“Behind every great man, stands a great woman”. This is a proverb we might have heard many times in our lives. I had the pleasure and opportunity to meet a woman who stood behind not one, but four very talented men. These four men easily influenced the world of Rock ‘n Roll. Their band name is synonymous with their makeup and costumes. Their introduction to a packed house of fans has been, “You wanted the best, you got the best!”. KISS, made up by Bass guitar Gene Simmons, Lead Vocals Paul Stanley, Lead guitar Ace Frehley, and Drums Peter Criss, certainly had the best costume designer: Maria Contessa. Who is Maria Contessa? Well she is a resident of Oakland Park and she is a woman who was at the right place, at the right time
La Contessa from Latin America
From the moment I heard her name, I was immediately intrigued by it: CONTESSA. How could you ignore such a name? While working in theatrical design and looking for work, Maria was asked to model for an event. She was transformed in hair and makeup, wearing a dress she designed. During a photo shoot, people kept asking “Who is that woman?” Her striking looks prompted someone to say she was La Contessa from Latin America. Recalling the memories, Maria said, “The name put me into good moments.” It brought her opportunities and success. People liked the name and then saw her talent. Through laughter she said, “Nobody even knows my real name!”
Maria’s best work is seen in the clothes she designed for KISS. But how did it all start? I was surprised at how her story started out. Originally, she wanted to study Anthropology. But like many young people starting out, she needed work. Maria met a German woman with a small atelier shop. Maria ran the errands and took care of small jobs. The owner of the shop told Maria she only survived [the War] because she could sew. During the Holocaust, this woman would sew uniforms for the German soldiers, and in turn the soldiers spared her life. On Maria’s birthday, she gave Maria a full tuition to go to fashion school. Once again, she was in the right place at the right time.
A Journey with KISS
Maria was married and living in the Village, in New York, running a leather store. Her eyes smiled as she said, “One day, in 1973, a guy came into the store and introduced himself, saying he had a band, and needed costumes made for them.” That guy was Gene Simmons. She and her then husband spoke to Gene about what he wanted in terms of costumes. He asked them if they were interested, and the rest we could say is Rock ‘n Roll history.
Maria drew her inspiration from the leather. Lycra still wasn’t available, and she already ran a leather shop. She says at first the costumes were all leather, and as time passed, the costumes evolved into other materials. Maria says, “If you look back at the first costumes to the costumes now, they aren’t much different. We just improved them.” Maria drew her inspiration from her consultations with Gene and the rest of the band. Gene’s outfit, probably the most iconic one, was The Bat Suit. Ace’s costume was always space themed, and Paul’s was always meant to be sexy. Peter’s costume was all about the drama! The Bat Suit may be the most iconic suit, but Maria is most proud of Ace’s Space outfit.
An Adventure with KISS and Others
Ms. Contessa has not toured the world with KISS, but she did accompany the band in Canada. What was supposed to be one day of travel and consultation with the band, turned into a 7-day trip around Canada with the group. For this trip, the band told her they needed her through that tour to help with costuming. She was taken on a whirlwind trip flying in their private airplane. She felt incredible going to dinners, breakfasts, and rooming with Paul Stanley because the hotel did not have a room for her! She claimed she did not want to go home!
She recalls one funny story where people handling the costumes took 2 exact boots of the same foot for Gene! It was for a TV interview and Gene managed to fit his foot in the boot. Luckily, the camera was not focused on his feet. Luckily, neither Maria nor the members of the band have ever had any wardrobe malfunctions.
Maria Contessa has also worked with other famous names like Billy Idol, Cher, Rod Stewart, and has an acquaintance with Diana Ross. She also made designs and clothing for Versace. But she does not limit herself to only famous people. Some of her clients are also fans who wish for her to make replicas of the costumes. She specialized in the very famous cuffs worn by Ace Frehly with his Space Suit.
As my time with Ms. Contessa was ending, I asked her what she wants to leave behind as her legacy. Without hesitation, Maria said that the legacy she wants to be known and recognized for is having been there with and for KISS from the beginning. She is proud of her time and history with the band. She is KISS history. I smiled as she recalled her stories and referred to them as “the boys”. I asked Maria if she had any words of wisdom for young people today that may be going into fashion and design. Her answer was so simple, yet loaded with love: “Be true to yourself, but try to do what you like and believe in yourself. For me, a lot of it was being at the right place, at the right time.”
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About the Author
Anamaria Moreno is an Elementary school teacher. Born in Costa Rica, but mostly raised in Venezuela, Ms. Moreno came to South Florida in 1996 where she has resided ever since. She graduated from Lynn University, with a degree in Early Childhood Education. She has taught in the classroom for 18 years, most recently teaching the first grade for the past seven years. Before becoming a teacher, Ms. Moreno was involved in volunteer work with the Child Life Specialists Department at Miami Children’s Hospital. She also served as member of the Board of Directors for “A Caring Pregnancy Center” in Miami. Most recently, Ms. Moreno has taught at an elementary school in Oakland Park. Ms. Moreno also teaches ESOL to Adults in Night School. When Ms. Moreno is not in the classroom, she enjoys baking custom specialty cakes, face painting, and enjoys creating Arts and Crafts.
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