Elisha Smith-Leverock is a filmmaker and photographer working in fashion and music. The All Walks team first met Elisha at a dinner hosted by The W Project. Our very own Caryn and Debra gave a presentation on the All Walks initiative, alongside accessory and prop designer Fred Butler, who presented her work and introduced us to the creatives she collaborates with. Elisha had created several short fashion films showcasing Fred’s collections.
Elisha’s short film ‘I Want Muscle’ (below) was awarded the Grand Prize at the 2011 A Shaded View of Fashion Film Festival, held at the Center Pompidou in Paris. All Walks’ Charmaine Ayden caught up with Elisha to discuss the film and to discover how Caryn and Debra’s presentation at The W Project dinner influenced her to deal with the topic of beauty and diversity. – Ed.
Elisha, the film is so compelling, how have women responded?
There’s been a really positive reaction. A lot of people, even beyond the fashion audience, have been touched and affected by the content. Countless people have told me that they’ve never seen a female body-builder depicted in this way before, as they’re usually exposed as a kind of ‘freak show’ event. For me, that’s not what female body-building is about. It’s beyond looking at someone and thinking ‘wow you look different’, it’s about what it means for the woman’s mental state and understanding why people feel so threatened and react so strongly.
I liked the idea of hooking people in with clichés. You’re expecting to see a film where a woman is passive and objectified, but instead you get physical strength, gruelling hard work and pure gorgeousness [laughs]!
How did you approach female body-builder Kizzy Vaines; was she initially interested, or did she have her doubts?
If she was hesitant, then I don’t think that the film would have worked. In fact, it seemed as if she was completely open to the idea, possibly because there’s an exhibitionist element about filming that appeals to her. We found Kizzy through a casting; it was really important for me to cast someone who was a completely natural body-builder and had achieved their physique through entirely hard work. Kizzy has a very apparent softness, she’s extremely beautiful and she combines both strength and vulnerability, that’s what appealed to me. She was just the perfect candidate [laughs].
How does I Want Muscle address gender stereotypes and body images taboos?
I Want Muscle started with the idea that men are supposed to be strong and muscular, and that women are perceived as being soft and feminine. The subject of body-building toys with that opinion, as the women involved in the sport are physically much stronger than most men. I believe that by showing a physically very strong woman, it challenges the notion that men are the stronger of the two sexes.
I Want Muscle was partly inspired by an All Walks speech at the W Project Dinner; can you tell us a little more about this?
Often when you’re involved in the fashion industry, you’re not always aware of the issues that other people are fighting against. You frequently just accept the established ‘wrongs’ and become a part of a ‘fashion bubble’. So when Caryn and Debra were talking about their intentions for All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, and how they’re attempting to introduce different types of women and bodies into a very close-minded industry, it just stuck with me.
There have been times when I’ve thought ‘well of course I could use a ‘different’ body-type for one of my fashion films’, but I haven’t entirely considered the implications that it has. For instance, many designers won’t consider lending garments to someone that isn’t a sample size, including a body-builder. The subjects that Caryn and Debra spoke about at The W Project dinner mulled around in my head along with some other catalysts, from that point the ideas just exploded into I Want Muscle.
You mention other inspirational catalysts, could you give us an example?
Diane Pernet had approached me for a project that didn’t end up happening. The theme of the film was power, and what we perceive as powerful. Although it didn’t happen, the idea still stuck with me and I wanted to continue with this idea for a film; it just seemed to spark something within me [laughs]. For me personally, the theme of power suggested how female physical strength can be extremely empowering.
I Want Muscle outlines the incredible physical and mental strength that female body-builders possess, how did Kizzy Vaines explain the motivation behind her strength?
I think that she just genuinely loves it, she likes being strong and she loves the sport, so that’s her motivation. She comes from a dance background, she’s a contortionist as well as dancer, and so she’s already possesses a driven and disciplined mindset. Her husband is a body-builder too, so together, I think that they achieve a lot.
While shooting, what common misconceptions about female body-building did you encounter?
Not so much misconceptions, just plain judgement. People can be very closed minded, cautious, ignorant or seemingly offended by her physique, and that truly puzzles me. In fact, while making the film I noticed how many people find physical strength or strong women repulsive. Before the shoot people commented with remarks such as ‘I find it a bit gross’, but after seeing Kizzy move so gracefully in the flesh, many of the girls said that they found her physique sexy and some even wished they could look like her.
The film includes pieces from David Koma, Husam El Odeh and Maria Francesca Pepe, why did you choose to profile these designers?
I Want Muscle was quite different to the other films that I make, as I didn’t work with a specific designer. It was really important that the main focus of the film was the character, not the clothes. Coming from a design background, I wanted to incorporate a fashion aesthetic, but I didn’t want ‘fashion’ to dominate the film. We used a mixture of designers, based on who was open-minded enough to lend us clothes. One of the key pieces was a harness that Kizzy was wearing. I’d discussed it with Kim Howells beforehand, as I felt that the harness juxtaposed the right mixture of resistance and elegance. We did have a particular aesthetic in mind and wanted the film to hark back to the golden era of female body-building, in the late 1970’s early 1980’s.
Diane Pernet and A Shaded View Of Fashion are extremely influential in the world of fashion film, how did it feel to win this years Grand Film Prize?
I felt really, really honoured. There were fifty films in the running and filmmakers that I absolutely worship created a lot of them. A Shaded View of Fashion has been such a great platform and something that I have grown with as a filmmaker. This is the first year that I’ve been in the competition, but Diane has screened a film of mine before.
Do you have any plans for a screening?
Yes, we’re hoping to get a screening in London and invite Kizzy down for a Q&A. I want lots of people to see the film, because I hope that it will challenge their views. Women don’t come in one generic package, we’re all different shapes and sizes, and so for fellow women to accept Kizzy’s physical strength, well that’s a real achievement.
Where did your interest in fashion film and photography begin?
I studied photography, so my interest has evolved from that point. Initially I started taking a lot of portrait, music and fashion images, but then I became interested in making music videos for friends. Shortly after, the designer Fred Butler approached me and asked if I’d like to make a fashion film. I was like, ‘I’ll give it a shot’; from that moment I kind of stuck with it [laughs].
What’s next for Elisha Smith-Leverock?
I’m going to Surrey to conduct a Fashion Film Workshop with a fellow director. I’ve been sent out there by the British Fashion Council, to talk to people about fashion film. It’s an honour to be featured by All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, as I’m a massive fan of what the girls are doing.
Interview by Charmaine Ayden
Charmaine is a Fashion Communication graduate from Northumbria University. An avid admirer of all things ‘glossy’, she set her heart on a career in Fashion Journalism from a young age. Undertaking work placements with Vogue, WSGN, Asos, Drapers and Glamour Magazine, Charmaine is currently working as Copy and Features Writer for Brownsfashion.com. Check out Charmaine’s blog The Good is the Beautiful and find her on Twitter @CharmaineAyden