Cleveland studied at New York’s High School of Art and Design, where her first love was fashion. By her early teens she was designing and wearing her own creations. Her career as a fashion model began by accident in 1967 when she was spotted on a New York subway by Carrie Donovan, an assistant editor at Vogue.
The 14-year-old was on her way to classes at LaGuardia Performing Arts School when, “This assistant followed me,” Cleveland recalled. “My girlfriend said, ‘You better run. There’s a dyke chasing you’. I said, ‘What’s a dyke?’”
Donovan, impressed with Cleveland’s style, invited her to Vogue to show her fashion designs. The magazine published a feature on her as an up-and-coming young designer. From there she was picked up by Ebony magazine to model for their Fashion Fair national runway tour, and soon, designing was out and modelling was in.
After working with Ebony, Cleveland began to attract the attention of the major fashion designers of the day, working first with famous names such as Jacques Tiffeau and Stephen Burrows.
Soon she was meeting and working with all of fashion’s top playmakers, including Diana Vreeland, Irving Penn and Andy Warhol.
But despite her early success Cleveland grew disillusioned with America and its racist attitudes towards black models. One day, fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez invited her to try her luck in Milan and Paris instead. “This rag doll, no tits, was on her way to Europe,” Cleveland recalled in Michael Gross’s fashion biography, Model: The Ugly Business Of Beautiful Women.
Cleveland settled in Paris in 1970, vowing never to return until US Vogue printed its first black cover.
From her new base the young beauty’s career took off. She modelled for designers such as Valentino, Oscar de la Renta, Yves Saint Laurent, Thierry Mugler and Christian Dior.
Along with Karen Bjornson and Anjelica Huston she became one of Halston’s favoured troupe of models, nicknamed the Halstonettes. She modelled part of the day and partied the rest of the time.
While in St Tropez with Karl Lagerfeld she went to lunch on the beach in diamond collars, bracelets, rings, high-heeled shoes and a G-string. In London she partied with the gay crowd and dated Mick Jagger.
Cleveland showcased her own theatrical style on the runway , and her appearances were viewed more like performance art pieces. Cleveland could “tell a story in a dress”, remarked fellow model Rene Hunter. “When she moved, she painted the air around her with the clothes,” said Janice Dickinson.
The pinnacle of her runway ostentation took place on November 28, 1973, when she was chosen as one of 30 black models to participate in a special runway event at the Palace of Versailles in Paris.
Five famous American fashion designers lined up in a face-off with five of France’s best, in front of 800 guests. Fashion had never witnessed black beauty in such concentrated magnitude, all wearing the best designer clothes in the world.