Stella Ellis Remembers Her Years as Manfred Thierry Mugler’s Muse, a Year After His Death (2023)

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Stella Ellis Remembers Her Years as Manfred Thierry Mugler’s Muse, a Year After His Death (5)The Winter issue with Florence Pugh is hereSUBSCRIBE NOW

Stella Ellis Remembers Her Years as Manfred Thierry Mugler’s Muse, a Year After His Death (6)

Stella Ellis at the Thierry Mugler fall 1995 ready-to-wear show. Paris, March 1995.Alexis DUCLOS/Getty Images


By José Criales-Unzueta

Before her first time walking the runway for her dear friend, the late Manfred Thierry Mugler, Stella Ellis remembers the moment in his atelier when she received Mugler’s precise instructions on how to do the “couture leg.” “Put your leg here, then your hand here, andpose.”

Ihad planned to meet Ellis at the November opening of the Brooklyn Museum’s staging of “Thierry Mugler: Couturissime,” the exhibition celebrating the iconic, idiosyncratic world of Mr. Mugler, who died a year ago this past Monday, but the crowds were overwhelming. Instead, a mutual friend arranged a very New York dinner and drinks evening at The Nines. When I walked in, Ellis was dressed in head-to-toe black with a jet-black updo (courtesy of her hairstylist husband, Dov) and a deep scarlet red lip, and was holding court on one of the red couches. Ellis came up in New York in the ’80s and ’90s (she describes herself as “ageless”), and has endless stories to tell. Each of her tales begins with the same disclaimer—“don’t ask me any years because I don’t know”—but one is just as compelling and incredible as the next.

Stella Ellis at Club USA in New York City, 1993.

Steve Eichner

Ellis, who lives in New York but was born in Israel and spent many years in Paris, possesses a magnetic charisma, something she is unabashedly aware of. “The way that people clicked to me, the way I attracted every situation, it all came naturally,” she says. “People came to me, they always did.” She was a makeup artist when she met Mugler in Paris, fresh off the plane from New York and eager to expand her resume. Her cousin, Alix Malka, who was Mugler’s right hand at the time, made the introduction. She was brought on to do makeup for Mugler’s spring 1991 show. Eventually, she landed an agent and joined Stéphane Marais’s team, with whom she worked on shows by John Galliano, Chanel, and Issey Miyake, among others.

Thierry Mugler with Stella Ellis during Drag Queen Contest at Club USA in New York City.

Steve Eichner

Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler.

Foc Kan

“But my makeup career was quite short,” she clarifies with a laugh. It was the early ’90s when Ellis and Malka attended a Vivienne Westwood show, and everything shifted. “We were front row, and back then I always had alook, very voluptuous, big boobs. I used to wear bustiers from the ’50s and vinyl clothes, and people stared,” she says, smirking. “They had never seen anything like me before, there were no fat girls running around the runway shows in Paris back then!” One person in particular took note of her: Jean Paul Gaultier.

Ellis and Gaultier were introduced after the Westwood show, and met up for dinner a few days after, at which point Gaultier asked if she would do his show. “At this point, I was already friends with Mugler, but no one had thought that I would ever do runway for him, and so I went to Gaultier.”

She walked Gaultier’s spring 1993 runway in a corseted denim dress. “He just sawme, the persona, and ran with it. She also walked for Gaultier’s infamous fall ’93 “Chic Rabbis” collection She was likely the first “plus size” model (though she hates the term) to ever grace runways like these. Ellis subsequently posed for the collection’s campaign, photographed by Gaultier himself. “The campaign went to all the magazines, and from then I became famous,” she says, “but they didn’tmake me, they only gave me the stage, I alreadywas.”

Stella Ellis at Jean Paul Gaultier’s fall 1993 show. March, 1993.

Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images

Stella Ellis at Jean Paul Gaultier’s fall 1993 show. March, 1993. The custom cape spelled her name in inset fur lettering.

WWD/Getty Images

Stella Ellis at the Jean Paul Gaultier spring 1993 ready-to-wear show.


Indeed she was. Steven Meisel invited her to participate in a session for Madonna’sSEX book after he photographed her for aVogue Italia spread. “One day I find myself at the Chelsea Hotel with Madonna and Meisel, and he’s asking her to lick my boots, then to spank me, and she got into it! She kept going harder!” She also landed a part in George Michael’sToo Funky video, which wasinitially directed by Mugler.

Stella Ellis in Mugler’s cut of Too Funky.

“This is when Mugler came to me and said we had to do something together, and asked me to be in the George Michael video. We asked Gaultier, and he said yes.”Initially directed, as Ellis recalls, because Michael and Mugler butted heads continuously. “It was a huge production, every girl and model was there. But there was tension. Manfred has a distinct vision, always, but so did George.” At one point, she remembers, they were hanging out backstage, “and Manfred comes in, he claps his hands, and saysthat’s a wrap, and then in two minutes everyone is packing their shit and we leave.”

There are two versions of the George Michael video, Michael’s cut, and Mugler’s. “At the end you see ‘Directed by’ and a question mark. My parts and a few others were removed by George Michael, you can find them online, but to this day people go crazy for the video.” (Here is the Mugler cut. You’re welcome.)

Stella Ellis and Joey Arias at the 1993 Vienna Life Ball.

This was the beginning of Ellis’s Mugler era. Her first show with the designer was the 1993 Vienna Life Ball. “He always gave scenarios, this time I was a filthy rich woman. I did parts with Joey Arias too, all the time.” Twice she wore a corset Mugler had made from a plaster casting of her body inspired by the work of artist Niki de Saint Phalle, the spring 1994 show being more memorable than the other. “I was lip syncing on stage, being a diva, and Joey is there trying to rein me in. I run away, come back, and then there’s paparazzi taking pictures and screaming.” This is one of the points in our conversation when Ellis takes a pause and remembers her friend Mugler. “His creativity, his thoughts. He was always meant to do things on runways and beyond. That’s why he wanted to move away from just making clothes, but to staging.”

Neither the corset, nor the floral dress Ellis wore for fall 1995, Mugler’s 20th anniversary show (and his last), made it into “Thierry Mugler: Couturissime.” The dress was lost after Mugler sold his label, and the corset and matching skirt was found only recently, after the Brooklyn exhibition opened. The stole Gaultier made with Ellis’s name did make it into a retrospective ofhiswork, “but on a skinny form,” she says.

Stella Ellis at the Thierry Mugler spring 1994 ready-to-wear show. October, 1993.

Pool ARNAL/PAT/Getty Images

Despite the fact that both designers had a “plus size” muse in Ellis, they never actually produced clothes her size, other than what was made for her. “They took me as a personality, they lovedmy beauty, but it was never about plus size lines for them. The point was to bring a personality to the stage,” she said, adding that after her years on the runway, she saw the opposite, designers had invented the size zero. “I mean, you’re already cruel and now you want to bemore cruel?,” she says. “It took them a big time to start putting fat girls on the runway." No doubt that Ellis was a pioneer.

Spot Stella Ellis at the 26:17 mark.

Stella Ellis at the Thierry Mugler fall 1995 ready-to-wear show. Paris, March 1995.

Photo: Condé Nast Archive

A few times after the shows, Ellis remembers, women and girls would come up to her and thank her for making them “feel good about themselves.” “It was always really touching, but it also made me think about talking about this more.”Size Sexy: How to Look Good, Feel Good, and Be Happy—At Any Size, Ellis’s book,came out in 2010 after years of hard work, and balances autobiography and self-help. “I knew it was time for all these women to stop worrying [...]” she wrote in the introduction. “And to find a size that was comfortable and healthy for them. I thought they could learn a few things from me in that area, learn how to find confidence and self-acceptance within themselves.”

After the runway years, Ellis and Mugler remained close friends, up until the designer’s death, spending summers together in Mykonos. When I asked Ellis to describe Mugler and his legacy, she asked for some time to think about his impact on fashion, but on the personal front she spoke instinctually: “Manfred is the most amazing, fun, funny, sharp as hell. Eagle eyes, straightforward, lovable, moody at times—you know, shoots from the hip—but always very warm.”

Ellis and Mugler a few years back.

Stella Ellis at the opening of “Thierry Mugler: Couturissime” in Paris wearing a coat from the Mugler Archives (fall 1994 collection). September, 2021.

Richard Bord

The coat Ellis wore, here on the runway at the Thierry Mugler 20th Anniversary show.

Photo: Condé Nast Archive

The designer passed away a year ago on January 21, 2022, just months after “Thierry Mugler: Couturissime” opened in Paris at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. “I went to each and every one of the exhibitions, but the one in Paris was the most moving,” Ellis recalls. “He was very happy, but the most precious time was spent just us and our friends after the openings, at dinner, seeing him laughing, remembering and having fun. It was devastating to lose him, for all of us, but to me…we were so close.”

As I was finalizing this story earlier this week, I received two texts from Ellis. One with her notes on Mugler’s legacy: “Manfred Thierry Mugler leaves a legacy of a great fashion designer, photographer, director, writer, visionary, art director, and all around genius. MTM is a provocateur, a man of extreme sensuality. His couture work is a perception of fashion that will take you beyond your imagination. He leaves behind the work of a perfectionist, of a big traveler to different places where he found beauty and power. His body of work and what he leaves behind is an inspiration to people that will forever take and use.”

The second? Aclip of the speech Mugler gave at the opening of “Couturissime” in Montreal in 2019. “My muses…all the muses. [...] Where is Stella? Ah! Thank you for your beauty, I love you.”


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