Wearing a simple black vest and trousers, Marie Helvin sits on the floor of her Pimlico flat. As she talks, she twists her hair into a rough plait, and her arms, head and hair fall inevitably into such perfect, almost statuesque, lines that the pose could be another of David Bailey’s classic shots of her.
Yet, she says: ‘I don’t think of myself as beautiful. I think of myself as attractive, but I really work at it, and it’s hard work, although the illusion of beauty is really not all that difficult. When you’re working it’s a question of knowing what angle looks good and how the light will catch your face of the dress. I’m one of the old-timers’, she reminds you. ‘I’ve worked everywhere in the world and done every kind of fashion and beauty job there is to do.’
Her attitude towards the published images of herself is disturbingly sane: ‘Without the illusion, I’m very plain, and I’m comfortable with myself plain. I feel more at ease with myself now than I’ve ever done.’ It is this sense of ease that she now likes to communicate in photographs of herself.
Marie’s career began at 16 when she was approached in a Tokyo coffee shop and offered a three-year modelling contract: now 34, she has worked her way to the top as a fashion model, but constantly credits her success to luck and good timing.
For example, she explains that she arrived in England just as Jean Shrimpton’s blond, blue-eyed look was giving way to a darker, stronger image set by Bianca Jagger: Marie’s half-American, half-Japanese features were perfect for the new look, the new colours and outrageous clothes. ‘When I first started I was so young and shy that I never felt I knew enough to contribute. I was more concerned with trying to impress than with my own development.’
Nevertheless, she had the good sense to learn from the world’s best photographers and fashion designers. ‘I love being among people whose work is their passion. I have so much respect for someone like Yves St Laurent or Karl Lagerfeld: I admire anyone who feels that strongly about something. I’ve always found it exciting to see how something is actually made – all the different things they do to make a hip look smaller, a bust look bigger, the skill of the fittings, the accessorizing, and of course, the show itself.’
As a show girl, she has worked with the Japanese designers Issey Miyake, Kansai Yamamoto (whose show based on kabuki theatre brought her to London and to the attention of Vogue’s fashion editor in 1971) and Kenzo Takada (whose revolutionary Cover Girls show astounded Paris in 1974) and, for five years, with Yves St Laurent. As a photographic model she has been shot by Clive Arrowsmith, Barry Lategan, Helmut Newton and Jacques Henri Lartigue as by David Bailey, with whom she worked almost exclusively from the time of their marriage in 1975.
Being with Bailey – ‘for whom photography is a passion, he doesn’t need anything else’ – made her very aware of photography’s techniques and history. She has a fine collection of images by great photographers, and pictures by Bill Brandt, Alvin Langdon Coburn and Jose Ortiz-Echague hang on her wall. ‘A fashion photograph depends so much on the direction’, she explains. ‘A model is only as good as the photographer she’s working with. Of course, the idea of the model as some kind of dumo standing there as a hanger exists, but I try to make the job as interesting as possible. If I get bored, I get depressed.’
When she first arrived in London, Marie was cast as the passive, sultry and exotic maiden, sometimes South American, sometimes Oriental, but when she began to work with Bailey for Vogue, he intensified the new hard-edged look, making her mysterious and more aggressive: it was a deliberate decision that she should never smile in their pictures together.
‘Half the time, working with Bailey, he’d let me decide how I wanted to look, and always got me involved in that way. It was important to him that I was happy with how I looked, or with what I was doing, as then I would give more to him.
‘Bailey made me see myself in a very honest and brutal way. He is a very honest person’, she explains. ‘He sees right through you, so I was never allowed to be precious with him. He once wrote of me: ‘The thing I love most about Marie is that, at the end of the day, when she looks at herself in the mirror, she sees herself. There’s no illusion there.’ I think that’s the nicest compliment anyone has ever paid me.’
The visual story of Bailey and Marie together is told in her new book, Catwalk*, which was originally conceived as a kind of beauty manual, but grew to include short but vivid passages of autobiography – there is her childhood in Hawaii, marriage to her hero, Bailey, the death of her younger sister, Suzon, and her coming to a sudden, late maturity.
Perhaps surprisingly for someone whose face is so famous, and whose husband has published photographs of her naked on beds and beaches, she says that the book makes her, for the first time in her career, feel vulnerable and exposed. ‘You see the photographs aren’t me, so they never bother me. But this is a release, it took a lot out of me to be as honest as I could, yet still hold things back. I feel now that people are going to know so much about me – and when people believe they know all about you, they think they own you.’
In Catwalk she describes how dependent she became upon Bailey for her taste, her literary knowledge and her self-esteem: ‘I also remember feeling astounded’, she writes, ‘the first time I knew for sure that Bailey was misinformed, and I think Bailey was equally shocked to hear my voice in disagreement.’ The light, airy flat in Pimlico, so different from Bailey’s dark, extraordinary house, seems carefully free from any dominating style, a place where she can, at least, feel her way into her own character and style.
She says she only began to grow up after Suzon’s death in 1978. ‘I miss her desperately. With her I could do things like picnic at Stonehenge, visit the Tower of London or the zoo. Suzon led a very hippie life, living in the middle of a rice field in Bali and running her boyfriend’s restaurant in Jamaica, and I’m an old hippie, too.
In Hawaii it was all be-ins and loveins and it was fun doing all those crazy things. Those values never really leave you. I swore to myself that there had to be some kind of purpose to Suzon’s death. Her attitude to life was that everything is important: there was a time for me when the most important thing was the next Paris collections or that I would be in a newspaper or be recognized in the street, and now it’s not what I want any more.
‘I sometimes wonder why I wanted it in the first place – although it’s easier to see that now I’ve gotten this far! Success should make you a nicer person, a better person to deal with. It has to’, she adds, a little grimly.
Marie’s growing maturity and independence upset the balance of her relationship with Bailey, and two years ago the long and gradual process of their parting began. They still work together, and she frequently repeats his comments and opinions: ‘My marriage to him made a big difference to how I look at myself and to how I see other people. But I also see things differently from him too.’
She hopes her book will play an important part in her escape not only from Bailey’s influence, but also from the prejudices people have towards beautiful women.
She finds it depressing that people – even friends who should know her better – seem to get stuck with the cliches of beautiful women: the brainless, soulless doll, the bitch, the aura of inaccessible mystique that is ruined when she opens her mouth; or the myth that if she emerges one morning looking a little rough from lack of sleep, she is about to plunge towards a self-willed, tragic end in the best dramatic tradition. She thinks of the book as a stepping stone into a more interesting world: ‘I got out of mainstream modelling several years ago and found it quite difficult to be taken seriously about wanting to do other things, and I do want to write more or to design some wearable clothes.’
But, despite having a book to promote, she is still anxious not to be seen as exotic or glamorous. ‘I’m not particularly larger than life and I don’t like being on show – it’s not the way I was brought up. I guess I just have a very down-home view of things.
‘People keep saying to me ‘you’re so normal! I don’t know what they expect! I’m just a small-chested, freckle-faced American high school kid from the beaches of Hawaii.’
*Catwalk The Art of Model Style, by Marie Helvin, is published on Monday by Pavilion Books, price pounds 14.95. An exhibition of photographs from the book is at Gallery 2, the Olympus Centre, 24 Princess Street, London W1, from Monday until November 8.