In the April issue of Harper’s Bazzar, I did a story on a new documentary from the filmmaker and photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders on the idea of ageless beauty. He had spoken to some of the world’s most iconic faces: Jerry Hall, who we both agreed was one of our favorites; Patti Hansen, who I wrote about in the December issue of Bazzar; and Beverly Johnson, the first black woman to be on the cover of Vogue are just some of them women we discussed. There was a fabulous group photo, which actually inspired the entire project, and then we picked three of our favorites — China Mechado, Christie Brinkley and Isabella Rossellini — to get their take on their careers, on their own concept of beauty, and what it means to be considered a beautiful face today. My story, along with my interviews with these three lovely ladies, are below.
To make his latest documentary, renowned portrait photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders was simply in the right place at the right time. Specifically, a supermodel-packed party in 2009 at the New York pad of seminal hairdresser Harry King. “I said I’d go for five minutes, but when I walked in I was floored by all these gorgeous women in the same room,” he recalls. “It looked like a Charlie ad come to life. And I thought, This would be the most amazing group shot.”
He did it–and he was right. The resulting image—a portrait of the biggest faces from the 1950s through the ’80s, including Beverly Johnson, Carol Alt, Cheryl Tiegs, and Patti Hansen—sums up what beauty meant in America in the latter part of the 20th century. “I was so inspired by these women, I thought it would make an even better documentary,” says Greenfield-Sanders. “You wanted to hear what these beautiful faces had to say.”
So he made About Face: The Supermodels, Then and Now, which will air on HBO this summer. “They’re all survivors,” he says of his muses. “They defined beauty for their generations. And they have the most fabulous personalities.”
On-screen, Jerry Hall, 55, reminisces about her first job at a Texas Dairy Queen, and how her mother sent her off to the French Riviera with a suitcase of homemade dresses copied from the Frederick’s of Hollywood catalogue to be discovered. The iconic Carmen Dell’Orefice, 80, admitted that, when she began her career in 1946, models were thought to be “working girls,” while now they are considered businesswomen. Marisa Berenson, 65, the famed ’70s beauty and a granddaughter of Elsa Schiaparelli, “told us regret was a useless emotion,” Greenfield-Sanders says.
Shooting these cover girls was an education for the photographer, whose portraits have been exhibited everywhere from the Smithsonian to London’s Saatchi Collection. “These women are complex creatures; they’re smart women who survived in a tough business,” he says. “In front of the camera they come alive. But more important, they’re beautiful on the inside and out.”
Another tip he picked up: Never skip a party. If he hadn’t gone to King’s house (and, yes, King did the hair in these portraits), he wouldn’t have made the film. “So that’s the moral of the story: Go to the party if there will be beautiful women there. They’ll inspire you.”
I was happy to be a part of this documentary because I was curious about what had happened to the other models. I wanted to hear about girls like Carol Alt, Beverly Johnson, and the other people I’d lost touch with.
I do miss modeling. In fact, I miss it terribly. But it’s the same problem in film: There are fewer roles for older women. I do think that there are women of a certain age who are in better shape now. There wasn’t an emphasis on women’s fitness when I was young, even with actresses. My mom [Ingrid Bergman] exercised at home every morning for 20 minutes. That was it. She wasn’t like me. I exercise every day for at least an hour, and on weekends I try to do two hours—everything from yoga to swimming to Zumba—but I don’t do anything too strenuous because I’m almost 60.
As for plastic surgery and injectables like Botox, some days I wake up and say, “Well, they have this new technology, why not use it?” And some days I feel the opposite: “Why don’t we accept what is natural?” I don’t think I’ll do it. It’s too late. My mother once told me that growing older was the only way to have a long life. So my attitude is, of course we are aging. And it’s natural, and it’s beautiful.
China Machado, 82
I was born to be a model. I don’t mean that physically because, as Dick [Avedon] once told me, “You’ll never make a lot of money in this industry because you’re too special.” But like models now, from an early age I was accustomed to moving a lot. I was born in Shanghai in 1929 and lived there till I was 16. We were forced out [during the Japanese occupation], and then I lived between Argentina and Peru before I came to Europe.
I fell in love with a bullfighter, Luis Miguel Dominguín, which was a very big scandal. My family didn’t speak to me for 15 years. But I don’t regret it. He was 27 and gorgeous, like Mick Jagger. In Paris I sang in a nightclub, and I met Hubert de Givenchy and started to work in his atelier. There were two types of models in the early ’50s: photographic models and runway models, which is what I was. It was different then. I would work with a designer for three months, as they would create dresses specifically for me. It was couture. I made $100 a month, and I was the highest-paid model in Europe at the time. I had a very distinctive walk.
In September 1958, I arrived in New York. Diana Vreeland cast me in a group fashion show, which I opened wearing a fabulous Balenciaga dress. Dick saw me, and the next thing I knew I was in his studio. I worked exclusively with Dick and Bazaar for the next three years. I stopped in 1962 because, frankly, I couldn’t give a damn. A model had so much to worry about: We had to get our own hair done and do our own makeup. I was happy to become a fashion editor at Bazaar [from 1962 to 1972].
I eat all the time. My favorite food is rice, and I eat it at least once a day. I’m always active. Perhaps that’s what keeps me in shape—I’m always moving. In 1972 I was on the cover of Bazaar, and I said the same thing: I don’t exercise, I don’t diet, and I dye my own hair. People thought I was lying. But it was true then and it’s true now.
Christie Brinkley, 58
I must say, when I look back on my career, I feel slightly cheated. Ha! Most of my editorial happened in the ’80s, and that is definitely not my aesthetic. I remember thinking, “Do my shoulders really need to be that big? And my hair?” I just joined Facebook last year, and people started posting pictures I hadn’t seen in ages, and some of it’s just really funny.
Even though it wasn’t really my style, I did get to work with legends. I did several covers of Bazaar with Francesco Scavullo, and working with him was fantastic. You would go into his studio, and there would be a big umbrella light with a string tied to the center of it. He would touch the string to your nose, and you just knew that, bathed in Scavullo’s light, you looked the most beautiful you ever could.
I was discovered when I lived in Paris when I was 19. I was living as a struggling artist, and I didn’t have a telephone or even running water. An American photographer saw me, and asked me to pose for him. Eventually I did, and he took me to an agency. I was mildly curious but I didn’t want to leave Paris. Finally, on a trip home to California, I met Eileen Ford. I had done a few jobs by then and skipped town on a little vacation, which the clients thought was a bargaining tool. So, unbeknownst to me, I created a demand. That was a good lesson to learn: Fashion people want what is elusive.
I’ve had a long career, even though for the last 25 years the press has referred to me as “the former supermodel.” It’s, like, Jeez, give a girl a break. They called me that when I was making a very nice living as a model, even before I branched out. A few things have changed in modeling. For one, we can become brands now. Before, you were just a girl, or a clothes hanger, but now you can have a name. You’re a real person, which is nice.