KLM Podcasts – Episode 5 –  Redemption in India

KLM Podcasts – Episode 5 – Redemption in India


This is audio from a vacation
film of two special people hanging out on a
beach in Greece. This is Ries van Rijn. Smile! That’s beautiful. And this is the famous
fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier. How do I stop it? Where? You say stop and it stops. No. No. It’s the 90s. Ries and Jean Paul
are friends, lovers and co-workers.. And that’s actually
kind of amazing, because… they both come from two totally different worlds. Gaultier is… well he’s… Gaultier! The epitome of
outrageous outspoken, Paris fashion. Ries van Rijn by comparison is from a small conservative fishing village in the Netherlands. And this.. is Ries’ sister Vera. We have a special
connection. Ries was supposed
to grow up get married to a
local girl and become a hairdresser. Instead, he became a fashion model Amsterdam trans-icon and a famous fixture in Europe’s gay scene. He partied with Madonna had cocktails with
Freddie Mercury. You may not know
his name but Ries was the
face and the body of many massive international
ad-campaigns. But… let’s just push the
pause button here. This story is not about Ries or even Jean Paul Gaultier. This story is about Ries’ sister… Vera. Vera van Rijn was more than
Ries’ sister. She was his confidant and the keeper of his secrets. It’s a story that
finally takes us all the way to New Delhi a hectic polluted but beautiful place. Smells, colors and
sound abound. And…. it’s a place Vera would go to to get her life back…. Hi, I’m Jonathan Groubert and this is The Journey. The Journey is an
original podcast from KLM Royal
Dutch Airlines where we meet
extraordinary people whose lives are
transformed by travel. Vera van Rijn lives
in Volendam a small fishing village in the Netherlands just a 30 minute drive and a world away from the capital
Amsterdam. This is the place where she
and Ries grew up. Now, Vera’s apartment is exceptionally tidy in that Dutch way. The walls are white and there’s a collection of
angels and other Catholic paraphernalia neatly positioned around
the windows. But there’s one
small corner with brightly colored
bells and elephants and a
traditional drawing. Souvenirs of India. Vera only just got
back from there a few months ago. She’s in her early sixties and has gone
abroad before but the trip to India was different. This was the closing chapter
to a personal epic that started in the 1970s. Vera and Ries came from a big family. My father and mother
have nine children. Vera and I spoke in English but as you can hear she doesn’t speak
it every day and often falls
back into Dutch. Nine kids? Which one were you? Ah, number three. You were third? Yeah. The first girl. The first girl. And Ries was which one? Ruud Sam Vera Marian Frieda Ries. Six. He was the sixth? Yeah. Vera is ten years older
than her brother and she practically
raised him. Everyone agrees Ries’ blond curls and gentle character made him different. Really different. I bought my first lingerie. You know bra and a… And an underwear? Yeah. And my youngest brother he… he do this [sound effect]. He made a slingshot from your panties? Yeah. He make fun of it and I come to
my bedroom and Ries had my underwear on. So I go to my mother and I said to my mother ‘ma… I don’t know…’ And my mother says: ‘Sweetie… I give him too
few hormones’. Vera says that when
Ries was four he would parade
around in his sister’s dresses and stiletto heels. He loved to go clothes
shopping with Vera sparking a lifelong interest in fashion and fabrics. When Ries was 10 he asked his
older sister if there are men who love other men. Neither Vera nor Ries even knew the word ‘gay’. So how old were you when you realised he was gay? I think twenty-three. You were twenty-three? And you still didn’t
have a word for gay? No. As Ries grew up Volendam became less like home. People whispered “We pray he will be
normal someday.” His mother even
encouraged him to… find a nice girl. Vera, in the meantime became a married
mother of two. She cleaned houses
in Amsterdam several times a week for some extra cash… Ries came with her to
Amsterdam one time and had his mind… blown. Amsterdam is cosmopolitan liberal and free. Gay men walk the streets openly holding hands. He didn’t see that
in Volendam. It was just like
a sponge. He saw funny people he saw gay people. Unsurprisingly Ries started going
to Amsterdam a lot. Ries was eighteen. Then he go one night to Amsterdam. And then he go three
days in Amsterdam. And then he said to my mother ‘I go to live in Amsterdam’. And my mother thought ‘yeah.. that’s right’. He told me that he
want to be free. You got all
the gay bars. And he loved that. The freedom of the sex the drugs the transformations the dresses the underwears the everything. Ries moved in with a friend from the gay-scene and quickly became a fixture of the city’s nightlife. Some called late 1980s Amsterdam the gay capital of the world. The great chronicler of
Dutch street life the photographer
Ed van der Elsken asked Ries and his
close friends to pose for him. In one shot Ries casts a sultry
gaze into the camera. He seems perfectly at ease. Perfectly cool. This photo later would
symbolize this period in Amsterdam’s history: freewheeling, confident and totally unaware of what was about to happen. By this time Vera had become a prim and proper conservative Volendam housewife and mother. But she traveled to
Amsterdam everyday. A friend of Ries
gave her a job as a seamstress in a bespoke
clothing store that had a very specific.. clientele… So there was a
shop in Amsterdam Guappa. And it was in that time a very famous shop. They’re making clothes leather for girls but also for… Prostitute ways. Prostitutes? Naughty lingerie for… naughty people. Sexy bras and sexy pants from leather. They also made
crotchless panties. Yeah. I make also leather
trousers with not the backside in. So I make assless chaps. Vera loves her days away from her husband and kids in Volendam. She loves the gossip. The tales of nightlife the wild parties. It’s a glimpse into
Ries’ world. A place that’s extravagant and decadent. As for Ries he got a job in
a hair salon. He spent his days
cutting hair and he spent
his nights indulging in Amsterdam’s clubs. There are transvestites nudity leather wigs sex and drugs. Nothing is off limits. Ries and his friends’
home base was the notorious club Roxy. Joost van Bellen
deejayed at the Roxy and remembers Ries vividly. Ries was there a lot. I remember him
standing there with all kinds
of big names from fashion from London and Paris. The Roxy was a
place where lots of stars who
came to Amsterdam were designers or famous people would go. Stars had to be
the same like everybody else and everybody else was a star at the Roxy. There were lots of very famous people
hanging out there all of a sudden you would be standing next to Willie Nelson or football player soccer player Maradona or… remember Bono sitting besides the DJ booth. I remember… Boy George coming there Leigh Bowery the.. Club icon and… also Ries. Ries would pop
by Vera’s work to regale her with tales of his previous
night’s exploits. And then together they would indulge
in their mutual love of clothes and fabrics. Vera often worked with cashmere and silk from India. And Ries would talk
about his desire to go to this magical land. If we talk about India we talk about the clothes and the silk and the colours and the… yeah… of the people. Then Vera and Ries would dream about how
they would explore India… together… someday…. Cut to a chic street in the center
of Amsterdam. Ries is biking along when a door opens and a bleached blonde Frenchman rushes out. “Stop!” This was the French fashion designer and gay icon Jean Paul Gaultier and he was instantly… smitten. Gaultier had recently designed all the outfits for Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour. You may remember the infamous cone bustier. This pretty much made him the most celebrated fashion designer in the world! Ries worked at that time
in Amsterdam and he had a modelling
for Elegance. It’s a magazine and he was wearing a suit of Jean Paul Gaultier. This is Johan Wijker. He used to hang out
with Ries and his friends and remembers exactly how Gaultier and Ries met. And he was.. bicycling through the
Leidse street in Amsterdam and Jean Paul Gaultier was coincidentally in Amsterdam and… he talked to Ries. He just said hey, hello, hello, who are you? Vera says Gaultier took Ries out for dinner and they started dating. And they fell in love. He was too proud on it. He… What did he say to you? Oh and he was to the most beautiful hotels in Paris. And then he was in New York. And then he was to Milan and.. everything he told me. Yeah, he was in a dream world. In a dream world. Ries regularly traveled
to Paris to be with Gaultier. It was love. Ries also started
getting regular work as a fashion model for photoshoots and
catwalk shows. He traveled the world as Gaultier’s model muse and lover. And of course we tried to talk with Gaultier…. Well you can call
back tomorrow if you want. Okay, he is in a
meeting right now. Maybe I can take
a message? But… he never got back to us. Ries’ beauty and charm attracted attention everywhere they went. Ries even told
his housemate that Madonna said she was attracted to him although… she certainly must
have known Ries was gay. Ries would call Vera and tell her about
his adventures a couple of
times a week even when he
was abroad. She recalls the time Ries sat in a club next to the fashion model and mother of many of Mick Jagger’s children Jerry Hall. He told me he was once in New York and he was in a bar and just like nothing Jerry Hall comes sit with him on the table. And he said to me ‘I couldn’t nothing say. Jerry Hall. The most beautiful woman in the world.’ Johan Wijker was still
a student then. He and a group of friends often took the train to visit Ries in Paris. We were at Gare du Nord and we were picked up by a chauffeur and the car the Rolls Royce Cabriolet and we went through Paris to the shop of Jean Paul Gaultier. And then later on we met him and we went to a bar in the evening and Sophia Loren was there and all kind of French people I don’t know, but they were from cinema or artists or well.. a lot of models of course. Johan says Ries moved
effortlessly through this world of international stars. After Paris Ries arranged for
them to go to the Spanish island Ibiza where they ended
up at a rather exclusive party on a yacht. We were invited on
the VIP deck. So… there were the rich
and famous people. And at that time Freddy Mercury
was sitting there and Caroline of Monaco. And how did Ries
behave during this? Like a fish
in the water. Yeah. Yeah. He liked that life. Yeah. In 1993 Ries and a group of friends filmed a vacation on the Greek island of Mykonos. Gaultier was there. In the film they’re on a beach. A shirtless Gaultier embraces Ries from behind. They have the same short blonde cut. They’re laughing and joking. It’s intimate. Say “hello, hello! Stop! Stop! If I say stop, does it work? Ries was often
abroad these days but he always saw his sister when he came home. Vera says she gobbled up his stories vicariously enjoying his amazing glamorous life. He told me about
the people in Paris. He learned me a
lot on everything what’s going on. Vera is the only member of the family who got to hear all
the details about Ries’ jet set life. He couldn’t tell
my mother. You know, my mother calls Jean Paul Gaultier Jean Paul Koltrui. He brought also sometimes a beautiful scarf from Jean Paul Gaultier. A scarf? Yeah. But… she don’t care. And so as time passed Ries became a
semi-celebrity and was regularly seen in the gossip
sections of magazines with all kinds
of famous people.. He traveled the world. He saw a lot of countries. Except the one he and his sister always dreamt of… Nevertheless it seemed like a time of endless happiness. Until… rather suddenly everything changed. A.I.D.S. AIDS. The most frightening initials
in America today. Over the last three
or four years we have seen every one of our
worst predictions confirmed. It’s mysterious it’s deadly and it’s baffling
medical science. A quiet immune
deficiency syndrome. The ravages of HIV/AIDS was reaching its peak
in the mid-90s. Amsterdam’s gay scene was hit hard. Johan Wijkers remembers how
the years of carefree partying transformed into a dark age. Another friend of mine
was living in Miami. And he said there is a strange
illness in America. Well, it’s called AIDS and all the gay people getting AIDS. Some people get also ill
in The Netherlands. Some of our friends or people you knew got ill and most of
the time at that time they were ashamed and you didn’t see
them anymore because they went
back to the parents. DJ Joost van Bellen has similar memories. All of a sudden there were
more and more people missing at the dance floor. Sometimes, I think during those days
losing all those people and was like being
in a war situation. It was very scary and doomy but.. on the other hand when going out at night it was all about
escapism and dancing on the on the
edge of the volcano as we say in Dutch. Vera still working in the boutique also saw how the
virus slowly gripped Amsterdam’s gay scene. People were infected or dying. And she worried
about her brother. I said often to Ries ‘please take care. You were worried. Yeah. I knew that he has a free life sex life was also free. Then Ries was struck by
a bout of tuberculosis. A routine blood
test revealed the obvious.. Yeah he must take
a blood test. And we get the results and then I saw HIV. He was mad of me. And because he was mad I knew it. I was afraid the way he’s going to die. That’s what I was afraid. When Ries finally
confided in Vera that he was HIV positive he made her
promise not to tell anyone. Especially the family. Every time I go away then he said to me ‘promise me don’t say anything at home’. And I promised. And I could understand it too. Why do you think he didn’t
want anybody to know? Ashame. What was he ashamed of? He lived his
life so freely. Yeah, but in that time, nobody says ‘I have AIDS’. Ries was afraid
that his family, friends and acquaintances
in Volendam would avoid him. That he wouldn’t be
allowed to hold his nephews and nieces. Vera watched Ries
grow increasingly desperate: He tried homeopathy herbal mixtures whatever he could get
to slow down the advancing virus. And when her family
would ask about Ries she did what her brother
told her to do. She would say “Oh he’s fine jetting around the world living the high life…” I lied a lot. My sister-in-law ask often, ‘how goes Ries?’ Then I say ‘oh yeah he’s now in New York.’ Meanwhile Ries’ health declined. At first, he could still work. But he quickly lost weight and was constantly coughing. He stopped working and quit traveling. The relationship with
Jean Paul Gaultier ended.. And Ries still hadn’t
told anyone but Vera that
he was sick. He even tried to
rekindle his old life in the Amsterdam
night clubs. But he grew weaker. His liver was damaged. And… by the end of 1994 there was no hiding it anymore. His roommate
brought Ries to the Prinsengracht Hospital. Ries’ condition shocked the staff. As for Vera her first visit with
Ries in the hospital was very confrontational. What she saw was… Fear. He was afraid for everything. Everything. Ries still didn’t want
his family to know he was in the hospital. Vera says that even when it was clear
the end was coming he told Vera not to tell his mother. Do you think Ries knew he was approaching the end at any point? Yeah. He knew himself. And he never asked
to see his mother? No. Ries.. was dying. Vera visited him
almost every day. They’d talk and when they would part Ries would always say… ‘Bye love.’ They were the last words Vera ever heard her brother say. One morning the hospital called her. Ries had died in the night. He had been in
the hospital for only three weeks. Prinsengracht Ziekenhuis
called me: “Your brother is dead.” This was the
start of the worst period
in Vera’s life. Not only had she
just lost her brother her dearest friend but it fell to her to tell the family
about Ries’ death. And then I must
go to my mother. My mother was in shock. It quickly became
clear to the family that Ries had
died from AIDS and that Vera.. had been lying to
them about it. How exactly did she react? Shock. Mad. Who was she mad at? At me. What a terrible position
to be in, Vera. Yeah. To keep your promise to him and to in a sense betray her. Yeah. It was for them a terrible shock. Ries’ funeral was a
clash of two worlds. Small town laborers mingled with big
city transvestites in short skirts and
pink corsets. Dutch society
figures attended. It was an open
casket wake and Ries had yellow roses in his hands. Vera took the roses and saved them. Vera, in the meantime had been ostracized by the family for keeping Ries’ secret. The worse thing I was so alone. Nobody… nobody… nobody helps me. I was so alone. To deal with the
loneliness and grief Vera started drinking. When it was Ries’ death I began to drink. I drink a lot. I was five times a year a week drunk. And then I feel sorry and then I was three months sober and then ping and something happens. Then I go to drink. Why were you drinking? To forget. The pain and also the missing of Ries. Years pass. Vera and her husband divorced. She had little contact with her family. Vera’s children grew up and moved out making her isolation complete. Vera says she self-medicated with alcohol to manage her alienation. And then Vera reached her absolute low point in 2016. Amsterdam’s Stedelijk
Museum held a retrospective
of photographs by Ed van der Elsken. They plastered the
city with posters of that remarkable photo he
took of Ries and his friend on that day in the late 1980s. On a visit to Amsterdam Vera found herself confronted
by her brother staring at her from every corner. I am often in Amsterdam and everywhere I came I saw pictures of Ries and his friend. She wandered through
the city and found herself in front
of the former building of the Prinsengracht Hospital. The place where Ries died. I was so in shock that I saw the picture of Ries and everything came back. I was complete mad. When I go to sleep I got mad of
the nightmares. Vera went on a bender… Then I’d been fourteen days drunk. Vera’s son was alarmed and got professional help. The psychiatrist made
a quick diagnosis. You have PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder. Yes. I want to go to a psychologist. And he helped me. How? He listen. He said to me ‘there’s nothing
wrong with you. You must move
on with your life. Give Ries a place.’ The therapy helped. Vera realized she needed
to do something to exorcise two
decades of unrelenting loss
and grief. To do this she needed to take… a trip. Not just any trip: THE trip. The one she and Ries
always dreamed about. She needed to go… to India. Why? Forget him. Go on. And what I have to do was to go to India. Because we want to
see that together. I thought to myself ‘I’m now fit. I do it and I close it off’. But why the trip to India? To prove myself that I could it. I will make a new start. You actually were
sort of imagining who you were
going to be when you
came back. And if I can go to
India in my own then I can go further
with my life.. I must go on. Vera realized she needed
to do this alone and to do
it right now in her early 60s while she was
still fit enough. She booked a
trip to New Delhi and got on the plane. I sit there and it was something in the air. You know, the plane goes woah, woah, woah. And I thought to myself ‘when I do this in my own to India then I can do anything when I go back’. At last the moment arrived. The moment she and
Ries had dreamed of: she.. was in India. I.. go to bed at
nine o’clock. I wake up at
six o’clock. Every minute
of the day.. I’ve seen everything. It was great. What was the.. highlights? The people. They all laughing they waving they are.. friendly. The beauty of the.. temples. The shops in Delhi. With all the lace with all the.. beautiful fabrics. Everything.. is beautiful. Vera was physically
alone in India but Ries was with
her in spirit.. Not as a haunted,
painful memory but as a companion. I thought to myself I did it. After all those troubles. It was a relief. I was proud that I can do that. I was proud of myself. And then I thought… what have Ries thought of this? He loves it. Was that the moment that you let go of Ries.. Yeah. there? You have your life.. before India and you have your life after India. Yeah. India changed my life a lot. Vera has been completely sober since the trip. She’s taken up painting mostly religious icons. She looks after
her granddaughter and is taking
Spanish lessons. Vera’s even planning a new trip to Varanasi in India. Devout Hindu’s cremate
their loved ones along the ghats that line the holy river Ganges. And remember the roses Vera took from Ries’s funeral? She’s bringing
them with her to finally put Ries to rest in the land of
his dreams. And then I bring the roses in Varanasi. You’re going to put the three
roses in the Ganges? Yeah. I still have them. Three yellow roses. Vera van Rijn. You’ve been listening
to The Journey. An original podcast
brought to you by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. For more background
on this story and to see that wonderful
photo of Ries by Ed van der Elsken go to podcast.klm.com. If you liked this story subscribe and review us
on Apple Podcasts. It helps other listeners find this podcast. I’m Jonathan Groubert.

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