A Conversation With Dario Calmese About Beyoncé, Black Lives Matter and Young St. Louis Artists
Like many creative professionals in today’s economy, St. Louis native Dario Calmese wears many hats. The photographer, actor and producer found his knack for performance at the age of 15, being cast in productions at Hazelwood West High School and later performing with the Muny. After graduating from Rockhurst University, where he majored in Psych Communications, he worked with the Disney Cruise Line, saving up enough money to make a move to New York City. Although he had only planned to be in the Big Apple briefly, he has made a home in the city for the past 12 years, charting an impressive career that can only be summarized with one word: inspiring. He has traveled to Thailand, South Africa, Europe and more, has bylines on The Daily Beast and Huffington Post, and a growing clientele that includes CFDA, HBO, Public School NYC and Beyoncé, just to a name a few.
Below, Dario talks his impressive resume, the proliferation of Black Lives Matter in fashion and offers sound advice to young artists in St. Louis.
In addition to acting, photography and fashion show production, you have your other projects that you work on, like the HBO “Suited” project you just completed. And, you’ve worked for Beyoncé?
They hired me to shoot behind the scenes for her “On The Run” tour when she was doing that stuff with Jay Z.
Did you go on tour with them?
No. It was when they were rehearsing at the Izod Center, so it was just the rehearsals. That was great, spending the day with Beyoncé. Very intimate. That was a really cool experience negotiating that space with someone who’s so famous, but I think a good thing about myself is that I’m not very starstruck. But she doesn’t know that. Particularly when your image is so constructed, you’re nervous about how is it going to be represented. And I could see her over time opening up and easing up. It’s a matter of time with those things. So for me it was just very interesting, and I actually became more of a fan from that experience because she actually is exactly what you think she is, except more beautiful.
In New York, you’re dealing with so many high-profile people, and you’re becoming high-profile yourself. How are you navigating that? When someone comes up to you and asks, “What do you do?” what’s your response?
I’ve learned to say I’m a photographer by trade because that’s the thing that really makes me money, that’s the actual skill that supports me somehow. If the conversation goes deeper than that, then I can explain to them the fashion and stuff. When you talk about navigating the space, sometimes you just have to hunker down and realize you have it within you to do it all.
How does living in New York, being from St. Louis and being in fashion all come together in your identity?
I think there are so many opportunities for creative people in St. Louis. Even like the Muny. You don’t realize it, when you’re here, how special something like that is.
And how that shapes you.
How that shapes the city. This is a huge theater city and people don’t realize it. Every major musical comes to St. Louis and it sells out. There are people filling those seats. When you’re here, you don’t think about it. But coming from the outside and looking back, you’re like “Oh wow.”
I think what shaped me the most coming out of St. Louis was just the opportunities to explore—the opportunities for a curious mind to try things. Going to Hazelwood West afforded me a lot of things: my language classes, studying Japanese. I feel like I was groomed for a lot of things in many ways.
It was a good launching pad, and I do find that for whatever reason, people in St. Louis who move to New York are all very focused. I don’t know what that is, but it’s a very common thing that I get from people from St. Louis and that’s across races. I think it’s because St. Louis really aligns itself with Chicago and the East Coast. So although it’s very Midwest, there is a level of sophistication here.
What advice could you give to the young creatives—black creatives, creatives of all races—in St. Louis?
It’s in the doing. That’s what I’ve learned. Thinking about things is great, but acting without thinking is very problematic. At some point you have to do. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You can learn as you go, knowing that people have amnesia and they forget things very easily, so you actually can make that mistake and it’s not as bad as you think. And through that mistake, you’ll learn what the next thing is.
I think it’s great to rebel. I think black people in general have an innate need and want to rebel because you want to debunk tradition. I would also say travel. The only way to understand what you’re up against is to see another way of being.
When you are a creative, when you are a part of the avant-garde, there won’t be much applause because people won’t get it.
What was it like for you in the creative industry dealing with social and racial issues as they pertain to the killing of Michael Brown and Black Lives Matter?
Personally, I can be very stoic and emotionally detached, but I can look at something and see something for what it is and not have an emotional response or detach or compartmentalize or delay the emotion. What happened with Mike Brown, and Trayvon Martin as well, for me it was just interesting to hear people talking about this place that was 15 minutes away from where I lived.
And knowing that Ferguson was Ferguson because of timing, not specifically because of anything inherent about Ferguson, not because of anything inherently about Mike Brown, not really because of anything about Darren Wilson or the way it went down. None of it really had anything to do with why we were talking about it. It sparked because it was a perfect storm of sorts, because there was still a national resentment and unquenched vengeance for Trayvon Martin’s death. The conversation I was having with most people was really explaining to them that Ferguson wasn’t the hood, that media portrayals of Ferguson were actually very inaccurate.
For me, I moved to New York a week after Michael Brown was killed. People from St. Louis consider Ferguson St. Louis. But, outsiders were having a difficult time figuring out where Ferguson was in Missouri.
I think also because it happened in Ferguson, black people were mobilizing in a very different way. It was a city and is a city of working professionals. Also explaining that St. Louis is a very racially segregated city. I remember there being race fights when I was in high school and it being a very normal thing. And also having predominantly white friends.
As far as how those conversations happen in an industry way, in a fashion way, I think Kerby [Jean-Raymond] really changed fashion’s conversation with it by just throwing it in their face. He really did it out of frustration because he can’t help but create from himself, and that’s just where he was and what he was feeling at the time. And I think Black Lives Matter was and is so important because it resonated and reverberated all the way up to Vogue. I don’t think that this past September, having like nine black women on the cover of September issues, are exclusive [from Black Lives Matter].
What it did was wake up some people in places of power that this is still an issue. A class of people and a generation of people who do have black friends, but their whiteness has shielded them from a lot of things that they just didn’t know happened and happens because we’ve not really talked about.
You have an Obama who put it back out here for us to talk about it. I think the Black Lives Matter movement is really important. Even “Black-ish” has to do with Black Lives Matter. Looking at who is playing what roles in television commercials has to do with Black Lives Matter. Cheerios having that interracial couple has to do with Black Lives Matter. These are all reverberations of that movement and I think that’s the conversation that’s starting to happen. And I think many fashion organizations and industries are actively seeking black voices. And I’m sure you probably feel that.
Photo courtesy of Dario Calmese.