Born in 1931 to an Italian father and a Hungarian mother, Carmen dell’Orefice is the world’s oldest supermodel, with an entry in Guinness World Records for ‘Longest Career as a Catwalk Model’ to prove it. She first posed for American Vogue aged 13 and became a favourite with legendary fashion photographers Irving Penn, Cecil Beaton and Richard Avedon. She has been married three times and has a daughter, Laura, now a psychologist, from her first marriage. She lives in New York.
My life has been amazing. It all started when I was coming home on the 57th Street cross-town bus from my dance class at the Ballet Russes, in New York, and I was spotted by a lady whose husband worked as a photographer for Harper’s Bazaar. They did some test pictures, but they didn’t come out too well and they sent a classic letter to my mother, which said I was a very polite young lady, but unfortunately, at this time, I was totally un-photogenic.
Well, my godfather got to hear about this and he didn’t think I was so un-photogenic. So he took me to see his friend Carol Phillips at Vogue. Two weeks later I did my first shoot for Horst. It’s that classic picture where I’m getting a massage and I look like a little boy. Suddenly, I was 13 years old and I had all these pages in Vogue and Cecil Beaton and Salvador Dali were my friends and playmates. They told me I was beautiful and lovely and they treated me as an equal. Then Dali asked me to model for him. He paid me $12 an hour to pose topless in the St Regis Hotel and he never touched me.
When I was very young modelling was just a job. I was a kid and it was fun. I used to rollerskate to Vogue studios in my little chequered coat and brown fedora. I was grateful to be able help my mother stop working and send her to college. But she’d say,” your feet are like coffins and your ears are like sedan chairs”. She was joking, but she had such a sharp tongue and she didn’t realise what it did to me inside. I was so skinny my chest was concave. At the time I was so weak from rheumatic fever I couldn’t do my plié in ballet class and fell over. Condé Nast [the publisher of Vogue] paid for hormone shots to bring on puberty, which was frozen by illness and gruelling, physical dance.
I would come home with the make-up still on and cut up sheets and try to copy the clothes I was wearing. I would play at dressing up and my mother passed on her passion for sewing. But my tastes were always classic, even as a kid. My mother would make a peasant blouse and I would make something more tailored. Fashion didn’t move me the way it did other women, because I had this wonderful opportunity to wear everything in front of the camera. When it came to my own clothes it was always about what I could afford. I would buy good shoes and good handbags and then I waited to buy something on sale – a nice Rochas suit – classic things that last for ever.
Now I’m 75 – how did three-quarters of a century happen so fast? I still wear make-up because I choose to present the upside of the persona. I could fade away. It takes a little bit of thought and effort to keep on developing the new Carmen everyday. What you see is what I want you to see! The body changes and what I like to wear is no longer flattering on me – and not what other people want to look at.
Younger flesh looks better in a strapless dress. I’m fine with that, I’ve done all that. I’ve worn every kind of dress when it looked better on me than it does on many women today. Now I go for the silhouette. I can still wear a sleeveless dress. I just lean up against a guy’s tuxedo! Ha ha! Now I can’t resist a well-cut pair of trousers, and I only put on pantyhose if I am going to see the Queen!
This interview was first published in The Independent Magazine, August 2006
© Alison Jane Reid 2006, 2010. Portrait by Mike Owen & Alison Jane Reid © 2006