Alex Fury: Were you always interested in illustration and fine art?
Mel Odom: Well, I drew from the time I was about three and throughout school being able to draw was my identity. As far as I was concerned there really never a choice of being that, that's just who I was. I grew up in a very small town in the south, in North Carolina, and there were no galleries there, no museums. I saw magazines and picture books, that was my idea of what art was, so as soon as I had any sort of social awareness that's what I wanted to do.
AF: And were those fashion magazines?
MO: No, no. We really were not a sophisticated family. My mother's fashion magazines were Ladies Home Journal and McCall's, I didn't see any real fashion magazines until I got to college. These were more beauty ads in magazines - I have a drawing of the fashion model Suzy Parker that I did when I was ten years old. I was just always attracted to beautiful faces.
AF: It's odd you mention beauty, because even in the late 1950s and early 1960s a lot of beauty advertising employed illustration rather than photography: Elizabeth Arden didn't like photography, she loved expressive illustration. It's also interesting that your work tends to veer towards portraits rather than full-length, just like beauty advertising.
MO: And like close-ups in films. In fact my drawings are predominately proportioned like a magazine page. And part of that is because I am an illustrator and I have illustrated a lot for magazines - but they have always been that, because that was the format I saw growing up. And the close-up: you know how beautiful men and women look in close-ups in films, particularly from the 1930s through the 1950s. The lighting, the diffusing, they just do everything to make them gorgeous. Josef Von Sternberg's movies with Marlene Dietrich are the most amazing Valentines of a person's love I have ever seen in my life.
AF: When you look at your images there is also the feel of Art Deco, of a Tamara de Lempicka stylisation. Was that conscious, or was it from seeing these films and absorbing these images?
MO: It wasn't conscious at all. In fact, sometimes I was the last person to see it: I was just drawing something in what I thought was the most beautiful way. That was always my goal, that the drawing be as beautiful as I could make it. It was a vocabulary that I had learned cinematically - that I wasn't aware of - that I used in two dimensional art. As a child I used to get up in the middle of the night and go to watch movies on television while my parents were asleep, so I had a deep kind of secret love affair with movies.
AF: A lot of your work was with pornographic magazines like Blueboy and Playboy - and there's something secretive about pornography too. It's the stash under the mattress, something you take out and look at furtively.
MO: When I started drawing I wanted to imbue the drawings with that feeling, that they were something secret, and that they had secrets. Nothing's more attractive than secrets.
AF: How did you first start to work with those magazines?
MO: I moved to New York in 1975, when I was 25. And I started working for a women's magazine called Viva that had nude men in it - it was owned by Penthouse. I did a lot of sexual fantasies for them; and then Blueboy saw my work and I started working for Blueboy; and then Playboy saw my work in Blueboy and I started working for Playboy; and then Time magazine saw my work in Playboy and I started working for Time! So it was an interesting climb from Blueboy and Viva to the cover of Time magazine.
AF: Its an interesting switch, from a gay magazine like Blueboy to Playboy, which is the most heterosexual publication.
AF: Did you approach creating the images any differently?
MO: No, it was interesting.They approached me and it took several times before it actually happened. Because this one art director I tried to work for three times and it never got beyond sketches, we just didn't agree on things. And then this wonderful art director named Kerig Pope was assigned me, and the very first drawing I did for him was for a Roald Dahl story called My Uncle Oswald. It was portrait of a man in bed, with his collar open and a red pill in his hand like a stigmata. It was a very homoerotic image, and I was amazed that they didn't ask for any changes, they didn't raise any objections. The best relationship I had with any magazine was with Playboy - they were game for anything that was really beautiful. And as a result, I gave them a lot of my best work. And they were fun to work for.
AF: It's interesting that the first image that you provided them was an image of a man because there is a lot of gender-bending in your work - the idea of transgressing gender boundaries.
MO: Well, a large part of the time I was working for Playboy. Hugh Hefner's daughter, Christie, was head of it. And she perhaps brought a different angle to the magazine. But I have to say it was an incredibly sophisticated bunch of people: they would give me terrific fiction like Tom Robbins and Joyce Carol Oates to illustrate, and when you get a brilliant piece of writing, it inspires you, it makes you really want to up your game. And their commitment to sexual freedom was so authentic that there was never anything inhibiting about a gay man expressing an editorial stance for that magazine. There was never any conflict on that.
AF: The idea of a gay man creating something for such a heterosexual magazine - especially these images that are deliberately ambiguous - is quite fascinating.
MO: I think they liked that. I think they saw the future coming. They knew there were people out there who were not going to be bound by society's traditions. The fact that they had a woman at the head of this magazine was the perfect example. I give Hugh Hefner a lot of credit for putting his money where his mouth was: he always said that he loved women, and he loved women so much that he put one at the head of his magazine. The sexual ambiguities just played into their general 'live and let live' editorial stance. Remember, we had Ronald Reagan in the White House - people were trying to hammer society back into the fifties, and they just weren't having it. I loved that about them, that they were authentically bohemian in their editorial stance.
AF: This was the late 1970s early 1980s, wasn't it? And after the decadence of the seventies, of Studio 54 and Le Sept, people retrenched in the eighties to much more corporate values.
MO: I used to go to Studio 54 like three times a week in the late 1970s. You would see Truman Capote and Halston and Liza and Bianca Jagger and politicians and actors, and dancing on the dance floor next to completely stark naked people. And nobody in there thought anything of it at the time. When I tell people that now, they look at me like I'm lying. But it really happened! I started recognising women by their nipples. It was just a very free time and it couldn't be more fun.
AF: That is reflected in the images - but in the 1980s it's like an alternative to reality. And there is this dreamlike quality to them, and an escape in them as well. The way those 1930s films were an escape from the realities of the Great Depression.
MO: I think they're very dreamy. There's a drawing, one of the ones you have, 'Pubis Angelical': it's this beautiful woman with long dark hair and blue eyes and there's a very large man's hand at her neck. It's either a threat or a caress; she's either tiny or he's enormous. I like putting ambiguities in my drawings, making people wonder what was actually happening. One of the biggest compliments I ever got was somebody said 'When I look at your drawings I just can't imagine what these people are going through!' That's really something.