The Iconoclast: Lauren Hutton
I UNDERSTOOD THAT THIS COULD CHANGE MY LIFE . . . I HAD A DESPERATE NEED TO GET OUT AND SEE THE WORLD, AND I COULDN’T SEE IT ANY OTHER WAY. THIS WAS A WAY. LAUREN HUTTON
Catching up with Lauren Hutton is a little bit like trying to pin down a foreign correspondent or a secret agent. She is perpetually in mid-flight—always coming from somewhere and going somewhere else—and she seems to have friends wherever she goes. In fact, it was Hutton’s adventurousness that led her to modeling in the first place, initially as a way to earn money to travel, and then, as she became more successful, as way itself to see the world.
Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Hutton spent her formative years in Tampa, Florida. After arriving in New York from New Orleans, where she’d been attending college, she did a three-month stint as a waitress at the Playboy Club, before entering the modeling business at the height of the Mad Men-ish 1960s and at a time when young women were suddenly looking to do something other than subside prettily (and quietly) into domestic idyll. Hutton was a different kind of woman entirely: she wore jeans and sneakers and rode motorcycles and rolled her own cigarettes and went to Uganda. Vogue editor Diana Vreeland was an early supporter, introducing her to Richard Avedon; their first session together yielded those famous pictures of Hutton leaping and bounding in studio. Irving Penn was another photographer who very quickly cleaved to Hutton’s betraying blue eyes and famously gap-toothed smile (for a time, she tried to fill in the space with wax or caps, which she occasionally swallowed). In fact, several years later, Hutton would appear on the cover of Vogue alongside the phrase “The American Woman Today,” an appropriate headline for a woman who was quickly becoming the definition—or the redefinition—of American beauty.
Hutton’s success—and where it led—changed the modeling industry. In 1973, she landed what became a landmark contract with Revlon, and her status as the first $1 million-a-year girl had the collateral effect of increasing pay for models across the board, in some ways, giving rise to the more complex business infrastructure that surrounds modeling today. Hutton also made sojourns into acting, with roles in films like Paper Lion (1968) and American Gigolo (1980). She experienced a different sort of watershed moment, though, when she was cut loose by Revlon in 1983, at the age of 40, because she was deemed too old to sell makeup. Her successful return to modeling five years later was of even greater import, paving the way for the longer, more continually illustrious careers into their 30s and 40s that many of the other women in this issue have enjoyed.
Today, at 69, Hutton continues to break the mold. She still models and acts, runs her own cosmetics company, and is currently at work on a book about her life. She also remains a voracious traveler. When Jenna Lyons, the executive creative director of J. Crew, called her to do this interview, Hutton was on a diving expedition in the Philippines.
JENNA LYONS: Hi! Are you all right?
LAUREN HUTTON: I’ve been diving all day, I’m dead and exhausted and gone.
LYONS: Oh no!
HUTTON: Yeah. I’m in the Sulu Sea. I’m at the very bottom of the Philippines. I was doing an ad in Hong Kong, and then I just came up here to go diving.
LYONS: That aspect of things—your adventurousness—is something that I’m very interested in. But you’re not typical in a lot of ways. You grew up mostly in South Carolina and Florida, right?
LYONS: What was it like growing up in those two places? How do you think it influenced you or the way that you look at things?
HUTTON: Well, my lives were so wildly different. I mean, Charleston was all sort of organza, patent leather, and big houses with Spanish moss and beautiful wood and giant mirrors and … You know, it was rich. And then suddenly my mother became downwardly mobile, and we were living on the edge of a swamp outside of Tampa with very different kinds of people than we had been with before. She had married a guy who lost all her money and his money within six months of marrying.
LYONS: Oh, god.
HUTTON: And so it was a big change in life. I don’t think anyone was thinking about fashion. [laughs] It was just, overnight, a wildly different life … It was very interesting for me because I was suddenly with things that could kill you.
LYONS: You mean because you were living on the edge of a swamp?
HUTTON: Yeah, in the backyard. We had big gators and eastern diamondbacks—just nests and swarms of them. It was wild-animal heaven. Now, sadly, Florida has basically been paved over and asphalted, but if you look at a globe, there is no peninsula in the world with as much fresh water. So it was a really rare place—and it was still sort of a rare place when I was growing up there.
LYONS: So how did you go from living with the gators next to a swamp to being in New York and modeling?
HUTTON: Well, I was going to college and I was working my way through. I was waitressing at night, and after about three years of that, I was sort of exhausted. I just couldn’t do it. It was too much.
LYONS: Were you at a college in New York or a college in Florida?
HUTTON: My first year was at a new college, University of South Florida, that had just been built in Tampa, and I had about three jobs the first year. Then I went to a school in New Orleans that doesn’t exist anymore. It was called Newcomb College. It was a girls’ school at Tulane that was later subsumed by Tulane. At night, I was working on Bourbon Street as a waitress, and it was great, but it was exhausting, so after about two years of that, I just decided that I was never going to be … You know, I had wanted to paint and I decided that I was never going to be able to be an artist like the artists I admired because I was working all the time. So I just decided to take off and go to Africa. I had a little bit of money saved and I stopped school. There weren’t hubs in those days, so the only way you could get to England was through Idlewild—you know, go through JFK. So I went to New York. I had to save my little $200; I was supposed to be going on a tramp steamer that didn’t show up. The girl I was in touch with who knew all about it also didn’t show up, so I was just sort of there in New York and I learned a lot of things at one time. I found out that in Tangier, I couldn’t take a bus outside of town and see lions and tigers and bears, so that wasn’t going to work. I learned that there was something called North Africa where there were Arab states, which I didn’t really know about … We didn’t have access to a lot of information in those days.
LYONS: You couldn’t Google it.
HUTTON: And it sure wasn’t on TV. I also learned that having $200 wasn’t really going to help and that there was something called white slavery and all this stuff. So I got a job at Christian Dior.
LYONS: Wait—how did you get a job at Christian Dior? [laughs] You just walked in?
HUTTON: Well, the very first day I was in New York, I called an old friend from New Orleans who was there. She had a boyfriend who was a New Yorker and he said, “Look here in the Sunday Times.” There was an ad where someone was looking for a model. He said, “You could do that.” I said, “No, I couldn’t. I’ve never done that.” But he said, “Of course, you have.” [Lyons laughs] So I got my first lesson in New Yorkese, which is to lie.
LYONS: So a friend’s boyfriend told you that you could be a model? Was that the first time you’d ever heard someone say that?
HUTTON: Yeah, more or less.
LYONS: Had you been told you were beautiful by other people along the way? Or were you more or less not aware of it?
HUTTON: I’d never really gotten a date. Nobody ever looked at me before I was 18, so this was all new stuff. I mean, I got jobs waitressing because I was good-looking, but this was different. I was so busy working that I didn’t have much time to think about it.
LYONS: So you got a job at Christian Dior …
HUTTON: Yeah, at Christian Dior, $50 a week. Then I heard while I was there, waiting for these people from the Saks Fifth Avenue to look at these samples that were sent from Paris, that there were girls who made that much money modeling an hour. So I decided that it didn’t matter if I was too short and I had the space between my teeth and all that stuff—I had to do it in order to fulfill the dream. So I did.
LYONS: Were you attracted to the world of modeling? Or was it just something that you felt you could do?
HUTTON: I was attracted to money. I was attracted to the idea of doing what I wanted to do, which was not being a little Southern girl like little Southern girls were for the last, you know, 300 years, but to instead see what it was like to go all over the world and what it was like to be with different people in different places and to see what their lives were like.
LYONS: I remember when we first met, one of the things that you talked a lot about that I always thought was incredibly fascinating was that when you first started modeling, there were no hair and makeup people. You, as a model, were responsible for making yourself look beautiful, which was incredibly different from the way the industry is set up now. I mean, the girls walk in now and there’s a SWAT team there to make them look beautiful with everything from hair extensions to eyelashes to fake tan. But you were doing that all by yourself.
HUTTON: Yeah. We worked by the hour—we made $60 an hour—and we rushed from one job to the next and we had half an hour in between to get someplace. If you got a whole-day job once every two weeks, then that was a great thing, but mostly we worked by the hour. Sometimes we did Vogue covers in two hours, and for a Vogue cover, you’d do your own makeup, but you’d have a hair person there.
I WAS ATTRACTED to MONEY. I WAS ATTRACTED TO THE IDEA of DOING WHAT I WANTED TO DO, WHICH WAS NOT BEING A little SOUTHERN GIRL like LITTLE SOUTHERN GIRLS WERE FOR the LAST, YOU KNOW, 300 YEARS… LAUREN HUTTON
LYONS: You still had to do your own makeup for a Vogue cover?
HUTTON: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
LYONS: How did you know what to do?
HUTTON: We watched the giant Germans. [both laugh] That’s what I did. I watched all the Ditas and Brigittas. There was only one Veruschka, but there were all these big, big girls, and I watched them to see what they did and to figure out how to do the same thing or what didn’t work.
LYONS: Were they helpful?
HUTTON: No, because nobody really had time to be helpful. If you were doing a one-hour job, then you had to get in, get it on, and get out because you were making, like, a dollar a minute. But I’d watched enough and I was hungry enough because I understood that this could change my life, that this could really let me realize my dreams. It was simple as that. I had a desperate need to get out and see the world, and I couldn’t see it any other way. This was a way.
LYONS: Do you remember a particular turning point when you felt like your modeling career really took off? I know you’ve had a pretty extensive career, but was there a moment when you were like, “Wow, this is really happening?”
HUTTON: Yeah, of course. I was learning a little bit more every day and I would go see nine people a day at go-sees. But there was a turning point where I was finally taken on by an agency. There were only about five agencies back then and maybe 300 working models in New York, and we all pretty much knew each other. Now there are probably 35 agencies and who knows how many thousands of working models. But when it became a very famous business was really after the Revlon contract … I had put something in the contract which said that no one could divulge how much money it was for. I mean, you didn’t want to be waving an arrow all over town.
LYONS: That was pretty savvy.
HUTTON: And later I read … Who’s the guy that does all the future stuff? Malcolm?
HUTTON: Malcolm who?
LYONS: Malcolm Gladwell, but he doesn’t do future, he does—
HUTTON: Exactly, that’s him. A couple of people told me that he said that my Revlon contract helped start the whole insane thing of executives getting paid millions of dollars. A little model getting a million dollars for smiling and doing photographs—that is what started that behavior. Pretty funny.
LYONS: Was he referring to you specifically?
HUTTON: Yes, he was. He said my name.
LYONS: You were making a million dollars a year …
HUTTON: Yeah, and that was a very big deal. So after Revlon cleverly let that information out, which made mass publicity of it, there was no such thing as an hourly job.
HUTTON: Yeah, that was suddenly eliminated from all the agencies. You could only book girls for a day—and then the prices went up to $1,500 dollars for one day. Within a year, there were, like, five other makeup contracts. So things changed, and after that, the business just grew exponentially. But when I went back to modeling, I didn’t really do it because of the money. I did it because there was nobody over the age of 26 in anything—I was 46 and I certainly didn’t look bad. I also knew an awful lot of friends who were around that age and they looked pretty great, too. So I didn’t understand. It seemed like a societal thing, the usual thing where you’re supposed to be a modern person but you’ve got the attitudes of your grandparents. But my generation of women had gone into everything there was …
LYONS: Tell me about Diana Vreeland. You had an interesting relationship with her.
HUTTON: Yeah. She was different because she had an original eye. You’d think there would be lots of those in fashion, but in fact, most people pretty much just follow fashion. Diana, though, knew what was good without having to be told that it was good. She would decide what was good. Part of what drove her, I think, was because she was not considered a beauty herself. Her mother even used to tell her that she was ugly—she had a sister who was a beauty and all the people she knew at school were beauties. She was told that, in order to get married, it’s about looks. And so instead, she decided what she liked. You know, she’d rush up to Harlem wearing outrageous yellow dresses and dance the night away. When she saw me, fashion was still deep in the ’50s. It might have actually been ’64, but America was still like Mad Men. I didn’t wear a bra—not because anyone told me not to, but because I had fine breasts on their own and I didn’t want to wear a bra. I didn’t like the way they felt … I didn’t wear panties either. [Lyons laughs] I wore jeans and T-shirts and sneakers—that’s what I wore. And a lot of American girls were starting to do that. They were not like these European swans who wore modest pearls and jaguar coats and pounds of makeup and that sort of thing. Half of America at the time was under the age of 25, and the way those kids were dressing was starting to catch on. It wouldn’t really go someplace until ’67, but Diana spotted it in ’65. I think that’s why she sent me to Dick [Avedon]. I was with some of these new girls that she was starting to see in the street.
LYONS: Your personal style is just as iconic as your face, which is a rarity among models.
HUTTON: It took quite a while to grow into a personal style. I certainly didn’t have one. When I first came to New York, I was wearing my favorite outfit, which was a pair of aqua terry cloth shorts that I had made. Terry cloth! I mean, it’s a toweling material.
LYONS: I am very familiar with terry cloth. [laughs]
HUTTON: And I had a V-neck, maroon, men’s mohair sweater that I then thought was the peak of chic. I would mate those two things and that was my main look.
LYONS: Oh, you wore them together?
HUTTON: Oh, you bet. Maroon and aqua. I think everybody’s style … They say you’re either born with it or not born with it, but I always thought that was very silly. I mean, unless you happen to be born in a house of Matisses with great paintings everywhere and you have some ultra-chic mother who has time to get dressed … But most people are just copying Vogue or something anyway and not using their own eyes. So I think you develop your own style.
LYONS: One thing that I’m always interested in is the relationship between model and photographer. Especially in the era that you were coming from, it sounds like the model was so incredibly engaged and involved in the making of the pictures and really more of a full participant in that process than most people imagine. What was it like working with people like Richard Avedon and Irving Penn back then? How do you think things have changed?
HUTTON: Well, I always think that a real sea change has occurred because we always looked for the happy accident. Dick even called it that—the “happy accident.” That’s because he’d take maybe six or seven rolls of me. I mean, I had a funny, strange face.
LYONS: Oh, yeah—so funny and strange. [laughs]
HUTTON: No, but I did. Most of the girls had very even features, whereas mine are not at all. But just at the right angle, in the right light, with the right expression, it would all come together. But it would take a while to get it together, and it had to be me being completely relaxed and getting excited about something, so Dick would take, like, six rolls, and there were 36 pictures on each roll of film, right? So that’s hundreds of pictures. And then we’d look at them at lunch—the first batch, the contact sheets—and cut them out, line them up, and he showed me how to edit. And when I was sitting on the set, we’d be telling stories back and forth to each other. I’d be telling him about what happened on whatever trip I’d just come from, and he’d be telling me all kinds of things and all kinds of people he’d met and stories from his life and things he’d observed and philosophy and all kinds of things. And the same with Penn. They were really my two great mentors, Dick and Penn. They taught me the most about the world. But the happy accident was something that you would just fall into by having this close communication. We were always a team. Everybody knew that the picture was the most important thing—that it wasn’t a picture about hair or a picture about the makeup. What was very important was that everybody did their stuff invisibly—you know, the hair, the makeup, the stylists came in, saw what is needed and got out—and that there was this communication going on between the photographer and the model that couldn’t be broken. Now it’s very hard to see that because the photographer stops every five minutes and looks at the … Whatever the thing is called.
LYONS: The monitor.
HUTTON: Yeah. So it’s hard. I can’t imagine how the girls will grow, you know? And from what I hear, nobody knows how to do hair or makeup anymore either. But in the end, working with the people that I worked with, all that mattered was the picture.
LYONS: Are there any particular images that have a deep meaning to you or that are your favorites that you remember creating?
HUTTON: Yeah, and it’s pretty funny what happened to them. One was a great picture of me in my little World War II hat that I always imagined that maybe my daddy might have had when he was younger because he busted out of private school and became an Army guy. It’s a green World War II hat. What’s funny, though, is that I saw that picture recently and it has been retouched now and painted and plasticized so much that I almost look like a Barbie doll. I’m wearing this white shirt and it’s just the head and shoulders and my skin looks like it’s made out of Naugahyde. They’ve taken this old picture that had no retouching, because I knew when Dick pulled in Jim Bishop and when he didn’t. You know, he didn’t like paying Jim Bishop—who was the retoucher—so we almost never got retouched.
LYONS: Was it a Dick Avedon picture?
HUTTON: Yeah, it was one of Dick’s pictures, and they’ve repainted it since then, and that’s what they’re sending out now. That’s what I see in various things on the internet. You’ll see that picture and it’s been plasticized. It’s pretty funny, some young guy who’s just out of art school who’s painted it up. But then I also remember a wonderful picture I did that was like when I was a kid and the girls used to try to out-gross the boys when we were playing. One of the things I would do was, if my toenails had gotten too long, I could get my toes in my mouth, and I would rip off the whole end of my toenail with my teeth.
LYONS: Wow. [laughs]
HUTTON: So it was a game of what-I-can-do-and-you-can’t-do kind of stuff. So one day I did that for Dick. I was sitting there and we didn’t know what we were doing, so I whipped a leg up and just ripped off the toenail, and he screamed and started taking pictures. But nobody ever saw that picture because the next day, Goldie Hawn came in, and she was this very big star, so Dick only had two hours to do her hair and makeup and take the picture—and he had to make it a great picture. So he had her put her foot in her mouth and rip off her toenail.
LYONS: No way!
HUTTON: Yeah. Dick would cross-fertilize with everybody according to what he needed. It was fine, though. She was a comedian, so he had to get a comic picture. He got another one, too. Dick knew I liked snakes so he got this giant python for me. I did this big constrictor thing, nude. But then Nastassja Kinski came in …
LYONS: I was going to say—that famous image.
HUTTON: Yeah, so I didn’t get that one either … Stuff gets spread around. And then Jean Shrimpton would do some special little fold or roll with the feet, and Dick would see it and be able to do it himself in the air! Dick could jump up and down. Shooting with him was like playing with a kid in the sandbox.
LYONS: When you came back to modeling in the late ’80s, one of the first people you worked with was Steven Meisel. What did that experience like?
HUTTON: That was somewhat similar because Steven has this really strong mode of communication … [noise in background] Is that Mickey [Drexler] talking on the mic?
LYONS: It is. I’m sorry. I can’t turn it off.
HUTTON: I figured it was Mickey. Say hi to him for me when you next see him.
LYONS: I will.
HUTTON: Anyway …
LYONS: Steven Meisel.
HUTTON: Well, you know, I had gotten to the point where the makeup that they put on me was so ugly—partly because it was made for very young girls and I was no longer a young girl. I was, like, 47 at that point. I hadn’t done any pictures in a really long time, and I was making, like, five bad movies a year—B-movie queen. I didn’t even look at magazines, but Jerry Ford kept saying, “Look at Steven Meisel.” He sort of forced me to work with Steven. I saw Steven’s pictures and said, “Well, they are good …” But I’d also spent all of my modeling life trying to look younger than I was. When Eileen [Ford] hired me, she said I should tell everyone I was 18. Of course, I didn’t—I told everyone I was 22, which was the age I was when I started. But that was really old because most everybody else was 14 or 16. So I said to Steven, “Everyone is always trying to make me younger and I’m tired of that. I just want to be whoever I am right now.” And he looked at me and said, “That’s exactly what I want to do.” So that was a big relief. But at that time, everybody thought that someone who was 46 or 47 was a very old bag. In fact, the guys at Revlon told me that they were firing me because they had done focus groups and nobody over 40 wore makeup. [Lyons laughs] These guys were all in their 60s and they came from another world and another era. They were running a women’s cosmetic company and they didn’t know anything about women, of course. [Charles] Revson [the founder of Revlon] had been dead a long time at that point. There were, like, eight vice presidents.
I DIDN’T WEAR a BRA—NOT BECAUSE ANYONE TOLD ME NOT TO, BUT BECAUSE I HAD FINE BREASTS on THEIR OWN. I DIDN’T WEAR PANTIES EITHER. I WORE JEANS and T-SHIRTS AND SNEAKERS. LAUREN HUTTON
LYONS: How do you feel about modeling now? Does it feel rewarding to you?
HUTTON: Once in a while, it’s very interesting.
LYONS: I remember when we shot you, the reason we did it was because we thought you were still beautiful, so I think it’s exciting for people to see that. I also love seeing that you’re still living your life. The stories of your life and your travels are incredible and inspiring. You’ve also been severely injured a couple times. [In 2000, Hutton, who used to ride motorcyles with a group that included actor Jeremy Irons and the late Dennis Hopper, was involved in an accident that left her comatose for two weeks.] But you’ve always made an effort to live your life to the fullest, and I think that comes through so much in pictures.
HUTTON: Well, I used to tell all of the big girls that they have to be very careful. They were making enough money and they were household names and they could do anything they wanted to do, so they had to remember what it was that they originally wanted. What did they dream about when they were little kids? I think that’s important. You know, I dreamed about being in jungles and swinging on vines across the length of a New York City block, and I did that—in Malaysia—screaming like Tarzan the whole way. I swung on a giant vine through these bird-wing butterflies that rise from brooks—butterflies that live five years and scorpions and all of these wonderful insects and orchids. And that’s what I always wanted. But everybody has some sort of dream, I guess. I would keep hearing back from the girls. I’d say, “When is the last time you went on vacation?” and they’d sort of look blank. And these were people whose names my aunt knew—and my aunt is not exactly out and about. Then I’d find out they had last been somewhere a year ago or something, and it was Saint-Tropez, where you have to be dressed every minute, and it’s sort of like a different kind of runway …
LYONS: Like Capri or Ibiza.
HUTTON: Yes. Those kinds of places that are full-dress joints. I just don’t know how much you learn from them that you wouldn’t learn from just being on a fashion shoot.
LYONS: Do you still ride motorcycles?
HUTTON: Not really, no. I sold everything. My life has sort of been a flatline for the last 13 years because I started a business, and it was like taking a couple of shotguns and kneecapping myself. It’s not the thing you want to do unless you were dreaming about it and then you went to Harvard and got an MBA and were the best in your class.
LYONS: Is this the makeup business?
HUTTON: Yes. Right now, I’m playing hooky. I mean, how did you find out about business?
LYONS: I’ve learned probably everything I know from the big man.
HUTTON: You’ve learned a lot from Mickey.
LYONS: I have, very much so.
HUTTON: Well, I didn’t know. I actually thought that if I just invented this makeup, which I’d already done, then I could just design a beautiful package and the right brushes and figure out how to color-code everything and just come back every once in a while and smile and take some pictures. But it turns out that that’s, like, one fifth of business and the rest of it is … I never did find out what the rest of it was.
LYONS: What do you think is next for you? Are you going to write a book?
HUTTON: I’m writing a book right now.
LYONS: How is it going?
HUTTON: It’s going fine. I have Sharon DeLano as my editor. She was Susan Sontag’s editor and she’s Joan Didion’s.
LYONS: Do you think you want to continue modeling and being a part of the fashion industry?
HUTTON: Yeah. If only to give courage to everybody, to myself, and not only to women my own age and older but to give girls something to grow into.
LYONS: There aren’t many visual role models out there as you get older.
HUTTON: That’s what women say to me the most—younger girls, too. I get stopped all the time in airports and when I’m out and about, and that word, inspiring, comes up over and over. It’s got to just be that—that they see an image of a woman at 69, which is what I am. But, you know, you can’t have it all. The first time I ever saw that phrase was I think in a People magazine article about me after the Revlon thing. I got a chill up my back. I think the headline said, “Hutton Has It All!” But there’s no such thing. No one can ever have it all—not with a marriage, not with love, not with children, not with anything. I think it’s very hard to have a giant career and children at the same time. The people who can do that must have organization beyond anything I could imagine.
LYONS: You’ve mentioned love, marriage, and children. I was wondering, did you ever want that?
HUTTON: I never had any of that, no. [laughs] My mother got very sick when I was about 13, and she had one baby, and then she had another one almost within a year and then another baby. So I was raising three kids from 13 to 18.
LYONS: Oh my goodness.
HUTTON: It was something I really knew about and I knew it was a huge job. Then around the time that I started to think maybe I could do it without it being a disaster … I went into menopause at age 44 and that was just about when I figured I could have a kid. We didn’t know very much about that, you know. One of the reasons no one knew about menopause was that women were dead by 50 in the early 1900s. Hardly anyone lived older than that, which is why men had two and three families—because they went through two or three women.
LYONS: Well, it sounds like you’ve had an incredibly rich life without those things.
HUTTON: I just hope it’s not over.
LYONS: [laughs] It’s so not over!
HUTTON: Well, I’ll tell you, all those years I was modeling, I always spent six months a year not doing anything except living someplace new and learning something. And I sure haven’t been doing that lately … Although, I am doing it right now. I’ve been doing it all day today.
JENNA LYONS IS THE EXECUTIVE CREATIVE DIRECTOR OF J. CREW.