Fashion Icon Carmen Dell’Orefice on Love, Sex & Secrets To Her Success
Posted On Feb 10, 2015
ONLY ONE DEVASTATINGLY BEAUTIFUL WOMAN CAN CLAIM THE moniker of “the world’s oldest working supermodel.” Standing statuesque at 5’9” tall, Carmen Dell’Orefice, age 87, is a living legend, possessing equal parts humility, grace, and beauty—the kind over which wars have been waged. She defies all odds, still walking the runways after seven decades in the fashion industry.
She’s charming, sharp, and lovelier than ever. So, how exactly does Carmen remain so in demand? How does she keep it all together while sidestepping critical stares? What about the childhood struggles, the three marriages, the investment losses, and the physical pain that might stop a normal mortal in her tracks? Perhaps it boils down to this word: resilience. Good old-fashioned fortitude, minus any trace of a diva, is her nature.
We met for an intimate chat at the St. Regis Hotel in New York—coincidentally, the location of her first modeling job, posing for Salvador Dali at age 13. Everyone is transfixed by her presence—those arresting cheekbones; her signature, full-bodied white hair; long and graceful limbs; that exquisite smile. Yet we’re invited past the façade. The outsides are the brand known as “Carmen,” which belie the modest soul that lives inside her.
New You: Do you still follow your exercise routine each morning?
Carmen Dell’Orefice: Yes, but different because I have learned to listen to my body. If I am having trouble with any part of my body that needs an on-the-spot decision, then I don’t stick to my routine because then it becomes counterproductive to what my body needs at that given moment.
NY: Why is it important to listen to our bodies as we age?
CDO: Because you can hurt yourself. I must think all the time and be self-aware in the best sense of what I’m first thinking, what I choose to do and what I end up doing. And then I have to reappraise and see what worked and what didn’t work, which can change as can every cell in my body.
NY: On a good day when nothing is aching, what would be your exercise routine?
CDO: I gently move into movements where I can stretch and do a little breathing to bring my consciousness more awake—feel what my body wants to do and needs to do at that moment even if it’s just opening my eyes.
NY: You regard opening your eyes to be an exercise?
CDO: Believe you me, I pay attention to my eyesight. Does it have the same level of awakeness as yesterday or is it failing again? I’ve had cataracts removed and Lasik surgery, so I have great reason to pay attention.
NY: What is the rest of your morning routine?
CDO: I roll to see how my hips feel, my knees are bending, do a few leg-ups—just love myself and say hello to the different parts of my body. I also always have a bottle of water at my bedside. After I have stretched in bed, I drink water because my throat is so dry and if my eyes feel dry, I know I am not drinking enough fluid in general. I treat the whole machinery. It’s the way I approach things and then I don’t have to go out and buy salve or eye-drops. After that, I put the tea kettle on, set my $19 radio to good jazz, and jump on my bicycle until the kettle boils.
NY: How important are breathing exercises?
CDO: Breath is life, period. We don’t think about it because we are too busy trying to emulate others. We are all works of art in progress and we must become our own production.
NY: No matter the age, do you think people don’t pay enough attention to their bodies on a daily basis?
CDO: The pace of life today has accelerated without producing a more efficient life for anybody and it becomes hard to sometimes pay attention. However, I don’t accept pressure. I cannot deliver Carmen if I’m following someone else’s regime.
NY: Have you always followed an exercise routine?
CDO: From childhood. So I was lucky. My brain is programmed to feel better when my body feels better. I have such a good friendship with my brain that when I need to override pain and control my anxiety, I take some deep breaths, relax, and think about what I need to do rather than panic. I also don’t believe in throwing myself into unknown environments without doing my homework first.
NY: Has there ever been a time when you have found that you have your days mixed up?
CDO: Oh, absolutely! My life is so full and so precious right now. Recently I was in Singapore—I had two 24-hour flights because I was only there for three days—I had to check my morning New York Times to make sure I was on the right day. When I am on overload, I call it Carmen’s little booby trap, I start neglecting friendships that are important to me. Believe me, maintaining a friendship is like a marriage; it takes time and thoughtfulness and following through. All to do with living a well-rounded life.
NY: How have friends helped you along the way?
CDO: They have helped me slow down because I naively think that I can do more than I can do. Two longtime friends of mine, 60 to 70-year friendships, I lost recently (Eileen Ford), prepared me for dying because they knew how to live their lives. Most people don’t know how to live their life so they don’t know how to die. They are startled or confused by it but it is part of living. That’s why I always say: when I die it’s going to be my way.
NY: How do we get the most out of life?
CDO: Be awake, aware, alive, efficient, involved and flexible both mentally and physically.
NY: What are some of the pitfalls in the company you keep?
CDO: Accepting flattery or accepting advice from somebody on a subject matter they are not qualified to give you. For example, friends who give you medical advice or friends who want to share their pills with you.
NY: What about some of the benefits in the company you keep?
CDO: I’ve never listened to other people, I observe. I extrapolate what I think is interesting and see if it works for me. And I do my version of something I admire, whether it is dressing like someone, behaving like someone. I want to be part of society, be accepted but not necessarily stand out—that’s not my aim.
NY: Do you find you are more in demand right now than in the past?
CDO: Oddly, yes, and really in demand not as a model but as a person which is a different responsibility. It is odd because I have had more magazine covers in the last 25 years than I have had in my whole elongated career. I had a very respectable career but I didn’t have a specific look. I was a chameleon. Fortunately, there was always somebody who knew I was good when I showed up, was responsible, not temperamental, and could do the job well. Today I am in a territory that business considers unmarketable: age and white hair. Slowly, however, I started to own that territory little by little because I stood up for age.
NY: Your childhood was very challenging, in the financial sense. How did you survive it?
CDO: I didn’t know life any other way, so I learned to get in line, do what I had to do in the moment because that was the necessity. It was a gift in a way. I just knew how to stay alive.
NY: How have you maintained your model figure through the years?
CDO: I eat to my appetite and don’t count calories. I want to enjoy food passionately. If you don’t like watery spinach learn to braise it yourself or eat it raw. That is the creativity of living. I could have gotten into trouble with food in my lifetime because I love to eat but I was given a free pass because I metabolize food well.
NY: Have you ever been a person who could binge?
CDO: Not as a habit. I’ve had my issues with ice cream when I was younger. Friends will open my freezer today and say, “My God, who eats all this ice-cream?” It stays frozen just in case. That is my money in the bank. It gives me a feeling of security. One would think clothes would do it for me—but no, it’s ice cream.
NY: How have computers changed your life?
CDO: It has shown me how my mind works. I speak to my Mac and to a degree it prints out all the words I don’t know how to spell. I know how to communicate to a degree with the environment I find myself in and the computer helps me organize my thoughts and respond to questions from the media. The worst part is that people expect me to respond instantly instead of allowing me the opportunity of listening to a human voice, which is a richer dynamic for me, but I’m thrilled that I have snuck in.
NY: How important is it to be flexible to new equipment and ideas?
CDO: Anyone who doesn’t change is missing a lot in life because that’s a control thing and once you think you know everything, you’re a dead duck.
NY: What are some of your relaxing hobbies?
CDO: I love to sew; I still have three sewing machines. All my friends who die, leave me their sewing machines. And of course, photography is my hobby because I love to be a voyeur. It’s so exciting, looking through that lens and picking a private world that I steal at that moment. I have it forever. I miss my Nikon and 400 films because everything is digital now, so I’ve had to make friends with new equipment and systems.
NY: What advice would you give to up-and-coming models?
CDO: They are a victim of their time. I was a beneficiary of my time because it was different, society was smaller, and it was an industry in its infancy. Models today are essentially bodies-for- hire. Short of having to go to bed with everyone, it is tough work. The smartest, with a good education and some good moral support from family and mentors, will not fall into booby-traps. They will save their money and use it and the experience as stepping stones to a more permanent career. I’m just an outsider observing but this is my impression.
NY: What about love in your life?
CDO: It’s easy to talk about love but there is love, sex, and lust so we should not confuse the issue. Love is efficient because it goes where it needs to and can be reciprocated. In my agenda, I wanted something unknown that I called love. In my first marriage, I got what I wanted, which was romance, but my needs expanded after having a child. My body developed and experienced itself and lust hit, which is what I got in my second marriage but that wasn’t a whole enough situation so we divorced. In my last marriage, I was certainly positive that I had it straight but then a thing called drugs happened and I could not go down that path so I had to give up everything. My obligation in life was to keep on creating myself so I would have something to give. In the end, I gained everything, which was myself—my values and my strength.
NY: Do you think women sometimes compromise themselves in a relationship for the sake of love?
CDO: It is only when we don’t know any better. The killer lie is the one we tell ourselves where we are in a state of denial, self-delusion because we think that life must be a certain way. We take a little bit from here and a little bit from there and construct a reality which in fact is an unreality and we do that because we tend to define ourselves by others. It starts with acceptance of self and we are so far from that, male and female.
NY: How do you stay on top of your life: your health as well as your branded look?
CDO: I have had the good fortune of having three very talented doctors come into my life. The first was Dr. Herbert Southmaiden Ogden that photographer Irving Penn sent to me, who was in my life until the day he died. In my forties my body shut down from all the ballet dancing, so for years, he regulated my hormones with liver and iron shots. Then Dr. Ogden took my face off when I was 37—a medical, surgical dermabrasion. It is not a peel; more like having a wire brush of the finest quality scraping off all the sun damage. He said, “I can’t take it off your body, just your face, and you may never be in the sun ever again without total sunblock.” I said, ”Yes, sir.” He was a no-nonsense doctor I could call up for a cold and who helped me eliminate most things I would have felt compelled to explore with various other doctors.
NY: Do you regret spending that much time in the sun over the years?
CDO: I don’t regret anything, I just didn’t have the information but its one of the things that taught me the lesson: Be careful what I want because I will get it. I wanted the sun for those good feelings without understanding the consequences of my thoughts and actions. If we keep beating ourselves up we use up our positive energy.
NY: Who is the third doctor you talk about?
CDO: The doctor of all doctors for women, Dr. Lila Nachtigall, who is head of endocrinology at New York University Hospital, who helped me through a hysterectomy and is still my confident today. Because of her, my sex life is possible.
NY: Do you still have a sex life?
CDO: Of course, why would I give that up? Do I love to breathe? If you have a Rolls Royce and it is up on wheels, you go in with the key and every now and then turn on the motor to make sure the motor is running. So when you want to drive the car, it is all oiled and ready.
NY: How do you keep it oiled?
CDO: I know how to pleasure myself. I can go for a low romantic love, and that’s fine but I am conditioned to the whole meal.
NY: But so many people give up sex later on in their life. Why?
CDO: Because they never entered sex from the right doorway. We are told by our parents, ‘don’t do that’ or ‘that’s bad’ and then there is religion and the doctors who say ‘oh you are over sex.’ No – you are just under-satisfied. It should be like breathing – so natural.
NY: Do you feel that women come on too strong for men today?
CDO: Our society has not brought us together, neither has religion or politics brought us together. We have to outsmart everyone. Loving includes sex, sneezing, sharing, trust, and respect for individuality and identity. Respect the differences. The one thing [fiance] David Susskind and I had was we could talk about everything and I wasn’t trying to make him be or do what I wanted. I was curious and he was curious and we enjoyed each other and the world around us.
NY: Of all the loves in your life, was there one that took your heart away?
CDO: I can only say that I am old enough to have a bad memory. I am always anticipating that there is more of me, that there is more to come to me and that I have more to give. I am like a child at Christmas waiting to open up the gifts. One should anticipate the gift of life, live it without fear and just listen.
NY: You have certainly lived life—what are your hopes?
CDO: I have thought about it, too. I didn’t just walk through life as a sleepwalker. Today, I see there are few values. It is who wins at any cost and ends up with the most toys, the most money. Money is power and power absolutely does corrupt. My hope is that we rebalance ourselves how in our lifetimes. And on that, I will have a drink!