Kimono My House
IS THERE A GEISHA IN THE HOUSE?
By Madeline Bocaro
YES, there most certainly is!! And she is none other than the beautiful Michi Hirota, better known as 'the one on the right' on the infamous, iconic Kimono My House album cover. We located Michi in London, and were thrilled to have her as our special guest at Sparks' complete performance of the album in Islington on May 18, 2008! More with Michi later, but first some history…
In 1974, Ron Mael made a mock-up of his Japanese-themed idea for the Kimono My House album cover. It was a vintage wartime photo of two geishas disdainfully holding their noses while displaying Sparks' previous (second) album, A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing. The flippant spirit of this photo was retained for the actual Kimono cover, which is often voted one of the best album covers of all time.
The photographer, Karl Stoecker was known for his striking glamour girl shots on Roxy Music's album covers. Their 1972 debut album featured model Kari-Ann (Mick Jagger's sister-in-law), who also graced Mott The Hoople's The Hoople cover. Then came Roxy's For Your Pleasure with Salvador Dali's muse Amanda Lear walking a panther on a leash, and of course Playboy's Playmate of the Year, Marilyn Cole on Stranded, both in 1973. London’s swinging 60s designer Ossie Clark’s model, Gala Mitchell was shot by Stoecker for the back cover of Lou Reed’s Transformer album. Within six months of shooting the Kimono cover, Karl Stoecker shot Roxy's next one for Country Life (released in October, 1974) which featured not one, but two cover girls in very sheer undies! They were later air-brushed due to censorship.
Roxy's singer, Brian Ferry was a student of painter (and some say, the actual progenitor of Pop-art) Richard Hamilton at Newcastle University. Hamilton created the stark, minimalist cover of The Beatles (the white album in 1968). It followed up, and strikingly contrasted Sgt. Pepper's psychedelic cover bursting with colour. Hamilton's philosophy was, "Pop Art should be popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamourous and big business." According to Bryan Ferry, "Most LP covers of the time had the group standing in an alleyway, looking very sullen and moody." Karl Stoecker's Roxy Music covers changed all of that.
Stoecker shot the two garish geishas for Kimono My House with smeared makeup and disheveled hair - the antithesis of Roxy's classy covers. They seemed to be laughing in the face of album art, while at the same time making history as one of its greatest examples. One of them seems to foresee this - with a wink!
Russel Mael: "We were very happy that Island Records allowed us not to have the name of the band nor the album title on the front cover. We thought the image alone would speak loudly enough. Try to get a company to go along with that concept today!"
The chosen cover photo was actually an outtake, shot near the end of the photo session. The models were from Japan's Red Buddah Theatre, performing in London at the time. The troupe's musical director was the renowned Taiko percussionist Joji Hirota. The winking geisha on the right is Michi Hirota, his wife. The couple also crossed paths with David Bowie. Joji was musical director of The Lindsay Kemp Dance Company. Kemp had been Bowie's mime mentor in the 1960s. Michi Hirota also provides the memorable abrasive spoken Japanese vocals on the song "It's No Game (Part 1)" on Bowie's 1980's Scary Monsters album.
Now we catch up with Kimono My House cover girl, Michi Hirota…
What led you to become a model on the cover of Kimono My House? Michi: We were both actresses touring with a Japanese theatre company in Europe and the USA. My husband Joji Hirota was musical director. A record company (Island records) approached our director looking for Japanese women, and we were asked to do the modeling. I am the woman on the right (with a fan).
Do you know the whereabouts of the geisha on the left? Michi: I have no news about the other lady since I left the Japanese theatre company at that time, however her maiden name was Kuniko Okamura. She married a Frenchman soon after finishing our tour and bore 4 children.
What kind of instructions did Ron, or the photographer give you? Michi: We were not told much, they just let us move freely. We didn't know how to arrange our hair properly or how to fix our kimono. There was nobody to dress us. The session took 4 or 5 hours.
Karl Stoecker also photographed models for the Roxy Music album covers. Did you ever work with him again? Michi: I've heard that he is the one of the foremost photographers in the world, but unfortunately I never had a chance to work with him. (I would like to, if he is looking for an old Japanese lady!)
What did you think when you first saw the photo on the album cover? Michi: It had such an impact, however I thought that I looked bit ugly.
Are there any other photos from that session, besides the famous cover shot? Michi: Yes, I kept one Polaroid photo in which I looked rather Kawaii (cute in Japanese), which Karl dropped on the floor. Hope this is OK with him. I keep it in my personal photo album.
What did you think of the Kimono My House album when you first heard it? Michi: Very unique, unusual, and inspiring voices!
Have you ever seen a Sparks concert? Michi: Not until now!
What kind of music do you like? Do you have a favourite singer? Michi: I love all sort of music from Classical music to Rock. My current favourite is Cecillia Bartoli (Italian).
What have you been doing all these years? Michi: I continued acting (mainly singing, dancing, and acting for the theatre) until in my late 30's. I performed in The King and I with Yul Brynner in London, and sang on David Bowie's Scary Monsters album. Now I assist with my husband's administration work, and also attend ballet class for my pleasure.
Many thanks to our lovely cover girl. It's been an honour!
- Madeline Bocaro