Interview and words by Javier Gonzalez
She is quite unassuming, really. After all, she's barely 5'3 and probably weighs less than your clothes hamper. It's hard to imagine that Carmen Electra has been at this for two decades; twenty years. When she finally got around to doing her first Playboy shoot in 1996, Bill Clinton was winning his second term as president of these United States. Plus, let us not mention that Ariana Grande was only three years old and Zendaya was still four months away from being born. In almost two decades, she has nearly 90 acting credits to her name, including Good Burger, Baywatch, Starsky and Hutch, the Scary/Date/Epic and Disaster Movies, Meet the Spartans and her latest, Chocolate City. She's hosted TV shows and special events all around the world and has been a guest judge on talent shows countless times. She acts, sings, dances and is an entrepreneur. While on this journey, she's been married twice, divorced twice, engaged a third time and experienced the heartbreaking loss of her older sister and her mother, both within two weeks of each other. She's outlasted all the other pretty faces, the other “up-n-comer” beauties; she's gone beyond the pages and beyond the lens and has endured a rollercoaster ride for nearly two decades...twenty years. Even while she was getting her start in LA, she wasn't Tara Patrick (her birth name), “... I was Carmen Electra. I had this crappy little apartment, not too far from here off Fletcher Ave., and my Mac kit and some nice clothes, but I didn't have a car or a bank account. I was counting change. My friends had cars and I would get all dolled up and I'd go out and nobody knew what I was going through.”
As casual as can be, she shows up in a Black Sabbath t-shirt and jeans, a red flannel and some black Chuckies. Unpretentious, modest and incredibly sweet; just a girl from a small town outside of Cincinnati, Ohio. She didn't quite look like the girl we've seen in all those magazines (Stuff, Maxim, Cosmo, Esquire, Details, Men's Fitness, Women's Health, Playboy), at least not yet; the woman who's appeared on the most FHM covers in the magazine's history, where they recently made her their oldest cover girl in April of last year. In a small studio in Downtown LA, above a discount clothing store, photographer and creative director Walid Azami has put together a crew that will turn this already beautiful muse into one of the most recognizable icons in the industry. Walid has a vision, a vision that he put together after running into Carmen at a mutual friend's party, where the two bonded over not knowing what they were watching on TV (it was True Blood.) As Carmen talks about their unlikely connection “...having fun bonding over not knowing what was going on while everyone else was totally into it,” she mentions that it further strengthened after playing a game of Heads Up on their iPhone; while playing the celebrity category, Carmen had to figure out the mystery celebrity on the phone...Carmen Electra. “Walid kept pointing to me and was making all these faces and I never got it, but it was so funny” as a smile creeps across her face. That's all it took, a connection over a 21st century version of charades and not being into a sexy vampire show. But to get to this point, there had to be a plan, a plan that Carmen would be on board with and make her feel like she was doing something extraordinary. This shoot comes at a time when Carmen could be seen as being in transition – from ultra-hot bikini poolside babe to sexy fashion icon; it's a transition that can sometimes come to many during a point in their lives when they reflect on where they've been and where they're going. Some may call it a “crisis” while others may call it a “reinvention” or rebirth. “[I'm] starting to look at underground magazines on newsstands that are artsy and into styling and it's something I've always wanted to do but people didn't really see me in that way, or I didn't give off that kind of vibe” says Electra, as she reflects into the mirror, “I'm hoping to change that.” Her publicist Jack explains, “We haven't done the bikini stuff in a while except for the spread in FHM back in April, which was their big anniversary issue, and we felt that it was a good shoot to do. But lately, it's been more on the artsy side-we're seeing an evolution of Carmen and still want to keep it sexy because we know that that's what her audience is still all about and they still love her for it. Now, we want to explore a more sophisticated side to the sexy and she loves changing it up; she's so easy to deal with in that regard because some people and artists are totally set in a certain way and look, and Carmen is always game to play around.” As for Carmen, “it's all about trust and letting go; I want to do that more.”
Sitting in a chair, getting makeup and hair done (it’s a process), Carmen almost has no choice but to open up about many things. These days she’s excited about her music, “to be in music, it allows [you] to be who you are and take more chances; when you’re acting, you kind of keep things simple and become a basic canvas. Going to auditions, they either want to see that you can be anybody or they want to see you just as they’ve always remembered seeing you. It goes against the look that people know you for the best and music has been real fun for me because I get to be more creative and I really love that and THAT has been going along with more of the shoots I’ve been doing lately.” How has that process been for Carmen? “It’s all been such a crazy learning experience and has happened really fast because for the first time, it’s just me. It isn’t me performing with a group; I can do whatever I want to do.” However, while music is a key priority for Carmen now, her real love will always be dance. “There are a lot of people that don't even know that my background is in dance! That's what I do and that's what I was trained to do; everything else is an experiment.” Sure, she released a 5-disc box set for her Aerobic Striptease Fitness Collection, which combines dance and fitness in a fun and active way; it’s a project that she is very proud of. Yet, Carmen finds it funny that people don’t know about her lifelong commitment. “I started when I was 5 years old in a performing arts school…and I even started teaching dance when I was 11 years old; my dad, a construction worker and musician, built me a studio in the basement of our garage, with mirrors and a ballet bar and other equipment to work with and I even had three students that I charged $20 an hour.” Has she ever just danced for herself in a mirror, like Janet Jackson in “Pleasure Principle” or Jennifer Beals in Flashdance? (Laughing) “No leg warmers, but I was obsessed; not quite like “Pleasure Principle” but I like to take classes and going back to music has been real inspirational to me lately. It has brought me so much happiness and being in that studio makes me feel like I belong in a dance studio with other dancers, sweating. I really like the group dynamic and working together as one.”
Carmen excitedly chats up about some future projects; perhaps acting would take a back seat to music and dancing? “No, I just shot a movie in London (Party Pieces) and finished another movie (Chocolate City) with Vivica Fox, in Atlanta, where all the best strip clubs are; I play DJ Cleopatra. It was so much fun! I've always respected DJ's and remember when Salt & Pepa came out with Spinderella on the turntables and then you started seeing more women on the turntables and scratch and be artists.” As a big Beastie Boys fan myself, I ask her if she feels the art of mixing and scratching has faded away lately, like turntablists such as Mix Master Mike? Carmen practically jumps out of her chair, “Mix Master Mike is a friend of mine! That's who taught me a lot and I'm practicing with his wife; I really just want to start with scratching first and then get into mixing dance music.” Could this be a possible next career move? Carmen’s eyes light up; “I'd love to go to Ibiza and all the big European clubs and parties; it's a skill I wanted to learn as a hobby but I never had time. During the movie, I started to learn how to scratch and mix into the next song when the next performer was coming on stage and I just had so much fun doing it.”
Additionally, Carmen absolutely beams as she talks about her perfume campaign, a sense of pride in her smile. “Rrrr! Carmen Electra for Women is something I've always wanted to do and I wanted to be involved from the very beginning; from the packaging and the scent and the design to the campaign. I didn't want to be just hired for a perfume campaign; I wanted to be on it from the ground up. And I think that people are smart and would catch on to that if you don't wear your brand. It took us a while because it's quite tricky; it's a process.” She takes out her phone and shows me pictures of the marketing campaign and packaging, “I've had quite a few products that I've been a part of from the ground up, you know? When it comes directly from you and not from a company that's just hiring you, it'll be successful. I just love building it, being a part of it, creating it and fighting for what I want... I told myself 'I'm not gonna do this unless it's something that I want to wear every day.’” So is this something that could be worn every day or just for special occasions? Carmen gives a look and flashes a smile that is devilish and confident, “Honey...every day is a special occasion.”
I ask how she feels when she’s coming into shoots like this and what has changed over twenty years; “It’s all about taking chances and building that trust and letting everyone on the crew do their thing and help take you to another level. That's what makes it fun. I want to evolve and keep changing and learning and going to the next level. So far, working with Walid, it's a guaranteed trust and I'm putting the pressure on myself to get that vibe that will help us get what we want. I'm not afraid to hunch my shoulders or get into positions, or try new makeup and hair and live in that moment.” She continues, “Working with Walid is great because he sees the photos and knows what he needs from me; for me, it's about getting the right music to get that mood and using Walid's direction to get the right feeling. It's like acting, in a way. You pull from what you have inside of you and you play the role that's needed. As I listen to [Walid], what he tells me and inspires me and everything around the shoot. It's a combination of a great team around you and the trust to help me get to that place needed for that shot or that scene. Plus the music; the music really gets me to where I need to be. Everyone finds their way to get where they need. All these photos and poses and the music, all of it is just a dance for me.” So was Carmen pleased with the whole shoot today? “It took us a while to really find the music and see what we needed and wanted…but once I got into the vibe and Walid showed me some of the shots, I knew what he was looking for. It has to hit you in the heart. Honestly, when I'm doing a shoot like this, I just don't want to stop. I'm kind of sad that we're not shooting more, to be honest, because you just have those moments when the team and the vibe really clicks. I'm kind of sad to go home.”
Twenty years later, she still wants to stay after and do more; she wants to stay in the moment and get that perfect shot. Twenty years later, she shows us how and why she's lasted this long. Twenty years from now, we won't be surprised when she's still gracing a cover. Of course, Carmen has done this before.
The Carmen Electra Team
Interview and Story: Javier Gonzalez
Photography/Creative Direction: Walid Azami, Grid Agency
Stylist: Jason Sky
Hair: Michael Solis, Grid Agency
Makeup: Rokael Lizama
Producer: Fernando Ulloa
Production Management: Matthew Harshbarger
Gown: Sen Couture
ART IS IN THE PROCESS: BEHIND THE SCENES OF CARMEN'S SHOOT
Listen to the song which inspired the entire look (below)
It first started with a vision board, a concept that Walid had to present to Carmen and make her feel comfortable enough to go through with it. There's a reason as to why Walid Azami picked Carmen for the Fashion Photograph, an online Photography Salon geared towards showing the entire process behind the art. The website has a responsibility to not just focus on the end result of the art, but on the process that gets us there...we want to showcase all the people that put their hard work into the final product. Walid further explains that “I want to establish her as a beacon for pop culture and show that she can be quite fashionable; she's one of the examples of a woman who's gone past her 30's (she is a remarkably sexy 40+ year old) and still looks incredible and embraces it.” What did Carmen think of Walid's initial vision, which didn't involve any bikinis or half nude poolside shots?
What, exactly, does it take for Carmen to feel comfortable and step out of that box and try something new? Walid reached out to stylist Jason Sky to help put the look together. Like any shoot it starts with the vision board. “I was fortunate enough to actually talk with her and interact with her at LA Fashion Week before Walid's call and I noticed that this was NOT the Carmen that I knew; she looked refreshed and new...and I wanted to bring a lot of texture to her look. I wanted to elevate her look with designer wear, and I also wanted to do some simple clean lines and do those extremes and leave out all the sex because the sexiness is naturally there for her.” As Jason goes through his rack of different looks for the shoots (Walid is planning four different looks with four different vibes) and shows me the wardrobe and jewelry for the day, he says that “I wanted to peel back the layers. Every woman is multifaceted and many times they get pigeonholed and comfortable in that because of past successes; 'this is tried and true and this is what works with my body' and I wanted to try something different. She can already stand in a room and you can't help but look at her. I'm trying to let the sex appeal live on its own; I'm not trying to turn it up or down, I just want her to come as she is.”
There’s a frenetic energy and buzz that permeates the studio. Someone's phone is playing music from a Spotify list. Rokael and Michael are feverishly working on Carmen. Both are responsible for many of Carmen's looks over the years, as they are a staple part of her glam squad. Jason is putting the looks together, combining jewelry and accessories with wardrobe, and Walid is barking orders to his production assistants as they adjust equipment, props and various lights to make sure it all runs smoothly, visualizing and discussing each shoot with whoever is within earshot. “One of the purposes of today, and this project is to showcase everyone's strengths and show what the process is to get someone like Carmen onto a page, and she's been very involved in that from the beginning” he says, shooting countless tests and checking his lights; “... I think she's stunning and to have her for this project really is exciting.” Walid sits with Carmen before they start and details what he's looking for, explaining that he'll run the gamut from Madonna (Vogue era) to trashy sexy back to 90's Kate Moss. Behind him is a wall that is completely adorned, from floor to ceiling, with endless black and white photos of Kate and Madonna; a shrine of inspiration and creativity to women who have done it all. Carmen listens, nods and is incredibly receptive to each idea. She’s done this before.
Walid walks with makeup artist Roakel Lizama to each set-up and explains what look he wants and how the lighting will be. “We'll have shadows and I want it to be Vegas-y” he says, “but not too Vegas.” Walid shows him some of the poses and discusses what he wants on Carmen and how he wants it to look in the end. As they both go through Roakel’s inspiration book of various looks and styles, Walid points to a couple of shots and explains “this is what I need when I shoot some close ups of her; could it look cosmetic?” Roakel responds with a confident “yes.” “OK, let's keep that in mind and we'll work with the order of the shoots.” Roakel explains, as he flips through the pages of his book, “every time I've worked with Carmen it's been a smoky eyed look with dark, thick lashes." Roakel explains what he will do with her lashes and how it fits into Walid's vision and tells him which sequence the shoot would work better so as to better use the time for application and make-up adjustment. It’s a symbiotic relationship that needs to be established in order to maximize Carmen’s look with the photographer's vision and it doesn’t work without Roakel perfectly understanding those needs. He does. As does Michael Solis, who works at the exclusive Jonathon and George Salon of Beverly Hills; “I'm here to do whatever they need me to do and follow Walid's direction and I've worked with Carmen before and she's always game; easy breezy.” Michael is an expert at his craft, carefully focusing on the details that will matter to both Walid and Carmen, and will carefully, and quickly, adjust Carmen’s look four times over the next few hours.
After wrapping the first couple looks, the studio really starts to move for the third shoot. Walid has a vision (Madonna’s “Vogue”) that he would like to hold onto, but understands that it just won’t work. So…he does a 180 and starts from scratch, while Carmen is less than 20 feet away, calmly getting hair and makeup done. Everything happening in the studio is now revolving around Walid’s new concept for this one dress…the lovely green Sen Couture gown. He comes up with a new idea and has his production assistants begin to open brand new lights, still wrapped in their packaging with Styrofoam and instructions attached. New poles are being assembled to hold the lights and Walid even has me run and help put one of the lights together. We frantically try to find plugs, cords, gels, bolts, washers and anything else to make this next shoot happen within his new concept. As the lights come on, they smoke. As they’re unplugged and reassembled, Walid reconfigures the props. He spins them, slides them, shuffles them and removes them altogether. Sometimes it’s completely rearranging the props; sometimes, it’s just turning the platform box one-half inch to the right. That will surely make the difference. He closes the leaves on the barn lights and experiments with green and purple bursts; a sliver of light here versus a burst of flash there. He puts on and removes gels and sees what happens. Ideally, Walid wants to use minimal light, especially on Carmen; he’s looking to capture more depth with less light. He understands that the darkness and strong shadows are just as important as the light and they will play a role in his work today, emphasizing her body and those famous curves; she is the canvas against a dark background. Even her lashes and hair, a high and tight ponytail, become their own character. He remembers a photo of Martha Graham in a similar dress, but in black and white. Walid is determined to make this work with the green dress and hard lighting. In a matter of minutes, Walid’s concept traveled 70 years and went from Madonna’s Vogue to Martha Graham. Carmen walks out ready for the third shoot and this floor-length dress makes me quite aware of my heterosexuality. It's green, it's tight and it's stunning. Jason explains to me that he wanted to “...[play] with texture and some sheer moments. Gowns like this...I think it'll fit well and it'll pop. It's clean. We still want her to feel sexy and her silhouettes and lines will play into that.” Carmen comes off as an expert in wearing this gown. Carmen is barefoot, by no accident. “I don’t want the heels to limit her movement; this is not a performance and I don’t them to cheapen her [sexuality],” explains Walid. He tells her to turn and look at her shadow and tells her that he's looking for “sexy disco museum glam in Paris” and Carmen knows just what she needs. “Can you find me something sexy with disco? 'Love to Love You Baby' would be perfect. Thank you.” I jump on my Spotify and find a remixed version, but it doesn't work with the vibe. Carmen practically stops the shoot and looks at me with a knowing glare, “...find me the original version.” I then find Donna Summer’s original 1975 album version, which clocks in at just less than 17 minutes long. Carmen melts into the song and flirts with the camera. No one in this room can take their eyes off her. The lighting, the vibe, the song and the attitude all work. Everything has come together for this one shoot. Walid, confident and without hesitation, took his original idea, scrapped it and went in a different direction. Walid ditched one idea in a matter of seconds and came up with a new one in half the time. Afterwards, basking in the afterglow, I ask Jason what he thought. “What?! Are you kidding?! She absolutely felt it; she really worked that dress. A classic Carmen Electra shoot, but in a sophisticated and modern way. She was able to evoke a certain iconic feel and we're peeling back those layers. I'm really into it and it's going very well. She knows her body well and I think that she likes that she's covered up and not too over-exposed.” Even Carmen was excited about the last shoot, “I loved it; I think that was my favorite one so far. Definitely. It was so different. The music really put me in the mood I needed. That is such a sexy song. Thanks for finding the original!” Certainly, Carmen has done this before.
Want more exclusives photographs of Carmen Electra? Check out our friends at POPCRUSH and see images from Carmen's 4th look.