Main photo by Paul Zone: Eileen Polk, Cathi (Honi) O’Rourke, Anya Phillips, September 1975
New York City is half the size of London geographically, but has roughly the same population. It’s twice as crowded; maybe twice as frantic and its punk history embraces musicians, club owners and photographers, plus a sizable number of others.
Blondie guitarist Chris Stein, speaking this year, referred to Anya Phillips as a ‘fashionista and influencer’ – of course back in the mid 70s, the whole influence thing was a lot more subtle and unmediated. As time goes on, Chris Stein’s importance as a photo-journalist of the NYC punk scene as well as of globally famous people backstage becomes increasingly obvious – alongside his musical work with Blondie and partner Debbie Harry. Many of Stein’s photographs of Anya Phillips show that she was a central figure and capture outrageous and fascinating moments in time.
In so many of the great late 1970s punk photographs, Anya Phillips features amongst the line-ups. She’s not there after 1981, because she died in June 1981 fairly soon after receiving a cancer diagnosis. A Facebook page Homage to Anya Phillips continues to attract memories, notices and more of the striking photographs in which she appears.
Phillips was born in China around 1955, according to Simon Reynold’s 2009 book Totally Wired. Her biological father was a general in Chiang Kai-shek’s army, but Anya’s mother fled to Taipei after the Communist takeover of China and later married a US serviceman. Anya and her younger brother Kris grew up in Taipei on US military air bases and went to the American School there.
Sylvia Reed, former manager and wife of Lou Reed, and close school friend of Anya Phillips believes that Anya’s mother had a significant effect on both her children’s lifestyle and careers:
“I think [Phillips’ mother] was working for television in Taiwan. [She] was a very dominant figure in Anya’s life [in terms of] creativity and attention to design. I guess that was something Anya grew up with, and that’s why Anya in her own right was a really amazing designer.”Sylvia Reed in interview with NBC
In 1974, Anya moved to New York City, where she immediately got involved with interesting projects and activities. These included a ‘fake band’ a dominatrix act at CBGB, film-making and photography, managing clubs and artists including Lydia Lunch and James Chance (who was by 1978 her boyfriend). Anya was one of the co-founders of The Mudd Club.
Anya started designing outfits. At first, not knowing how to sew, she knotted fabric together. The pink dress worn by Debbie Harry on the cover of Plastic Letters LP is a design by Anya Phillips.
“Anya was great – very sarcastic, a great dry sense of humor, very pretty, and a terrific dresser. She dressed like a whore. I mean, we were all sort of dressing like that, we always wore the stilettos. But Anya had a sense of organization and sort of an overview. She was a great businesswoman. I mean she just like looked around and she had a sort of a more organized perspective… She was a powerful energy source that’s now missing from the scene. Anya’s death was a particularly personal loss for us.”Debbie Harry 1982 Making Tracks
Anya’s brother, Kris became well-known as a singer particularly in China, where he has starred in Lloyd Webber musicals. And under his Chinese name Fei Xiang, he is immensely popular, having won album of the year awards, and singing at the 2008 Olympics. Anya, too started some singing projects, although she never reached her potential. Using the pseudonym, ‘Ginger Lee’, Anya sang backing vocals on ‘Off White’ by James Chance, and was planning to make a sci-fi disco-funk album shortly before her cancer diagnosis.
If you search for Anya Phillips online, there’s not a lot of information about her. She’s mentioned in important books about New York in that era: ‘Please Kill Me’ (Legs McNeil & McCain 2016), ‘Making Tracks’ (Deborah Harry, Stein & Bockriss 1982) ‘Totally Wired’ (Simon Reynolds 2009) but a lot of what’s online are photographs of Anya Phillips in clubs, bars, photoshoot locations and fashion shops.
We’ll leave the last word to on-off best friend Sylvia Reed, who had a teenage pact with Anya to marry an American rock star
“She was a beautiful and intriguing personality, challenging, extremely talented; she knew where to be at every moment. I’ve never met another person like her.”Sylvia Reed