in by the energy and the famous Nashville vortex of creative swoosh and zest. It just hits you square between the eyes. I often say you don't choose Nashville—it chooses you. What I love about it is the sense of camaraderie and community. There's always someone great playing and it's constant. I love Mercy Lounge—it's my favorite place to hang and play. But I've had religious experiences at so many of our venues. The Ryman has a magic that one can't put into words. My very first show in town was at The Bluebird Cafe so it holds a special place in my heart, always. The Basement, The Basement East, 3rd & Lindsley, the list goes on and on. We ARE Music City and living here is as exciting as NYC was back in the 70s and 80s. We're also a foody paradise. There's just everything here—everything artistic and unique. In all areas of the arts, too. With just a lot more charm and innocence than you find in many big cities. I will always need my NYC fixes, though. It's part of who I am. It's in my deepest soul. I need to feel New York frantic energy from time-to-time. Plus a lot of my lifelong friends live there.
What is your spirit animal?
My spirit animal always was and always will be Mick Jagger. I also feel a crazy musical connection with Phil Shouse from Thee Rock N' Roll Residency. He and I click in that way that front people and guitar players click. I love playing with those guys. Both he and Jeremy Asbrock have given me a platform to be myself and play ROCK music, which is forever my heart. I love the audiences that frequent that Thee Rez scene—the Rezzies. Just heaven!
You write a lot about positivity, love, and encouragement. How do you keep these themes alive in your daily routine?
I've learned that life is not always fair. It can hurt—it can be cruel, so I try my hardest to stay positive and focused on the LIGHT. I don't allow dark aspects into my orbit and if one or two slip through the cracks and I get my heart broken, or someone fucks me over, I just look at it as a lesson. A life lesson. I also believe in fate, karma, and destiny so I feel we are all on our path. I think we are with the people we're meant to be with and we make the mistakes that make us better people. I also believe in forgiveness. That doesn't mean you have to let that person back in your life, but releasing them from anger or hatred is healing and good for the soul. I tend to be kind of innocent about people with bad intentions, and I still to this day get people with bad intent trying to get into my life. I'm getting stronger and better at spotting them now. One of the perks of getting older and wiser.
What does love mean to you?
Love is my oxygen and love is life. Love is what keeps us all going. It's the single force that fuels the Universe.
Throughout your life, you became friends with many iconic creative geniuses. How do you carry on when they take their final bow?
I know that we will all meet again. I don't believe in death, per se. But losing Bowie and Prince was especially painful, John Lennon and now Tom Petty. I just have to believe that we'll all meet again. Just to have shared the planet with these people makes me know I was born at the right time. I'm so lucky to have known them and to carry their spirit and memory in my daily life. I miss Stiv Bators and Joey Ramone.
What advice do you have for young people trying to pursue their dreams?
Don't be afraid to throw caution to the wind and dive in. BUT, never pass up an opportunity to get an education or to pursue your passion. Just do it! Don't hurt people along the journey and stay focused on the learning process and what you can teach others.
What do you hope to leave behind with your art?
Like any artist, I just want to be remembered. I hope that I leave behind a colorful legacy and that when people think of me, they smile and have lots of fun stories to tell. I hope I am remembered as someone who loved animals and music and humanity. Someone who was always on a spiritual quest. Oh, and who believes in aliens and angels.
What is coming up for you and the Rebel Souls? Any other projects in the works?
I'm excited about my upcoming show at Mercy Lounge on Oct. 11th with The Dead Deads. But then I'm taking a break from performing live for a clip, and we're going to finally make my next album Baring It All. I mean, I'm still gonna sing with Thee Rez & The Long Players when they ask me—and I want to do another Bluebird show to keep my voice nice and greasy, but I won't do another Rebel Souls show until after the album is finished. We start recording in January, and it's slated to come out in April 2018. I've had these songs in me for four years now, so to finally get them out and recorded is going to feel so good.
I've got a few fun irons in the fire, as they say. Feeling inspired and blessed all at the same time. Being in Nashville has opened up a whole new spectrum of opportunity. I'm feeling the magic and riding on the beam.
Anything else you'd like to share?
We're all in this together. This journey they've dubbed "life." I don't take the privilege of being alive for granted. To me the gift of life is our chance to find a higher purpose for our souls. To grow—to take it to the stratosphere.
And on a lighter note—listen to vinyl. It's better. Adopt, don't buy, and RECYCLE! If you're feeling feisty, become a veggie or a vegan. Step out of the box—out of your comfort zone. And never stop dreaming.
Check out Bebe's website bebebuell.org for updates on her music and shows, and follow her on the internet @realbebebuell for daily musings. Listen to her music wherever you listen online, Spotify's a good start.
Thank you Bebe for your inspiring words and and Emily for your photos. You both are incredibly fun to work with.
Sunday Morning is an interview & photo series featuring artists who inspire us. All of the photoshoots are styled by us, Electric Thread. You can find previous editions of our Sunday Morning series, here. Browse pieces used in this shoot in our online shop, etsy.com/shop/electricthreadshop.