I have never met Andre Leon Talley; not really. I saw him once in a Harlem church, his vastness consuming a wooden pew near the front of the chapel. Elegantly draped in a caftan suited for a high priest, he was handsome in that way that older black men attending church are handsome; with his neatly coiffed silvering hair, pecan-tan skin, and signature gap-toothed smile, he was everything that I had imagined him to be.
My introduction to Mr. Talley’s legacy happened by accident. Sitting in the waiting room of a rural South Georgia dentist, I discovered a ratty old copy of Vogue, and voile, found Andre. I think I was 16 at the time. Merely seeing him, his name typed on the pages of Vogue, represented a new way for me view my blackness and my maleness. In many ways, it countered the narrowly constructed narrative of black manhood emblematic during my youth.
I would later find out that he was a son of the South and that he had a particular fondness for his grandmother who raised him, both facts that made me admire him more.
The recent release of The Gospel According to Andre documentary about his life has revived interest in the former Vogue creative director and America’s Next Top Model judge. In his interview with Q magazine, he recounts the pain, sacrifice and struggle he endured to make it to the top.
As I reflect back to that day in a Harlem church, watching Mr. Talley from the balcony, I realize that his cachet is greater than his tendency towards fabulation. Instead, it lies in the fact that when we see him; we see ourselves.
The story of Andre Leon Talley is an American success set against the backdrop of race and sexuality that reveals the price of “making it.”
Talley’s story is rife with familiar tropes. Many of us identify with the feeling of loneliness and not being accepted. Our own narratives include being raised in untraditional households headed by a grandmother.
Black gay men are often family heroes, taking on the role of leader. We are often the ones to go off and make something of ourselves. We are the ones who send money back home and save the day whenever the family is in despair, even though we are condemned by the very families we seek to help. In many instances, doing so is an act of combating shame.
Aside from not receiving acceptance from his family, Talley also endured racism. An editor at Women's Wear Daily confronted him with a rumor that he had slept his way through Paris. Andre scoffed, “I’ve never been to any designer’s bed. I got my success on my looks and my knowledge, not my sexual appeal. Am I supposed to be a buck, servicing sexually everybody in Paris? That was a very racist thing.”
Talley once told The New York Times that, “I live alone. I’ll die alone, I climbed up alone, and I’ll go down alone.” That feeling of isolation is a sentiment I have consistently heard among many black gay men. It’s often linked to an inability to connect, so all of our interactions become highly transactional.
One of the saddest moments in reading recent Talley interviews is how friends dropped him following is departure from Vogue. Anna Wintour, his inspiration and mentor, now “treats [him] like the proverbial black sheep, that family member who is left out, shut out, to be avoided.” Romantically speaking, at 70, Mr. Talley claims to have never really had a relationship, though he identifies as having been in love twice, both times unrequited.
The original Gospels were written to provide lessons to live by. Talley’s Gospel is a testament to our ability to manifest our desires, to embrace our contradictions and complexities. They also provide a roadmap for any of us not to get too caught up in the trappings of success, to build real relationships, and to avoid the need to be validated by others.
Eric Paulk is an advocate working at the intersections of race, class, and sexuality. Follow him on Twitter.
This column originally appeared in Q magazine. Read the full issue below, and pick up your hard copy around town.