Age Becomes Her: HBO's New Documentary,
About Face: The Supermodels, Then and Now
by Molly Creeden
July 25, 2012 6:12p.m.
Few careers are so threatened by a woman’s advancing in years as modeling—an hourglass seems always to be trickling down in the background, providing a looming countdown from the moment a model takes her inaugural steps down the runway. In the same month during which Vogue’s Age Issue is displayed on newsstands, a new documentary from HBO explores the same subject through legendary names in fashion’s history. About Face: The Supermodels, Then and Now, by photographer and filmmaker Timothy Greenfield- Sanders, is a lively, nostalgic narrative of what it means to be the life of the clothes, as told by many of the cover girls who reigned between the 1940s and the 1980s. “We lived the greatest adventure of all in those days,” says Marisa Berenson, beaming with the bouquets of eyelashes that entranced the sixties and seventies lens. Premiering this Monday, the film captures many of fashion’s best known muses— Christie Brinkley, China Machado, Jerry Hall, Christy Turlington Burns, Paulina Porizkova among them—in candid contemplation about the moments of elation, insecurity, and the thrill and waywardness that came with their emerging fashion fame.
There is a certain calming pleasure in watching anyone who is on the other side of their twenties and thirties consider those decades with the wisdom afforded by distance, and About Face is steeped in these moments, both jubilant and somber. Some models, like Lisa Taylor, happily retreated from the fashion world, moving on to new chapters as businesswomen, wives, and mothers, while others, like Karen Bjornson—who answered a call from Ralph Rucci to appear in his show after a thirteen-year modeling hiatus—are still pivoting on the catwalk well into their fifties. The difference between now and their nascent days, however, is that they negotiate the industry on their own terms. “When I go into a casting—which I do as little as possible these days,” says 81-year-old Carmen Dell’Orefice, a lioness in the modeling world who is now in the 67th year of her career, “and they start saying ‘you’re too tall,’ or ‘you’re not this’—I just leave. Simple as that.” What becomes clear, in listening to women known first to the world as creatures of beauty, is that they seemed to prematurely confront—in their twenties, even—the realities of aging with which all women inevitably contend. “When I was modeling, the career lasted three to four years,” says Beverly Johnson, who made headlines in 1974 as the first African-American to grace the cover of Vogue. “Here I am. . . supposedly living this glamorous life and I’m crippled by the idea of growing old and where do I go next. The whole age thing, in our industry, it’s everything.”
Aging might be everything, but the perspectives on whether staying young means a trip to a plastic surgeon are far from consensus: “If you had the ceiling falling down in your living room, would you not go and have a repair?” asks Dell’Orefice. “The idea of having a nose that’s the same nose that someone else has—I can’t imagine wanting that,” says Christy Turlington Burns (indeed, Christy, few can imagine wanting any nose besides yours). Even Isabella Rossellini, whose robust career was considered late-stage by most—including fourteen years as the iconic face of Lancôme until her early forties— finds herself grappling with the question of whether to dabble in facial enhancers. “I’m debating. . . One day I get up and I say, hey, there’s this new technology—let’s go do it, let’s go do the operation. But most of the time I wake up saying. . . Is this a new way of being misogynist?” Ninety-year-old Eileen Ford, who has presided over Ford Models for 66 years, sees it differently: “If I thought I’d amortize it, I’d get a face-lift. Why shouldn’t you, if it makes you feel better about yourself? That’s the most important thing about living.”
About Face is as a much a retelling of the fittings, the nights out with Warhol, and the shoots with Avedon, as it is a rumination on growing old gracefully, with the film’s interviewees offering a physical compendium of the variety of ways in which to do so. “My agent once said to me, ‘The key to beauty’—and I’ve always believed this,” says Cheryl Tiegs, “ ‘is always educating yourself, always learning something new, having something to talk about.’ And I’ve never forgotten that. I think that’s how one ages beautifully.”