Only the other day, while sorting my papers, I found photos from my very first shoot, in 2005. I’m now 57, but in those 10 years alone, the perception of older models has changed a great deal. So I can’t help but feel a tad disheartened by the news that Marie Helvin says her recent lingerie campaign is to be her last.
I was in my late forties when I started modelling, but my looks have changed a great deal since then. I think I look better now, simply because I am much happier with myself and am not trying to conform to any preconceived notions. I am still as fanatical as ever about keeping my body in good shape and staying fit. I used to do a lot of yoga, pilates and dance, but now I follow a programme devised by two ballerinas, which involves barre, cardio and mat-work, which I do at home for 35 to 40 minutes a day. I also still do the odd dance class, too.
I only planned to model as a hobby. I had another job as a university lecturer, but I was taken on by an agency to which I applied (out of curiosity) as a commercial model, because that is what older models seemed to do. The products I was meant to advertise were dentures, hair products – things like that. At first, being in my forties occasionally worked against me because I didn’t look as people would expect an older model to look. I work out and my arms are toned, so I didn’t fit the bill. I once lost a job for which I had to appear semi-naked precisely because I looked too toned. Also my hair was grey (although I prefer to call it silver) and 10 years ago models in their forties tended to colour their hair so they looked younger and would be put forward for castings for mid-to-late thirties roles – you know, the yummy-mummy type. Sometimes I could pass for a 60-year-old on the basis of my hair colour, but I was up against lots of models in their sixties and seventies who often got those roles as they were the real thing.
At the time, I was advised to keep my hair in a neat bob, which I did, to have a proper commercial look (bookers would often look to Anna Wintour as the standard) Then I got tired of my bob and grew my hair very long. I am blessed with thick hair that grows quickly. Once, I was at a casting for a job, which I didn’t get, but the casting director advised me that I had a very distinctive look and should go for editorial work. I was surprised – I thought editorial and fashion were strictly for young or celebrity models, such as Twiggy for Marks and Spencer and Jerry Hall for HM. But times were changing. Occasionally I would be put forward for hair-based jobs, but I also did my research and approached several other agencies and began to get more interesting jobs.
I think initiatives like All Walks Beyond the Catwalk in England and Advanced Style by Ari Seth Cohen in New York, both of which sprang in 2009, prompted discussions about the way older women and men are portrayed in the media. Advertisers, too, have begun waking up to the idea that they needed to attract the grey pound by providing more realistic role models. Now having an older woman or man heading a major campaign is de rigueur. We are still only talking about celebrities such as Joan Didion for Céline, Cher for Marc Jacobs, Joni Mitchell for Saint Laurent and Iman on the cover of Vanity Fair Italia, but they are having a ripple effect.
There is still a sense of tokenism that goes with it – sometimes it is as if the older model is there to tick the diversity box. But I think it is slowly allowing people to change their perception of growing older – it helps that supermodels like Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell are still active and they are now in their forties. We still have a long way to go in terms of how older people are portrayed. So, for example, fashion magazines [still] insist on showing how older women and men can dress to cover up their “unsightly bodies” and older models will be styled accordingly.
Looking back, my journey over the past 10 years has been fun. I have gone from being a trade union social worker for the National and Local Government Officers’ Association, to being the hair of White Hot, a range of products for grey-haired women and men – no cutting or colouring, what a relief! I have been in a Mars chocolate commercial in Australia and appeared in several fashion spreads in Runway and Vigore, and the Guardian’s very own Fashion for all ages. In January, I landed my very first cover on Metropolitan, the Eurostar magazine.
I take my cue from dance and my role models are older dancers like Sylvie Guillem, Alex Ferri and Wendy Whelan, all in their fifties. They show us that older bodies can be powerful and expressive; I would like fashion and advertising to embrace that notion. I am optimistic and believe that it will happen.
Alex Bruni blogs about her experiences here and is represented by the Grey Model Agency