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Model trailblazer Pat Cleveland tells a juicy tale in her new book

Pat Cleveland is absolutely lovely.

Pat Cleveland, one of the world's first supermodels, at her Willingboro home.
Pat Cleveland, one of the world's first supermodels, at her Willingboro home.Read moreAARON RICKETTS / Staff Photographer

Pat Cleveland is absolutely lovely.

But of course she is.

Cleveland was one of the world's first supermodels, one of the first African American cover girls in the 1970s, and a favorite of the era's top designers: Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, and Halston.

So yes, at 66, it's not surprising that Cleveland still has a light voice, an easy smile. She appears not to have a care in the world.

How does she stay so whimsical and full of joy? She keeps a "no-mad" existence.

"You don't get mad. You keep it moving," Cleveland told me from her Willingboro home, her accent unmistakably New York, despite the years she spent living in London, Paris, and Milan.

"I don't believe in staying anywhere mad. That's why I call it a 'no-mad' existence."

It's a juicy tale.

Cleveland may not be a household name like Tyra Banks (something that likely has everything to do with being a black woman in America in the 1960s). But she rubbed noses and bell-bottoms with the fashion industry's biggest names. Fashion insiders and pop-culture addicts will love the name-dropping. As for the names you don't know, such as Vogue illustrator Antonio Lopez, you'll want to Google them to find out more.

In these pages - penned with the help of New York writer Lorraine Glennon - we meet a young and buff Karl Lagerfeld when he designed for the French fashion house Chloe. (He was a foodie even back then.) We get to know a caring Halston, who broke up a fight between Cleveland and her boyfriend Matthew Kenneth Eckstine - the adopted son of R&B crooner Billy Eckstine - who eventually ended up living on the streets of New York.

While Cleveland was in the middle of a three-month assignment with the storied Ebony Fashion Fair, she went on a few dates with young champ Muhammad Ali. And, she says, she witnessed Bill Cosby's early infidelities. Along the way, she also dated Mick Jagger and Warren Beatty.

"I had my fun, but I was a good girl," Cleveland said with a giggle.

But it wasn't always Paris nights bubbling over with absinthe and champagne. Cleveland was teased in high school for what are now considered exotic, boyish looks. She recounts a story of a fistfight where she blacked out and awakened to herself almost choking a girl to death.

While her mother, Ladybird Cleveland, loved her, she was emotionally, physically, and sexually abused by her stepfather, a World War II veteran.

Cleveland was "discovered" in the early 1960s by renowned assistant Vogue editor Carrie Donovan. But it would be more than a decade before she was considered a cover girl.

"I saw the racial divide," she said. "I saw the hatred."

She left America in the early 1970s, vowing not to come back until a black woman was on the cover of American Vogue. (That woman would be Beverly Johnson, who graced the magazine in 1974.) After several years abroad, one of her career high points would be walking her signature strut in the Battle of Versailles, a well-documented 1973 fashion show and fund-raiser that pitted American designers Oscar de la Renta, Anne Klein, Blass, Burrows, and Halston against French counterparts Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Yves Saint Laurent, Emmanuel Ungaro, and Christian Dior.

During that performance, Cleveland and black models Bethann Hardison and Billie Blair helped women of color temporarily break the racial ceiling in the high-fashion modeling business.

"We were determined to show them that we could walk," Cleveland said.

As we sat in Cleveland's kitchen, peacocks squawked in the backyard. Laid out across tables are storyboards and timelines she constructed for her book. There she is, smiling on the cover of Jet (she worries about the magazine's future after its sale to a Texas firm), and here are photos of her in front of a New York movie theater.

The title Walking with the Muses references a near-paralyzing fall off a platform during a photo shoot. Cleveland thought she'd never walk again, but when she finally could, she found herself back among the muses.

The book was 12 years in the making. She had left Milan, where she ran a modeling agency, and returned to New Jersey to care for her ailing mother (who died last year at 89). At some point, Cleveland broke her arm and couldn't type; lost years of work to a computer hard-drive malfunction; then spilled a banana smoothie on her laptop that almost wiped out an additional several years of work. After all that drama, it's cathartic to have the work in print.

"My baby is out there, and I'm like on a flying carpet that I'm the only one riding," Cleveland said. "I'm already thinking about my next project."

Of course, Cleveland still is modeling. She appeared on this month's Italian Vogue and was photographed for a Neiman Marcus advertising campaign scheduled for September. Last week, she was on her way to New York to promote her book and drop off a few items to her daughter, Anna, one of Zac Posen's muses, who is on her way to the couture shows in Paris.

And with that, Cleveland is finished. She gives me a two-cheek kiss like a true European, and I leave, the peacocks still squawking.