Model and artist Myla Dalbesio is one our favourite poster girls. In issue 99, we celebrate her beauty, her work and her ambition.
Myla Dalbesio sticks her hand in her coat pocket and discovers something that makes her yelp with surprise. It's a fake nail — long and curved, painted silver with pepto-pink hearts — and though Dalbesio glows with the kind of natural beauty that requires no more embellishment than the occasional dab of lip-balm, the nail does belong to her. More so, it's valuable.
"I'm gluing hundreds of them on this white pillow that's covered with self-tanner," she says, pocketing it again so that she won't lose it this time. The nail is a memento from 'Young Money', the now slightly infamous two-hour performance piece where Dalbesio, drenched in oil and enough self-tanner for the entire cast of Jersey Shore, gave "healing" (and very messy) lap dances in a Manhattan art gallery. She shows me photos on her phone of the other relics that remain. There's a greasy pink bathing suit, now tacked onto a wall next to rows of dollar bills, similarly smeared. I ask her how many dollars she had for the piece, as I've seen photos from the performance that show her writhing on a champagne-soaked floor, a handful of bills clutched against her crotch and one stuck to her bare breast. It looked like a lot of money.
"I started with 100, but by the end of the night there were only 70," she says. "So people stole from me! Not only did they take a part of me away from the performance, but they literally stole from me!" Which is a bummer, of course, but also a signifier that the audience interacted with the piece and that it took on a life of its own — which means it did exactly what she wanted it to do.
In addition to being an artist, Dalbesio is a model and former teen beauty queen, though that latter part of her resume still makes her cringe. "I used to be so embarrassed of that — like, mortified. I tried to figure out how to get all of it removed from Google, which you can't do," she says. It's true: Google her, and the first thing that comes up is some of her modelling work, then some pictures from her performances, then scroll down, and yep — Dalbesio in heels, a bikini and a satin sash that reads "Wisconsin".
Dalbesio found herself in the world of pageants when her sister, who was 16 years older and owned a dance studio, entered her. "It was really weird, because I thought I was a punk in high school. I had purple hair and listened to The Casualties. It was a really weird experience, and I never thought I would win it," she says. "I just remember being there and thinking, 'I do not belong here. This is so far beyond my comfort level. What am I doing?' But it was a… good experience? I don't know. I am glad I did it." If for no other reason than the fact that she now has what she calls "ridiculous stuff", like crowns, an electric-green swimsuit and other memorabilia that she plans to someday use in a performance.
At the pageants Dalbesio came into contact with model scouts. "They tried to sign me as straight-size when I was still in high school, and it just didn't work out," she says. "I just can't be that — my body is not naturally like that and I refuse to starve myself, because I love food." When she moved to New York she eventually signed with Ford as a plus-size model. "I definitely felt really out of place," she says. "And I didn't work for two years, and I think it was because, in my mind, I was removing myself constantly. Like, 'I don't belong here, this isn't my thing.' But then it kind of became my thing. I like what I do."
Even if modelling has kind of become Dalbesio's thing, she still knows it's not going to last forever. "When I was younger and had just started, I met a girl who was toward the end of her career, and she was straight-size and was 27 or 28 and couldn't keep her weight off anymore. She was trying to kick coke, so she couldn't do it that way, and she was spiralling out of control, and we were all watching it but we couldn't do anything about it. She wouldn't wake up for her castings and [would] go two hours late to a job — if she ever booked a job. She was just drinking all day and doing nothing. And seeing that made me go, 'Wow, I do not want that for myself. What the fuck am I going to do?'" The answer, she decided, was art.
Dalbesio attended a small private high school where she focused on art, and also completed a couple of semesters of university art school. There she met her best friend (and now collaborator), curator Amanda Schmitt, but her art was waylaid for a while after she moved to New York. "It was so overwhelming, and I had a lot of personal issues going on with my family and it was stifling; I couldn't get anything out creatively," she says. "And I spent, like, three or four years just floundering around doing random stuff, but I think that was really important and I needed that time to just float around and absorb everything. And then when I came back to it — now I really feel like this is what I am supposed to do; this is what I was made to do and I am going to do it until I die."
One of Dalbesio's biggest personal breakthroughs came during 'Homecoming', her second performance piece in New York, in which she and Schmitt filled a room with balloons, streamers, smoke and lights and invited the audience to a dystopian school dance. "During that, I discovered all the little things that are now really important to me in my checklist of how I perform," she says. "For me it is really important to commit fully to whatever character I am taking on and really hold on to it. I will start at six o'clock and end at nine o'clock, and that whole time I am in it. It's not me anymore, it's this other person, thing, hidden inside of me that kind of comes out. [During 'Homecoming'] was when that really struck me the most, and then the first time I really felt that commitment after that was when I did 'Young Money'."
She laughs just thinking about it. "The thing about 'Young Money' was that I never intended to be topless. The swimsuit just came off, and because I was in this character, I just kept going. I go into performances with a pretty defined idea of what is going to happen, but in the process it always goes further than what I thought it was going to be — which is great, because it is really important to leave that open and let it happen organically, because that is where the most interesting stuff comes from."
Though her performance art has received the most attention — "Because some of it is shocking and not everyone does performance," she reasons — Dalbesio also does photography, sculpture and installation work, and claims, like a mother talking about her children, to love all of them equally. During New York's Armory Show she exhibited 'HOLY GHOST (we can make you pure)', an installation which included photographs, quartz crystals, flowers, pine, grass, horsehair, eye shadow and acrylic nails.
She is currently trying to wrangle her "20 000 projects going on at once" into three bodies of work. One, which includes 'HOLY GHOST', concerns spirituality, mysticism, cults and religion; another continues what she started with 'Young Money', with ideas of consumerism, hip hop and strippers; and the third is an Americana project, which is just starting to coalesce. "I just hung up my flag in my studio, which I am so psyched about," she says. "It's fucking huge! And I look at it every day and it's just, like, feeding into me." She will show the Americana project in Germany in early 2013, and it will in part examine the idea of the stereotypical American woman and how Dalbesio thinks that woman is portrayed in the art of young American men. "It's this idea of this hip American girl with her jean jacket, who is going to chug a beer in the woods and then ride in the back of your pickup truck." She laughs again. "And it's weird, because I have this love/hate relationship with this image of this woman, because I feel like I am that, but it's being forced on me at the same time."
She's mixing a Bruce Springsteen soundtrack to accompany it — "the epitome of the American rock 'n' roll dude" — distorted until his songs sound as if the listener has ingested a litre of cough syrup. She's also making her own American flags for the project, cut and sewn from different materials and then painted with milk and honey — but because Dalbesio can't touch on the light without also investigating the dark, there's a little deer blood in there too.