The Ex-Villagers | From Roaches in New York to Horses in L.A.

The Ex-Villagers: they loved the East Village and left it.

image(2)Shira Levine

I moved to New York when I was 17. I didn’t end up there on purpose. I was on my way to Europe to backpack with my friend. We drove across the country and when I arrived I had only $189 to my name: I wouldn’t be able to backpack around Europe for three months. My friend left and I stayed.

New York was crazy intense. I never thought I’d live there. The day I arrived I walked down Thompson Street in SoHo to Girl Meets Boy salon, a kind of punk place with chemical haircuts. Grace Jones would go and a lot of Madonna’s friends. It was a whole rock n roll scene. I come from a salon family and was already cutting hair back west, but I went in and said I would do anything. So I shampooed hair and swept floors.

I was introduced to the whole East Village world of subletting and got a cockroach-infested place on East Third between B and C. You could see rats between the floorboards. I had to pile chloric acid around my bed to protect me. I was living out of a little box then – from sublet to sublet I’d carry around my few things and my chloric acid.

I lived in one studio where the bathtub had a dripping faucet, which was where the roaches would hang around. It was basically like squatting, but we were all actually chipping in to pay rent.

Screen shot 2012-08-20 at 9.36.07 AMShira Levine

By my third year I was thinking I would go to London. Right when I decided I was going, the hairdresser Oribe saw one of my haircuts on the street and tracked me down. Together we did shows in Milan and Paris with Christy Turlington, Linda Evangalista and Naomi Campbell.

I was Oribe’s protégée. I got him the one thing he wanted for his career: the cover of American Vogue. He had all of the other Vogue covers and worked with all the best photographers and models, but it was me that got American Vogue in September 1992. That changed both of our careers. After that cover I flew the Corcorde to Paris.

When my career took off, I left the East Village for the west side. The East Village was like a war zone with purse snatchings and muggings every day. Soon I was burning out on New York and really needed a change. I felt stuck. It felt like a small town. I was always bumping into people whether I wanted to or not and that bugged me. I loved New York, but I’d had enough.

Everyone outside of L.A. says L.A. sucks. They say it in New York and they say it in the Bay Area, where I’m from. When I went on jobs in L.A. and saw it for myself, I saw it as so amazing. It didn’t suck. We’d drive a half hour away to watch the sunrise in the desert or a half hour to watch the sunset on the beach. It was perfect for me as a freelancer – a nice vacation-like place for the days I didn’t work that I could take advantage of since my life was always on call.

In New York, all I had was the bars. I was tired of hanging out at bars between jobs instead of say, snowboarding. When I left for L.A., I got a cute little dream place in Beachwood Canyon by the mountain. I just loved everything and loved my friends out there. But I also felt like New York cut me off. Everyone was like, “Now that Eric is gone, he is done.” And they all basically moved on.

Everyone is always shooting in L.A., on location at the beaches and in the desert where the light is better. But the fashion industry didn’t totally accept what I was doing, really. I was cutting sexy punk rock and they were after cleaner and more newscaster hair. I got into music videos and did a Madonna video. I did videos with the Wallflowers, NIN and Marilyn Manson. But it wasn’t paying enough. The hours were long.

After a year in L.A., I went back to New York and stayed for another five years. I was so affected by New York cutting me off. After five years, I got really sick of New York and came back here and have been here now for nine years. It was the right time, that time. My mother was sick with cancer and then the towers went down. It all confirmed I’d had enough.

When the Twin Towers went down I was living in Los Feliz. Right after that, the neighborhood and Silverlake became the new East Village. Everyone in New York left for here. People were walking everywhere and riding bikes. Businesses popped up so you wouldn’t have to leave your area because everything you needed was right there. A lot of Europeans came as well as New Yorkers and that changed things for L.A., too.

The second time I moved was a lot different. I got there a little before those people, when the economy was at its worst. I was working a ton. The New Yorkers who didn’t find work eventually went back while I saved money and bought a house. Now I have a two-bedroom 1920s Spanish-style house in an equestrian neighborhood with space for my horses. It’s all very charming, with huge oak trees. My space has quadrupled since the East Village.

I really love going back to visit New York. I smell things and see things that trigger memories on every block. I feel at home there. I have so many friends there. But I have seen it change a lot. I don’t like it. It’s not what I’m used to. I miss the edge, the mugging and purse snatching.

It’s twelve years now in L.A. and I’m so happy. Even now I pinch myself because it’s exactly what I always wanted.

As told to Shira Levine