A few years ago, I thought I had found a useful role model in Frank Lloyd Wright. Broke and a social pariah who had alienated all of the few friends he ever had, at the age of 70-something he wrote an autobiography about how great he was. He started a school for architects and proceeded to become the legend he created in his book. He lived into his 90s and became the person that had eluded him who was sought-after, rich and famous.
But the thing about Frank Lloyd Wright is it wasn’t much to look at.
I needed a real role model, like Colleen Corby.
Back in 1989 I interviewed Oprah Winfrey at her office at the brand new Harpo (Oprah spelled backwards) Productions building in the West Loop. Oprah the Brand was just about to explode. Being the focus of Oprah’s concentration was not only flattering, it was mesmerizing. She had me in her grasp talking about how much we both found certain foods like Rice Krispie Marshmallow Treats irresistible. Then Oprah hit a hot button with me: She and I grew up hoping somehow, someway, someday, we would look like Colleen Corby. That touched me to the core, a shining example of Oprah’s brilliance at finding that point of shared vulnerability.
Colleen Corby was a model who was on practically every cover of Seventeen magazine, from the time I started buying it when I was in seventh grade. Colleen Corby had short dark hair in a pageboy with bangs—not unlike Vogue editor Anna Wintour’s signature look today—wide eyes and white skin. Colleen Corby was probably an even more hopeless standard for me than Oprah, although I remember wearing a prom dress that I thought was just beautiful at the time I wore it—light green, empire waist with little white daises, can you imagine?—that resembled a dress I saw on Colleen Corby once. That was the first time I heard Oprah talk about the model that so many millions of baby boomers hoped to live up to. And she may have invoked her before, but I heard Oprah tell the story of her idolizing Colleen Corby numerous times in subsequent years, so she had judged the example’s potency. (Colleen Corby’s last public appearance was on Oprah’s show in 1990.) Oprah Winfrey found the heart of the matter that summarized the painful longing for validation and fragile self-esteem of every teenage girl in an example that showed the special poignancy about identity for a black girl.
Colleen Corby, of course, was only the best-remembered role model because she was the first. (I always assumed that Colleen Corby must have had a flat personality, a grating voice or some other flaw that held up her career. But maybe she just got sick of it.) While our mothers were trying to look more like Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy, Susan Hayward and Suzy Parker—not a waif among them—we, the late teenagers, were now striving for Bridget Bardot, Jean Shrimpton, Cheryl Tiegs, Sally Field, Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, Ann-Margret, Edie Sedgwick, Catherine Deneuve, Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem and even Twiggy, as hopeless as that was. Minds had expanded in the ’60s and ’70s enough that the role models were soon (although too late in many ways) diversified and African-American, African, European and Asian women—Naomi Campbell is Chinese, British and Jamaican—emerged as icons of exotic beauty.
But oddly enough, beauty was increasingly being judged by male standards, which produced millions of variations on the Pamela Anderson-Barbie Doll-Paris Hilton-Claudia Schiffer-Anna Nicole Smith theme. (At this time, I would like to personally thank Mick Jagger for always finding women who look more like him than, say, Tuesday Weld.)
Which brings me at last to the reason I’m writing this article in the first place: Carmen Dell’Orefice. Carmen Dell’Orefice was a contemporary of Suzy Parker and a high fashion model photographed by Erwin Blumenfeld, Horst P. Horst, Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn, Francesco Scavullo and Richard Avedon. Carmen Dell’Orefice was so poor growing up in New York that she had no telephone, was malnourished and modeling didn’t pay very well. By the time she was 20, Vogue had lost interest in her. She had a series of unprofitable romantic relationships throughout her life, including Salvador Dali while in her late teens. She had three marriages that were costly and eventually was engaged to talk show host David Susskind, who died in the late 1980s, before they were married. As a model she was obscure to me, probably because in her early career she was a pretty brunette with great penetrating dark eyes, but nothing else very memorable. And her looks were too European and unusual to be popular with anybody but artists and photographers when she was young.
I became aware of Carmen about 10 years ago, after she resumed her modeling career in the 1990s. She looks very different now, though her body hasn’t changed much (size 8, 5 feet 10 inches). She’s 81 years old, has big, silver hair, great clothes and is probably well on her way to making another fortune after one of her best friends, Bernie Madoff, stole her second fortune ($244 million) in 2008. (Her husbands had swindled her out of her initial fortune.)
Carmen starred in a recent documentary on HBO called Role Models—The Supermodels Then and Now, which also had interviews with Carol Alt, Marisa Berenson, Karen Bjornson, Christie Brinkley, Pat Cleveland, Jerry Hall, Beverly Johnson, China Machado, Paulina Porizkova, Isabella Rossellini, Lisa Taylor and Cheryl Tiegs. I found the documentary riveting the same way I can’t stop looking at fashion magazines and models on live action shopping sites, still wondering what combination of dieting, exercise, designer clothes, makeup, surgery and hair care products would get me there. I’m searching for role models!
Though most of the models—and Jerry Hall doesn’t look that good—have been interviewed umpteen times and starred in movies and talk shows, I had never heard Carmen Dell’Orefice speak. Not only does she look amazing, her whole personality, voice and photos scream 80 is the new 25 or 30 or maybe 50. I don’t know the age, but whatever it is, there is nothing to fear if you’re her. Not only did she have the best looks and moves in the movie, she had the best line. When the interviewer politely asked her if she had a facelift, she said, “Well, if you had the ceiling falling down in your living room, would you not go and have a repair?”
I have officially cast Frank Lloyd Wright aside.