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Here’s the full story of AVENUE’s April cover girl- Drena De Niro.
by Martin Marks
photographed by Juan Algarin
produced by Cricket Burns
Drena De Niro grew up living the Hollywood dream—in downtown New York—playing as a kid on film sets with her famous father, actor Robert De Niro. As with many celebrity offspring, gigs as a model, a DJ and an actor followed. After taking time off to be a mother, native New Yorker De Niro is back in the family business, this time as a producer getting ready to make a movie about one of the drug world’s most violent figures. Drena is definitely a chip off the De Niro block.
When one hears the name De Niro, one not only thinks of acting, but also of Hollywood royalty and New York City. Drena De Niro, daughter of actors Robert De Niro and Diahnne Abbott, is carrying on the family tradition. With a career trajectory that has included modeling, deejaying and acting, she’s gone from club kid to having a kid of her own.
“I came from a really creative bunch of people,” De Niro says matter-of-factly of her super famous family. “My grandparents were painters, my mother is a great actress. So, to me, I didn’t really see things the way the public saw stuff. It was just a group of wonderfully crazy, talented people who love each other, and who are doing the best they can.”
De Niro was born and raised in Manhattan; she grew up in the Village and in Tribeca, where she now lives with her seven-year-old son, Leandro. “Your home is your home, and I’ve always been really comfortable here,” she says. Though a New Yorker through and through, De Niro spent several years in Italy, first in Parma and then in Rome, where her father was working on—perhaps you’ve heard of it?—The Godfather Part II and later the film 1900, shot in Sicily and Trieste. “They were very happy years in my life,” she recalls. “There was a lot of traveling, and, for a young kid, it definitely implanted a comfort and a love of travel.” She chuckles, remembering being a kid on enormous movie sets. “It’s a good thing and a bad thing. I thought, when I had my son, that I’d want him to be a citizen of the world—but stability isn’t a bad thing either.”
As De Niro was entering elementary school, there was another move—this time to L.A. It required quite an adjustment for a kid who had grown accustomed to the community (and climate) often associated with a Manhattan childhood. “I was used to playing with my friends on the street. And we went back and forth during that time because all of the family were still in New York,” says De Niro. “For all I knew, we were living in Hawaii!” By the time she was a teenager, De Niro had made New York her (more or less) permanent base of operations. Known for her vivacious looks and daring downtown style, De Niro discovered that anything she wanted—whether it be in the world of fashion, modeling or music—was right at her fingertips. She found herself surrounded by talented role models who could grant her access to the fun and fast life of a pretty, young up-and-comer in the city.
De Niro started modeling at New York Fashion Week, working with many of New York’s top designers, though two hold a special place in her heart. “Patrick Kelly and Willi Smith were the first that really looked out for me and put me in their shows,” she says. “They were just really sweet, wonderful people in my life.” Soon, she was a model for Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood, and a contributing editor at Mademoiselle. She started to walk the runway in Giorgio Armani’s shows and became friendly with the brand’s creative director. Then Armani launched their hip, young line, Emporio Armani, and when their first American store took hold on Fifth Avenue, it was only natural that De Niro—with her family’s Italian roots and her feet firmly planted in New York’s creative culture—should become the downtown muse for the fashion label. “I was sort of the girl about town anyway, so I came up as somebody they wanted to represent the brand,” De Niro recounts. “I coordinated the music for all of the shows, all of the stores, all of the events.”
Then, as now, being a part of the fashion world went hand-in-hand with downtown nightlife. “One thing about being a teen in New York is that you’re in clubs before you get your driver’s permit,” De Niro says. But for her, there was something more to nightlife than a love of going out. “I always liked records, and I’ve always collected them. So I would get records of everything I was hearing in the clubs.” For her 17th birthday, De Niro asked for turntables and a mixer. The next thing she knew, friends were coming over to listen to her spin. Soon, those friends included D.J.s who then started inviting her to play the occasional show. Back when one could still find a porterhouse or a sirloin in the Meatpacking District, the then-reigning emperor of New York’s nightlife, Rudolf, decided to hold a New Year’s Eve
celebration at one of his latest venues, a club located in a five-floor warehouse on Tenth Avenue at 13th Street. That mega-disco was called Mars, and everyone who was anyone submitted demo tapes to see who would get the coveted spot behind the mixer in the D.J. booth on the big night. De Niro, not expecting much, sent in her own demo. The promoter listened to it and liked it. When he got wind of who she was, and that she was a girl (a rarity among D.J.s at that time), De Niro got the job on the spot. From there, she started spinning records all over the globe. The time she spent in clubs was great, but it definitely wasn’t a sustainable lifestyle—or the long-term goal she had in mind. In Paris, the morning after she deejayed the wedding celebration of Stephanie Seymour and Peter Brant, De Niro thought to herself, “I just can’t do this anymore. I can’t be up at 5 a.m. in the morning all the time.” Looking back now, she says, “It was great for me. I met great people, and it was a really fun way of staying in the business. But I knew at a certain point that I had to condense. I knew that I wasn’t going to have a long shelf life as a model, and it wasn’t really for me.”
The next step was obvious. As a child, De Niro had worked as an extra on some of her father’s films, and being on set had always been a natural fit. “I knew that, really, what I wanted to do was act. What struck me was the work aspect,” says De Niro. “Everyone was really committed and dedicated to the work.” So she decided to focus her creative energies on the film world. She got her first part as a receptionist in the film Grace of My Heart. Smaller roles led to larger ones, which eventually transitioned into starting her own production company. “I was more inclined to get involved as a producer,” De Niro explains. “I didn’t really want to just be told what to do; I also wanted to tell people what to do,” she laughs. “That’s more my nature.” In 2001, she made her first foray behind the camera as the director of the short documentary film Girls and Dolls. And though she was passionate about the direction her work was taking, it was time for her most creative calling yet—to start a family. When talking about her son, De Niro can’t help but gush about her role as a mother. “Kids really put everything in perspective. Suddenly, certain things that one would consider so important are not important at all,” she says. “Life definitely changes, but it’s a great change.”
De Niro took several years off, settling down in the Tribeca neighborhood she had always called home and where her father Robert is considered a pioneering real estate kingpin. Though her primary occupation was raising her son, she became the spokesperson for
the Kageno orphan sponsorship program in 2006. The organization, founded by a friend of De Niro’s, develops infrastructure—water filtration projects, orphanages, schools—in towns throughout East Africa. “It’s seven years old and it’s doing great,” De Niro reports proudly of the organization. “We’ve completed two programs in Kenya and now we’re doing something in Rwanda.”
Now that her son’s older, she’s gotten back into the movie-making game, re-launching her production company, Daredevil Films and Television, with a film project in the works based on the violent life of Colombian drug lord Griselda Blanco, who has been called the “female Scarface” and “La Madrina” (The Godmother). Sounds like a film her father would be perfect to co-star in (Blanco named her youngest son Michael Corleone after the character in The Godfather). De Niro plans on attending the Cannes Film Festival to re-introduce her company to the public, doing so the same year her father will be heading the Cannes jury.
Intertwined with her work are her philosophies on motherhood and the ever-changing cityscape. “I always wanted my son to have a life exactly like mine growing up, but now that I’m a mother, I know it’ll be different. When I was young, there were things that you never thought would go, like CBGBs,” she laments about the now-closed seminal rock ‘n’ roll venue. “So many places that felt like they were a part of the fabric of the city, and of growing up in New York, are gone now. It’s very difficult, but things change and you have to get used to it. I grew up in an extremely creative place at a time when young artists could live in Manhattan.” But no matter how the city’s changed, De Niro is firm in her conviction that New York remains a place where people come to work hard and make things happen. “You can be successful and fulfilled by sticking to your guns,” she says confidently. “It’s about discipline, focus and perseverance—and these are the things that have always inspired me.”