4 legendary older models tell the truth about beauty and age

It turns out that youth and beauty aren't the keys to happiness after all.

by Clementine de Pressigny
02 June 2017, 5:25pm

This article was originally published by i-D UK. 

Making it as a model invariably means being very thin, usually pretty white, kinda tall, and quite young. Beauty is inextricably linked to youth in our culture, and that mentality is ramped up when your profession involves working it in front of a camera. But with fashion starting to get a clue that women actually want to see all sorts of other women wearing the clothes they can't really afford, older models are making a comeback. They look cool, they look clued up, and hell do they look chic. These ladies have lived it, and they know what really counts. So read their wisdom — you're going to wish you were old already. Here's what the iconic Veronica Webb, Benedetta Barzini, Jan de Villeneuve, and Maye Musk have to tell you.

Benedetta Barzini, 73
Born to an Italian heiress and raised by a succession of governesses, Benedetta moved to New York as a teenager on the advice of legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland. Benedetta was meant to stay for a week, but that turned into years because the girl was a hit. Shot by Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, she landed the cover of Italian Vogue and spent time hanging out with Dali and kicking around the Factory with Warhol. But just like a perfectly curated Insta feed, this seemingly perfect glam existence was essentially unfulfilling, and Benedetta made a bit of a change — becoming a Marxist and radical feminist, then a teacher. She hasn't completely given up modelling though, taking a walk down the runway for Simone Rocha's intergenerational fall/winter 17 show — and looking incredibly beautiful while doing so. But don't tell Benedetta that, how she looks is of zero interest to her. 

"Nobody's life is better simply because one is "beautiful." Beauty is not visible. It is written in charm, humor, and authenticity. Nobody is responsible for their looks. We are all responsible for what we do with our body and mind. I never cared about looks. I never walked around looking like a model. On go-sees they would look at my book and say, 'Is that you?!' I didn't look like those pictures.

I never really thought about being beautiful: I considered myself a sort of coat hanger on which others (the ordeal in the fashion business) could place their own talents. Now I am more inclined to see beauty as a cop-out, a way of ignoring substance and commitment, a game to play with or against others.

Life takes us far away from youth and running after one's looks when young is ridiculous. Maturity is much more fascinating."

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Maye Musk, 69
Maye grew up in South Africa, where she began modeling at age 15. The self-described science nerd has two masters degrees. It must have rubbed off on her kids — she's mom to billionaire inventor Elon Musk, who is probably going to colonize Mars. Stay in school kids — Maye never took time off for modeling. She always assumed her career in front of the camera would be over by the time she hit her late teens. But she became one of the exceptions to the rule, getting booked again and again. Once she was "too old" to play the starring role in editorials, she was re-cast as mother of the fresh young things, and then become a model "grandmother" at the actually not-so ancient age of 42. Now 69, Maye is still in demand, balancing modeling with her career as a nutritionist. 

"Beauty is intelligence, smiling, being happy, caring about other people, and being considerate. If you have a perfectly beautiful model in front of you and she's not saying anything and she's miserable, then the beauty disappears. To me beauty is someone who can have an intelligent conversation, who's entertaining, and has a sense of humor.

I was never concerned about [beauty] because I was never concerned that modeling was my profession. You go through stages and you have to change, as you get older you have to change your hair, your wardrobe, and your makeup so that you look stylish, to be considered beautiful in other people's — physically beautiful in other people's eyes.

I feel great on the red carpet — you know, they have good lighting, because of course everything is about lighting — especially when you're 69. Bad lighting and I'll look 105! Good lighting, really good lighting and retouching, and I'll look 25! But I'm quite happy to look my age."

Veronica Webb, 52
You probably remember Veronica's name from the 90s, when she had "super status" walking for major labels like Versace and landing a Vogue cover, as well as being among the first black models to win a major beauty contract, becoming the face of Revlon. Now 52, Veronica is still working as a model, bucking a system that still very much favors girls over women.

"In my 20s my ideas of beauty were all about hair and makeup because I was carefree in every way. Now, I am a master of the power of makeup and clothes and what I practice more than ever is building mental, emotional, and physical strength.

Modeling does not make you feel beautiful. Most of the profession is about being compared to other models who are your peers and being rejected for your "differences," like one person has longer legs or a bigger chest or whatever, so you end up in a downward spiral of comparing yourself to other people — which brings out the worst of insecurities in anyone. Even when you're working at the top of the profession you can't help but spend your day endlessly obsessing about your flaws.

Beauty is a process. Be patient and kind to yourself, appreciate what you have been given, make the most of what you have TODAY, and build your strength."

Jan de Villeneuve, 72
All eyes were on Jan as she elegantly sashayed down Simone Rocha's fall/winter 17 catwalk. That grey bob, that knowing look. She seemed beautifully content, self-assured. Jan has been modelling on and off for over five decades in between having kids and doing other life stuff. She was one of the big names during the 60s, was a Vogue covergirl, and has been shot by legends like David Bailey and Norman Parkinson. Now Jan is back in demand and looks as good as ever, but she really prefers hanging with her granddaughter. 

"It's nice not to worry about measuring up to anyone else's idea of physical beauty  to be myself, to look myself. Lately it has been a great treat to work with so many talented young photographers, quite different to when I started modeling in 1966. 

I would encourage 20-year-old me not to worry about living up to unrealistic ideas of beauty. Enjoy being young, eat well, look after your teeth, use sunscreen, and get good exercise. Don't worry about spending money on expensive beauty products. Have fun with hair and makeup, but remember that physical beauty is superficial.

I love seeing 'beauty' in things that make my heart skip a beat - art, architecture, antiques, gardens, movies, books, and my granddaughter Edie."


Text Clementine de Pressigny 
Photographs of Benedetta and Jan are by Mitchell Sams
Veronica Webb is with Muse NYC
Jan de Villeneuve is with Models 1
Maye Musk is with IMG
Thanks to Piergiorgio Del Moro

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