Photography: Bryan Adams

The iconic model turns 80 this weekend, to commemorate her special birthday we thought we would share this Q&A with Dell’Orefice and Jeanne Beker.

Zoomer Q&A: Jeanne Beker Talks With Carmen Dell’Orefice

Classic. Elegant. The epitome of aging gracefully. The model and muse opens up about beauty, fashion and money
text Jeanne Beker   photography  Bryan Adams

In the trenches of fashion, beauty is traditionally defined more by the height of one’s cheekbones than by depth of character. But every once in a while, you come across a creature so breathtakingly exquisite that you know the physical is in perfect synch with the spiritual. Meet Carmen Dell’Orefice.

For more than six decades now, Carmen has graced the pages of myriad high-fashion glossies with her elegant form and haunting, dramatic visage. Often dubbed “the world’s oldest working model,” at 79, Carmen’s secret to survival in the cutthroat fashion world likely has more to do with her positive attitude and life philosophy than her gorgeous looks.

Discovered at the age of 13, riding a bus to ballet class, Carmen, the daughter of an Italian musician and a Hungarian dancer, began modelling a year later, in 1946. Living in a cold-water flat with her mother, she was so poor growing up that she would roller skate to assignments to save on bus fare. In 1947, when she was barely 15, she was featured on the cover of Vogue and soon found herself posing for some of the 20th century’s most famous photographers, from Horst P. Horst and Cecil Beaton to Irving Penn and Francesco Scavullo. At the height of her career in 1957, she travelled to the Paris collections for Harper’s Bazaar with the famed Richard Avedon and the legendary editor Diana Vreeland. And the rest is modern fashion history.  

On the home front Carmen has been married three times and has a daughter from her first marriage. In her current relationship, she has found romantic stability once again.

When it comes to her finances, however, stability is not the first word that comes to mind. The recession and an unfortunate alliance with the notorious Bernie Madoff has seen her financial situation turn dire to say the least. Shortly after starting a relationship with Madoff’s best friend, New York real estate mogul Norman F. Levy (who died in 2005), she invested her life savings ($2.5 million according to Avenue magazine) only to discover, along with the rest of the world, that she’d been swindled. She has since auctioned off many of her famous modelling photos at Sotheby’s. Remarkably, Carmen refuses to be bitter about her devastating loss, choosing instead to focus on the future and be grateful for all of life’s good things.

When I first interviewed Carmen for Fashion Television at her cozy New York apartment back in 1989, shortly after she’d made a commercial comeback in the wake of her divorce from Richard Kaplan, I was charmed by her down-to-earth candour and total lack of pretension. Twenty years later, speaking with the legend again, I was even more inspired by her sharp wit, profound wisdom and captivating self-assuredness. After all, isn’t that precisely what great style is all about?

Jeanne Beker: Years ago, you said to me, I’m “Rent-a-Body.”
Carmen Dell’Orefice: Yes, that’s my job. I’m on the inside looking out. And for some reason, decade after decade, my body and what I look like, fit somebody’s need to rent it to advertise their product. I’m not my own physical type. If I were on the outside looking at me, I would say, “That’s a nice looking person” but that’s it. I’m just so angular looking. I don’t know what to say. I’m glad everyone else looks at me their way.

JB: Some of the greatest photographers of our time have gleaned so much inspiration from you. That seems to be because of the way you are as a person.
CD: I’ve always appreciated what their job is, what they’re trying to do. I’m just part of the picture. I’m not the picture. There’s so much that goes into it, you know? It’s got to be a team effort. Think about family. Think about living. My goal in life is to do better than Do No Harm. How do you do some good that really hits the mark? Well, you start one smile at a time, one overt little thing to make another human being know that you notice them, that you feel for them, that you’re happy when they’re happy.

JB: Sixty-four years of modelling now. Do you still learn new things about the art and craft of it on the job?
CD: You bet I keep learning. It’s new photography. It’s digital. There’s a different feel, you know? If you’re in the movies, there are different directors, different scriptwriters. Life is a constant exchange and fine-tuning and understanding that no one is a stranger unless you make them a stranger. There’s something to learn or feel and enjoy in every encounter in every day. I certainly feel that I know the difference between a photographer who’s going to make it and a photographer who may not make it because of what he’s not paying attention to — if I’m working with a new photographer, for instance. I have so much experience in that 
field that I have a pretty good quick ability to give an opinion.

JB: How do you think notions of glamour have changed over the years?
CD: Well, it certainly has less to do with style and dignity and a certain elegance. They tried to move away. The modern expression is Be Outside of the Box. But they better have a look in the box again.

JB: So you think that some of the imagery is just a little too crass and a little too, maybe, in your face?
CD: I think it’s ugly. I don’t think it’s informative. I think it’s misleading to young psyches, young minds. They come into a world with an open door. There is no beauty. It’s an eat-dessert-first attitude. I may have earned the right to eat dessert first but I’m going to be 80 my next birthday. Fashion is part of a communication. It’s the beginning. We describe part of ourselves by how we look, but you can’t tell a book by its cover. There’s an appropriateness. I think it’s funny when decades and things are just the current thing. All the long, straight hair. Everybody wants to be somebody else, rather than using those images as a stimulation to look at themselves and redefine and redesign themselves and see who they are.

JB: Yeah, it’s true. I mean, fashion can lead to great self-discovery if it doesn’t stop you and act as a mask.
CD: Yes, and it can be the opposite, too. Don’t be a slave to anything, anybody, not even to yourself. I’m in this crazy, wonderful business and because I have never been the particular superstar of any decade — except now because I represent having gone through the gauntlet of life and I’m still standing. I get credit for still standing and being, within reason, not decrepit.

JB: Talk to me about this whole business of aging. Some people fight it to death and, I mean, people are very upset by it.
CD: Well, they have psychological problems. They have convinced themselves that they might be the first person to live forever. And, as far as I can see, it ain’t happening soon.

JB: But how do you continue to feel as beautiful as you are, when you look in the mirror and things aren’t the same as they were? I think a lot of women fight that battle.
CD: As soon as I wake up, I say hello to the stranger I see in the mirror. The first thing I do is make friends with that person I meet in the morning. I have to do my exercises and I have to do what makes me feel good physically because if I’m not feeling good physically, my brain falls apart. And I certainly am suffering the ravages of time like everybody else.

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