PETER BERLIN Untitled (Self Portrait), c.1980 Hand-embellished photograph 10.5" x 8.5"
BERLIN on BERLIN
Jan 20 - Feb 25, 2006
BERLIN on BERLIN
By Robert W. Richards
(from THE ARCHIVE: No. 18: Autumn 2005)
Peter Berlin will have a one person exhibition of over 60 of his magnificent hand-embellished photographs which surround his body and his singular fashion sense: Berlin On Berlin, Jan. 14–Feb. 25, 2006 at LLGAF. The exhibition will also feature two recent portraits of Peter by Robert W. Richards. This interview was conducted by Robert W. Richards in 1982 and was published in Stallion magazine in 1983.
Sunday afternoon, New York City: Peter Berlin answers the door and admits me into a SoHo loft—a vast space as austere and dramatic as Berlin himself. He is dressed in a scarlet leather jacket and black leather pants fastened with a network of erotically placed strings and thongs. He is ageless and disturbingly beautiful—exactly as remembered from photographs saved for years.
Robert W. Richards (RWR): Of all the men who have done pornography, you’re the only one who’s more famous and admired with his clothes on. How did you develop your extraordinary style?
Berlin: It’s very simple: I dress the way I do because it’s sexual and provocative. When I was very little, I saw some drawings by Tom of Finland. The men in his illustrations were always dressed to provoke, and since then, there’s never been a doubt in my mind that clothes have a better purpose than keeping us warm. They are an extension of one’s personality, and to me sexuality is the most intriguing part of anyone’s character.
RWR: At what age did all of this occur to you?
Berlin: I have a very bad memory—
my past is rapidly disappearing—but I do remember that when I was very young I began to alter my pants. To this day, pants are the most visible thing in my image. I guess it must have started as I reached puberty.
RWR: Were the pants made of leather?
Berlin: No. That came a little later. At that time, leather was very limited, connected more with a kind of straight motorcycle punk trip, a Marlon Brando “Wild One” attitude rather than the outright sexuality we attach to it today. I always found it very sexy.
RWR: How did you alter the pants? What did you do to them?
Berlin: I wanted a second skin. The most beautiful part of a man and what is most visible at first glance is his ass, hips, and crotch.
RWR: You were after a naked silhouette?
Berlin: Naked, yes, but…hidden… masked.
RWR: At one point, a few years ago, you were virtually a tourist attraction in San Francisco. People would come back raving about having seen you in the streets.
Berlin: They still talk about Peter Berlin, and I haven’t done anything in over six years. It’s quite an achievement!
RWR: Why haven’t you done anything in those years?
Berlin: I think it’s nice to think before doing something. Maybe I think too much. I’m very frugal in my personality. I don’t like to waste anything.
RWR: You haven’t found anything you want to do?
Berlin: Wanting and doing—there’s a big difference between those two things, and that’s where the trouble lies. It’s not easy to make a film. It involves not only yourself but many people whose talents you must combine with yours. It’s not like being a writer or a painter: you can’t work alone in film, and I realize, as time goes by, that I’m more and more distanced from other people.
RWR: Have you been doing still photography?
Berlin: Some, but not as much as I did before. I’ve created this Peter Berlin image, and it’s quite perfect. Where do I go from this except to add new dimensions, new views of an already created thing? That doesn’t interest me, particularly.
RWR: Can Peter Berlin grow?
Berlin: It’s not so much that he has to grow—he’s one part of my personality and that part stays the way it is. What must come now is an extension of me as a whole person, and that has very little to do with what people consider “Peter Berlin.”
RWR: Do you still feel close to him?
Berlin: Sometimes I become him in very special moments, but that takes a lot of energy and preparation.
RWR: Still, you look like him every day.
Berlin: I dress and look like the pictures—he’s not just a character I slip into and out of. But to live the essence of his person constantly is an absolute impossibility. Maybe I’ve waited six years to do something because that person is not able to live in the society we’re living in.
RWR: Would being him harm or destroy you?
Berlin: It’s impossible for me to do so.
RWR: You can’t live up to it?
Berlin: It’s not that I can’t live up to it—it’s that he can’t live with people. People are not ready for that kind of display in real life. They can accept it easily on a stage, but I’ve never been and never will be on a stage in my life. Never!
RWR: You only play on a personal, sexual basis?
Berlin: One-to-one, sometimes one-to-two, once in my life one-to-three…but that’s all.
RWR: Are people attracted to you or to Peter Berlin?
Berlin: They’re attracted to and by his image; but dealing with me as a person is an entirely different matter. The part of me that can create incredible sexual fantasies in people is nothing like I actually am. For that reason I avoid getting to know people. It’s not that I don’t live up to their dreams; it’s just that I can’t be taken as a mere object for their sexual pleasure. I demand something too, and they often can’t deliver it.
RWR: What is it you want from them?
Berlin: I want them to be, within themselves, complete, happy, and real. You don’t find that often in our society.
RWR: What part of themselves do they bring to Peter Berlin?
Berlin: They try to have a good time with me and fit me into the pattern of their fantasies, which is easy with a photograph or a film but not so simple in reality. They think I’m a toy they can play with and put away. When they meet me they discover it doesn’t work that way. I can evoke those fantasies but very quickly, instantly, I can destroy them—in a second. I’ve done it many times, so I know it’s better to let them have the fantasy, rather than expose the person behind it. It’s fascinating for me to have experienced that kind of power because I started out feeling very inferior and dumb. I believed in authority figures, that mothers and fathers knew best. I know now that I’m off-center and in complete clash with the world I’m living in.
RWR: How and when did you become Peter Berlin?
Berlin: Ten years ago, when I did my first film, I had to come up with a new name. My real name is Armin, and that was too difficult to pronounce or spell, so I used to called myself Peter. I added Berlin after the city.
RWR: You’ve only done two films—That Boy and Nights in Black Leather.
Berlin: Yes, only those two.
RWR: Do you earn your living being Peter Berlin?
Berlin: Yes, completely.
RWR: He serves you well.
Berlin: I thank him every day! It’s amazing that one can make a very good living out of something like this. I can only urge boys, at least attractive and sexy boys, not to believe the nonsense that their future will be destroyed by that kind of physicality. Maybe you can’t do it for long, but you can do it. They should do whatever their feelings tell them to do—only then can people be successful. I know. I started when I was already old: Peter Berlin was created when I was thirty years old.
RWR: Too old for dealing in the physical?
Berlin: According to most people, one shouldn’t, under any circumstances, deal in the physical at any age. In this society sexuality is always put in seventh or eighth place in our priorities. People are lying to themselves, pretending on the one hand that they‘re OK and on the other hand, getting overweight, sick and dying of all kinds of strange diseases. I know I’ve lived right—my life is wonderful. The only thing that isn’t wonderful is living in this fucked–up society.
RWR: Are you willing to give of yourself?
Berlin: Oh, I’m not only willing, I’m desperate to!
RWR: Are you aware of being him all the time?
Berlin: Being a person and creating an image are worlds apart. What I’ve learned: “Peter Berlin—he’s loved and liked and wanted”—that’s what they say, but the truth is he’s often wanted but seldom loved or liked.
RWR: Yet you enjoy living on that sexual altar.
Berlin: I put myself on that sexual altar, but I no longer enjoy it. I felt better when I was unknown and a little inferior feeling.
RWR: Do you think your mental attitude has anything to do with how well you’ve preserved your looks?
Berlin: That’s a very nice compliment. There was a time I felt very good about compliments—I loved receiving them. Now when I get one it doesn’t make me feel good anymore. The reason is that looking in the mirror I’ve given myself the greatest compliments possible. I’ve said, “Peter, you’re great!” so when anyone else tells me that I can only say, “I know.” People don’t give me compliments on my intellect or because I’m a great poet. They compliment me on my sexuality, and the motive behind it is always “I want you.” I say, “Yes, I know I’ve made it very easy for you to want me, but do I want you?” And the answer is usually “No—I don’t.” Where does that leave me? Should I say, “Thank you”? I forgot how to say it years ago. For the most part I choose to ignore compliments.
RWR: Is there anyone you want?
Berlin: There are many, many people I want but never enough of them. I’m living, unfortunately, in a world of ugliness. And the ugliness is not skin deep. Ugliness as much as beauty is an expression of the soul. When most people look in the mirror, they don’t feel what I do because I like what I see. That’s why they go through life with a small shaving mirror rather than a full-length one to enjoy themselves in. I say, the more beautiful you are the bigger your mirror should be. Not because you think you’re so sensational, but to make sure that everything is still there. That isn’t being vain; it’s just sensible. Everybody else benefits by looking at you. The last honest compliment I received was from two well-dressed Jewish ladies. I was walking down the street. They stopped, smiled and said, “Young man, how nice you look.” I was very pleased, but most of the time, when gays come up to me and say “Oh, you’re really great.” I say, “What else is new?—I know that.” I look in the mirror every day.