Model Talk

Supermodel Marie Helvin on Bailey, Saint Laurent & #MeToo

July 3, 2019

Before Naomi, Linda and Christy, there was Jerry, Pat and—our spotlight today—Marie.

An original super from the 70s and 80s, Marie Helvin is a modeling legend. You know David Bowie's alter ego, Ziggy Stardust? His look was partially inspired by a photograph of Helvin. Famed photographer David Bailey, whose life was fictionalized in the 1966 cult film, Blowup? That was her ex-husband. She was his third wife, following none other than Catherine Deneuve. Helvin's autobiography is rich with stories of the fashion high life—the good, the bad—and an inner circle that included everyone from Jack Nicholson to Andy Warhol.

Born in Japan, raised in Hawaii and now based in London, Helvin is also the star of one of our absolute favorite images of summer—that's it right here, from the 1976 issue of Italian Vogue. Every time we hit the pool or beach, close our eyes and idle the day away—we imagine ourselves in a life lived as glamorously and fabulously as this, decked out in diamonds and sky-high heels.

We spent some time and got to know Helvin recently in an interview that started with the photo and then went on to so much more. Like her times with Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld and Kenzo Takada. Her girl squad of fellow supers. Her travels and career challenges. #MeToo in modeling. Diana Vreeland. And...

Photographed by David Bailey for Italian Vogue, 1976

Q&A

This photo is every woman's fantasy summer life...
Wearing your Manolos. Lying down on a diving board. In a glamorous turban!

What's the backstory?
Bailey shot it in London during the summer, this time of year, at Lord Cowdray's house. One of the male models was named Piggy. How could I forget a name like that? The shoes I'm wearing were my own—I used to live in Manolos. The photo is part of a series we shot around the pool. I think I'm wearing Fiorucci, or at least an homage to Fiorucci. After the shoot, we did some nudes—one was in Bailey's book of me, Trouble and Strife—then went to a lunch Lord Cowdray was hosting on the veranda for David Niven, the famous British actor. I remember he said to me, "Why is it that every month on Vogue, it's either you or Jerry [Hall] on the cover?" I had no idea, but it seemed like the case that year! The things you remember...

OK, most memorable modeling moment?
That's difficult—there have been so many! I would say the location shoots. In addition to working with great photographers and magazines, like Vogue, I had the opportunity to travel as a model and really see the world. Growing up in Honolulu, you feel so isolated. My strongest memories are the shoots with Bailey. I was lucky because he was the kind of photographer who was always trying to integrate the culture into the photos, always learning about the people... With other photographers, you'd do your shoot and go back to the hotel. With Bailey, it was always an adventure.

In that case, what's the most exotic place you've been to for your shoots?
I'll tell you about a secret place I love, but it has nothing to do with my modeling: Greenland, believe it or not. I'm fascinated by the place.

Why?
I'm the kind of person who likes going off the beaten track. You will never, ever find me in Saint-Tropez—that's my idea of hell. I'm drawn to the more unusual. The last time I was in Greenland, I went to the place where the glacier that hit the Titanic came from. The silence was so loud, just deafening in a bizarre way. It was extraordinary. People have this idea of me as a glamour-puss, but, no, I'd rather trek across Greenland.

What's been the most challenging part of your career?
Balancing a career with a relationship and my family in Hawaii. Each part was very demanding. You're trying to make everybody happy.

How did you do it?
By the skin of my teeth, to be honest with you. Just barely. Although my marriage to Bailey lasted 10 years, so that's alright. And we're still great friends. But it was tricky. The constant traveling wore you out physically, mentally, spiritually. If you're not with your photographer—or boyfriend or husband—you're always on your own. Most models will tell you it's lonely. They know every airport lobby and which is the best. I used to know which had the biggest bathroom I could sleep in if I missed a flight... Brussels! That's why I loved doing the shows because the girls would be coming in from all over—you'd be like a gang.

Who was part of your gang?
Iman. Janice Dickinson. Jerry. Alva Chinn. Pat Cleveland. They were always fun.


Photographed by David Bailey for British Vogue, 1975

You've worked with so many great designers—who's your favorite?
Yves Saint Laurent. I did his ready-to-wear—Ballets Russes, the Picasso collection, Morocco—as well as couture. When you work on the latter, you're booked for like a month before the actual show since he creates the clothing on your body. Once, it was just Iman and me. I remember she had just had her first daughter, with the basketball player—that's how many years ago it was!
During fittings, you'd wear this white doctor's coat with just your stockings, underwear and high heels—no bra; he didn't like bras—and stand in the middle of the corridor. The assistant would put the toile on you, then you'd enter the salon and Yves would be there. And Loulou [de la Falaise], Pierre Bergé, all the senior designers. "Turn left, turn right" and Yves would cut the fabric directly on your body. (The only other designer I've seen do that was Ossie Clark.) Loulou would already be accessorizing in her mind.
She'd say, "Marie, would you like a whiskey soda?" What an inappropriate drink to offer a kid, you know? But, of course, I said yes! You get caught up in the moment. I'm not only pretending to be a grown-up, they're now considering me to be a grown-up. It's a very bizarre situation for a young girl, but I just adored working for Yves.

Photographed by David Bailey for Italian Vogue, 1977

Do you remember the first time you met him?
It was before the big salon, before Avenue Marceau, in a smaller place on Saint-Sulpice. I remember Loulou before I remembered Yves because she came down the staircase and was just breathtakingly beautiful. Not traditionally beautiful, but ultra-glamorous, very vivacious, very sexy, very androgynous. I've never met anyone quite like her: boyish yet incredibly feminine.
She was kind of his spokesperson because Yves was so shy. He surrounded himself with strong females—like Loulou, Paloma Picasso and Betty Catroux—and strong men, like Bergé. I saw him about six months before he died and he still had that humility, that shyness. Having said that, I mean, during the shows, Yves could become quite manic.

How so?
He would practically tear his hair out if he was not happy and have an artistic tantrum. He was very high strung, overly sensitive. Oh, if he was with comfortable company, he loosened up and told jokes, but he was never larger than life, like Karl. Karl would take over the room, even without saying anything. Yves was much more inward, introspective.

Any fun times out?
I remember one of his birthdays at Maxim's very well. Diana Vreeland was in town and Bailey asked me to ring Loulou to see if we could bring her to dinner. Fine, yes, so Diana came with us. What she wore was mad! She had these white lilies—she took the stamens out, put safety pins in and wore them upside down as earrings. I remember them because every time she'd turn to talk to me, they'd clunk against my face!

Who were some of the other designers you loved?
Kenzo—he was my best friend. And I just loved his clothes. I thought they were so much fun. He was one of the only designers who did clothing for young people. The rest of the designers, apart from Yves, would give me clothes and I'd give them to my mom. All the other designers at the time, the Diors, the Chanels... no thanks! All I wanted to wear was Kenzo and clogs. Would you believe clogs?! I wore clogs the first time I went to see Yves—clogs! How horrible. They were popular then, but if I could do anything differently, I would not wear clogs to my first meeting at Yves Saint Laurent! But there you go. That's what fashion was at the time: clogs and short pants.

Fashion trend you love?
I'm so grateful the kitten heel has come back. At my age, I cannot wear five-inch heels anymore. Bless Manolo—he's still one of my oldest friends—but I don't have to go and spend hundreds and hundreds buying his shoes anymore. I just bought a whole bunch of kitten heels for the summer—one from Zara, two from Topshop, one from H&M. I'd rather use the money to go back to Greenland.

And trend you're happy to never see again?
Ugly shoes—or whatever they're called. Although you don't really see that trend in the streets here in London. Same with bicycle shorts. I've never seen anybody wearing them in London. It's just something you see in magazines or on people in the fashion industry. Right now in London, girls want to look pretty—a great summer dress and kitten heels.

Is there something about the industry you miss? Or something you're glad has changed?
It's nice that you see more ethnic models. It took forever. And the #MeToo movement is a breath of fresh air. Finally, people are being honest about the abuse that can go on between photographers and models on set. It's been going on since I was modeling. Even in Avedon's time—and certainly my time—there was a lot of not quite misogyny but bullying.

Is this something you've experienced yourself?
No, luckily for me. I got together with my ex quite early on, so I mainly worked with him. But prior to working with Bailey? There were times, particularly in Paris and Milan, not so much New York or London. There weren't really rules protecting young models. You had to keep your wits about you. But I was a tough cookie. Maybe that's why I've lasted.

Photographed by David Bailey for British Vogue, 1975

What advice would you give to your younger self?
That's easy. It's the same advice I give to models starting out:
1. At the end of the day, when you wash your face, wash your makeup, wash away all that stuff and you look in the mirror, you have to like what you see; you have to like your real self.
2. Be generous with your luck. It's not meant to be kept close to your heart; it's meant to be shared.
3. Be nice to every single person you meet on the job because the fashion world is small.

What's one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
That I'm still working! A lot of people assume I must be enjoying life in Saint-Tropez or something. While I still enjoy modeling, while I'm still successful, I'm going to continue. I've got a cut-off point in mind—I want to be back home in Hawaii by then—but let's see what happens. It seems crazy to stop, just because of age.

Portrait courtesy of Marie Helvin

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