New Again: Isabella Rossellini

Published December 7, 2011

“The next best thing to winning the lottery is having a beauty contract,” Isabella Rossellini joked to David Furnish during our 1996 interview with her. Rossellini has certainly had a fruitful, albeit atypical, modeling career. Despite being the daughter of Casablanca star Ingrid Bergman, Rossellini did not begin modeling until the age of 28 (ancient, as we all know, in model years), or acting until 31. Rossellini went on to be the face of Lancôme for fourteen years, only to be cast aside in favor of someone younger. Not a particularly shocking turn of affairs—the current face of Lancôme is 22-year-old Emma Watson. But why is this blatant discrimination so banal? Director-photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders explores the ageism that pervades the fashion and beauty industry in his new documentary, About Face. The documentary, announced this week, premieres next month at Sundance and focuses on modeling legends such as Rossellini, Carol Alt, Marisa Berenson, and Jerry Hall as both the beneficiaries, and the victims, of their physical beauty.

In eager anticipation of this documentary, we decided to brush up on our modeling history by re-reading Rossellini’s February 1996 conversation with Furnish.

If anybody knows about the privilege of beauty, the burden of it, the pleasures that come with it, the problems with how it’s defined, and everything else in between, it’s Isabella Rossellini. Here she talks to David Furnish, speaking about many things for the first time.

DAVID FURNISH: You’ve just finished being the face of Lancôme after fourteen years. What kind of experience was that for you?

ISABELLA ROSSELLINI: It was extraordinary but not necessarily in ways people might assume—that it’s so wonderful making a lot of money and leading a so-called glamorous life and being famous for your beauty. The surprising pleasures of this kind of long-term contract, if you stand for a product internationally, come from the endless number of people you encounter around the world. In one day of a public-relations tour, I may have shaken hands and spoken with six or seven hundred people—maybe for ten seconds each, but because you come as a symbol, those ten seconds are very highly charged. What’s remarkable is how in a country like Taiwan or Indonesia, you realize that what you stand for goes way beyond selling mascara—it’s the whole capitalist world of free market. You can see people longing for it, because beauty, luxury, even cosmetics, are linked with some sort of moral value. People say, “What makes you beautiful is that you’re beautiful inside as well as out,” which is pure projection! In Taiwan, I’ve had people genuflect and kiss my hand! It’s amazing to me that people can go with a photograph to that extent. They seem so vulnerable when you’ve become a symbol to them—they don’t react to you as a person, as a normal thing. Often at the end of the day I’d feel totally overwhelmed. The only person I could talk to about this was Paloma Picasso, who was promoting her own line and going through the same thing. Both of us would come home and cry—from exhaustion, of course, but also from the experience of having so much emotion directed at you.

FURNISH: How does it feel to be put on a pedestal like that?

ROSSELLINI: That wasn’t what moved me. It was becoming the object of so much longing for the kind of life we take for granted here. My view of myself is so different from all that. I live my everyday life as a person and I react to my photos from a certain distance. When I look at a photo, I detach myself and look at it as a product—not as me, Isabella. I’d become so used to looking at things professionally that I wasn’t aware of the other side of the images. I didn’t realize the impact they had in remote countries with very different realities. Where is the limit to creating a dream that everyone, everywhere, would like to attain? Or an image of something a person can never be?

FURNISH: Tell me about the image you created as Dorothy Vallens in Blue Velvet. That was a real departure for you.

ROSSELLINI: In Blue Velvet, it was important to me that I had once been fat. That was the only film where I took my clothes off. It was about a battered and sexually abused woman. David Lynch didn’t want me to walk down the street in an appealing, sexy way, but in a disturbed way that would frighten you. I chose the gesture from the famous photo of a Vietnamese girl walking away from a napalm bomb. To me it was very important that I convey a sense of abuse, rape, violence—and that I wasn’t sexy. So I didn’t diet. I didn’t care about the way they photographed my body—I wanted to look like a piece of meat. At least women didn’t get the feeling that my body was absolutely unattainable. [laughs]

FURNISH: Was it rebellion? Were you thinking that you had been this deified object and you wanted to break that image?

ROSSELLINI: You know, it always amazed me that people believed I was this beautiful object. The other day, before going to dinner, I sent a fax to Gary [Oldman] saying ” I’ve arranged for a makeup artist to come before the party so I can finally be less of an impostor than I generally am.” [laughs]

FURNISH: You say that because you don’t wear makeup?

ROSSELLINI: I don’t wear much makeup, except during work. I felt lucky to be chosen to be a model. I used to joke, “The next best thing to winning the lottery is having a beauty contract.”

FURNISH: [laughs] Why?

ROSSELLINI: Because modeling requires a few days’ work, but the lottery doesn’t take any work at all—so this is the second luckiest way. You know, I always suspect that one day they’ll realize that I don’t have all that famous beauty and I’ll be kicked out of the business. I’m always a little worried when people have met me in person because I’m worried they’ll be disappointed.

FURNISH: So you feel it’s difficult to live up to your own ideals sometimes?

ROSSELLINI: Yes.

FURNISH: And you tried to destroy that image in Blue Velvet?

ROSSELLINI: No, I did Blue Velvet because I fell in love with the script. I’m going to make a confession: Being Italian meant growing up in an Italian macho environment, and being beautiful and looking foreign to Italians because of my Swedish mother meant that I was the victim of a lot of sexual harassment when I was young. So I completely understood the character I played in the movie.FURNISH: Can being beautiful be a real burden?

ROSSELLINI: To me, it isn’t. To me, it’s been a great adventure. At the beginning, when I was eighteen, because of the sexual harassment and because I came from an intellectual family, I decided not to be a model—I only became a model at twenty-eight. I felt I shouldn’t be doing a job that takes advantage of your beauty. In fact, I didn’t even think that I was beautiful. You know, there’s a difference between being a pretty girl in your classroom and having the cover of Vogue.

FURNISH: But you always had some sense of being beautiful as a child and as young woman?

ROSSELLINI: At times, yes. But I was very fat as a little girl for a while. And then I had an operation for scoliosis, which was considered a deformity. So, being fat and deformed, I also knew the other side of the coin. I came out of my disease when I was fifteen, and by then—yeah, I mean without sounding pretentious, my looks had been noticed. But I think every model would say, “Half is me, and half is the photo, the hair, the makeup.” You can’t take all the credit. [laughing] If you do, you’re sick!

FURNISH: When you got to that level—the cover of Vogue, at least twenty-four times—did you have moments of saying, “Oh God. I’m sick of being perceived as this beautiful creature?”

ROSSELLINI: There was a dichotomy between what I believed I was, which was “I’m all right,” and that sense of being an impostor. I can’t say that there was anything horrible about it. The only thing that made me suffer, and it was very painful, was losing the Lancôme contract. What hurt me was that after fourteen years, with marketing research so positive and the company selling so much, I though that the cosmetics industry finally had the opportunity to break this taboo about women in their forties not being beautiful—that narrow idea of beauty!

FURNISH: Where do you think the prejudice comes from?

ROSSELLINI: It must come from the street. It’s in every magazine. You can’t open a Vogue or a Harper’s Bazaar and see a photograph of a forty-year-old woman unless she has an Academy Award nomination. There’s never anybody who’s fat or unusual looking. There’s very little room for black, Asian, or mixed-race models. I think everybody just goes with a certain flow. As for my own experience, the more I looked beyond my pain, the more it was clear that there was just a strong tradition that dictated what path to follow—which meant ageism. But I had been hoping to be out there in the avant-garde.

FURNISH: How do you feel now?

ROSSELLINI: I can say, “I’m grateful. I had it for fourteen years, and I’m sorry it didn’t go on.” Right now I’m trying to put together my own line of cosmetics with the Lancaster company.

FURNISH: I want to go back to your childhood influences. Your mother, Ingrid Berman, was considered one of the most beautiful women ever.

ROSSELLINI: Well, she was and she wasn’t. Once you become an icon, then people say, “Oh, you’re beautiful.” But when she first came to Hollywood, David O. Selznick looked at her and said, “We have to change the eyebrows,” and, “Maybe we should fix the teeth.” Mother was totally taken aback, but she had the strength to say, “Well, if you don’t like me, why did you ask me to come from Sweden? I should go back home.” And Selznick became enchanted by my mother’s charm more than by her beauty. He thought, “We don’t have a natural beauty in Hollywood.” So my mother became the girl next door. Then, with the success, people said, “Oh, she’s so beautiful.” I watched some of her films recently. My daughter is twelve, so she’s the right age to look at her grandmother’s films, and we rented Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and of course Casablanca. She made me think that she wasn’t—you know, not bigger-than-life beautiful, that she was just pretty. She was wrong, though. She was very beautiful.

FURNISH: Why do you think she wanted you to think that?

ROSSELLINI: Because she thought her success came from her acting, not her beauty. And she was probably right. She could have been half as beautiful and probably still have been Ingrid Bergman.

FURNISH: Did you ever feel pressure to live up to the ideal of beauty that your mother created on the screen?

ROSSELLINI: I think that was definitely the reason why I didn’t start acting until I was thirty-one. In fact, I became a model, so in a way I was Mother’s equal when it came to beauty—or to taking advantage of it, to put it more bluntly. The big thing was being compared to her as an actress. That scared me. And I’d like to think that if I hadn’t been Ingrid Bergman’s daughter or a famous model—if I had been an unknown actress from Kansas—I would have had a bigger success. I think both of these things have influenced people in terms of their hesitation about saying I was good on my own.

FURNISH: What did you learn from your mother about beauty?

ROSSELLINI: Well, she didn’t have any beauty tips or anything like that. [laughs] But I think the reason why I don’t use much makeup or why I live simply is because I take after Mother. We both have seen it as a choice—you know, for frugality. She taught me that matter-of-factness. I remember people saying to my mother, “You’re so beautiful.” And she would say, “I never know what to answer. What do I answer?” Finally she came up with the perfect reply: “Isn’t it lucky?” [laughs] She loved that answer.

FURNISH: It sounds as if your mother was searching for an honesty or truth that a lot of people seem frightened of today.

ROSSELLINI: Yes, but what we’re seeing today may only be a trend, and three years from now we could be back to the total simplicity of the ’70s, when they had to call my agent if they wanted to pluck an eyebrow or change my hair color. Any model that had plastic surgery knew she couldn’t have a career, because that meant she wasn’t beautiful. And no way could you change your hair color. If they needed a brunette, they called a brunette girl. If they needed a blonde, they called a blonde. Nowadays it’s totally designed. Hair has become an accessory, like a bracelet or a necklace that you change every time you go out. I think to be a model today you need a certain skill and talent—something people denied before Linda Evangelista’s generation of models: You were just beautiful and that was it. The generation of Lindas and Christy Turlingtons, they’ve reinvented modeling.FURNISH: In some respects the business has gotten better because skill is being more acknowledged. On the other hand, we no longer whole-heartedly admire what’s natural and beautiful in someone.

ROSSELLINI: Yes, and I think that these two forces will always pull against each other, because there’s both good and bad in each of them.

FURNISH: People never seem happy with the way they look, their age, their weight, their hair—there’s always this desire to be something else—which is sad.

ROSSELLINI: Yes. I think it would be fantastic to loosen up the stereotypes—to be able to be rounder, or let your eyes be a certain way, or your lips a certain way. That’s why I think Steven Meisel has contributed so much to fashion and our sense of beauty. He’s battled the stereotype, you know? He was the one who photographed incredibly beautiful models, like Veruschka, who hadn’t been photographed in such a long time. And he relaunched Lauren Hutton’s career. Lauren is totally convinced that we’re on the U-turn, that the last stereotype is the age stereotype and even it will go. I hope she’s right!

FURNISH: When you were a child, what seemed beautiful to you?

ROSSELLINI: Dogs! I just loved dogs. I still do, they’re my favorite things. [laughs] It was only during my teenage years that I started looking at beauty and admiring women like Veruschka. But I never wished that for myself. Fashion, cosmetics, and beauty were far from my interests. Remember, I was really adopted by the fashion world, I didn’t go for it, I didn’t long for it. I’ve never confessed it publicly, because then you don’t get the beauty contracts [laughs], but I have been a very very militant feminist in Italy. And it was a great contradiction to become an image of beauty given my past. But it was also absolutely fascinating to be in the eye of the hurricane. At the beginning, I felt I was betraying my cause—becoming a symbol of beauty, an object of beauty, which I don’t think about anymore. That’s become a stereotype in itself. No, I’m glad I did it. Because if I had stayed totally faithful to my feminist stereotype, I would be much more ignorant today about both beauty and life.

FURNISH: How would you define beauty?

ROSSELLINI: When I think beauty, I immediately translate it into appeal. Because if I get attached to a person, within three weeks I start to see him or her as beautiful.

FURNISH: You know, Diana Vreeland said, “Without emotion, there is no beauty.”

ROSSELLINI: I think that’s fantastic, and I’m so glad she said it. When a person shows emotion, then immediately I’m susceptible to that person’s beauty. Emotion has such great appeal and, like Diana, I see it as being beautiful.

FURNISH: What do you think has been the secret of your appeal?

ROSSELLINI: Remember, the marketing research said that what made me appealing was that I wasn’t beautiful in an intimidating way [laughs], which sort of makes sense. I’m not saying that I don’t sometimes look at certain of my photos and say, “My God, I’m really beautiful,” but of course you have to credit 50 percent of that to the photographer.

FURNISH: And you’ve done runway work, too.

ROSSELLINI: Not much, really. The runway was never my forte. Whenever they want to do a runway show where they want a “natural beauty,” then they ask me to go in. [laughs] But when they want a real beauty, then they don’t call. Photography always has been my medium and I’ve always felt that what ultimately makes a great photo is the emotion that comes across. I never thought my job was to look best, that was other people’s job—the photographers, the stylists. Mine was to present emotion. That’s what makes the photo strong, what gives it its extra quality. That’s the difference between a beautiful photo and just an image.FURNISH: Do you think beauty is a privilege?

ROSSELLINI: Definitely. I think it’s a great privilege. It opens so many doors to you.

FURNISH: Or is it a curse?

ROSSELLINI: I don’t know. I wish I could say yes, just to make it seem more democratic. But no, I don’t think so. I think it’s an incredible advantage.

FURNISH: Do you think a lot about going beyond being a model or an actress?

ROSSELLINI: I’m very grateful that I was a journalist before all of this, and I think I still have the skills to do it.  I keep reminding myself that there are lots of things I haven’t yet explored. A friend of mine always says to me, “Isabella, are you still beautiful?” And I say, “Yep.” And he says, “Ohhh, too bad!” I suppose he’s trying to reassure me that beauty isn’t necessarily my strongest quality, however much I’ve taken advantage of it.

FURNISH: Modeling really did just find its way to you, didn’t it?

ROSSELLINI: Yes, it chose me. And I… just like Alice in Wonderland, I fell down a hole and discovered an incredible world.