A Model at 70: Bring on the Cameras

By Witchel, Alex | Generations, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

A Model at 70: Bring on the Cameras


Witchel, Alex, Generations


How does an older model ftel about her image?

When I told friends that I was meeting Carmen Dell'Orefice on the occasion of her both birthday, I heard a lot of wailing. She can't possibly be 70, they insisted of the model who goes by her first name. She is so gorgeous, so thin, so perfect, there's not a woman alive who can match her.

Maybe not. But when I arrived at her Park Avenue apartment, I found a very familiar, rather human New York type, in spite of her beauty: a single woman (this one thrice-divorced) who's been up, down, rich, poor and yes, still here. The kind you see, when times are bad, sitting at the corner coffee shop pulling dollar bills from her Kelly bag. The kind, when times are good, who makes an entrance at Le Cirque wearing an important man and an important diamond.

Although her golden years have proved a boon to her career-she is featured in Banana Republic's fall print campaign, and she has a cameo in Woody Allen's "Curse of the Jade Scorpion" -Carmen, it turns out, has many of the same concerns as other women her age. During the past year, she has had to turn down assignments because her go-year-old mother, a former Broadway dancer, has been ill. So, between shooting Saks Fifth Avenue's "Live a Little" ads and being flown to Paris by John Galliano to walk the runway for Christian Dior, Carmen closed up her mother's apartment and moved her into the Actor's Home in Englewood, N.J. In addition, she herself has suffered a bout of pneumonia, and required surgery to repair an old foot injury, which had been aggravated by arthritis and a stress fracture.

"People shouldn't look at me and think life is one big piece of glamour," she said, peering over tortoiseshell glasses pushed down her narrow nose. "That's the marketing, the spin. Life is challenging. But I have courage, strength and enough good health to see the positive."

We settled into her overstuffed living room, a jumble of past lives lived, from the mishmash of pictures covering every inch of wall to the baskets of miniature liqueur bottles collected from international hotel rooms to quirky antique lamps shedding bits of light that never directly touch her face. She wore beige pants and a pink shirt with someone else's initials.

"My best friends husband left me his shirts after he died since we wore the same size," she said. "His jackets fit me perfectly. You couldn't buy that fabric or tailoring today."

The phone rang, loudly and frequently, and rather than let the machine pick up, she jumped to answer it each time. "In case it's my mother," she said.

It was hard to get her to focus. She is tall, 5-foot-- 9, her hands and feet are long, and in motion she seemed to be all elbows and knees. She brought to mind a rather elegant pelican.

"I'm loath to do interviews" she said, finally sitting back down. "What comes out is generally not what I meant or thought I was saying or thought they were asking."

You'd think she'd be used to it after 57 years in the business. Discovered on a crosstown bus in New York City by a photographer's wife, she was featured in a seven-page layout in Vogue at 13; at 16 she was on its cover. She has posed for Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Norman Parkinson, Horst and Salvador Dali; she was even a Breck girl in the 1950's. But she says her looks were never in fashion until recently "I was the Kate Moss of my day," she said, "atypical of what the public wanted, which was Brigitte Bardot. I was always tall, skinny and angular. But now, society has bought 55 years of my marketing "Carmen" and I'm considered beautiful. I hope that empowers older women. We have to program the mind of the public that age is not ugly. Age is just age. Wake up, American children, and stop listening to other people's voices. Know yourself, be true to yourself and make a contribution. It took me half my life to know myself. I listened to other people's opinions and took them as gospel. …

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