She doesn’t do hamburgers and she most certainly doesn’t do jeans – Natasha Radmehr has a natter with 87-year-old supermodel Daphne Selfe.
If aliens visited the UK to take notes on humans, they’d be forgiven for making the assumption that as the female of the species ages, her hair automatically coils up into tight white curls and she develops a penchant for beige, Hush Puppies and serial-napping.
That is unless they happened upon Daphne Selfe, who, at the age of 87, is the world’s oldest supermodel. Vivacious and hard-working with a cloud of silvery mermaid hair and serious sartorial nous, Daphne still jets around the world to shoot high-profile fashion campaigns – including a recent stint with hip Scandi label & Other Stories – and has just penned a memoir, The Way We Wore.
It’s this book that brings Daphne to the Boswell Book Festival at Dumfries House in May, where she’ll be signing copies and reading extracts. It will be the model’s very first visit to Ayrshire (“I have been to Scotland for modelling jobs before, though – I love it,” she says), and she’s looking forward to sharing her story.
You should be looking forward to it too, because this isn’t just any ordinary rags-to-riches tale. What makes Daphne’s life so fascinating is that she modelled in her youth, then was rediscovered and catapulted back into the spotlight – and onto the catwalks – at the age of 70, when most people would be settling down for a quiet retirement. Interestingly, she has enjoyed a more prolific career the second time round; something of an anomaly in an industry renowned for pronouncing women ‘past it’ once they hit their mid-twenties.
So how has the fashion industry changed over time, and what can Daphne teach us about living life to the full? I phoned her for a blether to find out.
NR: Your book is brilliant because while it is in essence an autobiography, it’s also like reading a slice of fashion history as you chart all the different trends you’ve encountered. What inspired you to write it?
DS: Well, when I came back to modelling at 70, everyone said I should write a book about everything I’d been doing. I’ve always kept lots of diaries and I’ve always been in show business – as a model and as a film extra – so it really wasn’t too difficult. Once I’d written it, my daughter helped me by typing it up, which was good as she’s much quicker at typing than I am! It was a job to find a publisher though; nobody really wanted it at first, but that’s par for the course, isn’t it?
NR: I’m surprised by that actually, especially because your story is very topical right now. Older models have become much more visible in ad campaigns over the past couple of years – there’s been a definite shift – and I think you spearheaded that.
DS: Yes, I think you’re right. It was a surprise to be working again but I didn’t really think anything of it at the time; it was only as the years went by that I noticed gradually more older models were being used. And now there are really quite a lot. Last year, I had the most amazing year and had some very nice jobs. I went to Paris, and I went to Sydney to advertise spectacles. I was in Stockholm to do & Other Stories too, although I didn’t see much of the city as it was a bit dark!
NR: How would you say the modelling industry has changed since your first time in the spotlight?
DS: When I started modelling, you had to take everything with you to a shoot. You had to do your own hair and make-up, and bring your accessories, underwear, stockings and shoes. You wouldn’t have to do that now!
NR: Do you think that beauty ideals have changed over the years?
DS: I suppose they’ve invented more things to try and keep us all younger. I can’t say that I bother very much, because I don’t really find that anything makes too much difference and I’m certainly not into cosmetic surgery. It’s what you eat that makes you look good, as well as how you approach life. Get fresh air and exercise and think positively. That makes a difference to how you look.
NR: So, what do you typically eat?
DS: Just normal food. I don’t buy packet food, and I cook all my own things from scratch, mostly. I don’t think I’ve ever had a hamburger. A lot of people don’t eat properly now, because there are sweets everywhere. The sugar they put in these things and the preservatives – I mean, can you imagine what’s in all these takeaway meals? I know some people have a very rushed life, but there are ways of preparing quick meals. I make a large batch of soup and it lasts for three or four days. I was brought up during the war; we didn’t have everything. Even now, I always make do and mend. I’m careful with what I use or eat.
NR: The availability of cheap clothes – as well as the pressure on young girls not to be seen in the same outfit repeatedly on social media – means we live in an era of fast, disposable fashion. Does your ‘make do and mend’ approach apply to clothes?
DS: Oh yes! I’ve got clothes from the 50s, you know. I wear them all the time. I certainly wear clothes that are 10, 20, 30 years old. I’ll have my favourites and sometimes they happen to be fashionable, sometimes they’re not. I love my old things and I love charity shops; second hand and vintage. I’ve never had that much money to go mad on designer clothes to tell you the truth. I certainly don’t throw away my clothes very often and when I do, I always regret it because then it comes back into fashion again and I’ll say “Oh dear, I shouldn’t have gotten rid of it”!
NR: What’s more important – fashion or style?
DS: Certainly at my age, you have a certain style. And it depends on where you’re going and what the weather’s like when it comes to what you wear, really. I wear what I fancy. I tend not to wear patterned things and I like to wear colour. If you go on the train in the morning, everyone is wearing black. So I try to wear something colourful, even if it’s just a scarf, to lighten things up.
NR: Obviously fashion is pretty cyclical, but I was wondering what you would say is the main difference between how young women dress today compared to when you were in your twenties?
DS: My goodness, they don’t dress at all now! They just sort of throw on anything; nobody makes an effort to look pretty or smart. In the 50s, we always wore nice things. We wore hats, gloves and proper shoes. No trainers and no trousers much. People don’t even dress up now to go to the theatre. A lot of people wear jeans, but I don’t do jeans. I have a black pair I’ll occasionally wear but I find them uncomfortable.
NR: I suppose part of the reason for this more relaxed attitude towards clothing is that there’s less pressure for women to conform to ideals of femininity, thanks to feminism. Do you consider yourself to be a feminist?
DS: I believe that women should get equal pay for what they do – the same as men, certainly. We’ve got a lot of skills that men have got, and a lot of different skills too.
NR: I was talking to my friend about you the other day; about how my grandparents are younger than you and yet they seem so much older and less vibrant. Is there a secret to mentally keeping yourself youthful?
DS: Yes! I believe life isn’t very long, so you might as well enjoy it. And my mother was the same – it’s sort of a family thing. We’ve always been lively and curious. I like to seek new things and go to new places and do whatever I can. A lot of my friends are the same as me, and we like to do things together.
NR: What’s your favourite thing to do of a weekend?
DS: I’ve got a garden so I like gardening. I like to walk a bit, to go to the theatre, the cinema, lectures. I like to cook. Painting. You name it, I’ll do it!
NR: You’ve also set up an online academy to provide advice to young models about the industry. Tell me a bit more about that…
DS: Yes, I started it with my daughter and we try to help people who might be scouted. However one of the very first clients we had was not a model at all. She was a lady of 40-something who had sort of lost her way and didn’t know what to do with herself. I can help people who have run out of energy or who feel they have become ‘invisible’.
NR: So what advice would you offer to a reader of Ayrshire Magazine who perhaps feels that way? How do you pep somebody up and encourage them to find their potential?
DS: First of all, eat and drink properly – lots of water. Be curious about what’s going on outside. Take notice of who’s around you. Try and have a positive attitude, and smile, because if you smile at people, they’ll smile back at you.
NR: Do you ever worry that people are losing the ability to communicate with one another in person because they’re so used to doing it through social media?
DS: I use social media, but within reason. It’s very interesting and it allows you to make new friends and meet old friends, but you don’t want to do it all the time. You have to go out and talk to people. Use it, don’t abuse it. I go on a lot of train journeys and people are sitting there looking at their phones instead of out the window. You have to remember to look at the buildings and the streets and the beautiful flowers and trees; there’s so much to see.
NR: Another thing that smartphones have given rise to is the selfie. As a model, what would be your top tip for taking an excellent selfie?
DS: You must smile, but not grimace, and tilt your head down a little bit sometimes. Photographers always tell you to keep your chin down. But it’s only a fun thing, isn’t it, so it doesn’t really matter!
NR: And finally, you don’t strike me as the type of person who sits still, so what’s next on the agenda for you?
DS: Oh, I take each day as it comes. I’m busy with my book festivals at the moment and I’ve got a fashion show next week, then a launch for another campaign I recently did. There’s always something. I really ought to write another book, but I’ve not gotten round to that yet…
Written By, Natasha Radmehr