Glorious Broad #9: Debra Rapoport

PHOTOS: CHRISTOPHER SCALZI / DISTILLED STUDIO

PHOTOS: CHRISTOPHER SCALZI / DISTILLED STUDIO

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GLORIOUS PROFESSION: Healer, Teacher and always — Artist

GLORIOUS PERSONA: Extravagantly Stylish, Re-inventor, Eco-Aware, FREEEE

GLORIOUS QUALITIES: Passionate, Engaged, Generous, Connector, Celebratory

GLORIOUS PHILOSOPHY:

You gotta play. You gotta make a mess.

Strolling down the street with Debra recently, we were approached (ahem, SHE was approached) by fan after bedazzled fan: “I love your style,” “where can I find that vest,” “your look makes me sooo happy,” and my favorite — “thank you inspiring us for what our future CAN be.”

It’s just part of Debra’s everyday to be both a magnet and energy source. I thought I knew my Debra 101 — muse for Ari Cohen's Advanced Style, collector of recycled materials for her art, Instagram celeb …  But I knew bupkis (Debra word I have adopted) about the multitude of reinventions and hard won savvitude this resilient broad has in her. Fasten your seat belts for an amazing Glorious Broad, Debra Rapoport …

HOW AND WHEN DID THIS FABULOUS “STYLE” THING COME TO YOU?
Since I was 3 years old. When we moved to NJ my sister and I were wearing black tights and ballet slippers. My mother used to take us to Greenwich village on Friday nights to “hang out…”

SO YOUR MOTHER WAS COOL …
Very cool … we were strict vegetarians before — well, anybody. We’d never went to doctors — we’d visit “quack” doctors in the middle of the night. She was a real maverick.

WHERE DID YOU GROW UP?
Manhattan. Then Florida. After 6 months, my mother declared “I cannot live here.” Then off to the suburbs in our Italian boho shoes, black tights, surrounded by bobby socks and saddle shoes. We became the “curiosity.” So I know the feeling of being an oddity from way back. (Laughs)

WOULD YOU SAY YOUR MOTHER WAS YOUR BIGGEST INFLUENCE?
Yes. My mother. My grandmother. A grandma can do no wrong.

We’d go to Grandma’s for a sleep over and immediately gravitate to the sewing machine — take the button drawer out, dump it on the floor, and start playing. My grandfather would say “Oy — they are making a mess” and she would say “Be quiet — they’re being creative” and that runs through me. You gotta play. You gotta make a mess.”

SO WHAT STARTED FORMING THE DEBRA I SEE BEFORE ME?
I was shy, insecure as a kid and through art school. But little by little my confidence increased — enough to apply to grad school. And that’s where I realized what education was. Not intimidation. But bringing in the light. Positive criticism. So Berkeley. Berkeley changed my life.

HOW LONG WERE YOU THERE?
11 years. Got my M.A. from University of California, Berkeley and taught for 8 at U.C. Davis. Textile and costume history as an art form.

WHY’D YOU LEAVE?
After 8 years, I just couldn’t stand academia. I threw in the towel. And I was tenured at 35. Everybody thought I’d lost my mind. One of the youngest ever in a creative field, or some bullshit like that …

SO THE IVORY TOWER DROVE YOU CRAZY?
The headaches I would get. I’d throw-up on the side of the road on my commute. And then I realized: there is something wrong with this picture! Teaching I loved. But academia… I’m still friends with all the faculty though …

OF COURSE YOU ARE STILL FRIENDS. I’VE BEEN TO YOUR PARTIES …
Yep.

SO WHEN DID YOU DECIDE TO WALK AWAY FROM TEACHING?
It was 1979. I left my husband. I left him the car. He gave me a camera and we had a $35 divorce. I said goodbye.

OUCH!
Well, yeah. We met in an alternative community. It was called Synanon, a drug rehab place. And in '69, they opened to squares like me. I had been visiting a friend who was living there, finishing up grad school, wondering where am I gonna make these kinds of friends again? I don’t do parties. I don’t do drugs. I don’t drink. I don’t screw. And this community was totally chemical and violence free. And I thought, yeah, this is healthy. So, I got involved. And I met my husband.

I’m famous enough. Who cares. That and $2 will get you on the subway.

COMMUNITY AGAIN — THEN WHAT?
Well, the writing was on the wall. We lived there for two years, but it was getting too fascistic. Humiliating me over bullshit. So, we moved back to Berkley. Stayed married for five more years. And then it was time for me to move back to New York … solo …

SO COMING BACK TO NEW YORK WAS A COMPLETE RESTART FOR YOU IN EVERY WAY, RIGHT?
Oh yeah … I wasn’t sure what to do next. That was a tough time for me.

But then, my sister and I started a catering business — healthy catering. I had a lot of connections at the crafts museum and a gallery I’d shown with — ‘cause I was always making my art and jewelry through all of this. The gallery would have parties and hire us —and we’d dress up and you know — the textiles! The healthy food! It was perfect. Our claim to fame was this incredible seaweed knot I would make and deep fry  — shiny, gorgeous green. And people would say what is this? I said, just keep eating them. I'll tell you later — if I tell you, you won’t like it …

We did that for a bunch of years until my brother-in-law couldn't stand the smell of fried grease in the house! So. My sister dropped out.

CAN YOU SAY HUSTLE?
And then, I went into the flower business with a friend. We had big accounts, major parties in the D&D building. After 16 years, I said to my partner: You know what. I can’t deal with this design shit anymore. I’m going into healing. I just want to work with my hands, go anywhere in the world. And heal. I don’t want to deal with dying flowers any more …

OMG. I NEED A TIMELINE FOR YOU AND YOUR TRANSFORMATIONS. WHAT YEAR IS THIS?
1999. I studied reflexology, polarity, and several other oddball things. It includes cranial sacral, neuro linguistics, and all kinds of fascinating stuff, liquid light, spiritual center.

SO HOW LONG DID YOU DO THAT?
I’m still doing it!

AND YOU STILL TEACH?
Yeah! I continue with workshops and teaching. And somewhere in there I became a community chef, with CSAs, Community Supported Agriculture. I’d cook at the housing project at the old St. George Hotel on 28th Street. Food would be delivered from the farm. I wouldn’t know until that morning what was comin’ in. And whatever would show up — I’d put together. Guys from the building would come over and say, hmmmm, what are you cooking? Smells good. And I’d say, it’s spinach, blah blah blah — but no meat. Try it anyway. We’d get a lot of WOWs. It was a great way to wake people up.

But through it all, I was always teaching in bits and pieces and always making art. Always making embellishments for the body. Large over-scale things like hats, headgear, wearable art.

I’M SEEING THE THEMES, CONNECTING THE DOTS … ART, COMMUNITY, FUTURISTS, ENVIRONMENT … GIVING BACK …
Yep

SO AFTER ALL OF THESE LIVES, WHAT DOES SUCCESS MEAN TO YOU AT THIS POINT?
Contentment, happiness, friendship, health. I got enough money. Making a money in speaking engagements and my hats. I’m famous enough. Who cares. That and $2 will get you on the subway.

AND I LOVED YOUR TED TALK WITH ARI ON AGEISM …
We did that a few years ago, had a ball. Ari does a version of me, giving that talk — with my New York accent — about when I was a teen, makin’ out with the dog while my beautiful sister was out on dates.

HOW DID THIS ARI/ADVANCED STYLE CHAPTER COME ABOUT?
I went to the New Museum, October 22, 2009. I just had on a sweater, a necklace, and a pair of — oh I don’t know — knickers and pink hair. This guy comes running over to me “Hi. My name’s Ari. I photograph women over 60 – can I take your picture?” and I said “How do YOU know I’m over 60?” He takes a few pictures — we start talking — I give him my business card. Five days pass, never hear from him. So I called him. He came over. We spent the whole day together, photograph the whole apartment, dressing, undressing, artwork — and the rest is history.

YOU AND ARI “CLICKED”
We had a lot in common. I’m Jewish. He’s Jewish. I’m a vegetarian. He’s a vegetarian. He did these drawings of dolls, I made art. You know, a lot of the other women don’t make things. They love to shop and dress…

AND YOU DON’T SHOP …
No.

I LOVED THE ADVANCED STYLE FILM … AND THOSE EARLY VIDEOS …
Ari met Lina, who is Lithuania and I’m half Lithuanian. I said: Ok, I’m going to adopt you — you’re my Lithuanian daughter. And we started doing these videos. And that led to the film. Most of the women are Jewish. It almost looks like a New York Jewish film, right? (Laughs)

Debra in an early video — love the way the dress turned backwards looks COOL — and the black leather dress FUCKING HOT …

HOW DID YOU START BEING AN ENVIRONMENTALIST? YOU WERE AHEAD OF YOUR TIME …
Yes. Like my mother. In ’67-’68 – I was doing my master’s dissertation in Berkeley, and I worked only with recycled materials. I didn’t care about ephemera. I’d make things out of toasted bread. And if it crumbled, I didn’t care.

IT’S VERY BUDDHIST …
Yeah! Wabi-sabi. Incompletion. Imperfection. Impermanence.

SO TELL ME ABOUT YOUR CURRENT LOVE LIFE. WERE YOU EXPECTING THIS?
Absolutely not. I was happy, single, busy. A friend tried to introduce us. She told me he was the only one she knew (other than me) who was reading labels on food boxes since the ‘60s. I said,  no way. What would I want with an old man. When I met him the second time, time stood still. He tried to hold my hand through a concert and I thought “hey, I’m 62, I’m not gonna get pregnant. So, what the fuck?” He walked me home and slowly but surely, we realized we had thrifting in common, we like healthy food, cooking, music, we are both on a spiritual path but we didn’t want to follow a guru. So, here we are …

This is the third time. It is the charm. And it’s probably going to be the last. But … you never know …

WAS THERE A TIME WHEN YOU WERE MOST “CONTENT?”
No. I don’t think that way. It’s all in the friends, my partnership. Being able to live in New York. Being able to play. Everything is an act of play right now. I mean, I do lose my temper when I’m the only one cleanin' up the bathroom. But, you know, I’m only fuckin’ human…

WHEN DID YOU GET INTERESTED IN MENTORING?
From being a teacher. And not having kids. I never wanted kids. I knew what it took to be a good parent. I like young people. Starting with Ari. Starting with Lina. And it’s easy. You hang out. And send them home. You learn from them and they learn from us.

I LOVE COMING TO YOUR PARTIES AND SEEING THE MIX OF AGES …
It’s not so rare in Europe, but here, in New York, it’s rare.

YOU DRAW THAT ENERGY TO YOU …
I have a willingness to make a family! Isolation is our enemy.

THERE’S A LOT OF ISOLATION THESE DAYS.
Yes. And there doesn't hafta be. I always say, New Yorkers are the friendliest people. When you're at the library or a coffee shop —  look up. Say hi. Ask how's your coffee? How's your writing? You start a conversation … people talk!

ANY DESIRE TO BE 20 AGAIN?
Shit no. 25 maybe ‘cause that was a turning point in my life. But no. it was horrible. Horrible.

DO YOU TELL YOUR AGE?
I don’t care about my age. I’ll be 74 soon. I have no gauge. No pacing. No 50-year-old kid. No 5-year-old grandkid. So I just am who I am. 

WHAT’S THE BIGGEST RISK YOU TOOK?
I feel I have played it so safe. Close to the chest. Everbody’s off to India. Not me. I don’t even want to go around the corner. I guess I’m into emotional risks. Like moving into my boyfriend’s apartment two years ago!

WHAT DID YOU DO WITH ALL THAT STUFF?
Got rid of 98% of my possessions. I’m FREEEE! But I'm still out there collecting, recycling for my hats, headgear and wearable art! That’s why I call myself “Debra Debris…”

You can find this amazing Glorious Broad on insta @debrarapoport — and she’s all over Youtube.