''I've never dieted, never exercised, I eat like a pig and I drink - mainly vodka," declares China Machado, putting a Parliament to her lips before adding, somewhat superfluously: "I still smoke, too." If ever evidence were needed that it really is all in the genes, I'd present Machado - spry, sparky and unfeasibly youthful-looking at 82 - as exhibit A.
She was once dubbed "probably the most beautiful woman in the world" by photographer Richard Avedon, for whom she was chosen model and muse. Machado's exquisite, exotic face made her the first non-white cover girl in the West. But beyond the couture houses and catwalks where she was fêted 50 years ago, she also eloped with Luis Miguel Dominguin, the famous Spanish bullfighter; enjoyed an affair with Hollywood actor William Holden; partied in Paris with Pablo Picasso and in New York with Andy Warhol; travelled the world with Avedon, first as a model, then as a fashion editor; launched clothing lines; produced television; and raised two daughters, largely as a single mother.
"I never dreamt that I would do all the things that I have done," Machado says, more with wonder than braggadocio. "But things just happened to me all the time."
And they continue to happen. Three years ago, a lavish 20-page feature, shot by Bruce Weber for W magazine, thrust her back into the spotlight. "I didn't want to model again - I quit serious modelling in 1962," she insists. "Once you have worked with Avedon, you don't really want to work with anyone else." And yet, five decades on, she is once again signed to the modelling agency IMG.
Age has not diminished the imperious impact of her high cheekbones, full mouth and feline eyes, and she's still slender and taut, with not a hint of a bingo wing or sagging chin. Watching her patiently strike well-practised poses for our photographer, in an emerald-green Saint Laurent gown, I suspect she is not quite as reluctant to have returned to her former profession as she says. The only downside seems to be that so in demand is she, her autobiography remains as yet unwritten.
Machado's home is a white-painted waterfront property in Sag Harbour, in the well-heeled Hamptons of New York state, where she has lived for 19 years. The house - which she shares with her second husband, retired furniture exporter Riccardo Rosa, and their dog, Cha-Cha - sits on the spectacular Long Island Sound. Today it's freezing rain, but Machado paints an enchanting picture of summer here: "Every year, in June, we have a party to celebrate the blooming of the roses. We have 110 people and I cook everything myself." As well as making most of her own clothes, she's an accomplished chef, with offers of cookbooks on the table. "It's because I cook Macau food, a very special mix of Chinese, Portuguese and Indian." She could just as easily be describing herself.
China (pronounced "Cheena") was born Noelie Dasouza Machado (she took China as a moniker when she began modelling) in Shanghai's wealthy French Concession, in 1930. The genetic alchemy responsible for that mesmerising face is the by-product of 400 years of intermarriage between Portuguese colonials and local women in trading ports such as Goa and Macau, where her mother's and father's families were, respectively, from. She grew up speaking Portuguese, French, English and Chinese, and, thanks to a lifetime of relocations, her accent is impossible to pin down, sounding part American, part British, part well-bred European yachting brigade.
Growing up, she never read fashion magazines or thought of herself as particularly attractive. Her own idols were all white, American screen icons such as Rita Hayworth, Vivien Leigh and Ava Gardner.
"I looked nothing like them," she says, with a shrug. "So how could I be good-looking?"
She refers to herself as "fearless" and a "survivor", and it's not hyperbole. Aged six, Machado barely survived combined typhoid, paratyphoid and meningitis, and remembers the quarantine room where she lay delirious. When the hospital was bombed during the Japanese attack on Shanghai, she was carried from the blaze, but, amid the chaos, was assumed dead and discarded. Her father found her on a truck with the dead bodies.
Machado's Shanghai-spent youth is evident in every inch of her Hamptons home, filled with huge pot plants, indoor trees, elaborate lamp stands and cushions, mirrors, mosaics, plus all manner of Oriental furnishings. The living-room and bedroom walls are decorated with traditional Chinese boats, bridges, islands and castles, all painted by Machado.
"When Dick Avedon died I was so upset that I just started painting," she says. "A lot came from memories of my childhood, travelling by boat to visit my grandmother, who had a huge country house."
When Machado was 16, her family fled the newly Mao-controlled Shanghai and settled in Buenos Aires, Argentina. At 19, she briefly became a Pan Am airline hostess, and lived with her brother in Lima, Peru, where she met Dominguin. Three days later, she eloped with him to Mexico, leaving a scandalised family in her wake; it was 15 years before her father spoke to her again.
Her life with Dominguin was a whirlwind of city-hopping and celebrity-soaked parties with the cultural elite, from Errol Flynn ("a punk") to Picasso ("charming, flirtatious, old").
"Of course, I didn't appreciate it," she says. "I was too young."
Ironically, the womanising Dominguin eventually left Machado for her idol, Gardner, who was still married to Frank Sinatra. "I was with him the night they met - at a party in Madrid," Machado recalls. "Can you imagine, the most beautiful woman in the world coming in and going after your guy? I had no chance."
She moved to Paris, alone, and once again fell on her feet. A friend suggested she give modelling a try. When Machado went to see Hubert de Givenchy, he mistook her for a stand-in and put her in his show. At 24, she found herself with an inadvertent career in a couture cabine, the highly selective sorority of models working for one of the most esteemed fashion houses in Europe. Within two years, she was modelling for Dior and Balenciaga, Italian couturiers in Rome, Florence and Milan, and reputedly became the one of most highly paid catwalk models in Europe.
Machado has little time for the modern business of modelling.
"When you look at the runway now, the girls are 15 and 16 years old, with no knowledge of clothes, no idea how to project themselves," she complains. "I was trained how to show off the dress, how to move to make the clothes look better." Even today, in a lilac jumper and slim black trousers, perching at the dining-room table, she oozes class and holds herself with perfect poise. Can we take it that we won't see Machado on the catwalk again, then?
"Thierry Mugler wanted to pay me US$10,000 to do runway recently … but he wanted to put me in a rubber dress," she gasps, looking suitably outraged. "I have a closet full of Dior, Givenchy and Balenciaga, so no, no rubber dresses for me," she says firmly.
In Paris, she met her first husband, Martin LaSalle, the son of a diplomat, and a student of political science at the Sorbonne.
"He was extraordinarily handsome, a mixture of Henry Fonda and Montgomery Clift - simply gorgeous," she gushes. Nonetheless, for a year during their courtship, she left him for Holden, returning to LaSalle to marry him and have two daughters, Blanche, now aged 50, and Emmanuelle, 45. The couple divorced in 1965, after Machado had an affair with a friend of his.
When asked if she has regrets, Machado pauses for rather longer than a beat and lights a cigarette. "I have some regrets that I might have hurt men in my life. But they can take care of themselves."
She met her second husband, Rosa, at a party 35 years ago: "He came into my house, and never left." They lived together for 25 years before marrying, at the behest of her two grandsons.
It was in 1958 that Machado moved to New York. Within days, she met the editor of Harper's Bazaar, Diana Vreeland, who championed her unusual aesthetic. That same night, Vreeland threw Machado into a show at the Waldorf-Astoria, which she opened atop a 20-foot ladder in "bat-wing Balenciaga hot-pink pyjamas".
Machado is fabulously indiscreet about Vreeland: "She was an ugly girl brought up in Paris among intellectuals, so everyone helped her make herself into someone with great style. Did you know she walked sideways?" She leaps up to demonstrate, laughing as she shuffles across the room.
After the Waldorf-Astoria show, Vreeland introduced Machado to Avedon, who booked her for a Harper's shoot on the spot, asking her to work exclusively with him. "He made my career in every way."
Only 20 years later did Machado discover his struggle to get that first shoot published. The magazine's publisher objected to her multiracial glamour but Avedon fought back, refusing to sign a seven-year contract with them unless the pictures were used. The threat of losing him was too strong, and the story ran in February 1959.
Did Machado feel, back then, that she was smashing boundaries?
"Not really," she shrugs. "In New York I was celebrated; it was clients in the South [of the United States] who told designers they wouldn't buy any of the dresses I was wearing. But it didn't really occur to me that I was making an impact. I was too busy working and travelling."
The body of work she and Avedon amassed in less than four years is certainly impressive - and very much of its time. I point to an exquisite shot in one of her "highlights" folders: Machado on an ice floe in Canada, wrapped in what looks like seal fur.
"Snow leopard," she corrects me, looking a little sheepish. "Can you imagine? I wore a panther, too."
In 1962, Machado was persuaded to join Avedon on the other side of the lens, becoming a fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar, still travelling, but this time styling and shooting other women, including Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland, together. In 1972, after a decade, she left and produced fashion shows for television, designed costumes for films, launched a knitwear range and finally returned to print, to help set up Lear's, an ill-fated magazine for, and featuring, women over 35.
With her now as busy as ever at 82, does she believe we are any closer to conquering ageism?
"It has softened a little, but not much," she says. "Women are still bullied into thinking that they have to look young."
She herself isn't against surgery per se. "Of course, I want to look the best I can for my age." Her jet-black hair is coloured - she's not prepared to give in to the grey. "But have I ever had my face done? No. Have I ever had my boobs done? No." Her beauty regime, such as it is, consists of soap, water and Pond's cold cream.
She is very close to her daughters: Blanche is single and lives in Las Vegas while Emmanuelle, her husband and their two twenty-something sons are in New York. Emmanuelle, who works in television, is keen to make a documentary about her mother - and there's certainly sufficient material.
"I have photographs and movies from 50 years ago - all the bullfight pictures, Picasso, everybody …" says Machado.
Does she have any remaining ambitions?
"No, I'm tired now," she says, sounding anything but. "But sometimes I do feel guilty that I never really worked for anything. I never even learnt how to type."
The Sunday Telegraph UK