Model Marie Helvin tells Francesca Fearon why age is no barrier
“I HAVE TO PINCH myself to believe it, but at 60 I am still working and it’s wonderful,” exclaims veteran model Marie Helvin. The Japanese-American beauty is one of the lucky few. By the time most models hit their thirties they have given up worrying whether they can still fit into size zero clothes and have settled down to raise babies.
This has never been part of Helvin’s game plan.
Fashion is a notoriously ageist business, nevertheless, Stella Tennant and Yasmin Le Bon are still on the catwalk in their ‘40s; Carmen Dell’Orefice is doing photo shoots at 81, while the svelte Helvin was recently modelling bikinis. Is the fashion industry finally taking account of its more mature clientele by using these famous role models? Helvin however, dismisses it all as “PR spin”, lamenting that they are the few exceptions, “I wish I could say designers are thinking of their core market, but it’s the industry: it means nothing [to them] and that’s a shame.”
Seeing Helvin glamorously stretched out on a chaise longue in gold haute couture and diamonds, it looks like the marketing people are wrong. Helvin, who celebrated her 60th birthday last month, can still look as effortlessly sensual as only a supermodel can. The arched eyebrow, the languorous look to camera as she models a pinstripe suit from Gaultier; she is a consummate professional and knows exactly what is required to get the best shot.
The Hawaii-raised beauty was the supermodel of the 1970s and ‘80s, with her best friend Jerry Hall, girlfriend of Mick Jagger, and was married for 10 years to legendary fashion photographer David Bailey.
Helvin is very upbeat about reaching her landmark age. “It’s how I am, it’s my spirit. When I turned 50 everyone was, ‘Ohmigod, you’re 50!’ but it was one of the best birthdays I ever had.” She believes she has been given a new lease of life with the amount of work coming her way since turning 60.
“It is just a number,” she says. “I am thrilled that I still look younger than my age. It is not something I intended, just a genetic thing.” Her Japanese mother looked 50 when she was in her 70s and once warned her daughter “women with our Mongolian blood stay beautiful longer than most, and then, overnight, they look like 2,000 years old.” It is an alarming prospect.
Helvin says she’s ageing like everyone else, “but maybe it doesn’t show because I know the tricks of cosmetics.”
Certainly her skin has a lovely luminous glow and her dramatic cheekbones are untouched by the surgeon’s scalpel. She has not done Botox but does not rule out cosmetic surgery in the future: “Still, it’s not something I want to get into just now because everything I have read says when you start, you have to continue.” Before Helvin came along, modelling had evolved from something nice girls did between secretarial school and marriage to a multi-billion-dollar industry churning out glamazons with shelf-lives shorter than a carton of low-fat milk. Discovered by Japanese cosmetic giant Kanebo as a 16-yearold schoolgirl on a beach in Hawaii, Helvin landed in London two years later, in the early 1970s, to model for Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto. The magazines were smitten by her exotic looks and Grace Coddington at British Vogue and photographer Barry Lategan soon asked her to return.
Half-American and half-Japanese (her American GI father married a local interpreter he met in Tokyo, where Marie was born, and the young family subsequently settled in Hawaii), London was charmed by this beautiful alien creature. It was a daring departure for magazines to put a Eurasian face on the cover in the 1970s. In 1974 she met Bailey (she always refers to him by his surname) and the following year they married. She was just 23. Bailey had a Svengali-like hold on Helvin, who having grown up on the beach, was accustomed to making carefree displays of her body on camera.
Looking after herself was instilled from the early days, when Bailey would prod her fleshy bits and rather cruelly call her “mighty meaty matey”.
She admits it gave her a complex about her body.
“I am very self disciplined, I have been all my life because of my job. If I wasn’t modelling I doubt very much my stomach would be as flat as this.”
She goes to the gym four times a week at 5.15 in the morning to do weights and floor exercises. “I don’t run anymore because my knees can’t take it.”
She is 175cm and weighs an enviable 53kg. “It’s pretty much stayed the same for the last 10 years,” she says.
She quit smoking 20 years ago and gave up alcohol six months ago, much to her friends’ horror. “I am not as social as I was as I get bored (when surrounded by drinkers). I prefer to be clear-headed.”
Helvin is grateful she has made her career last and plans one day to return home to Hawaii. She is happily single: past lovers include Jack Nicholson, Eric Clapton and Mark Shand (the conservationist and brother of the Duchess of Cornwall). She has a string of boyfriends on call, but never committed to anyone after Bailey. Raised during the 1960s sexual revolution, she says there was never any pressure on her to have a family and settle down.
“It wasn’t something I was interested in. If I had wanted something cute and little, I would rather have had a cat.” In fact, she has two.
While not one for nostalgia Marie Helvin enjoys recounting stories of her trips to places such as Tunisia and Australia with Grace Coddington and David Bailey while on assignment for Vogue. But she says it was not as glamorous as one would expect. "They were fantastic trips but it wasn't First Class travel. In 1975 we went to Australia and stayed in a third-rate one-bedroom apartment in Queensland. I remember being quite shocked. Bailey and I had the bedroom, while Grace and the travel editor had to share a sofa."
Helvin modelled on the catwalk for Yves Saint Laurent and for Karl Lagerfeld when he was at Chloé . "Yves would use his show models and hire two photographic models, and for three or four years it was Iman [David Bowie's wife] and myself. Yves was so much fun to be with and very generous."
She says Chloé shows were "a madhouse". "There would never be any fittings and models, 35 to 40 of them would turn up at 7am for hair and make-up and about five minutes before the show we would be standing naked in our tights and one by one Karl would look at us, then the rail, then hand us whatever he thought would suit us. Can you imagine! It was his style. We had no idea what we would wear and if it would fit - and he didn't either!"
In the hands of photographers like Bailey and Guy Bourdin, models in the 1970s evolved from the glorified coat-hangers of the 1950s into overtly sexy women. Helvin, Pat Cleveland, Janice Dickinson and Jerry Hall were the stars of the day. Helvin and Hall were known as the terrible twins. "We were two American girls in London and we felt like we owned the world. I loved working with her. We complemented each other," remembers Helvin.