David LaChapelle and the Role of the Muse

David LaChapelle has photographed some of the biggest stars, yet he has returned to some time and time again. Discover the muses that inspire LaChapelle here.

David LaChapelle has had many famous faces pose in front of his camera during his decades as a photographer, and has become well-known for his provocative and glamorous portraits of A-list women. Drawn to their beauty, power and influence, his subjects are often staged elaborately to create subversive, surreal images emphasizing their star quality and sometimes conveying social messages or critiquing their public personas.

LaChapelle has photographed plenty of the biggest stars in the world, but there are some he has returned to time and time again – those we may describe as his muses, inspiring him as well as sitting for him.

1. Paris Hilton

‘Paris had a charisma back then that you couldn’t take your eyes off,’ LaChapelle explained in an interview with The Guardian in 2017. ‘She would giggle and laugh and be effervescent and take up a room.’ As the ‘It Girl’ at the heart of noughties pop culture, Hilton was the perfect muse for LaChapelle as he sought to capture the extravagance and glamour of the era.

One of his most famous photos of the socialite is Grandma Hilton’s House (2000), which shows Hilton wearing a mesh vest top, sunglasses, a pink mini skirt, and pink fingerless gloves. She is biting her lip and holding her middle finger up to the camera while holding a cigarette in her other. This feisty attitude and provocative look is in stark contrast to the opulent room she is standing in, emphasizing her persona as a modern-day party girl hailing from old money.

Many of LaChapelle’s photographs of Hilton are highly sexualized, such as Paris Hilton and Popsicle (2004) and a shot of her in Rolling Stone in which she is nude and bound by the wire of a microphone she is holding. Showcasing her in this stylized manner blurs the lines between reality and fantasy and drives home the allure of fame.

2. Amanda Lepore

Amanda Lepore is a model, singer and performance artist who became an iconic New York nightlife figure in the 1990s as one of the Club Kids. She met LaChapelle when she was working at the Bowery Bar. ‘He used to doodle sexy women with big breasts and huge lips, and I guess I really looked like this imaginary girl he used to draw,’ Lepore recalled on her blog. ‘So that week he started taking a lot of pictures of me.’

Lepore has served as LaChapelle’s muse ever since and a key feature of their collaborations is their ability to create different characters (Lepore says she relies on the acting training she had as a dominatrix). For example, she helped LaChapelle recreate Andy Warhol’s portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Another famous shot is Addicted to Diamonds (1997) which depicts a topless Lepore with a peroxide blonde bob, snorting diamonds as if they were cocaine.

LaChapelle’s work has helped to establish Lepore as a cult icon while her unique, hyper-glamorous style and persona have enabled him to create many of his most striking and impactful works.

3. Angelina Jolie

LaChapelle frequently photographed Angelina Jolie but his approach was quite different from how he shot Hilton and Lepore. Rather than highly glamorous staging focusing on fame and glamour, Jolie’s portraits were pared back to create more sensual, intimate images.

Jolie’s natural beauty is highlighted by placing her alongside symbols of nature and the wild to construct dramatic, visually intense scenes. Lusty Spring (2001), for instance, depicts Jolie having an orgasm surrounded by vibrant flowers in a field, while another shoot from 2021 featured a topless Jolie posing closely with a white horse. While these photographs are more rustic and rural than other LaChapelle works, they still capture the artist’s signature surrealism and the undeniable star power of his subject.

4. Britney Spears

“Britney and Paris were trailblazers – we don’t have people like that in the zeitgeist anymore,” LaChapelle said of two of his muses in an interview with The Independent in 2020. Like Hilton, Spears was one of the most famous faces of her era and symbolized the public’s fascination with the rich and famous.

Spears was simultaneously infantilized and sexualized by the media and LaChapelle shot her in provocative yet child-like situations. For example, one photo from a Rolling Stone shoot shows her holding a small pink bike and looking back suggestively towards the camera while wearing white shorts here, with the word ‘baby’ printed on the rear in rhinestones.

Another example is a Lolita-inspired photo showing Spears aged 17 dressed in a white bra, unbuttoned cardigan, shorts and high heels in her childhood bedroom surrounded by dolls and stuffed animals. Again, playing with the relationship between fantasy and reality in the celebrity world, the collaboration was designed to court controversy. ‘I said to her, “You don’t want to be buttoned up, like Debbie Gibson,”’ LaChapelle recalled in a 2011 interview with Rolling Stone. “I said, “Let’s push it further and do this whole Lolita thing.” She got it. She knew it would get people talking and excited.’