A Blisteringly Frank and Triple X-Rated Chat with Peter Berlin

Ted Stansfield calls the artist behind the sexual superhero – a softly spoken septuagenarian called Armin – for a chat

If you don’t know Peter Berlin, then know this: in the hazy, carefree dawn of the 70s, he pioneered the self-mythologising culture we all live in today. Before social media, before selfies, he was transforming himself in front of his camera into the star of his own fantasy narrative – and he did it all dressed in handcrafted weapons of mass arousal. As Peter Berlin: Icon, Artist, Photosexual, published by Damiani, launches, Ted Stansfield calls the artist behind the sexual superhero – a softly spoken septuagenarian called Armin – at his San Francisco apartment for a blisteringly frank and, at times, triple X-rated chat.

Ted Stansfield: Hi Peter.

Peter Berlin: Ted, you’re like a good German – very much on time. How old are you? 

TS: I’m 27.

PB: I could be your grandfather. That makes me feel so old. I was Peter Berlin before you were even born.

TS: What are you wearing today?

PB: Isn’t that a funny question! That’s like when people are online and looking for sex and they ask, ‘What are you wearing?’ I’m not Peter Berlin, that creation, that image I did at the time. Now I’m appropriate to my age. I’m sitting on the couch in my living room and I have these nice leather house shoes on, which are left over from my first roommate, who died in 1997. I have no socks on, just underwear and a white T-shirt. It looks drab and completely unexciting. But I like your question. Are you in your flat?

“I was always dressed for my own entertainment. I wanted to look perfect for my taste. It’s not maybe your taste or my mother’s taste, but it was my taste and it was very erotic and sexual” – Peter Berlin

TS: I’m in the stationery cupboard at work. 

PB: And what are you wearing?

TS: I’m wearing some black boots, some pinstripe trousers and a grey shirt.

PB: You are not dressed like Peter Berlin. I expected you to say, ‘Oh, I’m sitting in a leather thong, with chains around my neck.’ I wish I’d lied when you asked me what I was wearing. If you had called me 40 years ago, when I was Peter Berlin, then I would have given you a much better answer.

TS: What would you have said back then?

PB: I was always dressed for my own entertainment. I wanted to look perfect for my taste. It’s not maybe your taste or my mother’s taste, but it was my taste and it was very erotic and sexual. You would say, ‘He’s not going to his work in a law firm, he’s going to cruise and look for sex.’ But you’ve called me when I’m an old man and I’m just sitting here looking ridiculous and unexciting.

TS: I’d like to talk about that Peter Berlin’s clothing. I think you were revolutionary because you realised that clothing could be more sexy on than off.

PB: Yes, I always did it the other way round. When people decide to have sex they get naked. But I take a naked body and enhance it through fashion, through clothing. That was very important to my sexual pleasure – it was a must. When I went to the bathhouses in the 70s and 80s and met with guys, they would have a towel around themselves and I would say, ‘Oh, what a boring, boring picture that is.’ So I would dress them up rather than the other way around.

TS: How did you develop your style?

PB: I always wanted to show the body but in an encased thing. Either tight leather jeans or white sailor pants or whatever. When you look at my pictures that’s very obvious. When you think of Peter Berlin, what comes to mind? How do you see me? Do you see my face or me from head-to-toe?

TS: I see you from head-to-toe.

PB: See? That’s exactly how I see myself too. The whole thing has to work from head-to-toe. I didn’t hide my body, I wanted to enhance it through clothing. Like when you think about Marilyn Monroe, you don’t think about her naked. You think about her in a very tight dress with that blonde hair and that iconic look. That’s what I created with that Peter Berlin look.

“When people decide to have sex they get naked. But I take a naked body and enhance it through fashion, through clothing” – Peter Berlin

TS: When you dressed up, what was the objective?

PB: I wanted to meet someone. I gave the image of someone who was going to cruise, to hunt, and when people saw me on the streets I conveyed one thing: sexuality. I never dressed up to be seen in a crowd of people. I only wanted to get one person and get the hell out of the public space. I dressed up for that and it excited me. The idea of tight clothes made me feel alive.

TS: You put so much effort into looking amazing to find a guy. Did anyone ever return the favour?

PB: I was always looking for what you described: another Peter Berlin. Someone who did exactly the same as me. But it never happened. When people saw me, they would stop breathing, they couldn’t believe what they saw. But I never, in all my long life, experienced that for myself. Lots of people attempted it – a lot of guys in the 60s and 70s and 80s tried to look sexy, but nobody did it as well as me. I have to give myself a slap on the shoulder for that. There were about three guys around who did a good job and stood out. They were never to my complete liking but I appreciated it. While I was looking for myself, that didn’t mean he needed to look like me. He could have been black or Asian, he just needed to do it in the same manner, because there are different ways to express sexuality. Many of the guys express something very feminine but that was never my world. I aimed to stay as a man, masculine rather than feminine.

TS: So in a way Peter Berlin was the man of your dreams?

PB: Ja, ja, ja! I was the man of my dreams. But I never thought of myself as great-looking. I had good proportions and I was happy with that and I tried to make the most of it by going to the gym. Then I decorated my body with clothing to boost it.

TS: Do you see your influence in today’s world?

PB: We are in a very strange time: male sexuality is still being swept under the carpet. I think the Peter Berlin image is a very curious thing to the world. I thought what I did was completely normal but now I realise how un-normal it was in our fucked-up society. I rarely see anything on the runway that is like Peter Berlin – it’s a very blatant sexual thing and it’s usually too much for magazines. You wouldn’t see Peter Berlin in Time magazine or the New York Times. I’m not accepted. The world is still not ready for me. It’s going backwards. And even when you talk about the so-called art world, they say you’re not an artist, you’re a pornographer. I say fuck all these labels. Even the art world is not ready for me. They wouldn’t have an exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art in New York or in Paris or San Francisco. I always felt like I was 50 years ahead of my time.

TS: You talk about Peter Berlin as an image but I feel like there’s a character, too.

PB: I played the role of Peter Berlin. Every time I left the house I was Peter Berlin. When I was at home, then I was the person behind it. I realised early on that I had to separate Peter Berlin from Armin. I never had anyone who saw me for who I actually was. People would say they were afraid of or intimidated by me but I didn’t go out in the world to intimidate or frighten people, I just wanted to give them a good time. I was seen but never really understood – that was fascinating to experience. In most cases the reaction was negative. When a gay guy saw me and tried to get me, I would put my foot down and say no – I was that arrogant arsehole and it created a lot of jealousy. That’s why when I finally found someone then I would get out of the public domain. My sexual life was very, very, very private. I never had an orgy in my life. I needed just one person and that was enough for me but it was hard for me to find. I’m actually a very shy person.

TS: You’d never know, looking at your pictures…

PB: At that time I just did what everyone did. You get dressed up and you think about what you’re going to wear that night. Especially in San Francisco, hundreds of guys dress up in leather. I just did it perfectly. Looking back today, I wish I had inspired a generation of young boys and I would now go out of my apartment and see hundreds of Peter Berlins running around. But it never happened. I see good-looking people on the internet who take selfies; so many incredible boys, especially the black guys with their bodies, I wish I had had one of those bodies. But you don’t see it in public. The good-looking guys all blend in with everyone else and since everything is now so global they all look the same in Moscow, Paris, Beijing, New York – the same fashion of baggy shorts and tennis shoes or some Nikes and drab T-shirts. That’s why I’d rather stay in my house. How youth is wasted: you get it and it’s like a gift from God and then he takes it away. My God, do I miss those times! What I had as Peter Berlin, no one else experienced.

“The world is still not ready for me” – Peter Berlin

TS: What did it feel like?

PB: It was like heaven. I remember once when I was down at the beach and oiled-up and tanned and had some tight thing on and I thought, ‘I’m in heaven.’ The feeling is strong, when you are horny and having a really good time, that’s why sex and procreation are in the same basket. When you are straight, you make your girlfriend pregnant and you have a child. Thank God I never had that problem. For me, the fucking aspect was never part of my sex life. I didn’t need penetration. Peter Berlin didn’t need to penetrate… What are you into, Ted? If I met you on the street and you liked me and I liked you and I asked you, ‘Ted, what are you into?’ – would you have an answer?

TS: No.

PB: Have you been asked that in your life? 

TS: Only by my boyfriend.

PB: So you are monogamous?

TS: Yes. But I know we’re unusual.

PB: I never had what you would call a boyfriend. I always lived with people and took care of people but not as a boyfriend, as a friend. What I was looking for could be described as an event, not a specific thing like penetration. If people asked, ‘Can I suck your dick?’, I would reply, ‘No.’ As I said before, I disappointed people when they were hot for me; I turned that arousal into disappointment or hate in the blink of an eye. My attitude was always, ‘Don’t come too close to me, don’t talk to me.’ I always avoid talking. For me, it’s like a film where you set eyes on someone and watch them. I’d like to make that film, that’s the only thing I’d still like to do.

TS: Describe the film’s set-up…

PB: We’d end up in a house, in a park, in a garage or on the beach. The story would go on for hours. I’ve met people in the morning on the beach and stayed all day and all night, and it’s just creating that situation where you are in a constant state of excitement. You know how strenuous it is when you fuck; it’s a very exhausting thing. You fuck and you fuck and you fuck – but how long can you do that? Maybe an hour or two? Which is already a lot, because most people are done in five, six, seven minutes. But my way of having sex was different: for me, sex wasn’t part of the day; for me, sex was from the morning till night. Sexuality is really something if you make it the centre of your life. I’d wake up, go to the beach and stay all day; I was in that great state of anticipation, like being on the hunt. I was always hunting and wanting to give people a good time. Sometimes I got four or five people off in one day, and most of the time not even getting close to them. I like to give you a climax without pleasing you the way you want me to. I got people off just by looking at my image.

TS: Your pictures still have that power.

PB: Ja, so I’m still doing good. This is where I’m different to the selfish people who want to get off and don’t care for you. That’s what I felt as Peter Berlin: they wanted to use me for their pleasure but when I wanted pleasure in return they usually had no idea how to do it. I didn’t give them instructions; they had to find out. Sometimes when I thought it was an interesting person I’d give some points of help and show them. The best thing I could tell people was just imitate me. ‘Be a Peter Berlin, let’s go home and wear something different to your stupid baggy shorts.’ I use guys like girls use dolls. I take you and dress you up – that was my thing. Peter Berlin was like a theatre director and I was looking for a good student who would do as I do.

“When I was Peter Berlin I was in a constant state of excitement. Because of my tight clothes, when I had a hard-on, you could see it – I didn’t have to take my dick out to show you” – Peter Berlin

TS: So if I was your student, what would you teach me?

PB: How to become Peter Berlin. How to get people off from the other side of the street. It’s like when straight men go to a strip club, they just sit there and watch a scantily dressed girl on a pole, and that’s what I did, except I didn’t need a pole. I can imagine a very erotic scenario just by watching, without anything actually happening. You know, I got fucked maybe three times in my life. After the third time, I said it wasn’t my thing and that was the end of that. I sucked dicks but I was never a good cocksucker and I said ‘Peter, you don’t like it, so why are you doing it?’ So I even stopped sucking dick. I never found someone who did what I wanted. I was always the initiator, the director. I would ask, ‘What do you get off on?’, and the guys would tell me. Maybe the person said, ‘Oh I like to put a dildo in my ass.’ I would reply, ‘OK, do it but Peter Berlin will not put a dildo in your ass.’

TS: What’s the greatest pleasure you ever experienced?

PB: I had thousands of them. When I was Peter Berlin I was in a constant state of excitement. Because of my tight clothes, when I had a hard-on, you could see it – I didn’t have to take my dick out to show you. When I get excited and get to the point where I’m about to come, I can hold it there for hours. That means I’ve been in a state of great arousal 10,000 times in my life. When you ejaculate as a man you are dead – that is what most people don’t understand. When you have a boyfriend or girlfriend, sex between them is usually a very limited experience: you know how it goes, you’ve done it today, you’ll do it tomorrow. That’s why I never had that.

TS: Did you ever crave the emotional intimacy of a boyfriend?

PB: I know Peter Berlin was not made to have a boyfriend. None of my friends – who are unfortunately all dead; everyone I knew from the 60s, 70s and 80s are all gone – none of them had a boyfriend. Some were in a relationship and maybe living together but they were always open. Peter Berlin was exactly like everyone else, except I was a little more visible because I did a great job in tailoring my clothes... I mean, who in hell sits there today with a sewing machine and does what Peter Berlin was doing?

TS: You must think hook-up culture is so lazy in comparison to the effort you put in.

PB: For people who meet online, sex is not a big thing. You get it over with. But getting it over with was never how I looked at sex. Sex was the main event of the day. It was better than going to the movies or having dinner. For me, that wasn’t important. Sex was the best thing I could create for myself or for other people. When I think about all those guys jacking off on my photographs, it’s because I did it a little more intensely. I see guys hiding their sexuality. You don’t see dick on the street. You see baggy clothes, everyone has castrated themselves. I didn’t castrate myself. I said, ‘I have a dick!’ That doesn’t exist today.

TS: Imagine a world where women only wore baggy clothes and hid their tits and arses…

PB: Straight men like women in skimpy short skirts and nylon stockings and lingerie and all that. For me I said, ‘OK, that should exist for men too.’ But I realise that Peter Berlin was not successful in giving men permission to do that. I wish I’d become mainstream but I never did. When I look at photographs of the rock stars in the 70s and 80s, some of them look exciting but not as exciting as me. With some other guys you could see a sense of male sexuality, but now you see nothing. There is only one Peter Berlin in the world. There are five million lawyers and doctors and there is even more than one astronaut, but there is only one Peter Berlin. I became an icon and it’s funny because I don’t think of myself as that.

TS: What do you think of yourself as?

PB: I think of myself as a failure. I want to have big houses in Paris, London, Rome and Moscow, surrounded by young nice-looking guys. Hugh Hefner is the only person I can think of who did it the way I would like to do it. Having that mansion, all those girls around him. I feel like I should have that but I’m basically secluded, I don’t see people. I don’t like people too much, they don’t interest me, they bore me, annoy me, so I’m better off by myself with my cat. With Peter Berlin, I created many good images and I’m quite happy and content with that but I could certainly see myself on a greater platform with greater influence.

“I live like an old lady. I take care of my cat and plants. I go to the bench in the park and watch the dogs and feed the pigeons. That is the legacy of Peter Berlin” – Peter Berlin

TS: What is your relationship with Peter like now?

PB: I have now completely abandoned Peter. He’s gone. It’s like I had a son who went out in the world and I don’t have any contact with him any more. I had some contact with him recently when I did some drugs but I don’t take drugs anymore because my body can’t tolerate it. So Peter is gone forever now. I only have the memories. It’s like you’re an actor and you get a role as a young guy and you get very famous for that role, then you never get another role. You had a big experience as a child star but then it’s over.

TS: Are you happy in your own skin?

PB: Today, I avoid looking in the mirror because I’m horrified, I say, ‘Who in the hell is that?’ I still feel young like Peter Berlin but without the ability to live that character. I blend into the street. Once in a while someone recognises me but it’s a done deal. Now I think a lot, and I wish I could write my memoirs but I can’t write. I don’t have a ghostwriter. The best thing would be to find a collaborator. I’d like to have someone who believes in my ideas. I feel I don’t use my talents to the best advantage. I feel like a peasant who has an acre of land but not the horses to plough the ground, so I’m letting it be. I miss Peter very much. I’ve lost that feeling of sexual energy completely because it was always connected with drug-taking. I don’t feel feminine or masculine any more. I live like an old lady. I take care of my cat and plants. I go to the bench in the park and watch the dogs and feed the pigeons. That is the legacy of Peter Berlin.

Peter Berlin: Icon, Artist, Photosexual is published by Damiani.

The book launches with a book signing and champagne reception on November 21, 2019, from 6–8pm, at 400 Bleecker Street, New York, NY 10014.

A version of this article appeared in the A/W19 issue of Another Man.