Amanda Lepore Looks Back at Her Life in Parties

A fixture on the nightclub circuit since the 1990s, New York’s favorite bombshell is still at the top of her game.

Amanda Lepore
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Amanda Lepore didn’t move to Manhattan to become a club icon. A native of New Jersey, she left a bad, early marriage in the late 1980s and decided to make her home in the city for a more mundane reason: That’s where many of her doctor’s appointments were. She initially found work as a dominatrix, but one night a friend took her out to Limelight’s Disco 2000, where the notorious promoter Michael Alig spotted her and immediately offered her gigs as a dancer and, eventually, a host. In the early ’90s, she joined Alig, Leigh Bowery, and the rest of the legendary Club Kids on The Joan Rivers Show, an appearance in which she asserted herself as a star. “I quickly became girl of the minute,” Lepore says. “And it’s been a long minute.” The talk show’s chyron identified her as someone who “dresses to get attention,” and it’s a charge Lepore isn’t going to deny: “I went into nightlife because I was so into the look. I wasn’t really into getting fucked up.” In the years since, Lepore has been a regular at era-defining clubs and parties like Limelight, Misshapes, and Battle Hymn. And she continues to lead the conversation: These days, she cohosts a trans-forward weekly party, Paul’s Dolls, at Paul’s Casablanca in SoHo with fellow nightlife personality Linux. This past October, she made her Paris Fashion Week debut, thanks to Balenciaga. And as much as Lepore has seen club culture change over the decades, she says the eternal thirst to get decked out and have a good time remains: “There’s always going to be kids who dress up and express themselves. It’s always there. If it didn’t have that element, I probably wouldn’t have done it for so long.”

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The photographer David LaChapelle once described Lepore as the spitting image of the drawings he used to make as a kid. The first weekend they met, they shot a series of iconic photos, including one of Lepore snorting a line of diamonds off a mirror. “Then he just kept on using me for things,” she says. “It was when he had the studio in New York, so it was easy. I lived right near there.” Though Lepore had established herself on the party circuit, LaChapelle’s images helped supercharge her fame. “After I worked with David, it got way more intense.”

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Lepore met Boy George in the early 2000s, through the public relations maven Aimee Phillips. “We would host parties together. He would go out during that period a lot, so we became close friends. Anytime I’m in London, I usually see him if he’s in town,” says Lepore. Here she, George, Phillips, and designer Richie Rich hold court during a July 2004 party in the Hamptons for Rich’s clothing brand Heatherette.

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When Rich teamed up with designer Traver Rains to launch Heatherette, Lepore became a recurring star of their raucous runway shows, alongside tabloid celebs of the time such as Nicky Hilton (left) and her sister, Paris (right). “I had modeled for a few designers, but I think the Heatherette shows got the most media attention,” she says. “It was fun because everybody wanted to do them.”

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“I never got invited to the Met thing, but I always get invited to the afterparties,” says Lepore, here with Janelle Monáe at one such fete, in 2023, at the Mark Hotel. “I’m kind of familiar with her and certain celebrities I see at these parties all the time. And they’re always really respectful to me.”

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Lepore modeled her trademark look after classic bombshells like Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Frederick’s of Hollywood catalog models, and Jessica Rabbit. She’s had some help crafting the aesthetic—celebrity hairstylist Laurent Philippon (global artistic director at Bumble and Bumble) and Danilo Dixon (who now works for Gwen Stefani and Heidi Klum) used to do her hair before she went out—but she has her own discerning eye. “I’m not so tall, so I have to try to make myself look taller,” she says. “I’m really aware of proportions.”

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Lepore wasn’t LaChapelle’s only blonde muse. He photographed Pamela Anderson almost as frequently as he shot Lepore, and the two became fast friends. Here, the pair share a smooch at a party at Duvet, the now closed Flatiron nightclub where guests lounged on beds placed throughout the space.

Courtesy of Marco Ovando.

For years, Vienna’s Life Ball, the biggest HIV/AIDS fundraiser in Europe, chartered a plane to fly in Club Kids and celebrities from New York. The flight had a reputation for turning into a party 42,000 feet in the sky. “The photographers would get me to take my clothes off,” says Lepore. Upon arrival (above, on the arm of a flight attendant in 2015), she’d walk in charity fashion shows for designers such as Dsquared2 and Jean Paul Gaultier.

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“I was actually very shy. They had topless nights when I was a go-go dancer, but I wouldn’t show my boobs. Then LaChapelle wanted me to go out naked all the time, so I got used to it,” says Lepore. “I think I got away with it because I was poised and not so threatening. The body makeup and the hair—everything was perfect, so it wasn’t so offensive. I was glad that I never got arrested. I used to get nervous about that.” Above: Lepore at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo in 2000.

Courtesy of Marco Ovando.

For a while, Lepore had a day job selling makeup at the boutique owned by Sex and the City costume designer Patricia Field, but she eventually found that working in nightlife suited her better. “People always wanted pictures with me. So at the job, I kind of did the same thing, but during eight-hour shifts when I would have to sell things,” Lepore recalls. “In the nightclub, I could just take pictures and focus on my look, so that worked out better for me.” Here, she poses with designer Riccardo Tisci at the Manhattan club Greenhouse in 2009.

Courtesy of Marco Ovando.

Posing for photos with fans is part of Lepore’s job, and it was actually a certain social media network’s strict rules about nudity that caused her to cover up more—sort of. “Instagram has a problem with nipples and things,” she says. “So I got into the rhinestoning and the pasties, so you could dress kind of naked but cover up strategically.”

Courtesy of Marco Ovando.

Though she enjoys the occasional glass of champagne, Lepore has thrived for decades in the clubs thanks in part to her teetotaling. “When I first started doing hormones, the nurse said, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t drink or do drugs—the hormones aren’t going to work as well.’ So I always had that in the back of my head. I would just discipline myself not to do anything.” Above: with the DJ Honey Dijon in 2008.

Courtesy of Marco Ovando.

While LaChapelle helped define Lepore’s image in the studio, photographer Marco Ovando, whom she met when they both worked at the club Hiro Ballroom, has been the most important chronicler of Lepore’s life. “We’ve traveled the whole world together,” she says. “It feels amazing to meet people everywhere and be appreciated. I feel really grateful for that.” Above: A series of portraits taken by Ovando in 2010.

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For years, whether in the party pages or as a model, Lepore was one of the few transgender women you would find in a fashion magazine. “I was so open about it,” she says. “It was at a time when trans girls just wanted to blend in and go to the supermarket and do normal things. And I was the opposite of that.”

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Designer Jason Wu has a second career as a doll maker, and in 2006 he created one in Lepore’s image. “It was really, really, really gorgeous,” says Lepore. “Skin like porcelain, and it had bigger boobs than Barbie. It had my perfume inside, so it permanently smelled like me.” François Nars was responsible for the doll’s makeup. Did Lepore see the Barbie movie? “I thought it was a cute story, but the actors didn’t look too much like Barbie.” Would she do the sequel? “That would help. I’m a lot more fake.”

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It takes a glamour girl to know one. Lepore originally met Dita Von Teese at one of her shows, and Von Teese once said of Lepore that she’s “never witnessed such devotion to the art of high glamour.” Above: The duo pose together at CFDA & Susanne Bartsch Present Love Ball III, in 2019.

Courtesy of Marco Ovando.

How long does it take for Lepore to get ready before she leaves the house? “Five or six hours, comfortably,” she says. “I could do it if I have to in two hours or something, but I don’t like to rush.”

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Lepore once proclaimed, after winning a nightlife award for best dressed, “I don’t know much about clothes, but my hair looks fierce.” The club rapper Cazwell turned the quip into a song, which, along with the track “Champagne,” launched Lepore’s surprising turn as an underground pop star. “I still travel and do shows,” she says. Here, she poses with backup dancers at the release party of her 2006 single “My Pussy.”

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Though you can still find her on a catwalk, these days you’re more likely to see Lepore sitting front row during New York Fashion Week with celebrities such as Kelly Osbourne. “She kind of hung around Heatherette,” says Lepore. “She would always come to the clubs, so I got to know her well, and she’s really, really nice.”

Courtesy of Balenciaga.

Last October, Lepore made her Paris Fashion Week debut walking for Balenciaga’s spring 2024 show. “Out of the blue, I just got a phone call, and then they started coming to my house in New York and doing fittings,” she says. “One day they brought the dress back and it was all completely beaded, and I was like, wow!” Considering her decades as a singular international icon, the moment may have been overdue. “I think the world changed a lot. Years ago I would’ve never been able to do Balenciaga. Going with a major brand to Paris would’ve been totally unattainable. So it’s great to see how things are different.”