At 83, Daphne Selfe appears in Vogue and struts along the Paris catwalks. Her secret? Long hair, no Botox and a dollop of Boots facecream
Looking around the headquarters of the Models 1 agency in Covent Garden, there are giant posters showing the most famous girls (and I mean girls, not women) on their books — Amber Le Bon, Bar Refaeli, Noemie Lenoir.
But there is one poster that shows a woman who is very different from the rest. A mane of silver hair, an etiolated neck, high cheekbones, bright, intelligent, lively eyes, and all 83 of her years etched upon her face.
This is Daphne Selfe. She is certainly one of the most beautiful women on the wall, and also one of the bravest — because she has just agreed to pose as Madonna in her prime. And if that were not enough, she is wearing only the iconic conical bra and corset made by Jean Paul Gaultier for the singer’s Blonde Ambition tour in 1990.
It’s a replica, but it’s still ‘terribly unforgiving. I thought they might have done a bit of airbrushing!’ says Daphne, joking. ‘I’m not that brave. I used to pose nude, you know, for artists including Barbara Hepworth.’
For a woman who has spent a lifetime in front of the camera, Daphne is surprisingly without vanity. She pulls up her bobbly sweater to show me her arms. ‘It’s these, you see,’ she says, rubbing at the brown speckles.
‘So dreadful, which is why I normally wear long sleeves. My body is OK when I lie down, it settles rather. But, hey, what the hell, it was all for a good cause.’
The cause is Oxfam’s Big Bra Hunt. Apparently, the average woman in the UK owns nine bras, three of which she never wears. And while we readily donate clothes to charity, most of us don’t realize that women in developing countries need our bras, too.
Oxfam hopes the photograph of Daphne, taken by star fashion photographer Perou (everyone on the shoot worked for no fee) will change all that. Oxfam is sending its first batches of bras to Senegal, West Africa, where, traditionally, women ‘just flop around’, according to Sarah Farquhar, head of Oxfam Trading. ‘A good bra makes them feel more elegant.’
Like a virgin: Daphne models a replica of the conical bra Jean Paul Gaultier designed for Madonna, right
But while we are all now aware that we should not send our clothes to landfill, it seems the fashion industry is still intent on treating its models as eminently disposable. Which is why Daphne is such a great figurehead (and body) for this campaign about longevity, and making women who are not, for whatever reason, inclined to shop in La Perla feel included.
And how wonderful, for a change, to see a woman in her 80s who is not depicted in a care home, or suffering from dementia, sitting mute in her Marks & Spencer cardi, but as vital, beautiful and, dare I say it, sexy and powerful.
‘I’ve never had anything done to my face,’ Daphne says, pulling it this way and that. ‘Not that poison, not a facelift. I think it’s a waste of money. Anyway, I couldn’t afford it!’
So how on earth does she do it, remain so fit, so lively in her slacks and flats, so amazing!
‘I think it’s partly down to good genes. My mother was a livewire, she lived until she was 95. I’ve never really bothered with skin cream or anything like that, although I might use a bit of Boots. I hate anything you can’t take the top off and dig around for what’s left in the bottom.
‘I did dye my hair at home for a while when I started to go grey in my early 40s. Occasionally, I would go into L’Oreal as a guinea pig, but it became too much of a bother.
‘My hair is long now because it’s cheaper, I don’t have to do anything, but put it in a topknot or a French pleat. It avoids that old lady permed look, lengthens the neck and lifts the face. I’ve got so many friends who don’t touch the make-up pot. You should keep looking nice, it makes you feel so much better.’
Then I remind Daphne of another photograph taken of her in barely anything but a bra: she is in a floral bikini in the early Fifties. She looks beautiful, but so very different to today’s models: she has a tiny waist (‘It was 24in, today it’s 27in! At least I haven’t got fat’), but rather chunky thighs, and wide shoulders.
‘I would never have made it starting out today,’ she admits. ‘I was too short, just 5ft 7in, with wide shoulders from all the riding I did as a young girl. But no one ever asked me to lose weight. Rationing was in place until 1954, so you were always grateful to get good food.’
Was she waxed in preparation for that bikini photograph? ‘No! Of course not. There was nothing like that. I do feel sorry for young girls today, all the things they do to themselves.’
Long-lasting beauty: The model in her youth
Daphne grew up in Berkshire, the daughter of a teacher, and was packed off to boarding school at eight. At the age of 20, working as a ‘shop girl in coats’ in a Reading department store, she entered a local newspaper’s modelling competition and won.
Was she considered beautiful growing up? ‘I’d been told I was nice looking a couple of times, but no, not really. I then started working steadily, it was wonderful.
‘In those days, all models had training, we were shown how to walk and stand elegantly.
‘I started off modelling fur, which in those days wasn’t controversial. I did mainly work as a house model, and a few advertisements. We were often photographed holding a cigarette, and I didn’t even smoke!
‘But when I got married in 1954, I assumed I would never work again. My family came first. We weren’t well off, but that didn’t really matter. It’s dreadful women today have to work and can’t look after their families.’
What does she think of fashion these days? ‘They don’t look in the mirror, do they? I do think women are too sloppy these days. No matter where I was going, I had a hat, and matching bags and shoes. Like all girls in those days I made the most of my own clothes. Not like models today, who seem to wear skinny jeans between shows. I always wore a roll-on corset. Never leggings! Just dreadful!’
Daphne has three children — Mark, 57, Claire, 53, and Rose, 51 — and although she soon got her figure back, she assumed motherhood meant the end of her modelling career.
‘I fell out of fashion in the Sixties,’ she says. ‘I was what you called rather strapping, at 10½?stone! So I continued with a bit of acting work, and was an extra in films.’
Did she fear getting older, having worked as a model? ‘It’s going to happen, so why worry? My generation got on with it. I do find people are always complaining these days. I try to remain cheerful, not grumpy. I’ve developed glaucoma, but the drops I have to put in my eyes have made my lashes grow! So there is always a plus side.
Natural: Daphne has never had Botox or a facelift
‘I think it’s important to remain passionate about things. I’m going to a meeting later about saving our local church, and I’m off to France next week to see the village that is twinned with the one where I live in Hertfordshire. I garden, I walk a lot and I do yoga — my version of yoga, I don’t have time for classes.
‘I can email! I’ve always worked, too, bits and pieces, right up until when my husband became very ill.’
Daphne’s husband, Jim, who worked in television, suffered a series of strokes. ‘He was cantankerous. He got frustrated. He was all right with others, but at home he was not good!’ says Daphne.
She cared for him full-time until he died in 1997, aged 72. But Daphne doesn’t dwell on the negatives. ‘I couldn’t have done [modelling], could I? Looking after him, it would never have happened. I’ve been lucky.’
In 1998, Daphne was asked to appear on the catwalk for Red or Dead. ‘I said: “Ooh, goodie.” I love wearing clothes and mucking about.’ The stylist suggested Daphne go to Vogue, who were creating a special issue about age. ‘I think they needed someone to represent “ancient”,’ she says modestly.
That photograph, taken by Nick Knight, led to her being signed up by Models 1. In 1999, while I was editor of Marie Claire, we photographed Daphne in yoga poses, modelling sportswear. But using an older woman was the exception, not the norm.
Does she feel, over a decade later, that she is still the token older woman rather than an ideal of beauty?
‘Oh no, I don’t think so. I’m doing more high fashion now than I did as a young woman, I think because at last I’ve lost the puppy fat! You can see the bones in my face. I’ve worked with Mario Testino, he was so kind, and Rankin — I knew his parents, both dead now — and Dolce & Gabbana.
‘I’m always working in Paris, quite often with designer Fanny Karst, who does wonderful clothes for the elderly. I find you have to be fit to brave Primark, but I do shop there.
‘I tend to wear all the clothes I have in my wardrobe from decades ago: every style seems to come round again. The only thing I can no longer wear is high heels, my feet have vasculitis, a weakness and numbness. But from my ankles up I’m OK.’
How do the younger models treat her? ‘They are so lovely to me. They tell me they want to look like me when they get older. But they are babies.’
Was the fashion world nicer in her day? ‘I imagine there were drugs, and alcohol. But I was so innocent, I never noticed that.’
I tell her I wish a magazine would be brave enough to put her on the cover. She says: ‘I met Nicholas Coleridge not long ago. (Coleridge is the publisher of Vogue, Vanity Fair, Tatler and Easy Living.) I asked him, “Will I ever get on the cover of Vogue?” And he said: “Darling, you just won’t sell.”?’
What is she frightened of? ‘Falling ill. I want to just keel over one day and, if not, I want someone to knock me over the head. I don’t ever want to be a nuisance.’
Later, at Twiggy’s launch party for her M&S collection, I spy Daphne standing in a corner like a Native American warrior queen — her wrinkles not something to be ashamed of, or hoiked up by a plastic surgeon, but telling the story of a life well lived. What does she think of the clothes designed by another model who doesn’t seem to have a sell-by date?
‘Hmm,’ says Daphne, a twinkle in her eye. ‘It’s all a bit bling, isn’t it?’
By Liz Jones