Pat Cleveland was in Paris shooting a L’Oreal commercial in late March when she noticed how bloated and tired she was. She took herself to a hotel doctor, who prescribed drugs for inflammation, but they didn’t help.
She returned to the doctor the next day, where Cleveland, one the first African American cover models who once was a muse for Bill Blass and Halston, learned she had colon cancer. She needed emergency surgery. But exactly how would she pay for it? Her health insurance didn’t cover overseas treatment.
Cleveland’s husband, Paul Ravenstein, started a GoFundMe, and within two days, thanks to the help of some of fashion’s biggest names — Marc Jacobs, Anna Sui, Zac Posen, Thierry Mugler — the couple was able to raise $100,000 to pay for her care. Cleveland remained for days in intensive care at American Hospital of Paris, where Karl Lagerfeld died a few weeks earlier.
After returning to her home in Burlington County, N.J., Cleveland, 69, began 12 rounds of chemotherapy. During her treatment, she walked the September New York Fashion Week runways for Nicole Miller and Chiara Boni. Cleveland announced on Facebook last week that she’s done with her treatments. She’s now in remission and grateful. “Fashion really saved me,” she said.
We talked to Cleveland, known for her whimsical take on life, about endurance and how fashion helped her maintain inner and outer beauty during the dark days of chemo.
Wow, what an ordeal. What ultimately helped you make it through?
I try to live a no mad — as in I just don’t get mad — existence. When you have a near-death experience, you realize how precious life is. I notice every little bird, every little bumblebee. And I just try to be grateful. That is what, I believe, saved my life.
What were some of the habits you formed that are now a part of your new normal?
I began chanting and drumming. I did things everyday to take my mind to a higher level. I started going to the Siddha Meditation Center in Philadelphia. I learned how to bring my mind to beautiful places. I tried to move myself away from fear. (And I was afraid.) I also started to eat for my blood type. No, I’m not going to tell you what it is. But I’m vegan now. (Although I occasionally sneak pizza.)
What was it like for you to get back on the Nicole Miller and Chiara Boni runways in September?
It was healing. The runway is a familiar and joyful place for me. I was able to celebrate the moment and enjoy the glamour. Show off my peacock feathers. The runway is so full of energy. It’s social. It’s business... But with the chemo, I was vulnerable. I couldn’t be as social as I liked. If someone sneezes, I have to run across the room to get away from them. I had to pay very close attention to my energy.
From how you walked on the runway, no one would even know you were so ill. How were you able to maintain your sense of style and beauty during the process?
Well after I started to recover from my ‘couture cut’ [from surgery], I was just 100 pounds. So I really had to create new energy for myself. I started to surround myself with beautiful things. I wore clothes that were pretty, colorful. When you do chemo in nice dresses, you just feel better. I didn’t look back on what I didn’t feel good about. I paid attention to my skin and my nails. And I kept my skin moist. For my hair, I used castor oil and put it up in a chignon. There are always little ways you can use fashion as a distraction. I found some beautiful hats and fascinators. I tried to not look at chemo as if it was taking things away from me. I tried to think of myself as a rose that was going to heal.