April 30th 2005
Shooting Fashion Editorial with a narrative appeals to me greatly and having a good crew to work with (Gary Gill and Harris Elliott) can only encourage you to step up the challenge. It was Nell Dunn’s ‘kitchen sink fiction’ novel ‘Poor Cow that was our main inspiration and we set about casting a model who understood she was to develop herself into a charachter. (Rebeka Bardou-Storm Models)
I lived in Ladbroke Grove at the time and there was a pub notorious for being on the fringes of society.
We decided this was exactly what we needed. To immerse ourselves with respect to the patrons and somehow become invisble in order to do our work with maximum discretion.
Patiently we’d knocked a few back to soak into the atmosphere but they knew what we were doing, my camera was including them and it was okay.
I’d seen her before, dressed impeccably. I approached her and asked if I could photograph her with Dot. I introduced myself as Reg and amongst the bar noise I managed to hear her shout ‘THE BITCH’. Confused I asked what she meant and stood nearer, she explained she had been in the film ‘The Bitch’ with Joan Collins and had been a glamour model, I reply that I once bizarrely photographed Joan Collins.
There’s a pause before I’m told to ‘wait here’ as I watch her walk out of the pub. Five minutes later she’s back with her modelling card-It felt like fiction, the pictures on the card....her name....Princess Balou...She then signed the card to me and wrote her telephone number on it. I remember thinking was it her personal memento? I asked-are you sure you want me to have this?
You could sense a boulevard of broken dreams lingering just under the surface. She asked if we could do the pictures another time as she wanted to be better prepared with her make-up and outfit.
June 4th 2005
When we meet again she’s very warm towards us and we all have turns buying rounds at the bar. I ask her more about acting and modelling and she tells me she was also a singer. Something inside me tweaks and I realise my fascination, her style reminding me of the singer BETTY DAVIS / 'Afro-futurist Pioneer'.
We take our pictures and I tell her I’ll be in contact again as I want to introduce her to some musicians. Alarmingly she mentions she’d like to get back into ‘Glamour Photography’ and at that moment I understood how vulnerable she truly was. I double my resolve to make sure I’ll honour my promise to introduce her to Shingai & Dan.
October 16th 2005
I’d told Shingai so much about her and how she could do an amazing cameo during their show. After plenty of false dawns the day came when I arranged them to finally be meeting her and going to experience the infamous pub.
Nothing’s what you imagine though and so it turned out. The pub was deadly quiet, I’d never seen it so empty... Princess Balou was there waiting dressed in a pink sequined jumpsuit and matching shoes with pink eye make-up. I thought of Norma Desmond in Billy Wylder’s Sunset Boulevard and hurriedly introduced her to Shingai and Dan. I took everyone’s drink orders and went to the bar in the hope of when I returned my worst fears would be unfounded.
Her condition had deteriorated and she was very difficult to communicate with. Shingai was fantastic with her and we discussed the idea of her performing again and making a cameo appearance. We all knew there was no way it was going to happen...and when she said she couldn’t perform because she had a contract with a French record label that prohibited any possibility our instincts were confirmed.
Here's a track by Shingai & Dan at the time of these events. Again the style reminding me of Betty Davis.
I receive an e-mail from a journalist from ‘Record Collector’ magazine looking for any leads on Princess Balou. The writer’s name is Ian Shirley and it turns out he had written a book on ‘The Residents’ which I find mildly ironic ( I had arranged to photograph 'The Residents later that month). I reply to him and he asks if I can contact her and arrange a meeting-we then have a phone conversation and his enthusiasm for her music and discovering more is palpable. He tells me she was a stripper and used to sell her 7” single after her show. It’s so rare Ian’s desperate to get hold of a copy.
Finding her or anything about her becomes a quest with minimal reward. I try phoning her number and the person on the other end has never heard of her. I search her on the internet and nothing comes up apart from a picture I took for my fashion editorial.
I decide to buy ‘The Bitch’ for any further clues. A few days later it arrives and I patiently watch it waiting for a glimpse of Balou. The waiting goes on as Joan Collins beds numerous men with gold medallions...I’m beginning to wonder when a nightclub scene starts and she appears suddenly and lingers on the screen for approx a minute. The shots dedicated to the true spirit of her purpose.
I wait for the credits to roll and she’s absent. Again no mention of her even though the two other dancers who feature a fraction of the time in the same sequence are credited. Any recognition of her talent appears to have truly eluded her.
After numerous searches I finally find someone on the internet who has posted her song as an MP3. Hope springs when he replies to my mail and sends it to me... When I met her on those few occasions although I’d never heard her music you just knew it would be good. This was the confirmation - Best described by Ian Shirley in his article in Record Collector (Issue #417) as ‘soul funk confection’.
Her mental health issues, her talent and her fate pre-occupy my mind and I set out for the pub to see if I can find her. On arrival I feel uncomfortable, any romance I had for the place has deserted me. I enquire about her at the bar and draw a blank. There’s a couple outside who I think may know her and I approach them. Generally people don’t like strangers asking questions and this is confirmed, but we slowly start to draw up a conversation about her albeit brief and to the point. The lady looks to me and says no one has seen her in years with the man adding she’s either dead or she was sectioned before he walks back into the bar. I’m left looking into the lady’s sad eyes as she says to me ‘sorry luv, we don’t know anymore than that’. I thank her for speaking with me and walk away...
Here is the original editorial POOR COW which features a cameo by Princess Balou