Before Lady Gaga and her dress made of meat came into his life, Sergio Vigilato worked quietly in his taxidermy shop in Burbank, where he also crafted guitars and sang classic rock tunes.
But when word got out that he'd been the craftsman who preserved the pop star's iconic ensemble for display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Vigilato was unexpectedly thrust into a worldwide spotlight, his name now linked with Lady Gaga, flank steak and haute couture.
"I get calls now from all over the world," said Vigilato, 66. "They all want to know how I did it."
The asymmetrically styled dress, shoes, purse and headpiece - all made of raw beef - became an instant sensation when Lady Gaga wore them to the 2010 MTV Music Video Awards show. The ensemble drew curiosity about the performer's message, criticism from animal rights groups like PETA, and kudos from Time magazine, which named it the top fashion statement of 2010.
In June, the dress was unveiled again - this time preserved and displayed - at music's Hall of Fame in Cleveland, as part of its exhibit titled Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power.
But Vigilato wasn't credited for his work to ensure the ensemble looked as it did when when Gaga wore it the first time.
"My friends told me to let it go," Vigilato said, "but there was something inside of me that said, `Sergio, you have to do something."'
So, he called reporters himself, hoping to tell the story of how he
worked for nearly four months to make those slices of beef look as fresh as when they were sent to the designer from Palermo Deli in Granada Hills.A self-described oddball taxidermist, Vigilato has long tanned and stuffed the pelts of beloved pets, and the game hunted by the rich and famous.
Inside his Isabel Street studio, where antlers hang from the ceiling of his work space and tools of the trade line the walls, Vigilato has reproduced scenarios of animals, such as large-mouth bass that appear to be jumping from a lake and antelope drinking from a river.
"I'm working on three pitbulls right now," he said, holding up his hands like claws and exposing his teeth to imitate the dogs' fierce expression."Those guys are hard dogs to work on."
But Lady Gaga's meat dress was a whole other challenge. News reports even jokingly called it a "rare" project for a taxidermist.
When officials from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame contacted him weeks after the MTV Video Music Awards, they asked him if he knew who Lady Gaga was, and if he had seen her meat dress.
"I said no, I haven't heard," Vigilato recalled, but that wasn't going to stop him. As the sole owner and operator of American
Taxidermy, Vigilato's slogan is: I can do anything if you can pay for it.And pay they did: $6,000 to preserve the one-of-a-kind outfit designed by Franc Fernandez that Lady Gaga wore at least three times.
Vigilato said by the time he received the dress, it was in a sorry state. Its form had sagged and the meat had started to decompose. To his dismay, it had been kept in an air-conditioned apartment rather than a freezer.
"There was bacteria," he said, "and it was blue."
Vigilato first cured the meat, then froze the slices. He did this again and again, even buying similar cuts of flank steak to replace the ruined pieces.
A mannequin he'd asked the Hall of Fame to send as a mold for the dress never arrived, so he bought one on his own. This he dressed in fish-net stockings and a white thong panty similar to the one Gaga wore at the MTV show.
While he won't disclose the materials he used to rework and preserve the dress, Vigilato said reports that he used bleach, formaldehyde and detergent to kill the bacteria are untrue.
Born in Brazil, Vigilato said he was drawn as a child to working with his hands, learning from his parents and grandparents
He also formed a band, The Jet Blacks, which became popular in Brazil, he said, and the group released three albums.
And he liked adventure.
"I always loved to be in a jungle hunting the primitive way," he said. "I learned a lot of skills."
But then again, he says he had done many things, from living in the boonies of Alaska, where he fished and built his own cabin, to traveling to the South, where he performed music in a band.
Vigilato learned his current craft by persuading a taxidermist in Glendale to teach him. He said he felt at the time it was something he wanted to do.
His daughter, Ina Vigilato, said she admired her dad for following his heart.
"I thought it was great that my dad was chosen to preserve the dress because he's so artistic and professional and I knew he could do the work," said Ina, 32.
"It's so really cool that my dad was a part of this," she said. "He's been a hero to me all my life and I'm just honored he's my dad."
Meanwhile, Vigilato marvels at how his life and experiences somehow led him to the meat dress.
Though he's a musician who may never himself be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, at least his work is, through Lady Gaga.
"I'm not a man of science, but I am who I am," he said. "Like Lady Gaga, I was born this way."