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Pashon Murray

Pashon Murray

and she’s got plenty to say

Pashon Murray

has a grand plan, and it starts in Detroit’s dumpsters

Most people go to the zoo to look at the animals. But Pashon Murray, 37, visits the one in Detroit to collect the manure. Then she adds it to waste gathered from the city’s cafes, restaurants and big businesses to create high-quality compost that sells for $25 to $35 per yard. She established her company, Detroit Dirt, in 2011 and was a happy under-the-radar sustainability campaigner until Ford came knocking, asking her to star in an online ad. The conviction she brought to her performance came not from theatre training but from a genuine belief in making a better world and a commitment to rebuilding her adopted city.

A business major, a whizz on the basketball court and a fellow at the MIT Media Lab, she’s garnered such a reputation that she was one of a select few entrepreneurs invited to participate in the White House’s first ever Demo Day this summer.

Text by Ann Friedman
Portraits by Daniel Riera

“Why do I work so hard? For what? For this? For dirt?” asks the young African-American woman in an online ad for Ford’s C-Max hybrid car. She’s wearing jeans and a caramel-coloured Carhartt work jacket, her hair styled in a generous Afro. Her gaze is intense, but her delivery is friendly. The camera follows her as she walks between huge piles of dirt, through a greenhouse, and into a restaurant kitchen. “I collect food scraps from restaurants,” she continues. “Manure from zoos. Manure. Do you know why? To keep this stuff out of landfills and use it to make good rich dirt. That’s why.” And, she adds, to try to make the world a better place.

It’s a shot-by-shot parody of a Cadillac commercial that caused a scandal when it first aired in the US during the 2014 Winter Olympics. That one featured a balding white man in a suit walking through his suburban mansion and celebrating capitalist American virtues such as working hard and making money while denigrating those in “other countries” as lazy for taking holidays. Pashon Murray, the star of Ford’s sharp response, made the perfect counterpoint. But in spite of her seamless performance, Pashon is no actress. The 37-year-old Michigan native is the founder of Detroit Dirt, a business that – as she explains in the ad – takes food waste from restaurants and big businesses, merges it with manure from the city zoo, and turns it into mineral-rich compost, some of which goes to the community gardens that have begun to spring up in Detroit’s empty lots. Her commercial, which went live in March 2014, was an instant viral hit. It’s been viewed 1.4 million times.

I’d watched it a few times myself, so when Pashon pulls up in her extended- cab white Ford pickup truck, I recognise her immediately, this impeccable poster girl for the city’s much-touted renaissance. Detroit’s first wave of prosperity came after the First World War, courtesy of the “big three” American automakers – General Motors, Chrysler and Ford – and the people who flocked there to work on their assembly lines. It’s still known as the Motor City ( or, indeed, Motown ), although most of the jobs disappeared as the auto industry first moved its factories elsewhere and was later beleaguered by higher petrol prices and foreign competition. Since the early ’60s, Detroit has become more and more of a cautionary tale of what can happen to America’s post-industrial cities, and while many are rooting for its comeback, others are sceptical that it’s possible to truly rebuild a city that has lost its reason to exist.

Today, as on most days, Pashon is with her operations manager, Shannon Steel, a 31-year-old Detroit native who’s riding in the back part of the pickup’s cab. We drive to a loading dock at the back of a 22-floor beige concrete skyscraper. The building’s owner, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, is a health-insurance company that’s contracted Detroit Dirt to pick up its food waste. Its office is adjacent to downtown, the area the city has most successfully repopulated through bringing back big businesses, though at street level there’s little sign of life: almost no pedestrians, no city centre hustle-bustle. On this summer morning, things are quiet.

Pashon manoeuvres the pickup backward and throws it in park. She changes out of her ballet flats and into a pair of printed wellington boots. With the help of a guy working at the loading dock, they hoist three heavy barrels of food scraps into the bed of her truck. At 5 foot 6, Pashon isn’t particularly tall, and she’s not noticeably muscular, but she’s strong and confident. “Careful pulling out there,” the man shouts after her as she climbs back into the truck and expertly reverses it back up the ramp – she’s done this hundreds of times. “Men are just funny. ’Cause I do this every day, and he’s talking to me like, you know…” she trails off.

Pashon doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty, but she prefers to use a Ford 555D backhoe loader for big deliveries. On all photos, she wears a green cotton jacket by A.P.C., a cream cashmere top by THE ROW and indigo jeans by CARHARTT.

Five days a week, Pashon picks up six or seven barrels of food waste from businesses around Detroit and hauls them to her composting lot, a modest 2.5 acres of matted grass and packed dirt at the dead end of a road dotted with a few industrial buildings. In the shadow of a tall billboard advertising an upcoming ZZ Top performance at a local casino, Pashon has five piles of compost scattered around the property. We’re near Corktown, a neighbourhood at the southwest edge of downtown Detroit that’s become a fashionable hub of the city’s renaissance, its Federal-style houses and colourful buildings accommodating the city’s newest restaurants and bars. But in the distance, I can still see the heroic but abandoned Michigan train station and the graffiti-covered former Southwest Detroit Hospital, a favourite “ruin porn” subject of out-of-town photographers looking for icons of the decay of this once-booming metropolis.

Today Pashon isn’t just here to empty the containers of food waste. She’s meeting a producer from the Travel Channel, a cable-TV network that will feature her on an upcoming show, IExplore, next year. Until recently, she had a few more large compost piles here, she tells the producer. But much of the good stuff has been hauled away for summer planting. He looks a little disappointed but undeterred. The plan is to film some scenes of the American-football-player-turned actor Terry Crews hauling compost with Pashon, who will tell the audience about her plan to save the planet – and Detroit in the process. “It’s not as hard as people make it out to be,” she says matter-of-factly in her clipped, slightly nasal northern-Midwest accent. “It’s redirecting the destruction and turning it into something productive.”

Composting, like most change, starts small. Microscopic, actually. Bacteria get to work breaking down the muffin crumbs from the office cafeteria, the half-eaten sandwiches, and the clumps of excrement from the zoo giraffes. Then, as the temperature starts to rise, bigger creatures like worms start to chow down and do their own excreting. When the process is complete, the compost is so nutrient-rich it’s often called “black gold”. It’s in particular demand in post-industrial cities like Detroit, where lead and other chemicals have leached into the soil. While there are a few companies that take yard waste and food scraps from customers’ homes, haul it away and bring back compost, Detroit Dirt is the only one targeting the city’s biggest businesses and employers – and pushing them to change the ways they operate.

The remaining piles at Pashon’s site are as tall as she is, but even when she kicks one of them with the toe of her rubber boot, it doesn’t smell bad. ( This, she informs me, is a sign of quality. ) There’s no office here; Pashon spends most of her time in her white pickup truck and does her admin from an all-amenity downtown apartment. ( She used to live in the Grinnell building, a former piano showroom in Corktown, but by 2013 it had become “a little too hectic, too in-the-mix”. ) But Pashon has her eye on a new 20-acre plot of land where she’ll be able to install a trailer or modified shipping container to use as a base. In fact, she’s meeting with the owners later today.

Pashon founded Detroit Dirt in 2011 with Greg Willerer, an urban farmer who was already planting and cultivating community gardens around Detroit. She was working in environmental consulting at the time, so she was the one who brought the business connections. They formed Detroit Dirt as a model of a closed-loop system, in which food waste is composted and the compost is used to grow more food. In contrast to open-loop recycling, where eventually materials are retired to a landfill, the idea of a closed-loop system is to create a seamless circle where no resources are wasted and no trash is ever created. “Local compost used by local farmers growing local food eaten by local consumers building a local economy,” as Pashon puts it. But she and Greg didn’t see eye to eye on the future. “His focus was composting and urban farming, but my model was to expose the system and go to these corporations and hold them accountable for their waste,” she says. In 2013 she bought him out.

At the end of that same year, Detroit filed for bankruptcy. The city had lost 60 per cent of its population since 1950 – a decline that hastened rapidly between 2000 and 2010 – which meant low tax revenue. Unemployment was high, and the local government was notoriously corrupt – former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced to 28 years in prison for extortion and bribery. So Pashon didn’t even approach city officials to ask them to support or subsidise Detroit Dirt. Instead, she went to the largest employers still standing – companies like General Motors and Blue Cross Blue Shield – and to the Detroit Zoological Society and asked them to pay her to haul away their waste. “They move slow,” Pashon says of the businesses she now works with. “It took me almost three years to get them to say yes to the first contract.” Now powerful figures such as Dan Gilbert, a billionaire tech entrepreneur who owns more than 60 buildings in Detroit and employs more than 10,000 people, are thinking of signing up, and others already have.

Even though her first name rhymes with “passion” and Pashon considers herself an activist, Detroit Dirt isn’t a charity. Shannon Steel explains, “It’s between a business and a labour of love. It’s a for-profit company, but Pashon’s not really doing this for the money. That will come – and she knows it – but she’s really trying to do what she believes God wants her to do. She had a vision about composting waste and saving the earth by diverting waste from the landfill.” In the beginning, Pashon says it was personal – it was about what she as an individual could do to improve Detroit’s contaminated soil. But as her work began to attract attention, her perspective changed. “I saw it was bigger than me,” she says. “I had to make up my mind: was I just doing this as a community thing, or was I going to give my life to this?”

In the United States, biowaste recycling mainly falls to private entrepreneurs like Pashon. In the EU, member states are required by EC directives to reduce the amount of biowaste going to landfill, but the US Environmental Protection Agency has no equivalent federal legislation; only a small number of state laws enforce biowaste reduction and recycling. And so to get her business off the ground, Pashon has relied on her friends and a close network of like-minded locals – people like Audra Carson, the founder of De-tread, a company that recycles tires; David Landrum and Peter Bailey, who set up the Corktown distillery Two James Spirits ( one of Pashon’s after-work haunts ); and others, like Phillip Cooley of Ponyride, who are renovating crumbling warehouses to provide inexpensive spaces for artists and small businesses. They aren’t speculators who are buying up buildings in the hope that other people will do the work to raise property values but hardworking entrepreneurs who are proud to be part of Detroit’s comeback. “Let’s use the analogy of the vehicle,” Murray says. “I’m only one component here – the doors in the car, or the alternator, or whatever.”

“It’s not as hard as people make it out to be. I’m simply redirecting    the destruction and turning it into something productive.”

Pashon was brought up to care about waste. She was raised two hours west of Detroit in Grand Rapids, Michigan, by her mother and father ( though technically her stepfather, he’s been in her life since she was 5, and she calls him Dad ), along with two brothers and two stepsisters. Both of her parents have roots in Mississippi, and the family made regular summer trips to the farm there where her father had grown up. “My grandfather knew what was wrong with the cows when they got sick, he knew about the chickens, he could tell when rain was coming,” Pashon says fondly. “He was in tune with nature.”

Back home, her father owned a maintenance company, ploughing snow in the winter and mowing lawns in the summer. Pashon would ride along with him on the weekends, shuttling back and forth between landscaping gigs and the landfill. These days, her dad comes to Detroit to help her on the weekends. The poetry of it all is not lost on her: “If I hadn’t gone to my family’s land in Mississippi or spent that quality time being around my dad, I don’t think I’d be who I am today,” she says. Murray studied business marketing at Texas Southern University, where she was a point guard on the university’s basketball team. She was good enough to play in a semi-pro league after graduation and worked for the Houston Rockets NBA team briefly, but she rarely if ever plays these days. “Lately I haven’t even had time to really relax or do much of anything,” she confesses over a lunch of cold-pressed juice and burritos at a vegetarian cafe near Wayne State University in Detroit’s historic Midtown.

When she was 29, Pashon moved back to Grand Rapids to help out with her dad’s maintenance company and then found work as a consultant, locating minority contractors for green construction projects and lobbying for environmental groups. She’d launched her own construction-site clean-up company, Waste Trends, in 2005. Much of her work was in Detroit – a city she’d always loved – and after a year of commuting, she eventually moved there. In 2011, she formed Detroit Dirt.

It was Pashon’s friends at the local ad agency Team Detroit who suggested she’d be the perfect spokesperson for a Ford ad touting “real” American values like community improvement. “Pashon was in it all the way, right away,” says Toby Barlow, Team Detroit’s global chief creative officer. “She loved the main message of working hard to make the world a better place. It’s one she lives and breathes.” Working with automakers whose businesses depend on fossil fuels presented something of a challenge. “I had to turn the stigma into something positive,” she admits. But since the car industry was recovering from its own bankruptcy, it was also surprisingly open to Pashon’s ideas. “That was a window of opportunity for me. They’re rebuilding their industry, so they were looking at alternative approaches: electric cars, recycling, their waste stream.”

“I believe it was like an out-of-body experience for her, seeing that ad go live,” says De-tread’s Audra Carson, who was with Pashon on the night it premiered. “It took quite a few times for it to sink in. Then we laughed till we cried and then stayed up 48 hours straight just reading all of the media. The numbers were jumping by 10,000 views.”

The ad changed everything. Pashon received calls from the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, from the California governor’s office, from Time, from National Public Radio. She joined the MIT Media Lab, the highly respected interdisciplinary research centre at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as a fellow – she was introduced to its director, Joi Ito, through Toby Barlow. “We invited her out to give a talk at the Media Lab, and everyone fell in love with her spirit as well as the work she’s doing,” says Ito. “She’s become quite an inspiration for our students and our faculty. The tendency for kids in our lab is to make gadgets to try to fix things. What’s great about Pashon, for us, is she’s trying to do something. She’s not interested in gadgets unless they move her mission forward.” The lab is assisting her by developing technology that helps monitor temperature, bacteria activity and data for soil variations. “Not at MIT, but elsewhere, people still ask me if I’m building a landfill,” Pashon has said. “But to me it’s like a winery. I have different grades of dirt for different uses. I have variations for farmers, community gardens, private gardens; dirt that has been aged; straight manure.”

Her MIT connection has also helped her secure the lucrative speaking engagements all over the country, which have become key to her financial security. A TEDYouth talk at the Brooklyn Museum last year found her explaining the virtues of quality dirt to an audience of spellbound students. She’s on the road several times a month now. “You can’t be a prophet in your own city,” she says.

In 2014 she was a recipient of one of the Martha Stewart American Made awards, which spotlight artisans and entrepreneurs. “She has an infectious quality,” says Stewart warmly. “She absolutely does good for her community. But really, I admire her passion.” Stewart is even playing a part in Pashon’s upcoming book. “Martha’s one of the coolest people I’ve ever met,” says Pashon. “She sent me a letter recently agreeing to do the foreword.” Scheduled for 2016, the book will be partly a practical guide to composting and partly a case for making the most of waste.

Meanwhile, this year she’s partnering with the Detroit retailer Shinola, which works closely with a number of small businesses in the area. Initially she approached the company for guidance on packaging and marketing, but now they’re planning a line of co-branded dirt and gardening products. “We didn’t want to do the cliché T-shirts and all that,” says Pashon. “We wanted a product we could actually sell and people could actually use.” For Shinola’s creative director, Daniel Caudill, she’s an inspiration – “one of the bright lights working towards bringing this city back on its feet,” he says. “Pashon embodies Detroit’s never-quit attitude.”

It takes a certain kind of thinker to see the value in waste, which, after all, is not a business built on instant gratification. And it takes a certain amount of humility to want to get your hands dirty in the mess we make as we go about our lives. But Pashon’s long plan is bigger than mere compost: it’s to create energy. When waste breaks down, it generates by-products – heat, liquid, gas – and she wants to find a way to capture the energy locked inside and use it to power the city. If Detroit is a test case for post-industrial America’s rebirth, then Pashon intends to use her research contacts, local network and entrepreneurial zeal to make renewable energy a part of its story. Her first step is getting more land for her compost piles – she’s hoping that 20-acre plot will come through. Beyond that, she says, it’s down to sheer force of will, “and how many clients I end up having. At this moment, I haven’t even captured a fraction of the market.”

Pamela Anderson

Pamela’s calling

and she’s got plenty to say

Pamela’s calling

and
she’s got plenty to say

Here comes Pamela Anderson in her fancy vegan shoes, scheduled to hit the shops this winter. Amply proving there’s life after Baywatch and Playboy, the 48-year-old Canadian has successfully diversified her interests way beyond those of the average swimsuit-sporting bombshell. Besides designing footwear, she’s worked in the worlds of magic – as assistant to Hans Klok – and activism, recently writing a protest letter to Vladimir Putin and donating proceeds of her new book, Raw, to her foundation, which works to protect animal, human and environmental rights. Then there’s her new cookery programme, The Sensual Vegan, in which the blond star works wonders with a mandolin and piles of beans. And next year will see Pammy on the big screen. A new film, Connected, in which she plays a discarded Malibu trophy wife, is about to do the rounds, and by all accounts she does it very well.

Text by Horacio Silva
Portraits by Roe Ethridge

On a recent Sunday morning, Pamela Anderson stood barefoot in her Malibu kitchen, cooking up a vegan storm. The ’90s sexplosion and former Baywatch star was dressed in her everyday beach uniform of skimpy white shorts and a T-shirt, taking cooking lessons from an amiable young teacher called Delahna Flagg. The pair had only met a few times but appeared to have a close rapport; it’s easy to see why they’ve started recording an online cooking show, The Sensual Vegan, together. “Delahna is an expert at aphrodisiac dishes,” Pamela offered excitedly, in her helium-high baby voice. “We’re determined to eliminate Viagra, Cialis and that new one for women.”

Pamela’s kitchen is the sort other serious home cooks can only dream of. There are two splendid Miele ovens and a sub-zero fridge, lots of pots and pans and utensils hanging within easy reach, a built-in steamer and a coffee maker. “I have fancy things!” she said. “All the whistles and bells, baby!” On the counter is a little statue of the Virgin Mary. The kitchen flows straight into the living room – all squashy white sofas and a single black-and-white photograph of Iggy Pop taken by Laurie Lynn, the female half of the Chrome Hearts jewellery brand. And then there’s the pool; this is Malibu, after all. The two-storey house is nestled between the mountains and the beach in a heavily guarded gated community where Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller once lived and Hollywood potentates like Steven Spielberg still make their home.

Pamela, a long-time vegan and activist, explained that her commitment to nutrition and better living is part of a “sensual revolution” she’s trying to mount. It’s a phrase she uses often, and the idea is the basis for a wellness book she’s writing ( also titled The Sensual Vegan ), but then Pamela is given to repetition: she married two of her former husbands twice and famously had her breasts augmented, reduced and augmented again. She speaks with a rapid- fire delivery, her conversation spattered with famous names, though she’s not trying to impress: her social circle includes plenty of fêted artists, such as Richard Prince and Marilyn Minter.

“Ed Ruscha says that I’m always leaving skid marks because I’m going a little too fast,” she said, dropping another Los Angeles artist into the mix. She owns several pieces of his work, including a painting that she commissioned and has hanging in her bedroom. “PAMELA,” it exclaims, in letters flying out a window. Ruscha says it’s no surprise that her vivacious personality combined with her knowledge of contemporary art has charmed his fellow artists. “When I met her I felt like she had just stepped out of a musical production,” he said in an email. “That’s the effect she had on me.” He and his brother, Paul, call her “Our Pamela”.

While Delahna peeled away at some blisteringly hot beets ( “Look,” Pamela said, “she’s like a hairdresser – she has no fingerprints left!” ), her pupil talked about growing up in Canada on a diet of moose meat and venison with a father who liked to hunt. “It really wasn’t that hard to quit,” she insisted with a smile. But the conversation moved quickly on to the subject of her hair extensions – “These have got to come out,” she said in frustration – and the recent renovations on her house. “I’m a Cancer, so I’m always fucking renovating,” she said; the guesthouse behind the pool is currently undergoing an overhaul.

Brandon, 19, and Dylan, 17, her two sons with ex-husband rocker Tommy Lee, were due home any minute. Pamela said she was looking forward to spending time with them over the summer, not least because it would be their first time at home together since her messy divorce a few months earlier from Rick Salomon, a professional gambler best known for his part in the Paris Hilton sex tape. “My dog Jo-Jo passed away not long ago,” said Pamela. “I think he committed suicide because he didn’t like my husband. He just looked at me one day and said, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but I can’t do this anymore. I’m out.’” With that, she poured glasses of rosé and handed round some of the meze platter she and Delahna had whipped up. “I’m trying to be a better host,” she explained. “Delahna” – who was finishing tidying up and preparing to leave – “says that if you cook you have more friends, which is a good thing. Usually my friends are my husbands, and when I let them go I’m all alone.”

Hey, it’s Pamela! Here and on the first image, the sunny Canadian actor is wearing a cream silk wildcat-print shirtdress; on the next one, she’s in a silk crêpe de chine shirt in a juicy orange tone; and on the last one, she wears a purple stretch-cady long-sleeved dress, all by STELLA McCARTNEY. The gold drop earrings, worn throughout, are also by STELLA McCARTNEY. On the small image, inset, Pamela wears a silk twill floral print dress by MARC JACOBS.

Spend any time with Pamela Anderson – sex symbol, actor, icon, activist, author, mother – and it’s easy to see why she’s held sway over popular culture for as long as she has, why she went viral before the term had taken hold ( from 1995 to 2005 her name was the most frequently searched term on the Internet ) and why the public has been seemingly spellbound by the soap opera that is her life. “She’s a tremendous woman,” said the designer Vivienne Westwood, her good friend and mentor. “I wish there were more like her in this world, because then it would be a better place. I’m not talking about her looks; I’m talking about her spirit. Pamela embodies beauty and intelligence. Not only is she a sex icon, she’s a superwoman.”

As far as Pamela’s looks go, they aren’t as artificial as they were in the ’90s, when she surfaced from the water during the opening credits of Baywatch like a jacked-up latter-day Venus. The ample bosom still commands attention, but it’s the perfectly proportioned face that draws you in. There are just enough incipient lines and telltale signs around the eyes and mouth to make believable her claim that she’s never had work done. Along with the veganism, she swims and does a little Pilates and Gyrotonics, maintaining what her impressive genes originally bestowed. “I’m not into extreme workouts,” she said. “I’d rather meditate.”

As Westwood suggests, it’s unfair to reduce Pamela to her appearance alone. She’s witty and smart and has always appeared to be in on the joke, even when the barbs (usually about her prodigious boobs and supposedly tiny mind) have been far from kind. In a homogenous media landscape in which celebrities are guarded to the point of being boring, she’s talked about everything from contracting hepatitis C from sharing a tattoo needle with Tommy Lee to being sexually assaulted by a female babysitter as a child. And with the possible exception of Angelina Jolie, it’s hard to imagine any other celebrity matching Pamela’s gumption in writing to Vladimir Putin this year to request that he block the passage of cargo ships carrying whale meat to Japan, and to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2014 to ban fur sales in his country. It’s her willingness to open up and show her vulnerability that has kept the public interested in Pamela. For all her larger-than-life blondness, she is, in tabloid parlance, one of us.

Right now, Pamela is a single mother, reinventing her career at a stage of life when most actresses (let alone ageing pin-ups) are routinely shut out. But then, at 48, she’s all too familiar with the vicissitudes of life, and she’s never been slouchy about improving her lot. When she got into trouble with the IRS in 2012 over unpaid back taxes, she took the advice of her closest friend, the photographer David LaChapelle, and worked her way out of it – as a magician’s assistant in Las Vegas, a guest on India’s version of Big Brother and a contestant on Dancing on Ice 2013 (she was voted off in week one).

“David says I’m the least ambitious person in Hollywood. But I really believe in the process of things,” Pamela said, looking remarkably lively for someone who’d flown in from overseas at 2am and got up four hours later. “I try to teach my boys that we all go through it sometimes, and, you know, to ride the wave, because things have a way of turning around.” Brandon, when he arrived home, turned out to be something of a young Brando. He’s being sought out for acting and modelling jobs. Dylan, a dead ringer for his dad, is a dedicated surf rat. He and his best friend have started a charity whose proceeds will take them to Africa this year, where they’ll share their surfing skills.

Pamela’s acting renaissance centres on Connected, a short film by Luke Gilford that’s set to do the rounds of the international festival circuit. In it, she plays Jackie, a discarded Malibu trophy wife who goes in search of meaning after her husband leaves her for a younger woman and her children go off to college. When SoulCycle and vitamins no longer do the trick, Jackie goes for a hyperbaric oxygen treatment and gets roped into a cult masquerading as a futuristic social network. In news that may surprise Pamela’s detractors – and anyone who saw her in small-screen stinkers like VIP and Stacked – she really can act. In Connected, she gives the kind of raw mid-career performance that turned around the fortunes of Mickey Rourke and Matthew McConaughey in recent years.

“When I met Pamela a couple of years ago, she wasn’t the pill-popping party gal that I’d heard about,” says Gilford. “She was someone clearly searching for meaning, having been a symbol of everything plastic for so long. Usually, sex symbols either retreat into obscurity as they get older or they meet with a dehumanising public demise, like Marilyn Monroe or Anna Nicole Smith. Not many have tackled their legacy head-on and turned it into something meaningful, like Pamela’s doing.”

Initially Gilford asked Pamela’s agent to set up a quick meet-and-greet. “But we started talking about juicing and fasting and ageing, and next thing you know we were on to real human connections in the age of super-connectivity,” he recalls. “I hadn’t seen her in anything since Borat, and I was fascinated to see her grapple with all these things, so I wrote a story around her. She was really scared but up for the challenge. She is very hardworking and did a ton of research and rehearsals, because people didn’t believe she could pull it off. She has incredible emotional empathy with animals and humans and channelled that into an amazingly realistic performance.”

Pamela said she’d always wanted to take acting more seriously. “I’ve always got away with murder, running around in a bikini and what have you,” she laughed. “But I knew I was capable of more than I’d been asked to do in the past. Besides, I want to try new things, and if I’m going to act I want to play different people. Luckily, Connected was an art project, and like all art projects, they wanted me to look really, really bad, which was great.”

More projects have come along too. She recently completed a short film with Keanu Reeves called SPF18, directed by the Los Angeles artist Alex Israel, and a feature with Nadia Litz, the emerging Canadian director who was one of the breakout talents at the most recent Toronto International Film Festival. “People have a very fixed image of who I am and what I can do, but I’d rather do more creative projects than just pop out another TV show,” Pamela said. Next up is a film with the Bahraini filmmaker Hala Matar, in which she plays a flight attendant who gets hit on the head and can suddenly sing the Queen of the Night’s aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute. “I hope she only wants me to sing a couple of notes,” Pamela said, “because it’s only the hardest song ever to sing.”

And then there’s Vernon God Little, an on-again-off-again film project with Werner Herzog. Based on the Man Booker Prize-winning 2003 novel by DBC Pierre, it appears to have stalled for the moment because of copyright issues. “I would never have dreamed of working with someone like Werner; I just didn’t see how it could be possible,” Pamela said. “But he believes in me. I’ve always been around artists, but people saw what they saw and didn’t connect the dots.”

Pamela’s transition from cultural punching bag to art-house muse and vegan lifestyle purveyor could be seen as her third act, given that she started out as a flat-chested Canadian brunette who morphed into a luscious American blond icon. Born in the small town of Ladysmith on Vancouver Island and raised by her furnace-repairman father and waitress mother, Pamela was famously discovered as a fresh-faced teenager wearing a Labatt’s beer T-shirt on the giant screen at a football game in 1989. Before long, she’d moved to Los Angeles, become a Playboy Playmate ( she’s been on the cover of the magazine’s American edition a record 14 times ) and been cast in the sitcom Home Improvement as Lisa the Tool Time girl.

But it was playing lifeguard CJ Parker from 1992 to 1997 on Baywatch – which was shown in over 140 countries and became one of the most successful TV shows ever – that launched her into the stratosphere as Pamela Anderson the hyperreal Barbie, a ubiquitous double-D embodiment of the California dream. By the time she married Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee in 1995 in Cancun, Mexico, after an ecstasy-fuelled four-day courtship, she was one of the most famous people on the planet.

“Pamela was everything to everyone all over the world,” said David LaChapelle. “I was on assignment in India once and saw all these people sitting around a TV on the side of the street, transfixed. I remember thinking, What the hell is going on? Is there another war on? It turned out that they were watching Baywatch. I get back to New York and Los Angeles, and sure enough, everyone I know was watching Baywatch. It was insane how famous she was – I can only imagine how much bigger she would have been had social media been around when she was at her peak.”

Not surprisingly, Hollywood came knocking, and in 1996 Pamela landed the lead role in Barb Wire, a post-apocalyptic remake of Casablanca set in a strip club. “It was meant to be a little dark comedy,” she said, “but because of the attention I was getting at the time, they thought that they could turn it into this huge hit, which was a mistake.”

“People have a very fixed image of what I can do, but I’d rather do more creative projects than just pop out another TV show.”

The script of Barb Wire was as skimpy as a bikini, but in truth, even had the writers of Casablanca authored it, the only Anderson movie the general public was interested in was a stolen sex tape she’d made on her ( first ) honeymoon with Tommy Lee; it practically broke the Internet when it was posted online in 1997. The tape, stolen from a safe on the couple’s property by a handyman who claimed they owed him money for renovations, made an estimated $77 million in less than 12 months – and that was just in legitimate sales. Anderson and Lee unsuccessfully fought to ban its publication and distribution in numerous courts and eventually settled out of court.

The tape’s legacy – Lee was hailed as a stud, Pamela as a slut – was predictable, and people’s desire to watch it seemingly endless. “That stupid tape,” said Pamela, sitting in her kitchen 18 years on. “I can’t believe the interest in it hasn’t died down. It made for a very uncomfortable talk with my sons – you have no idea. But looking back at it, at least my hair looked good.”

“That’s the thing about Pamela – she’s never lost her sense of humour,” said Emma Dunleavy, a British photographer who’s known and travelled extensively with Anderson for 20 years. “She’s a great sport and is of the opinion that all of this – the good, the bad and the ridiculous – has made her into who she is today. You can’t pick and choose. She’s a global icon, and with that comes a lot of crap.” Perhaps in a bid to rebalance the narrative, Pamela and Dunleavy have collaborated on Raw, a new scrapbook-style compendium of behind-the-scenes images of Pamela in various states of undress, taken by Dunleavy over the years.

“I’m really proud of Raw,” Pamela said as we headed upstairs to look around the rest of the house, “because that’s who I am and because it features my writing and my feelings, not just my looks.” She showed me the boys’ rooms, filled with computers and guitars, a few more works by Ed Ruscha and a Shepard Fairey. “Raising my kids – that, to me, is the most important thing in the world,” she said. She speaks to them like adults, but she’s clearly the one in control. “Then writing. The Sensual Vegan isn’t just about food but about being compassionate and mindful. It’s a real labour of love.” We passed through her own bedroom, filled with light and books and flanked by six closets that spring open at the lightest touch. On the wall were two photographs of Marilyn Monroe from her famous last sitting with Bert Stern, a birthday present to Pamela from David LaChapelle. Along the way, she mentioned a recent meeting with Julian Assange, her line of environmentally friendly boots made from recycled TVs, and the possibility of a Broadway turn as Roxie in Chicago. Then we got on to the range of vegan bags and shoes she’s designed with Amélie Pichard, which will be sold at Opening Ceremony from December. Pichard had based her Spring/Summer 2014 collection – think pink patent sandals with medium-height block heels – on the idea of a girl who wants to become Pamela Anderson. “So we were introduced by a friend,” Pamela continued, “and decided to work together on some beautifully made vegan shoes – sexy, not hippie espadrilles. For now, it’s eight styles and one bag.” Then she asked, “Have you read this book?” and pointed to The Gods Will Have Blood by Anatole France.

“Doing good work and just hanging out with Luke Gilford and his friends is great, because people are saying how I can really do this, how I can act,” she offered finally as we headed downstairs. “But I don’t think I ever just want to be an actress. I really am more interested in doing a cooking show. It drives my agent insane, but as he says, at least I’m not in a swimsuit, with big hair and eyeliner.”

Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay

The film director who tells epic tales through intimate stories

Ava DuVernay

The film director who tells epic tales through intimate stories

Ava DuVernay has always enjoyed spotting a missed opportunity. At the age of 27, the native Los Angelena established her own publicity company to promote films to neglected audiences. Then she set about organising theatrical releases for independent black films. But now she’s a different kind of mover and shaker. In 2011, she closed her business, moved to a smaller house, and threw herself into film directing – previously, she says, a “hobby”. The shift culminated in Selma, a major feature film chronicling three months in the life of Martin Luther King and produced by Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt. Ms DuVernay, now 42, is a woman of strong convictions, including the belief that West Side Story is one of the best movies ever made.

Text by Ann Friedman
Portraits by Todd Cole

Ava DuVernay was on the set of someone else’s film – Michael Mann’s 2004 Collateral, to be exact – when she realised, “I could do this.” Mann was shooting in East Los Angeles, a working-class corner of the city where Hollywood directors usually fail to tread. Jada Pinkett Smith, Jamie Foxx, and Javier Bardem were all filming scenes that day. And perhaps it was this combination of location and actors – “black and brown people were on set,” Ava notes – that made it all click for her. “I just thought, wow, I could tell this story,” she recalls.

Today, she’s known as the director of Selma, an Academy Award-nominated film about a crucial three-month period in 1965 during America’s civil rights movement and the back-and-forth between one of its leaders, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and President Lyndon B Johnson. But at the time, Ava was a publicist, responsible for marketing films, not making them. And she was, by all accounts, quite successful in her chosen corner of the entertainment industry. She’d founded her own agency – the DuVernay Agency – when she was just 27, and she’d already worked on publicity for major studio movies like Spy Kids. But after that day on the Collateral set, she began a ten-year transformation from publicity powerhouse to path-breaking director.

“It was a hobby. That’s what it started as,” she tells me over guacamole and quesadillas at Gracias Madre, a vegetarian Mexican restaurant in West Hollywood – her choice. She wears angular black glasses and long braids, is dressed casually in jeans, and carries a boxy red leather Prada handbag. DuVernay, who’s 42 but looks younger, has big brown eyes that are friendly yet intense when she focuses her gaze. Perhaps it’s her publicity background, or maybe it’s all the interviews she’s been doing about Selma, but she tells her story in a way that’s understated yet cinematic. First, she bought some books on the art of screenwriting and tried tapping out a script in the evenings and at weekends. “And then it really took hold of me” Ava says. She began using her savings to make films, including a feature-length documentary about hip-hop and a feature film called I Will Follow, released in 2010. “She was busy – really busy,” says Spencer Averick, the editor who’s worked with her on every project since her first documentary, This Is The Life, in 2008. “She would run into the edit suite, look at a couple things, give me some notes, run back to the office and her marketing company. Back and forth.” Eventually she moved the editing suite directly into her agency’s office.

Around that time, she realised that if she really wanted to make a feature film, she’d have to devote herself to it full time. In 2011, she closed her agency to focus on filmmaking. “I sold my house at one point,” she says of her move from Sherman Oaks to Beachwood Canyon in the Hollywood Hills. “I don’t talk about it a lot, but I had to downsize. And I was perfectly happy to do it. I had to reassess and say, ‘I now make small films, so I need to live like a person that makes small films.’ Do you want a bigger house and a fancier car? Or do you want to do something every day that you can’t wait to get up and do?”

She also knew the odds were stacked against her. Hollywood doesn’t like to gamble, and by all accounts, it still sees women filmmakers as a risk. Women directed only 4.7 per cent of studio films between 2009 and 2013. Even so, at first, Ava tried to get financing for her film the traditional way: she showed up to meetings with studios, pitched her idea, and begged powerful people to help her make it happen. It didn’t work. “I’ve found audiences around the world open to new stories by new voices,” she says. “But the guys holding the purse strings, sometimes, not so much.”

One day, she says, “I just realised that I need to work without permission. As long as you’re asking people to help you, you’re not empowered to help yourself. I had a lot of what I needed; I just didn’t realise it.” She used her publi-city connections to turn her script into an independent film. The result, Middle of Nowhere, is a conflicted love story about a woman from South Los Angeles caught between two worlds and two men. In 2012, the film was accepted for the Sundance Film Festival, where Ava became the first African-American woman to receive the best director award.

It’s usual for directors to work with a small rotating cast of collaborators, from editors to costume designers to screenwriters to actors. But DuVernay is extraordinarily loyal, and her cast and crew are so devoted that other Hollywood luminaries have taken notice. When director Kathryn Bigelow sat down with DuVernay for a Q&A after a screening of Selma in Los Angeles, Bigelow’s first comment was, “I think one of the greatest compliments a director can receive is the love of an actor. And the names will remain anonymous, but your cast loves you.”

One of them who has no desire for anonymity is David Oyelowo, one of the leading actors in Middle of Nowhere. “The love she has for the cast and crew is reverberated back onto the screen,” he says. “She’s a brilliant student of humanity and a purveyor of emotion and truth. It creeps into her writing, into her direction and the way she teases out great performances from people who go on to become her friends.” Oyelowo describes their relationship as “chemical. I know if we need to go again on a take simply by the way she says Cut!” It was he who introduced Ava to Selma.

Incredibly, despite the fact that the United States has dedicated a national holiday to Dr Martin Luther King Jr – assassinated in 1968 after years of groundbreaking work as a nonviolent organiser of the movement for African-American civil rights – Hollywood has never previously made a film featuring him as the protagonist. The Selma script, originally written by the British screenwriter Paul Webb, had bounced around town since 2007, with a string of directors signing on and then dropping the project. When Oyelowo heard about it, he had a premonition. “I was in a time of prayer, and God told me on the 24th of July 2007 that I would play Martin Luther King in the film Selma,” the British actor told a packed audience at the Urbanworld Film Festival last year. Not long after, he was approached about the part – and then another director abandoned the film.

Finally, Oyelowo stepped in and told the studio they should consider DuVernay. “Being a great actor is based on trust – trust in yourself, but also in your director,” he says. “Being on screen is pretty exposing. And when you’re portraying a figure of Martin Luther King’s stature, it’s doubly so. You can’t go through all those emotional steps without a coach, a cheerleader, a captain, and that’s Ava. She enables you to jump off the cliff knowing that you’re going to get caught.” Ava says: “He pitched me so hard and so fervently that by the time I got the call, it was like, ‘Do you want to do this? Because he really thinks you can do it.’ And so the script landed on my lap.”

The tireless and terrific director was photographed in her home city of Los Angeles, taking moments out from the frenetic activity that has surrounded the release of her breakout film, Selma. Ava wears her own clothes here and throughout.

Ava DuVernay grew up south of downtown Los Angeles, far from the glitz, in the neighbourhoods of Lynwood and Compton, made famous by rap lyrics. There was no local cinema, so she had to drive to the mall a few neighbourhoods away to see commercial blockbusters. More often, she watched old movies on television with her Aunt Denise. “My big memory is of West Side Story,” she says. “I remember seeing it and thinking it looked like my friends. I love that movie still.”

She went to the University of California, Los Angeles, which is renowned for its film school, but she took a degree in English and African-American studies. She wanted to be an investigative reporter until an internship with CBS News changed her mind. The OJ Simpson trial was the story of the moment, and Ava was given the disenchanting task of digging through jurors’ garbage. “This is not what Walter Cronkite would do,” she thought.

After graduation, she landed a job in film publicity at 20th Century Fox. There, she learned that Hollywood studios break down the potential audience for a film into four “quadrants” – men, women, those over age 25, and those under it – and that a film must appeal to two of them to be green-lit. Then, when the time comes to market a film, studios ignore potential cinema-goers that don’t fit neatly into the quadrant formula. Ava recognised a missed opportunity, founded her own publicity agency, and made it her business to show the studios how they could market their films to underserved audiences.

“It’s hard to start over, which is essentially what I did,” she says, looking back at her decision to make movies. “But it was my mother who I’d seen do that before.” DuVernay’s mother, then a top executive at a hospital, decided in her mid-30s to move into early childhood development, which had always been her passion. She quit her job and moved with DuVernay’s father, who owns a flooring company, to his hometown in Lowndes County, Alabama. They took Ava’s siblings – she’s the oldest of five – with them. DuVernay, 19 at the time, stayed behind in Los Angeles. Her family still lives in Alabama, where they walk the very streets where many of the demonstrations depicted in Selma occurred.

Although Ava didn’t have to fight for the job of directing Selma, complications were to come. The film rights to all of King’s speeches and letters – every one of the inspiring words he’s best known for – had reportedly been licensed to DreamWorks and Warner Bros. for an MLK biopic Steven Spielberg was slated to produce. Paramount, which was behind Selma, could depict King and the events in the film, but Ava would have to rewrite some of his well-known speeches. Even for a woman with degrees in English and African-American studies, it was a tall order. She listened to his speeches on headphones as she hiked in the hills around Los Angeles, studying his cadence and the way he blended Southern-style preaching with New England intellectualism. What could have been a setback ended up being a huge opportunity, she says.

“I just had to untether myself from the words and really commit to proving the point of Dr King’s concepts. He’s trapped in a catchphrase, ‘I have a dream’ – that’s all we know about him,” she says, referencing King’s most famous speech of 1963. “I just think it’s criminal that you don’t know the radical that he was, the intellectual, the strategist, the tactician, the man of faith who was sometimes unfaithful. He was guilty, had an ego, was a prankster. All those things have just been locked in a marble statue.”

Not in Selma. The film is gripping and highly emotional – and features Oprah Winfrey in a supporting role – but never tips into saccharine, melodramatic territory. Selma, David Denby writes in The New Yorker, “avoids the lifetime-highlights tendency of standard bio-pics… This is cinema, more rhetorical, spectacular, and stirring than cable-TV drama.” Because the script didn’t use King’s actual words, Ava didn’t have to seek the approval of his heirs, who are notoriously difficult to please. The film doesn’t shy away from controversial issues, like an alleged audiotape of King’s marital infidelities supposedly mailed to his wife Coretta around the time he was planning the march from Selma to Montgomery. Ava was free to offer her own interpretation of the events of 1965. After all, she says, “this was not only King’s story. The story is called Selma. It’s about a whole bunch of people, you know what I mean?”

Joanne Heyler, director and curator at the Broad Museum, who invited Ava to speak in 2014 with the artist Kara Walker, says, “Ava has a way of capturing the epic scale of history while not losing a handle on the intimacy of individuals. Kara’s work is similar. History can be abstract and distant, but these women both prove that it is empathy and personal stories, that makes history alive.” Heyler also mentions that Ava was right in the middle of editing Selma when she appeared with Walker. “For someone under so much pressure, the grace and openness with which she spoke was really remarkable.”

These days, Selma, Alabama, is a small town of 20,000. But in 1965, it was a turning point in the battle for civil rights. At the time, blacks had the constitutional right to vote but were systematically kept from the polls in the South by discriminatory practices like additional taxes and literacy tests. King and his fellow activists sought a federal law that would prevent such barriers to voting. To gain the attention of President Johnson and the rest of the country, they staged protests and marches in the heart of Alabama, a state with a notoriously racist governor and police. In other words, King and his colleagues didn’t just find themselves in the South; they made a strategic decision to bring the movement to Selma. Ava went out of her way to depict its unsung and lesser-known heroes on screen, especially the women, from Coretta to the strategist Diane Nash and Richie Jean Jackson, who hosted Martin Luther King and other leaders in her home.

DuVernay’s previous film had been a dialogue-heavy independent with only a handful of actors. Selma called for shootouts, tear gas, horses and hundreds of extras. And because the studio wanted to release it on Christmas Day – a huge marketing opportunity, Ava knew – they had only 32 days to shoot. (Most studio films are shot over two months.) DuVernay completely devoted herself to the project. “I’ve never seen anyone with the passion she has,” Averick says. “She definitely has a great network of friends. But she works a lot.”

There was no room for error. Some crucial and complex scenes, such as that depicting Bloody Sunday, a peaceful demonstration that ended in a violent crackdown by police, had to be filmed in just two days. A New York Times film correspondent who was on set as Ava directed the scene reported that “it was thrilling to witness a female director bring this agonizing American story to life and, in the process, stake her own claim on our cultural history.” Ava says, “I had early conversations with my crew about what I expected and how I expected to be treated, because most of them haven’t dealt with a woman, certainly not a black woman, on set. I’m really clear about what I will and won’t tolerate.”

Ava

“I was perfectly happy to downsize. Do you want a bigger house and a fancier car? Or to get up every day and do what you want to do?”

In August, as DuVernay was in the editing room racing to complete Selma to meet the release deadline, protests erupted on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. An unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown had been killed by the police, and the black community and its allies were pushing back. A few weeks later, New York City police killed an unarmed black man named Eric Garner by putting him in a chokehold and ignoring him when he called out, “I can’t breathe.” By December, when the studio was preparing to release Selma, protesters filled the streets of Manhattan after the officers in both incidents weren’t indicted.

“While I was looking at the footage that we shot, I’d turn on cable news, and see these very same images,” DuVernay says. “There’s definitely an echoing through history, a conversation between these two moments.” Her Twitter feed is equal parts Selma press and news updates about modern-day racial-justice issues. She evidently doesn’t feel the need to draw a clear distinction between the roles of artist and activist and is open about the fact that, filming the tense tête-à-tête between King and President Johnson depicted in Selma, she identified more with King’s perspective.

Shortly after its release in the US, Selma was criticised by historians – not for DuVernay’s reworking of King’s speeches but for her depiction of the president’s reluctance to wholeheartedly support the movement. A former Johnson aide weighed in, claiming that, contrary to the film’s portrayal, “In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea.” Ava responded on Twitter, calling the claim “jaw dropping and offensive”. Later, she added, “Bottom line is folks should interrogate history. Don’t take my word for it or LBJ rep’s word for it. Let it come alive for yourself.”

When the Academy Award nominations were announced a few weeks later, Selma got a nod for Best Picture, but DuVernay’s name was absent from the best-director list. Oyelowo was also denied a nomination for his powerful performance as King. There were charges that sexism or racism was at play: 2015 marks the first time in 17 years when not one black or Asian actor has been nominated. Other observers said the problem was logistical: Paramount hadn’t delivered screeners of Selma in time. Either way, DuVernay would not become the first African-American woman nominated for Best Director. (She was, however, nominated for a Golden Globe.)

But, as many Oscar missteps have shown, a film doesn’t have to win top awards to be groundbreaking. And despite the lack of nomination, Selma has made Ava one of the most-watched up-and-coming directors in Hollywood. She’s toured tirelessly to promote the film. “She can get no sleep, take a red-eye across the country, speak to a group of people that morning, go schmooze at a party that night, get no sleep again, wake up, do the whole thing over,” Averick says, “and she’s totally functional and bright and sharp. That’s been her life for the last five years, and especially the last six months.”

It will probably come as no surprise that Ava is already busy with her next project: a movie set in 2005, as Hurricane Katrina wreaks devastation throughout Florida and Louisiana. “We’re at the very beginning of the project,” says David Oyelowo, who will act in the film. “But the process will be the same as Selma. Ava and I will have days and days of phone calls and a few meetings, and then she’ll go away and write. We have a similar world view and idea of taste. It’s not about being right; it’s about being true. Anyway, the process has already begun. And hopefully,” he adds, “it will end up as a great work of art.”

Raine, Countess Spencer

Raine, Countess Spencer

The English aristocrat who loves to work

The dazzling English aristocrat who loves to work

Raine,
Countess Spencer

On certain evenings, a lady in a fur coat with elaborately coiffed hair leaves Harrods department store by the staff entrance and climbs into a waiting car. This is Raine, Countess Spencer, who at 85 years old is the unstoppable director of Harrods International and Harrods Estates.

Raine, who’s collected five fabulous aristocratic titles down the years, is best known as the stepmother of Diana, Princess of Wales. Renowned as a society beauty in her younger years, she still pops on the diamonds and steps out for a spot of dancing at Lou Lou’s when the right escort comes around.

Text by David Vincent
Portraits by Alasdair McLellan

“The one thing you can go a bit mad with is nail polish. I love the colours – I’ve got a mauve, a purple, a dark red with gold flecks in it. This turquoise one I always use with the jewellery because I think it goes so well.” Raine Spencer is sipping tea, and it is not just the dazzling colour of her long nails that attracts attention but the dramatic effect of the perfect unpainted V shape she leaves at her cuticles. “I always do a little V. I think it’s rather pretty. Some young girls now, they do each nail a different colour, my dear; you’ve probably noticed. But that would be too tiring for me, take hours. You see, I always do my own. When I was a little girl, Mummy had a manicurist who taught me.”

There are unexpected conversations, and there are unexpected conversations with an 85-year-old English countess. This is the latter. Raine Spencer isn’t much in the British press now, but for years, as the stepmother of Diana Spencer, who went on to become the Princess of Wales, she was rather conspicuously in the public eye. Sometimes she was called Acid Raine, apparently a nickname the adolescent Diana had dreamed up. At other times, she was making headlines for complaining about the hygiene standards at Heathrow Airport.

Raine Spencer has held a dazzling array of titles acquired from a series of upper-class marriages, from Viscountess Lewisham to the Comtesse Pineton de Chambrun, but the name she chooses to use is Raine, Countess Spencer (which is how she’s listed in Debrett’s, the authoritative British publication on the country’s aristocracy). Her second husband was Earl Spencer, Diana’s father and quite possibly the love of Raine’s life. Her mother was Dame Barbara Cartland, a sort of early 20th-century E.L. James who dressed in frothy pink dresses and made her thick sticky eyelashes out of boot polish mascara and whose heroines palpitated and blushed their way through her romantic tales but never kissed their tall, dark, dashing heroes until the very last page. For years, Dame Barbara dictated one heart-stopping story a fortnight to a secretary who also dressed in pink (more cardigan, less lace), leaving 165 stories still unpublished at the time of her death in 2000 at the age of 98.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Raine is a character of some complexity: an unapologetic admirer of men, though she surrounds herself with women; slightly camp (the hair is a marvel); fiercely intelligent. “She is wonderful fun, with huge, trilling charm,” says Nicky Haslam, the seventy-something London interior designer and Zelig-like socialite of the aristocratic world. “Always covered in furs.” Raine talks of bygone times when people had sufficiently spacious London houses to accommodate parties and balls and clothes were made in Paris by Balmain and in London by Hardy Amies; she pronounces the word “gone” as gawwn, in the proper old-fashioned way. And then she whips out a BlackBerry and starts tapping away. She enjoys the odd night out at Lou Lou’s – a rather exotic nightclub in Mayfair beloved by high society and hedge funders but also a favourite of Kate Moss. “Robin Birley,” Raine says of the owner, “is a cousin of ours, and he has done a fantastic job there, really fantastic. It is enchanting.”

Several times a month, for 19 years now, she has put on a Lachasse outfit (“I love colour; I’ve got lots of dresses in coral and purple”), climbed into her chauffeur-driven car, and travelled the four-minute journey from her Chelsea townhouse to Harrods, where she is a director of Harrods International and Harrods Estates. For the past 11 years, she’s acted as a sort of roving ambassador, and she spends some time at the company’s airport properties too. There are lots of trips to China, Russia and any place with new money and people looking for that London bolthole. “She’s accompanied me on many memorable trips to Kazakhstan, India and Kuwait,” says Shirley Humphrey, director of Harrods Estates, “and she’s truly an inspiration – with a wicked sense of humour.” The company’s byword is, of course, discretion. A lot of people, Raine explains, “want to buy a house and do it privately… without their own relations knowing, or neighbours, or whoever.” The agency’s territory is Knightsbridge, Mayfair and South Kensington – London’s most desirable areas, where an apartment costs £3m and a stucco-fronted house £20m. The properties on its books appeal in particular to the sort of wealthy foreigners who like to park their money in the capital even if they leave the lights off for 11 months of the year.

Raine also spends many Saturdays on the shop floor; her appearances there began because Mohamed Al-Fayed, who owned Harrods until 2010 and is her close friend (and whose son Dodi met his end with Diana in a car crash in Paris in 1997), liked everyone to pitch in during the biannual sales. “I started off in ladies’ cashmeres, you know, and that wasn’t me at all. It was full of rather plump ladies trying to get into garments that were much too small. And I thought, no, no. It made me giggle, and I’ve got to keep a straight face.” She segued through cosmetics (too much theft) and finally settled in menswear. “Shirts and ties, since you ask, where I have been very, very happy – carpet on the floor, handsome men, and people not picking up and putting shirts and ties down again. Of course, now all the money has gone to the Middle East and poor Europe is struggling. The clientele has changed, but everyone is still human beings, and they still have weddings and funerals and investitures and outings.”

She had thought Al-Fayed was pulling her leg when he agreed to offer her a job at lunch with her stepdaughter Diana (they’d reconciled around the time of Diana’s divorce from Prince Charles, which was finally settled in 1995). “I thought he was joking,” she says. “Happily, he wasn’t. Suddenly, I had a one-year contract, I must tell you, but I’m still here.” The managing director who questioned the appointment – “He said, ‘Well, it is all very well Mohamed giving you a job, but I don’t know what to do with you.’ It was quite welcoming. I don’t think” – had clearly not done his homework on the countess. As the museum director Sir Roy Strong put in his diaries when recalling how Raine got the National Portrait Gallery listed as a historic building to protect it from demolition where others had failed: “I couldn’t at the time reconcile this diamond-bespangled fashion plate with anyone remotely effective. In that, I was to be proved immediately wrong.”

“Puis-je vous aider?” Regularly spotted on the shop floor of Harrods, Countess Spencer wears a staff badge indicating she’s a fluent speaker of French, among other languages. On the previous page, the Countess is photographed at her desk at Harrods Estates with her Lady Dior; the iconic bag design was also a favourite of her stepdaughter Diana, Princess of Wales.

Most people stop working long before their 85th birthday; Raine Spencer, like her mother, appears to have no desire to retire. But then, unlike many of her titled friends, she has always kept busy. At 23, she became the youngest ever councillor for the borough of Westminster. And since then she has been part of countless quangos: the British Tourist Authority, London’s historic buildings board, the Covent Garden Joint Development Committee. A lifelong Tory – “I couldn’t not be. I’m wedded to the Conservative Party” – she has been active on its behalf in Richmond and Westminster boroughs over the years. “In 1996, I was doing voluntary work for stroke victims, but it was only once a week,” she says of Al-Fayed’s timing. “So aren’t I lucky?” Raine, Countess Spencer, was born Raine McCorquodale in 1929, the only child of a short union between the army officer and printing heir Alexander McCorquodale and Barbara Cartland. After a few years, the marriage fell apart, and Cartland, rather scandalously, married her ex-husband’s cousin Hugh McCorquodale in 1936. Raine remembers at the time being mollified with “lots of sweets, which were suddenly snatched away because they gave me spots.”

She grew up in Mayfair, subjected to the Barbara Cartland school of parenting. “She was trying to make me the perfect person and didn’t have very good material to work with,” laughs Raine. “Ponies, learning to swim, governesses. It was a lost cause. Mother was determined I should be a sporting girl and had me taught riding, but I was terrified. I’m an indoor girl. I was always last in the local gymkhana.”

They spent the war years (1939 to 1945) outside London, initially in Montreal, where Raine went to school for the first time. “Here I was aged 9 or 10 being squashed into a uniform!” Then they returned to England and a book-filled cottage in Great Barford, Bedfordshire. Raine was allowed to read all the volumes but two: Candide by Voltaire and Dark Island by Vita Sackville-West. “Well, Dark Island we can understand, which is about ladies liking each other,” says Raine in a matter-of-fact manner. “But Candide is a rather moral book. Anyway, never mind, by 12 I’d read everything else: Jung, Freud, Shakespeare and Dickens. Whether I understood it or not… I read Karl Marx, all 600 pages. It was incredibly boring.” Her current reading matter is Roger Bootle’s The Trouble with Europe. “I do recommend it – he writes extremely well,” she says. ”And I love James Patterson thrillers, so I rip through them. And then Schopenhauer in French is always by my bed. He was German, but it’s a French translation.”

In 1947, at the age of 18, Raine came out. “It means something so different now!” she hoots. “Then it meant being presented to society at Queen Charlotte’s Ball. It was such fun. I suppose I was pretty. I had this beautiful dress, like something out of Winterhalter, with a big tiered skirt. It was made by Worth, a copy of one for Empress Eugénie: all tulle and lace and run through with blue ribbons.” She was named debutante of the year and became engaged to Gerald Legge, heir to the earldom of Dartmouth. When she married less than a year later, she wore the same dress, the blue ribbons replaced with white.

More than a decade later, her husband inherited the title of Viscount Lewisham; four years after that, he became Earl of Dartmouth, and Raine a countess. They were happily married for 28 years and had four children. “William is a UKIP MEP, owns the estate in Yorkshire and is an accountant,” she says. (“It is so…interesting” is her only comment on his involvement in the right-of-centre party, which has recently become a focus of British politics.) “Rupert trained as a barrister and works part time as an art consultant, Charlotte designs jewellery in Murano glass, and Henry is the brains. He is a QC,” she says, as proudly as any mother could. Henry specialises in art law and was recently involved in a high-profile case concerning the attribution of a Caravaggio. Nicky Haslam remembers the first time he met the Countess, at her daughter Charlotte’s christening. “She invited me to her house at 40a Hill Street in Mayfair,” he says. “And there was this wonderful table with all the christening presents, silver trays and so on, with labels that said things like ‘From the staff’.”

In 1971, Raine met Johnnie Spencer, then Viscount Althorp, soon to be Earl Spencer. “Sometimes you just meet people and you can’t explain it,” she says of the coup de foudre that followed. Five years later, she divorced and remarried. “He was wonderful. He was funny, sweet, affectionate. Gerald was the most wonderful man, a fantastic father, an amazing person. I never thought in a million years I would ever leave. But Johnnie was like a whirlwind, a force of nature.”

Raine, with a distinctly upper-class concern for manners over emotional fallout, says, “Separations happen, and why should they be so unpleasant? I’m so shocked when I read in the papers the dreadful things that go on, and how people are so greedy. They want this, they want that, they want the next thing. It was horrid to leave anyway, but I don’t mind saying I just walked out with my clothes. And the very valuable jewellery Gerald had given me, I gave back. I loved him, and we were always ‘darling Raine’ and ‘darling Gerald’ for the rest of our lives.”

Raine, the city girl, moved to Althorp, the Spencer seat that consumes 550 acres of Northamptonshire. “The house is so beautiful inside, and I would pretend it was Versailles,” she says. “You could never bother to go out.” She set about vigorously restoring the 500-year-old pile. “It’s Elizabethan, but refaced, so it looks Georgian,” she explains. Out went decrepit Persian rugs and disintegrating Victorian lampshades. In came central heating, new bathrooms and carpeting. It was said that she replaced the grand portrait of Robert, the first Baron Spencer, that had hung over the main staircase with a life-size oil painting of herself in her prime. “There’s a limit to how many of those serious-looking men in wigs you can have looking down on you,” she says, “however well painted.” She filled the house with more personal pieces. “I have a passion for decorative arts, and my husband collected Edward Seago, the Norfolk painter – he would stand in the queue to buy them. Now, of course, he’s terribly popular. And though the house was dripping in van Dycks, what you’ve collected yourself is what you love the most. We had all the Seagos in our private sitting room.”

She also tried to make Althorp pay its way. “We realised we had to earn up to half a million a year, which we did, to keep the show on the road.” Car launches, open days, dinner dances and concerts ensued. Family heirlooms were sold: some of those van Dycks, Marlborough wine coolers, furniture. “Oh, I got flak,” she says, “but it was what John wanted to do.” Some of the disapproval came from Diana and her brother Charles and sister Sarah, and rumour still has it that upon Johnnie’s death, Charles put Raine’s clothes in bin liners and kicked them down the stairs. It is true that she was not allowed to remove a single item from Althorp, though Johnnie left her a grand Mayfair house and a reported £4 million in his will.

Raine

“The one thing you can go a bit mad with is nail polish. I always do my own. When I was a girl, mummy had a manicurist who taught me.”

Much has changed since then. Raine got married again in 1994, rather quickly and briefly, to a French count, Jean-François Pineton de Chambrun. They lived in Château de Garibondy, between Cannes and Nice. “I ended up on two councils: the council of tourism and the improvement of the Promenade des Anglais,” she says. “They said if I’d stand as a councillor they’d do their best to make me head of the tourism committee. Me! Une anglaise!

And she finally became close to Diana, the stepdaughter who had reviled her for years. As Diana struggled with her in-laws’ hostility in the lead-up to her divorce from Charles, she finally turned to her stepmother, meeting her for heart-to-heart lunches at the Connaught Grill. “Diana was a lovely person,” Raine says. “She had incredibly heavy pressures put upon her, but we ended up huge friends. She used to come and sit on my sofa and tell me her troubles. I’m very happy about that. I’m so glad that my poor John, who would have been devastated, died before she did. But what was lovely was that she thanked me at the end for looking after him.” (Johnnie had a cerebellar haemorrhage in 1978 but went on to live another 14 years.) “That was something special.” Each month, visitors to Harrods can witness Raine’s continued connection to the Spencers for themselves. In a peculiar twist of fate, her till in the store’s basement is a mere 100 metres from the store’s controversial memorial to Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed.

Raine puts some of her octogenarian alacrity down to her star sign. “A Virgo, whatever you suggest, says, ‘Fantastic, let’s do it,’ and goes upstairs and packs a case, picks up a phone to order tickets,” she says. “I do believe star signs are creepily accurate. My banker friends are Virgo, and my hairdresser.” Indeed, Peter Constandinos at Figaro in Chelsea (est. 1964) has been responsible for Raine’s trademark hair for decades, since he was at the Dorchester and she lived in Mayfair with Gerald. “I go once a week, darling, and it just goes into rollers,” she says. “I don’t have it blow-dried, because it lasts longer if you have it under the dryer.” And she certainly believes in the transformative power of a good do. “When young girls have long flowing hair, they look beautiful, because youth is beautiful. They can be as untidy as you like. But from 25 to 30 on – and I’m putting it quite young – we all hate people who look like they have come through the hedge backwards. So with mine, sometimes I have it back in combs, sometimes I put it in a chignon completely, sometimes it’s swept back and up, sometimes I have a middle parting, sometimes a side parting. It’s fun. My signature is more swept back and up. When you get older, I think up is good. Droop is bad.”

Her remarkable skin she puts down to jojoba oil. “It is absolutely brilliant for the face,” she says. “I put it on three times a day. I don’t say it gets rid of all the wrinkles, but it helps. And on the hair, if you have dry hair. Once a month, I do egg and oil. Your hair eats it up. It was told me by an eminent trichologist who really understood these things. One egg to one tablespoonful of oil. And you put it on dry. Oil and water don’t mix.”

Still sportingly social, she can frequently be found at the Ritz or Le Gavroche (“Michel Roux always comes and says hello”), lunching at Poissonnerie in Sloane Avenue and dining at Lucio’s, a neighbourhood Italian on Fulham Road. “When I see her, it tends to be at grandish gallery parties,” says Nicky Haslam. “Her circle is made up of antiques dealers and the people at Phillips – she loves the antiques world and has a rather good eye for it.” Last autumn she had an 85th birthday party at Spencer House in London for 126 guests, including her ex-husband. “Jean-François said to some mutual friends of mine, ‘I really, really want to come and make a speech.’ And he came with his new wife and daughter and gave the most beautiful tribute,” she recounts. “He even had it all printed out so I could have it for afterwards.”

Even a bad back doesn’t slow her down. “Mohamed Al-Fayed heard about it and sent me round some lovely heat pads. Wasn’t that sweet? Such a thoughtful person,” she says. “In fact, I worked out with Mohamed – who now has sold Harrods to Qataris – that we’ve been to 16 different countries. I’ve learnt so much and had such an interesting time. I never imagined that I’d go to Belarus, Bahrain, Qatar, Monaco, Egypt, South Korea and a whole lot more, so it has been thrilling.”

Recently, she learned Chinese so she could deliver a short speech to visitors from China. Afterwards, she says, a businessman took her to one side and paid her a compliment. “Very, very good Mandarin. You must come to Shanghai. You will be more famous than Beckham,” he told her. And indeed, maybe she should.

Andrea Zittel

Andrea Zittel

Dream-building in the American West

Dream-
building
in
the
American
West

Andrea
Zittel

The rightly celebrated US artist Andrea Zittel, 49, wears the same clothes every day for weeks on end. It’s part of her ongoing examination of our daily lives, aimed at discovering what we can live without. Her anti-consumerist project A-Z West lures all sorts of travellers and creatives to the tawny California desert to join in her pioneering study. Andrea’s an enthusiastic blogger of her fully disclosed life: visit Zittel.org to see what her newly bruised knees and this spring’s skirt will look like, and to find out exactly what krok bragd is.

Text by Cristina Ruiz
Portraits by David Benjamin Sherry

One hundred and forty miles east of Los Angeles on the fringes of a vast national park, where two deserts meet and packs of coyotes roam free, an artist called Andrea Zittel has embarked on a unique experiment. In this landscape of ancient rounded boulders, she’s exa-mining every aspect of day-to-day living – from clothing, furniture, food and shelter to personal relationships and our interactions with the outdoors – in an effort to understand human nature and tackle the biggest question we can ask ourselves: Why are we here?

If this sounds overly ambitious, it may be because our notions of what art can be have become inextricably linked to the market and the commodification it imposes. Which means Andrea has pulled off a rare feat: she has disassociated herself from many of the art world’s values and chosen to live far from its centres of power, yet she is acclaimed in those very same centres for her unwavering artistic vision. She’s represented by top galleries in New York, Los Angeles, London, Berlin and Milan. “Over the years, her work has never compromised itself in terms of the market or shifting public taste,” says the London dealer Sadie Coles, who has collaborated with her for nearly two decades. “Andrea has remained extremely constant and authentic to her own interests and investigations.” Through her network of galleries, Andrea sells sculptures, installations, a variety of compact living units including customised trailers – which go for between $60,000 and $250,000 – and works on paper ($15,000 to $30,000). The funds she raises are pumped back into her artistic practice in the desert. She moved to the Joshua Tree National Park nearly 15 years ago and has built a compound called A-Z West at the foot of a hill of massive jumbled rocks on a slope overlooking a wide valley. There she lives with her 10-year-old son Emmett, runs a busy studio, and hosts students, artists and other like-minded guests. There are dogs, too.

The nearby town of Joshua Tree is home to nature lovers who want to live near the national park; Andrea goes there often. Less frequently, she goes to Twentynine Palms, the next town on, which is home to one of the largest military training areas in the United States, complete with a fabricated Middle Eastern village where troops train before deployment to Iraq. It also has a drug problem: local youths, struggling to find work, turn to selling crystal meth here, although the situation has improved in recent years with the arrival of people from Los Angeles looking for second homes. Andrea has friends in all these different groups. “I wanted to have friends who aren’t artists,” she says. “Over the years, I’ve dated a lot of local people here, like a radiator mechanic and a guy who worked at the local hardware store, and so I felt I was able to fit in really easily.”

This March, the Palm Springs Art Museum, an hour’s drive in the other direction, will exhibit new textiles made in a weaving workshop in Andrea’s studio, along with others chosen by the artist from the museum’s modern and Native American collections. Also on show will be her A-Z Aggregated Stacks: shelving and storage units built from assortments of cardboard boxes covered in layers of white plaster. Like many of Andrea’s works, these are both sculptures that play with the language of modernism and its ordered grids by introducing an organic quality, and functional objects intended to be used by the collectors who live with them.

I visit A-Z West on a perfect sunny winter’s day. On arrival, I’m greeted by Andrea’s pack of rescue dogs – Mona Winona, Maggie Peppercorn and Owlette – who dart in and out of her studio and patrol the compound. Two more dogs, whose owner works in the nearby community of Yucca Valley, come here during office hours. “It’s so that they don’t have to be alone all day,” explains Andrea. There are long-haired cats – Mooncloud and Stripy Tigerwolf – and chickens and pigeons. Living with animals connects you to nature in an invaluable way, she says.

Andrea, who turns 50 this year, is a tall, willowy wisp of a woman whose long dark tresses are arranged in side-plaits that give her a girlish, Pippi Longstocking look. She speaks softly in measured tones. At first, she’s careful, almost reticent, when answering my questions: “I think a lot of damage can be done by allowing one’s identity to be shaped by other people. Sometimes it’s better to have a low profile and have control over it.”

She’s sporting a floor-length A-line grey wool skirt sewn for her by a friend and based on a vintage black leather skirt Andrea found in a second-hand shop last year. “I really fell in love with it, so we copied the pattern.” She’s paired it with a dark grey wool vest, which she crocheted herself and which she wears over an off-the-shelf long-sleeved black wool top. This is her winter uniform, and she’ll put on these same garments every day for several months until the weather changes and she sets them aside for cooler attire. At night, she simply removes the skirt and vest and sleeps in the long-sleeved top and the thermal tights she wears underneath – she owns multiple versions of both. “I try to cut down the time I do unnecessary things,” she explains. “I only wash my hair once a week; I only take a shower every other day. We don’t sweat that much here because it’s so dry.”

Andrea started designing her own clothing and wearing a seasonal uniform more than two decades ago. “What makes us feel liberated is not total freedom, but rather living in a set of limitations that we have created and prescribed for ourselves,” she writes in These Things I Know for Sure, a personal manifesto of sorts that she devised in 2005. Comfort and practicality dictate her designs. “In the fall I made a black skirt, and then I realised it was a total dog hair magnet, so now I only wear things that match the dog hair.” Her uniform saves her time in other ways too. Packing for trips is easy, although she always travels with an emergency backup garment in case she spills red wine on her skirt.

Her choice of clothing exemplifies her journey as an artist, which she’s spent examining what it is that we really need to survive and prosper – it’s a one-woman protest against a contemporary culture predicated on shopping for useless objects, a culture which teaches us that we define ourselves by the products we buy rather than the way we live our lives. She’s designed or made many of the items which decorate her home, a renovated and expanded cabin at the heart of A-Z West first erected under federal homesteading laws that gave free land to settlers who agreed to build on it – part of an effort to colonise the West. The floor and one wall of the kitchen and dining area are covered in gold, white and black patterned tiles she designed herself: “I’m really into patterns, because they’re infinite in every direction,” she says. Three of her Aggregated Stacks cover another wall, though she’s hardly put anything on their shelves. “For me, clutter is a form of insanity, and I feel really good emotionally when there’s not too many things out,” she says as she makes me cinnamon-infused Bengal Spice tea, which she serves in a large bowl.

She chooses the objects that surround her carefully. “I’ve had relationships fail because I didn’t like the contents of my boyfriend’s medicine cabinet,” she (sort of) jokes. In this respect, living with her 10-year-old son, Emmett, is challenging (Andrea is raising him with the boy’s father, who lives in a nearby town). “Emmett likes having rows and rows of objects out, and he won’t ever get rid of anything no matter how trivial it is. I tell him what I think, but children are really strong-willed, and I can’t change the way he thinks. It’s a lesson for me in letting go.”

One of her first projects as an artist was an attempt to declutter the life of her friend Jon Tower. It was the early ’90s, and she’d recently arrived in New York after completing a master’s in fine art at the Rhode Island School of Design. Jon was also a young artist, struggling to survive and living in the basement of an apartment building in Manhattan. “Somehow he had access to this little storage area where people put their skis. And he had tons of stuff; he was definitely a hoarder. I felt like he was basically a very attractive guy, but there were tweaks he could do to enhance what he had going for him. We identified his goal, which was that he really wanted a boyfriend, but anyone he brought home would be really freaked out by his living situation. One of the main things we did was to photograph his things and then throw them out. And it worked. He found a boyfriend.”

A-Z West, which occupies 35 acres of California’s high desert, is situated right next to Joshua Tree National Park, and Andrea has developed it with pioneering zeal. The Wagon Station encampment, pictured here, consists of 12 A-Z Wagon Stations, all designed by Andrea; guests are welcome to stay in them twice a year. The only payment is an hour’s work every morning — known as the Hour of Power.

The Jon Tower Life Improvement Project, which lasted several months, was a pivotal moment for Andrea. “I was figuring out what my art is and what it isn’t, and I decided that after Jon I was going to focus on using myself as the guinea pig for my experiments.” In the early ’90s, Andrea was working in the Pat Hearn Gallery in New York when the recession hit, and she watched numerous mid-career artists “lose their galleries and have to go and get jobs. And it was almost impossible for a young artist to get taken on by a gallery; I realised how disposable artists were. So I think I always wanted to have autonomy, where I didn’t need to wait for a gallery to show my art to make it public, to make it relevant.” She ended up renting a small, cheap storefront in Brooklyn, living in the bathroom and making art in the front room. “The minute I had that space I felt really free. I didn’t need anything from anyone,” she says. In 1991 she came to the attention of Andrea Rosen, one of New York’s most highly regarded art dealers, and though it took Zittel a long time to trust her, she’s now been with the gallery for nearly two decades. “I have so much respect for her now,” the artist says, “but I was really critical in the beginning.”

The key to understanding how Andrea chooses to live lies in her formative childhood experiences. She grew up on the outskirts of Escondido, a small city north of San Diego, where her parents moved when she was a baby. They built a house on a plot of scrubland bought from the only other settler in the area, a man Andrea and her younger brother Wayne grew up calling Uncle Bud. “It was just his house and ours; it was like the suburban ’70s frontier.” But by the time she was a teenager, the area had been completely developed. “It had become a full-on suburb, a total urban sprawl. There was a beautiful park, and they built a big shopping mall on it. I used to run around in the hills alone as a kid, and then that all disappeared. Humanity felt like a virus or a parasite that was just taking over everything. I wanted to move to the desert because it’s a much more severe landscape and I thought other people would be less inclined to move here.” Today A-Z West sits on 35 acres of contiguous land, and Andrea has no firm plans to expand it further. She also owns more land nearby, where she helps run a regular event called the High Desert Test Sites. Artists gather there to show their work, embark on road trips, and stage impromptu performances such as poetry readings.

Visiting A-Z West is a strangely seductive experience. Take the encampment she’s built in the wash downhill from her house. Here, 12 of her Wagon Stations – sleek steel-and-aluminium sleeping pods – are positioned amid the boulders. There are also a communal outdoor kitchen, open-air showers and composting toilets. For several weeks every spring and autumn, anyone who feels an affinity with Andrea’s mission in the desert can stay here for free. In exchange, visitors – an impromptu community of artists, writers and travellers – are asked to help maintain the site for one hour every morning. Last spring, they included the British photographer Jason Evans. “It was a special, magical experience,” he says. “There’s a complete absence of doctrine about the place. Art spaces often try to ram ideas down your throat, but the A-Z West encampment is a kind of tabula rasa, waiting to be filled by the spirit of the people staying there. They don’t tell you what you should feel about sleeping in the desert; they let you have your own experience. Allowing people to stay there for free is a really magnanimous gesture. It really impressed me. Ever since I got back, I’ve been walking around looking at land. I used to think I needed plumbing to make staying somewhere viable. But actually I don’t.”

As well as the encampment, the A-Z West compound features three shipping containers that once served as Andrea’s studio and have now been converted into sleeping areas and a chicken coop. A new, purpose-built studio completed three and a half years ago sits just up the hill from her home. Inside the studio, everything is pristine; nothing is out of place. Her assistants clean it every morning. “There’s a certain quality which everyone has to have if they’re going to fit in here.” Andrea laughs. “Everybody is a little OCD.”

After she bought her first plot of land here in 2000, she set about acquiring whatever surrounding land she could to isolate herself from nearby development and create a protective cocoon around the place. But the site was challenging: there was no permanent supply of water – it had to be trucked in and stored in tanks – until several years later, when she got a grant to build a well, which now supplies the entire site. The shipping-container studios were “freezing in winter”. But, as she explains, she comes from a family that’s “much more hardcore than I am”. Her parents were teachers whom Andrea describes as “products of their era”: they conformed to society’s expectations and “had kids and normal jobs”. But at heart, they were adventurers. When they retired, they moved onto a boat and sailed it from San Diego to Australia. “They had some really extreme experiences doing the crossings,” she says. “A boom broke, and on another the engine failed, and my dad almost lost his leg to some tropical infection. They’ve been an inspiration to me, or maybe a challenge as to how I should live my life.” Today Andrea’s parents, now in their late 70s, live in Joshua Tree. But once a year they travel to Mexico, where their boat is dry-docked, to sail it for a few months.

“What makes us feel liberated is not total freedom, but rather living in a set of limitations that we have created and prescribed for ourselves.”

In fact, Andrea is the one family member who isn’t in love with the ocean (Wayne, 47, runs a string of sailing schools in California and Mexico). She recalls sailing holidays on a tiny boat and the smell of diesel fuel permeating the bunk she slept in. “I think rejecting that life was my teenage rebellion,” she says. Nevertheless, in 1999 she embarked on a month at sea, living on a 54-tonne floating concrete island she’d built as an “experimental living situation” and “a kind of tribute to my family.” The island, named A-Z Pocket Property, was pulled by tugboats across the Baltic Sea between Denmark and Sweden. “It was really scary,” she says. “And I’m not scared of much. It was really stormy and cold, and I wasn’t really sure that this massive concrete structure was safe. That project was hard.”

The next morning, we eat spinach wraps at a vegetarian cafe after dropping Emmett off at school. “I hate cooking with such a passion,” says Andrea. “It’s like the most boring, horrible thing. I’ve been working on food production, looking at ways you can feed yourself without cooking by making food from dehydrated elements that you could eat, like animal food. It’s hard when you have a child, though, because you have to cook. I was trying to cook Emmett scrambled eggs and he would critique me every morning until I could make them right – somebody had to show me how.” Emmett, it seems, represents the only area of her life in which she can bear to compromise, and it’s hard to imagine what she’d be doing were she not an artist. What if she’d never built A-Z West? “I think I’d be a psychologist. I want to understand human nature and unpack human happiness.”

Björk

Björk

The spectacular sonic genius

Björk

Björk Guðmundsdóttir’s always been full of surprises — musically, visually, even romantically (she dated Tricky and Goldie). At 49, she’s still on the road to revelation. Her gorgeous new album, leaked in January, drips with pain and self-investigation following her recent heart-breaking uncoupling, while a major exhibition opening at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in March promises to blow our socks off with more-than-state-of-the-art sonic installations and galleries filled with glittering ideas.

Text by Vanessa Grigoriadis
Portraits by Alasdair McLellan
Styling by Jonathan Kaye

Björk’s modest stucco house in Reykjavik doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside a world of treasures awaits. A garage is spray-painted with bright characters from the Land of Ooo, normally viewed only in the confines of the television cartoon Adventure Time. The kitchen wallpaper is made of images of copper-coloured braids. A small Remedios Varo print of a woman catching nothing in a net hangs near the light switch. In the boot room, shoes in every colour of the rainbow are lined up underneath hooks from which hang masses of bright coats. A large fluorescent cage for her daughter’s hamster sits on a chair. “The hamster got an eye infection and we’ve been putting medicine in her eye in the evenings,” says Björk. “It’s starting to get a little better.”

Today, late on a winter afternoon, Björk Guðmundsdóttir appears as a teeny earth goddess, standing 163cm tall. The dark, thin features of her face are lovely, expressing themselves brightly under thick black bangs. She greets me in a form-fitting white Junya Watanabe dress with black piping topped with a sheepskin bolero jacket. A few minutes later, though, she disappears upstairs and then returns a different size, courtesy of white platform shoes with many inches of heel that she’s chosen to complement the dress. “I find something I like, and then I wear it for a couple weeks at a time,” she says of her outfit, “but I’m rubbish at keeping things nice. I’ve started to give back some of my clothes, like the Alexander McQueens, for their archives, so they can just take care of them.”

Björk is one of the most iconoclastic popular artists today, in fashion and in music, focused always on metamorphosis and forward movement. For her, fashion isn’t mere surface styling – her relationships with designers are close and meaningful. In 1994 she walked in Hussein Chalayan’s show and then wore his airmail jacket on the cover of her album Post the following year. McQueen was directly involved in the artwork for her 1997 album Homogenic; she performed at his memorial at London’s St Paul’s Cathedral wearing wooden wings. Musically she’s done it all – trip-hop, four-to-the-floor beats, jazz, complex string and synthesiser arrangements – and she’s used her main instrument, her weird, supernatural voice, to transform herself into many different women, sometimes innocent, or neurotic, or gripped by ecstasy and abandon, but always sounding like she holds the key to the secrets of the world. Vulnicura, her latest album – and a critical ingredient in a mid-career retrospective that opens at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in March – is a “very different poem”, as she puts it. “To be honest,” she says, “out of all the music that I’ve done in my life, if there was ever an album I could not control, it was this one.”

Björk admits she struggles to look after her outlandish outfits. Here and on the first and last photo, she wears a simple black cotton crew-neck dress by MARC BY MARC JACOBS. The lilac latex T-shirt on page 171 and on the cover is custom made by LOEWE.

Today is the last day of mixing Vulnicura. In just a few weeks, it will have leaked on the Internet far ahead of its scheduled launch. When that happened Björk reacted to the news optimistically, unlike most artists. “I think that this time the leak worked for me,” she tells me later, mentioning that she often finds the liminal time between finishing an album and its release “unbearable” and believes “the dinosaurs of the record industry” should remove this gap. “Tons of times it has worked for or against,” she continues, referring to hacking. “The trick is trying to align oneself with the energy at any given time.”

Björk sits at a knotted wood table in her petite but comfortable living room with a fire burning and the lights low. The days are short in Iceland now, and the sun doesn’t rise until about 11am, but she woke at 7.30 this morning to get her daughter ready for school. Then she performed kundalini yoga exercises, which she tries to do at least a few times a week. “Kundalini is very helpful for my voice, because it involves a lot of breathing,” she says. “I turn the sound off on a yoga DVD and put some amazing music on very loud.” She also drank some coffee. “I don’t have coffee every day,” she says. “I can’t do it every day, so I usually drink it every third day. My body just can’t take it. But every three years or so, when I’m mixing an album, I find I drink coffee all the time.”

In a couple of hours, she’ll jump in her car to meet Alejandro Ghersi at a local recording studio. The young Venezuelan producer, known as Arca, made his name last year with the FKA Twigs album and Xen, his own record. “It’s almost like a tide – at the beginning of every album, I become very introverted, as part of a natural process,” Björk says. “I just write and write and write.” But now, as Vulnicura is getting its final touches, she’s entering the phase when “I become more extroverted, also naturally.” And then “one or two appearances on TV, and then you go whoosh.”

It’s not that much of a surprise to see Björk, who’s always brandished her Icelandic pride, in this setting. Despite her peripatetic rock star lifestyle, she still spends as much time in her home country as possible. But it is a surprise to see her alone. Her 13-year partnership with Matthew Barney, the contemporary fine artist known for his surrealist, body-centric films and sculptures, is over. From its early-noughties beginning, the relationship always seemed like the world’s most exquisite match: not a phony art/music/fashion crossover but a pairing in which each was fully dedicated to his or her own art form and coexisted on an equal, separate plane.

As we talk today, it’s clear that Björk is still working through the process of separation. On one hand, she says, “It’s been so unbelievably painful to go through this – the most painful thing I’ve ever gone through in my life.” And on the other, she’s always been able to find the humour in a terrible situation. “I’m annoyingly predictable in some ways,” she says, sipping a cup of tea. “I’m the textbook example of a divorcee. My friend gave me a self-help book that sold a scrillion copies, and it was amazing to find that what I was going through was exactly what everyone goes through. ‘OK, yes, after this many months you feel like this, after that many months you feel like that.’ What actually helps you get through it are other people who have gone through it, who are six months further than you or a year further than you, and they can say, ‘Hi, I’m still alive.’”

Björk wears a lustrous plexiglass and sequinned-net hat by STEPHEN JONES for EMANUEL UNGARO.

What to do with the pain? Clearly, because she’s Björk, she was going to compose songs about it, during a series of easy nature walks (“I’m not doing crazy stunts – I’m a singer, so I want to breathe and sing, not climb up hills,” she clarifies). She says she “could not control” Vulnicura’s content – gorgeous, layered songs that Adele lovers are likely to embrace; contemporary classical music paired with singer-song-writer lyrics about love. The songs, which mostly trace the disintegration of the relationship, came quickly. “The nature of a heartbreak album is that the lyrics are almost spoken,” she says. “It’s very conversational. It comes out of you at a very emergency-like level.”

Most of the vocals for Vulnicura were recorded at home in Reykjavik. She also owns a small cabin on a hill by Lake Þingvallavatn that she renovated – “it always surprises me that you go over one valley and mountain and you leave everything behind” – and where she’s had many inspirational moments. Antony Hegarty, the English singer/composer/artist who collaborated with her on the album, says he first met her there. “We sat together and sang in the dark,” he says. “We were kind of searching for a point of connection. We would intone the same note, or slight variations of it, for a long time. The first thing we really did together was sing. It was unusual. The recordings from that night are really precious to me.”

The first phase of composition may have been easy for Björk, but when she finished the songs and sat down to listen to them for the first time, “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have a breakup album,’” she declares, bringing her hands to her face like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”. “When that happened, at first, I was really like a grumpy teenager,” she continues, banging the table. “I was like, ‘This is predictable, this is like boring, I’m above this shit – this is not me.’” She even thought about putting other songs on the album to dilute the effect. “It got to a certain point where it was like, ‘OK, should I just mess the songs up?’” she says. “‘What should I do?’ You know?’”

But then, she says, “I was just like, ‘I can’t do it.’ It’s the music snob in me who always wants to be doing cutting-edge, new things that’s kind of appalled that I’m doing a heartbreak album. But the anthropologist in me is like, ‘Let it just be what it is, because it’s the only way I can move on to the next thing in my life.’” She says she just decided to “think to myself: ‘Breathe deeply and trust my editing skills.’ At the time, it was so painful, but I knew that by the time I’d release the album, at least two years would have passed, and then I would have a more sensible head on my shoulders. And I could look at it and release it or not release it, you know.”

She stares into the fire and then casts a bit of sage into it, filling the room with a lovely smell. “I played it to some of my friends – really close friends – though I didn’t play it to that many, to be honest,” she says. And she found out she was wrong about something: “I realised that I was thinking it was 500,000 times more explicit than it actually was,” she says. “I feel pretty good about it now.”

Björk is far more of a rational being than you might expect; she’s deeply analytical (as one would have to be to compose such intricate music) and has a way of speaking and gesturing that sometimes recalls her punk roots and at other times her hippie ones. An intensely social person, she’s always valued her friends deeply, and perhaps at this moment more than ever. She grew up on the outskirts of Reykjavik in a family of craftspeople – “electricians, knitters and hunters” – with a father who would become a union leader and a mother who separated from him when Björk was a year old. “She was one of those ladies from that generation who would have been a housewife working at home, but she couldn’t handle it and divorced my father, not so much to divorce him but to get into the whole thing in the ’60s,” she says.

Björk’s stepfather played guitar in hippie bands, and her childhood was “a little chaotic” but fun. “Our house was like a fairytale house, and we would play in the moss” with other families. “Hippies love kids, so everyone listened to me. If you want to be a koala bear for a week, you can be a koala bear for a week; if you want to write a symphony, you can write a symphony.” She cocks her head and tells a story about how, more recently, someone bought her childhood home, a small wooden house, and then decided to move it to the country as a vacation cabin. “My house is now on the way to the airport, actually, just sitting there way out in the lava,” she says. She sees it when she’s on her way out of town. “It’s so weird. If it was an art piece, no one could have done it better.”

A musical prodigy, Björk studied classical flute and piano as a child and recorded her first album at 11. “Especially as a child, I always imagined I would buy a small island in Iceland and just write music and be there with the birds and the ocean and the cliffs and be ecstatic, and I would write music all my life and never care if people would hear it or not,” she says. “I’m aware that that’s very romantic and utopian, OK? And like everyone, I have contrasts in me. There’s another side of me that’s the opposite.”

Björk has championed radical fashion throughout her career, both on and off stage, favouring Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan and Bernhard Willhelm, among many others. The designer to have captured her imagination most recently is FIONA O’NEILL. Here, Björk wears a blue-and-pink hand-painted dress by the young Irish Central Saint Martins graduate.

As a teenager, Björk sang in the cacophonic punk band Kukl with a bunch of guys she’d met at the local record shop. In 1986, some of Kukl’s members formed the Sugarcubes, along with Björk’s first husband, Þór Eldon. She was 20 and had just given birth to her son, Sindri Eldon Þórsson, now 28. “Our song got chosen by Melody Maker as the top single of the week or whatever, which was a very big deal, and we were approached to ask if we wanted to tour,” she says. “And I said, ‘Well, if my son can tour, I’ll do it, or otherwise I’ll stay in Iceland.’ And this is something I didn’t understand until later, because Iceland is something of a matriarchal country – well, not totally, but compared to Western countries we’re at the top of the list – but no one in the band questioned that I was going to bring my son and take a nanny and take that off the fee that the band got. I was chatting about that with some of the Sugarcubes recently, and we laughed about it, like, ‘Whoa, that’s probably some good feminist shit that happened there.’”

The Sugarcubes broke up in 1991 – though they still run a record label and publishing house, Bad Taste, together – and Björk went off on her own with her first album, Debut, two years later. Danceable, funny and lush, it established her as a force in the recording world and, with Michel Gondry’s video for “Human Behavior”, the visual world too. Though sonically diverse, her subsequent albums – Post, Homogenic, Vespertine, the a cappella Médulla, the Timbaland-produced Volta, and Biophilia – all have one thing in common: each is very different to the one that preceded it. Biophilia was challenging to the non-musical ear, built around arresting sounds like those from a Tesla coil; a complex undertaking, it included a set of apps that are now used to teach music and science in Iceland. Vulnicura sits at the other end of the spectrum. “I always get a reflex to rebound and do something different from the previous album,” she says. “Because with the last album everything was pink, now I want everything to be blue.”

When she was younger, Björk liked the pop star lifestyle, and she still loves playing both small, intimate venues and huge festivals “with 50,000 people, and the sun goes down in the middle of your set.” But she got over the red carpet years ago, around the time of the famous swan dress moment at the 2001 Oscars, which she attended in connection with her work in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. “It was so obviously a gag – I mean, who would bring six ostrich eggs and leave them, like, on the red carpet in Hollywood and be serious, you know? I think in Europe you have so much experience of public eccentrics that it’s not a big deal. And by the way, I’d worn a dress six months beforehand that was way more crazy for Cannes, and nobody noticed.” In America, awards ceremonies are treated differently. “The red carpet at the Oscars is like coming to a cathedral – a church. So it was sort of like wearing a clown suit in a Catholic church on Easter mass. At the time, I didn’t realise that, but had I known, I probably would not have done what I did. I don’t have that sort of anger, that I want to fuck people up. I’ve got my anger, but Hollywood isn’t where I’m going to try to change the world.”

She laughs. “What’s so interesting is that people in Hollywood thought that I was trying to wear an Armani but just got it wrong. Like I was a naive elf from Iceland that didn’t know how to pick an Armani dress. Uh, hel-lo.”

It’s threatening to snow outside, but the fire has made her living room hot, and Björk throws off her bolero jacket, dropping it on a chair. Her assistant, James Merry, a red-headed Brit who used to work for Damien Hirst, pops in to say that it’s almost time for Björk to meet Arca at the recording studio, and I’m invited along. He also has news of a phone meeting scheduled with Klaus Biesenbach, the MoMA curator who’s putting on her show at the museum.

“The first time I invited Björk to do something with me was 15 years ago, but I was just getting to know her,” says Biesenbach, who calls Björk “family”. “I think she needed Biophilia, though, in some ways, because it allowed her to step into the museum and exhibition world,” he continues. Biophilia and its staggered digital delivery as an app suite as well as an album were a manifestation of Björk’s excitement about modernity, natural science and technology and a prime example of how she’s totally unafraid to cross platforms. “After Biophilia, I saw my chance,” says Biesenbach. “I said, ‘You’re doing exhibitions yourself! Do one more round with me.’”

Björk

“I always get a reflex to rebound and do something different. With the last album everything was pink; now I want everything to be blue.”

Björk says, “At first, I was like, ‘I’m very flattered, Klaus, but how are you going to hang a song on a wall?’ But I ended up having a big talk with my friend Antony, and he talked me into it.” Hegarty, she recalls, told her she should do it “in the name of women, and also in the name of sound.” The latter point proved irresistible. “A lot of times, when I go to museums or galleries and there’s sound there, the speakers are rubbish or broken,” says Björk. “So you have a place that’s the most super-duper visual standard in the universe, but there’s rubbish music with concert speakers, and one isn’t plugged in. Sound is the nigger of the world, man.” And then there were her new circumstances to consider. “For 13 years, I’ve been with my husband every day, and my children…” She trails off, but the implication is there: now she has time on her hands.

“Primacy of sound – we talked about this very often,” says Biesenbach. “You either construct spaces where the image and the sound is synced and makes the body resonate physically – you basically walk into a sound chamber and your body starts vibrating and resonating – that is one option. The other option is, you look at the visual exhibition but you have headphones on as if she was whispering in your ear, as if you were in her head and in her mouth and in her ears. And the third, which comes to your mind immediately, is to make a big movie theatre and play everything on a much, much better sound system. We decided, ‘Why don’t we do all three?’”

A MoMA show, with its institutional, art-historical imprimatur, is a milestone in any artist’s life, but particularly a musician’s. And Björk: Archives, to be published by Thames & Hudson with the opening of the show – it comprises a paperback, four booklets and a fold-out catalogue raisonné poster and features stills from old music videos directed by Chris Cunningham and Spike Jonze – will serve as a desirable reminder of the range of her creativity.

There’s still a lot to do, and Björk will be going to New York soon to work on the show. That’s where she usually spends the winter anyway – for the last six years, when not travelling to perform, she’s lived in Iceland from July to December, then spent January to June in New York, where her 12-year-old daughter with Barney, Ísadóra Bjarkardóttir Barney, attends a progressive, art-focused school in Brooklyn. At first, the family lived outside the city, near a park where Björk could walk during the day to compose her songs. They also tried living on a boat moored on the east side of Manhattan. “We found that summers were amazing on the boat, but winter was harsh for the kid. And our daughter needs to go to school, so it was like, ‘Hmm, are we going to school her from the boat?’” Her new apartment is down the street from her daughter’s school. “I had no idea what kind of neighbourhood it was, because I’m a clueless Icelandic person,” she says. “It’s a kind of granny, posh area, which is sweet. It has old restaurants and second-hand bookstores. And to be honest, it’s nice for me to be where I can go in my pyjamas and” – she throws her hair in front of her face, to demonstrate what it looks like in the morning – “to get milk, and no one has a clue who I am. I couldn’t live in Williamsburg. I’d be fucked.”

It took time for her to get settled in America. “I have a complicated relationship with New York,” she says. “It took me forever to learn how to get around, and I get really claustrophobic. I love cities for two weeks. ‘Whoo-hoo! Let’s go to concerts every night, and openings and bookshops and burger shops!’ Then after two weeks I want to get out. I’m like a wild animal.” But now, she says, “I have ten friends who I can really talk to in New York. I feel that if you have that, you can function as a human.”

After putting on a puffy white jacket shaped like a cape, she jumps in the car you’d imagine Björk driving: an old white Land Rover, very chic, with lots of throat lozenges strewn around and a pair of oversized purple sunglasses stuffed in the glovebox. A CD case for a Dr. Seuss audio book sits in the front console, and one for the first Destiny’s Child album has been flung on the back seat. Long-legged Merry has been the last to drive the car, and Björk pulls the seat forward as far as it goes. She likes to sit so that she’s almost at the windshield. Then she throws the car in reverse and peels out of the driveway, emitting what seems like an involuntary sound of absolute glee.

Björk drives very, very fast. Speeding through the neighbourhood next to her own, she says, “Literally 30 of my childhood friends live within five blocks of here with their families – it used to be a grimy area, but now the artists are here.” Soon, she pulls onto a wharf, slipping into a spot in front of a recording studio. In the lobby, she bumps into Siggi Baldursson from the Sugarcubes. “I’ll see you at the annual Bad Taste party on Thursday,” she says, giggling.

Arca is standing outside the studio in an all-black outfit that includes a kilt. Inside, a humidifier blows out lazy puffs of steam in a corner, and the ceiling is insulated with a pattern that looks like a series of icicles. “Alejandro approached me and wanted to work with me, and I don’t want to brag, but I didn’t get few requests,” Björk says. “I told him it was perfect timing, because I needed to do something crazy then, and he should come to Iceland. And it was just magic. It was like falling in love, on a totally platonic, musical level. He knows all my old stuff ten times better than I do – he’d been brought up on my music in Venezuela.” Björk usually makes about half her own beats, but because of the “emergency you go through during heartbreak, I had the typical ten heartbreak songs that were just vocals with string arrangements,” she says. “It was like I was a typical singer-songwriter, with my little guitar and heartbreak songs. I was poking at these delicate, sad songs with a long stick, and I didn’t know what to do with them – they were like a raw, open wound beating on the table.”

Three of her friends are here at the studio too, standing in a cluster, and she greets them warmly. Earlier, I asked her if she’d played the album for Barney, and she said no; she wasn’t sure if she would before it was released. Will she get married again? “I don’t really know,” she says. “I just don’t. I’ve always felt that I know more about myself in relation to my music. The love stuff is the unknown stuff. It’s not really in your hands and not something you can control much. I’ve always felt that. And sometimes I feel a lot that way, like right now.”

Susie Wolff

Susie Wolff

Very, very fast

Very, very fast

Susie
Wolff

Susie Wolff is an ambition-fuelled athlete: the UK’s only female Formula One driver, in 2014 she was the first woman in 22 years to take part in a Grand Prix weekend. Super Susie, 32, grew up karting, but she couldn’t reach speeds upwards of 300 km/h that way, so she made the move to single-seater racing on her 17th birthday. Born in Scotland and now making her home in Switzerland, she spends 250 nights a year in hotels thanks to F1’s jet-set nature; there, she offsets the glamour by doing the ironing. A resolute speed junkie, she’s unfazed by being a woman in a man’s world; it’s where she’s been since she was 8 years old.

Text by Sophie Hastings
Photography by Daniel Riera
Styling by Raquel Franco

Susie Wolff’s day begins at 7.30am with a vitamin drink, coffee and oatcakes, and then she goes training. One day, it’s 75-minute circuits, and the next, 90 minutes of Pilates, and once a week she focuses on her neck. “That’s where I’ve been this morning,” she says as she swings through the front door of the hotel, still in Lycra. “There’s a special neck machine 25 minutes from here, which Michael Schumacher developed.”

Susie Wolff is the UK’s only female Formula One racing driver, and in July 2014 she was the first woman in 22 years to take part in a Grand Prix weekend (at the first free practice session, or FP1) – which means her neck needs a great deal of attention. “When you take a corner in a Formula One car, you’ll get up to 4 gs – that’s four times your body weight – pushing against your neck,” she says. “You have to keep your head up and straight, so training is essential.” Pilates helps straighten out the rounded racing-driver shoulders, another occupational hazard. “The seats are made to measure and very comfortable, but if your posture’s wrong…” she shrugs. (The Pilates is working: the shoulders are quite aligned.)

I recognise her Scottish brogue, Hollywood smile and fiercely determined frown from the documentary her brother, David Stoddart, made about her in 2013, Driven: The Fastest Woman in the World. But her combination of warmth and steeliness is even more impressive in the flesh; there’s a lightness to her that’s underpinned by a palpable composure, an ego that’s probably as solid as her muscled core.

“This is the nicest hotel in Oxford,” she assures me as she finds me a place to wait so she can dash off to take a shower. “All the Formula One guys stay here. Eight of the world’s 11 F1 teams are based within a 30-mile radius of Oxford.” These include Red Bull, Lotus, Mercedes, Williams, Caterham, Marussia and McLaren, none of which is more than 80 minutes’ drive from the racing circuit at Silverstone, current home of the British Grand Prix – and something of a home for Susie too.

This year, she’s been promoted to the position of official test driver for the Williams Martini Formula One team, which means that when she’s not travelling the world to drive at one of the 20 or so Grand Prix races that make up the season, she’s at the team’s Oxfordshire HQ, racking up virtual circuits in the simulator. The “formula” in the title refers to an exacting set of standards with which the cars must comply, and it’s Susie’s job to ensure the Williams cars conform. She spends nine hours a day, 60 days a year, wearing 3D glasses and strapped into a wheelless car in a large, egg-shaped room, providing the engineers and software programmers with the information they need to make tiny adjustments to the vehicles’ astonishingly complex controls and aerodynamics. It’s very physical work. “Hitting the brakes in the simulator is like doing a 100kg press, and you pour with sweat,” she says.

Every F1 team has two race drivers. The test driver is the number three, driving at Grand Prix weekends on test days and at practice sessions and fulfilling a PR role by attending events for the sponsors. On race weekends, Wolff sets up the car on the circuit, and her feedback could win or lose the race for her teammates, the Brazilian Felipe Massa and the Finn Valtteri Bottas.

But as the reserve, she’s also positioned to step in if one or the other were unable to race; doing so would make her the third woman ever to have started a Grand Prix. “She’s got to be constantly ready,” says Suzi Perry, another female in this male-dominated world, who joined the BBC as a Formula One commentator in 2013. “It’s rare for a driver not to drive, but if that happens, then she gets to do the race.”

Wolff says that this is her goal, but it’s not discussed openly because her chance to get on the grid depends on someone else’s bad luck, and nobody wants to tempt fate in Formula One. It’s a dangerous sport. Last year Marussia driver Jules Bianchi was left in a coma after crashing at the Japanese Grand Prix, and the year before, Wolff’s friend María de Villota, test driver for Marussia, crashed at Britain’s Duxford Airfield and lost her right eye; she died recently as a direct result of the accident. But Wolff says she is never afraid. “I realise things could happen,” she says, “but the day I feel fear is the day I stop, because that’s when you put yourself most at risk.”

Even if the ultimate opportunity to start the race never arises, Wolff’s achievements and status are exceptional. She proved herself by being selected for the Williams team in 2012 for her ability to handle its extraordinarily valuable car, which can reach speeds of 350 km/h. There are only 22 places on the grid, and queues of super-talented, testosterone-fuelled drivers vying to claim them. F1 is the pinnacle of motor sport, and very few reach it.

Fifteen minutes after leaving me, Susie returns from her room in jeans and a sweater, with perfect hair and make-up (how did she do that so fast?), carrying a beige Birkin bag she tells me was a present from her husband, Christian Wolff, known as Toto. He’s a former rally driver and an Austrian entrepreneur who’s now executive director of the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One team. Aged 43, 11 years older than Susie, in his younger days he founded investment companies Marchfifteen (1998) and Marchsixteen (2004) and made his fortune speculating in the Internet and technology fields. He’s a serious player in F1, with significant minority shares in Williams Martini Racing and Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Ltd, and as a manager, he has the careers of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg under his stewardship. He’s very well liked, too. “He’s really good fun; he has a wonderful sense of humour,” says Suzi Perry, who knows both Susie and Toto well. “He’s a breath of fresh air for the paddock. Last year, in a survey of the most popular team principal, he came out top.”

Money must run like water in the Wolff household – their home is in a converted furniture factory in Switzerland overlooking Lake Constance. But their comfort seems to be emotional as well as financial. “He is my person,” says Susie. “He has a very good way of pushing me to be my best. Because he’s at Mercedes, he sees the pressure those guys are under and understands that it’s the same for me. Because he used to race, he knows what it’s like to be in the car. As soon as we came together, it was like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders, because I wasn’t fighting this alone.”

As we talk, tables fill up and pukka voices boom. Susie raises her eyes to the ceiling. “Welcome to Oxford. Honestly! Once, Toto and I were having dinner here and we couldn’t hear ourselves speak. We had to ask a couple to quiet down. It’s a very small room.” I notice now that Wolff’s accent is a subtle mix of Scots and German – she became fluent in the language during her seven-year stint on the Mercedes DTM team. The accent lends itself well to her wry delivery. What was the couple’s response? Her face mimics their pompous surprise. “There’s this sense of entitlement…”

Wolff has none of that – just a quiet confidence in her own right to participate in this most exclusive and excluding of sports, which goes back to her Oban childhood. Her parents treated her and her brother, David, 18 months her senior, equally. Both children were put on skis and bikes as toddlers. “Having so much space was a big advantage,” she says. “A lot of very good drivers come from Finland because of the huge, open spaces. Oban is similar.” (Wolff’s parents met when her mother bought her first motorbike from her father’s shop. “Mum still has a motorbike, still drives a car really fast. Dad used to race bikes. It’s in the blood.”)

“Once I’m in the car, it’s me alone. I’m not here to be the best female. I’m here to be the best.”

The kids played on go-karts and were competing by the time Susie was 8. “We went racing all over Europe, and I’m very grateful for that – it stopped us being big fish in a small pond. The main reason we did it was for the fun. It only clicked when I was 13 and was taken to watch my first Formula 3 race – that’s junior F1, and Jenson Button was driving – that I could be a racing driver too.”

She took up driving on her 17th birthday, and had a reality check one year later at the world championships in Portugal. “I’d finished 15th overall, so I was surprised to be called to the podium – I wasn’t in the top three,” she says. “When I got there, I was given an award for being the top female driver in the world. I thought, well, that’s great, but I’m not here to be the best female. I’m here to be the best.” Suzi Perry tells me, “We don’t even discuss the women-in-sport thing. We’re over it! And Susie’s been surrounded by males since she was 8 years old.”

Susie’s parents wanted her to have a plan B, so she went to study international business at Edinburgh University. “But I felt like a duck out of water,” she says. “Everybody was going out to get completely drunk, like they’d just been let off the reins.” She left after a year. “I’m not a believer in plan B any more,” she says. “If you have no plan B, then plan A has to work.” A week later, she was on her way to Silverstone, where she shared a house with six male drivers and drove for Formula Renault from 2002 to 2004.

Wolff was on the brink of stepping up to Formula Three in 2005 when she broke her ankle running. “It was awful, of course, but cash was a problem too, so I lost my place in F3 anyway – you have to provide your own sponsors. I had found the £100,000 a year it cost testing for Renault, but with F3 you’re talking half a million, and I couldn’t find the money.”

But she’d also been nominated for Britain’s Young Driver of the Year Award twice, and in 2006, Mercedes-Benz, having taken notice, offered her a year’s contract that ended up as seven. It was during that time that she met Toto. DTM, the German touring car series, is a “parallel universe”, she says, in which the manufacturer pays the drivers. “I’d been struggling to pay rent and suddenly I had a Mercedes in the driveway, money in the bank, and was being sent clothes and shoes.”

Wolff used to photograph the clothes and file away the pictures, “because I was so amazed,” but also because she happens to love fashion. She shops carefully – “three to four times a year, and I buy outfits, not bits and pieces” – and has become friendly with Roland Mouret after developing a devotion to his clothes. “She came to Carlos Place, and I thought she was fantastic,” says Mouret, referring to the luxurious townhouse in London’s Mayfair where his store, studio and offices are based. “The way sportswomen have to train and build the body, it can make it complicated, but she knows how to make it work for her. She has an incredible figure, so dresses fit her amazingly, and all-in-ones too. I know she worries about her neck, but a good haircut sorts that out.” (She claims to be self-conscious of the muscularity of her neck, wearing scarves and high collars to hide it, but there are plenty of photographs of her looking good in a Galaxy dress and an up-do.)

Mouret prefers not to attend events for which he’s dressed other guests, but he’s going to a charity event with Susie the week after we speak. Last summer, she took him to Silverstone on a friends-and-family day. “I sat next to her in the car,” he says, still excited by the memory. “Oh my God, it was fast. It’s amazing: the decisions she has to make, the responsibility, the danger. You really feel the pressure on your chest. It’s not like speeding in a normal car.” Last year, she asked him to design her helmet when Martini took up the sponsorship of Williams; he covered it in silver stars.

Silverstone Circuit has been the permanent home of the Formula One British Grand Prix since 1987. The 5.89km-long track is divided into different zones such as Copse Corner, Wellington Straight and Chapel Curve. This stretch is known as Woodcote.

Throughout, Susie is wearing a navy leather jacket by J BRAND, a white cotton T-shirt by SUNSPEL and her own jewellery. Her star-strewn crash helmet was specially customised for her by Roland Mouret.

Unsurprisingly, a great deal of emphasis is placed on Wolff’s appearance (“Well, she does look pretty fantastic!” says Suzi Perry), and an endless flow of comments and opinions forms a conflicted narrative around her career. “It’s a very tricky line to tread,” she says. “I’m representing the team and the sponsors, so I am expected to look good, but then people start saying, ‘Oh, she’s just after the attention,’ or ‘She’s only here as a marketing tool.’ For me, fashion is a way of expressing myself and fighting a stereotype – people think I’ll be masculine, a tomboy. This comes from men, not women,” she adds.

At Mercedes, she was even made to drive a pink car. “It was such a cliché, the blond female in the pink car. I hated it, fought like hell to get it changed,” she says. “It certainly made my life more difficult. My teammates dreaded being beaten by a girl, and they could see me coming in that car.” In the documentary, she recalls an occasion when a male driver was so humiliated by her passing him that he shouted into his headpiece, “Get this girl out of my way, get her out of my way!” To which the engineer replied, “Jean, we can’t get her out of your way, you have to overtake her.”

Indeed, Formula One is still an environment where its multibillionaire owner Bernie Ecclestone feels able to say that women should wear white “like domestic appliances” and remark, “If Susie’s as quick in a car as she looks good out of a car, then she will be a massive asset.” The famous racing driver Sir Stirling Moss, star of the circuit in the ’50s and early ’60s, said not so long ago that he didn’t think women had the “aptitude to win a Formula One race”, citing “mental stress” as their greatest barrier. Later, he called Susie to apologise. “He said: ‘I meant what I said, I just didn’t mean you. I should have mentioned you as the exception.’ It was hilarious.”

Her sex does give her one advantage, though. “I’m 20 kilos lighter than the guys, who are mostly tiny, but they still battle like jockeys to keep their weight down.” (She is 168cm tall and weighs just 53 kilos.) “We need to be light so the engineers can add things to the car.” To build up the required muscle strength, she has to work twice as hard as the men, according to her trainers, but “because I started young, my body got strong in all the right places.” And, as you might expect, she avoids carbohydrates and sugar. “At least, I try. But some days are more successful than others.”

Wolff has enormous support within the racing fraternity. Lewis Hamilton, who has competed against her since the karting days, once said after a close finish, “She was hunting me down.” (She says Hamilton “can make a car dance.”) During her time at Mercedes, her teammate Ralf Schumacher commented, “She drives equally, so she gets treated equally.” And her childhood hero David Coulthard says, “The cliché of making fun of the lady driver gets blown out of the water, because Susie holds her own absolutely and drives the car exceptionally well.” She has had a few accidents, but no broken bones, and says she feels fortunate to be driving now because F1 has got safer over the last 20 years thanks to new technology.

Claire Williams, team owner Frank Williams’ daughter, is now deputy team principal at Williams Martini, and she and Susie are close. When Susie drove in the British Grand Prix last spring, Claire said she had a tear in her eye when the car pulled out of the garage and everyone stood up, clapping and holding Susie Wolff flags. “I never see any of that from the car,” Susie says. “There could be one person or 10 million, for all I know.”

That race, though, was a disaster. “There’d been a massive media build-up to it – the first woman driving in F1 in 22 years,” says Suzi Perry. “Then the car failed after four laps and she had to boycott the whole thing. It can’t have been fun for her.” Susie admits: “It was a rough few days. All those headlines like ‘The dream only lasted four laps.’” But later that year, an excellent performance at the German Grand Prix weekend led to her promotion.

Susie and Toto married in Capri in 2011. Back then, he was on the Williams board, but he moved to Mercedes when she joined Williams. “The media have said I’m only where I am thanks to my husband, but how can I be? Once I’m in the car, it’s me out there alone,” she says. Racing is, though, a business where money talks, and sponsorship is everything. And, says Suzi Perry, “With money comes politics.”

It’s Toto’s understanding of her world, Susie says, that’s the most vital ingredient in their marriage. “He called me the night before my first official F1 test drive and said, ‘You can’t fuck up tomorrow. If you fuck up, it’s over.’ I said, ‘I know!’ And he said, ‘So go out there and show them what you’re made of.’”

Their dual careers with rival teams mean they travel to the same places and meet in the evenings in their hotel room, where they can be “kind of domestic. Sometimes we just shut the door and order room service because we’ve had enough of it all. I even iron his shirts in the mornings.” (“She irons his shirts?” exclaims Suzi Perry when I mention it. “She’s got that the wrong way round!”)

They notched up 250 hotel nights last year. “It’s only when we go back home for a long time, like over Christmas and the New Year, that it’s hard to pack and go to the airport,” she says. “But the truth is, when you’re living this lifestyle, you roll with it. All I’m ever thinking about is the next race.”

Chitose Abe

Chitose Abe

Japanese fashion looks to its future

Chitose
Abe

Japanese fashion looks to its future

Tokyo

Chitose Abe makes the fashion world use up all its superlatives at once with her magical designs, which combine the key components of the classic wardrobe in the most unconventional ways. But there’s nothing whimsical about her talent, honed at Comme des Garçons; her entrepreneurial determination; or her individualistic approach to expansion.

Since 1999, the 48-year-old Tokyoite has grown her three labels – Sacai, Sacai Luck and Sacai Man – at an elegantly dignified pace: she only started showing on the Paris runway three years ago. That’s when Karl Lagerfeld started sending her flowers.

Text by Caroline Roux
Photography by Anders Edström

The Gentlewoman
Issue no. 10

High-end fashion has been in thrall to its own heritage for quite a while now. Certain houses – jigsaw pieces in powerful conglomerates where big-name designers juggle legacy, relevance and vast profit requirements (sometimes at the expense of innovation) – can seem to be buckling under their own weight. Bad news for some, perhaps, but not for Sacai. Last February in Paris, the independent Tokyo brand, known for its intriguing hybrid garments in luscious colours, stepped into the spotlight in the most spectacular way. “The show of the season?” gasped journalist Nicole Phelps on Style.com shortly after the Autumn/Winter 2014 womenswear collection had danced down the runway in Paris to the bouncy Gay Marvine remix of Sister Sledge. “There are still a few days and several important names left on the Paris calendar,” Phelps went on, “but the new Sacai collection set the bar very high today.” Her peers largely seemed to agree. Chitose Abe, the brand’s 48-year-old designer, was the toast of the town.

Sacai is in fact 16 years old: a slow burner, then, rather than an overnight sensation. It is still under the sole ownership of Ms Abe. The company has yet to do shoes, or jewellery, or any of the other money-spinners now regarded as obligatory means of parting consumers from their cash. Perfume? “I’m waiting for the right moment,” Chitose told me when we met in Tokyo earlier this year. “There really is no hurry, and I’ll know when it feels right. I’m in control of everything. At the end of the month, I even do the accounting.”

It’s hard not to relish the idea of this slight and really rather kittenish woman, whose fashion imagination runs to the most unexpected interpretations of existing typologies, sitting behind a desk balancing the books. Though maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Her designs, after all, are the product of an exacting mind. She takes the peacoat, the white shirt, the pencil skirt, the biker jacket and the kilt and splices them together in the most extraordinary combinations that can look like one thing one moment and then quite another. A parka elides into a Prince of Wales check over-coat; jumper and skirt sets are actually trompe l’oeil dresses. Kilts turn into trousers, and stripy T-shirts into knife-pleated tulle tops. Sheer hems appear from nowhere to tumble down beneath sweaters. Shaggy shearling spills out of jacket openings.

The clothes are beautiful and complicated. “But they are wearable,” said Akiko Fukai, the de facto chatelaine of contemporary Japanese fashion, who’s been a curator at the Kyoto Costume Institute for 35 years and is now its director. “They’re not ostentatious, not for showing off. Abe-san puts odd materials together in the most delightful way, and the details are fascinating. I think this is the aesthetic for now.” Indeed, you couldn’t find anything less cookie-cutter, less obvious.

“We represent every category in the collection, from the T-shirt to the crazy combination biker jacket,” said Jennifer Sunwoo, the VP of womenswear at Barneys New York. She herself often wears a black Sacai dress – a long-sleeved V-neck sweater-and-lace-skirt combo from 2013. “It’s easy to put into an existing wardrobe. And these aren’t clothes you tire of at the end of the season. These are the things you wear for years and years.”

Of course, Chitose Abe is not the first Japanese woman to run her own fashion house. Rei Kawakubo, for whom she worked for eight years, set up Comme des Garçons in 1969, carefully creating a multi-tier company that produced clothing from the most avant-garde costumes to the most wearable T-shirts. Kawakubo turned a tidy profit in her home territory and then invested it in brand promotion abroad, staging her debut Paris show in 1981. But where each of Kawakubo’s runway shows explores one dominant theme before moving on, Chitose’s ongoing journey through swollen volumes and hybrid pieces is continuous and runs through the Sacai, Sacai Man (launched in 2008) and Sacai Luck collections (“A bit more relaxed and spirited than the main line” was how she described the last, which she started in 2006). And the results are rather sexier – you sense that the designer is a woman having some serious fun rather than a sculptor with a sewing machine. Abe’s plan, meanwhile, is a little less grand and a lot more gradual than her former employer’s. “I don’t really have a long-term goal,” she said. “I don’t even mind if sales go down when I do something that I simply really want to do. It’s my risk to take.” She opened her first store – in Tokyo’s Aoyama district, the natural home of up-market fashion retail in the city – only three years ago.

Chitose and I had arranged to meet there, in the showroom on the top floor. The building, a former Chinese restaurant, is down a little street (Prada’s faceted Herzog & de Meuron-designed store is on the corner) and up a little path. I’d gone on a recce the evening before and discovered a surprisingly gritty interior filled with customers spanning several generations on energetic post-work shopping missions.

Instead, we met outside. It was a balmy Tokyo morning, and Chitose was standing by the front door checking her phone when I arrived at 9am. She was sporting a perky combination of backcombed hair, a stripy T-shirt and a navy lace knee-length skirt with a mini-lining and a shadow of lightly tanned thigh flashing through. (Back in London several months later, a not dissimilar lace skirt with mini-slip could be found on the rails in Topshop.) On her feet were box-fresh Air Max. On her wrist was a sizeable Rolex glittering with rubies, sapphires and diamonds. “It was a gift to myself, but it actually exceeded my card limit, so I put it on my husband’s,” she said.

Upstairs, we drank strong coffee in a room lined with clothes rails holding more than a decade of collections. “I had my daughter in 1997, and suddenly I was at home on my own and felt pretty lonely,” Chitose said, with the help of an interpreter, as we sat with three pieces of handcrafted knitwear on the table in front of us. “So I made these samples and found a factory to make them up. I didn’t think of doing anything big.” The first buyer was the prestigious Tokyo multibrand store Beams. “I turned up with four or five samples in my bag and tried them on in front of the buyers,” she said. “They’d ask me what the markup was, and I didn’t know what they were talking about.” Other stores started tracking her down. They found themselves directed to her apartment in Nakameguro, about 20 minutes from central Tokyo. “People were asking, ‘Who do I contact at Sacai?’ And they’d be told, ‘It’s just Abe-san. She answers the phone and makes all the clothes,’” she laughed. Sakai, incidentally, is her maiden name, “though I changed the spelling from K to C, and made it lower-case” for the logo.

Chitose Abe was photographed near her studios in Daikanyama, Tokyo, wearing her own clothes, which are, naturally, by SACAI.

In 2002, she made her first hire. Chico Hashimoto, a quiet woman with a long bob, is still with her today, though she’s moved from the role of pattern cutter to textile developer. “A friend introduced us, and I immediately felt inspired by Chitose and her ideas,” Ms Hashimoto said when we met in Sacai’s studio in nearby Daikanyama, an increasingly trendy part of town. “Of course, then we worked in her home. Things have changed, especially for me. I’ve got a 1-year-old daughter now, so I leave at 4pm these days.” Around us were vases of arum lilies, bolts of fabric and boxes of grosgrain ribbon. In another room, twenty-something boys in plaid shirts and beanies and girls in pale jeans and Converse worked on designs with the concentration of students in a library (Sacai’s overall staff now numbers 30).

Chitose appeared with dolls dressed in scaled-down samples, which she uses to test out ideas in miniature. We turned to the situation of working mothers. “It’s quite tough, but I want to create a corporate situation where women can have children and be able to go home at a decent time,” she said. “From a business point of view, it would be best to have people with no kids who could work late every day. But I want my employees to have the choice.”

It wasn’t until 2003 that Chitose rented her first office space – a warehouse far from central Tokyo but costing an affordable 100,000 yen (£600) a month. As the noughties progressed, increasing numbers of fascinated foreign buyers and journalists found themselves navigating a busy local shopping street and an ugly industrial area in search of this Japanese label, which arguably had a lighter touch than Japan’s established stars – Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Kawakubo, known as the “second generation”. It was here, said Chitose, that the real Sacai was finally minted. “The previous collections were based on hand-knitting, and they were wonderful, but you didn’t yet see the Sacai DNA. Then I looked at what I was wearing – classic men’s-style sweaters and turtlenecks and V-neck cardigans – and I added something feminine, like this bit of ruching, or satin or tulle.” But more than mere customisation, her extensive textile innovation is what underpins the brand – every fabric is created from scratch. “I’ll go to a denim factory in Wakayama, for example, to weave a jacquard,” she said. “The denim looms are completely different from other looms, and you get a unique fabric. I like a challenge. Sometimes the factory staff look terrified when I walk in. Sometimes I think they must hate me.” Among the garment samples in the showroom, I found a men’s chesterfield coat in a double-faced fabric that was navy-and-grey tweed on one side and a light wool pin-striped suiting on the other. A stiff wide mesh developed for Spring/Summer 2014 was created from white cotton shirting, bonded and then cut by laser.

Also in 2003, Chitose took a room at the Hôtel de Crillon during Paris fashion week. By 2004, she was selling in Barneys New York and Colette in Paris. According to Adrian Joffe, president of Comme des Garçons and husband of Rei Kawakubo, Sacai is now one of the bestselling brands at all three Dover Street Markets. “We like to work with designers who have their own vision,” he said. “A customer might buy Sacai and Saint Laurent, or Sacai and Comme. She crosses boundaries and is pleasurably difficult to put into a box.” This year, the brand looks set to take a place in Barneys’ top ten. “It’s one of the few shows when I personally go back and greet the designer,” said Jennifer Sunwoo. “Chitose’s never disappoints. It’s always nice when you’re able to congratulate someone with total sincerity.”

In fact, quite a few fashion folk go a bit gushy when asked about Chitose. The influential fashion commentator Tim Blanks, who first met her in Tokyo a year ago, said, “The whole package is so coherent, so charming.” He’s gone on to become her regular karaoke partner; the Carpenters are a favourite. “We had dinner last week,” he said. “It started with a lot of sochu, which is like drinking neat vodka. Then we went off to karaoke and sang ‘Superstar’.” The dazzled Karl Templer, an in-demand stylist who works with Valentino and Alexander Wang, said, “Chitose is an incredible talent. I think she’s a genius.” He liked the label so much, he now works on Sacai’s runway shows. “I look at the collection and see ideas I’ve never seen before.”

I suspect there was never much doubt that Chitose Sakai would end up in fashion. “It was a happy family,” she said of her childhood household in Gifu, a small city in central Japan. “My father was a research engineer and got home at 6pm everyday. My mother stayed at home making clothes.” Even as a child, she wanted to dress differently from other people. “I was always getting my mother to alter my clothes. I’d buy bell-bottoms but have them made skinnier. I was very concerned about having my own look. According to my mother, if I went to meet a friend and she’d copied my clothes or my hairstyle, I’d go straight home again.” Her older sister had no such preoccupations. “She’s still living in Gifu, working in a bank, and doesn’t have kids. I’m rather grateful that she’s there to look after my parents.”

Unsurprisingly, Chitose’s dream was to attend the famous Bunka Fashion College, the Tokyo school whose alumni include Kenzo Takado (a major player in Japan’s “first generation” of influential designers) and Yohji Yamamoto. And just as unsurprisingly, given that girls are not expected to leave home to attend university in Japan, her parents wouldn’t let her. Instead, she went to study at fashion college in Nagoya – “a three-hour daily commute,” she said. A star student, she was employed directly from there by World, a huge clothing conglomerate based in Tokyo producing a range of high-street labels with Euro-sounding names: Coup de Chance, HusHusH, Shoo-la-Rue. “My mother didn’t approve at all of my moving to Tokyo, even after college,” Chitose said. “For the month before I left, she wouldn’t speak to me. And my parents didn’t lend me any money. I came to this city with two cardboard boxes.”

At World, freshmen were given thorough corporate training. “They taught you everything,” she said. “How to answer the phone, how to greet people. Social graces. Business etiquette.” At lunchtime, clad in Vivienne Westwood or Jean Paul Gaultier, she’d see the designers from the nearby Comme des Garçons studios in their black clothes and polka dot shirts. After two years, she became one of them.

If her job at World was all about collecting magazine clippings for inspiration, Comme could hardly have been more different. “I learned the importance of innovation and doing things from scratch,” said Chitose. “They don’t do storyboards at Comme. The job is to create something that doesn’t exist. That’s the biggest thing I learned.” She worked with Junya Watanabe on the house’s Tricot collection for two years. Then, when Junya was granted his own label under Comme’s aegis, he asked her to join his tiny team. She worked for him from 1991 to 1996. “He’s very warm and kind,” she said. “He really looked after his people. But when it came to work, he was very tough. You know, the company is the epitome of avant-garde. But you go there and it’s very proper and serious. At that time, Japan was still in the middle of the bubble economy, and people were pretty carefree. At World, people would start drinking beer after 6pm while still working. At Comme, there wasn’t even chatting.” Tim Blanks said, “I still keep pinching myself that she’s from the school of Rei Kawakubo. That’s not an easygoing place, and Chitose has so much joie de vivre.”

From Junya, Chitose said she learned how to set up a new label and a new identity. It was also in his four-person team that she met Junichi Abe, who went on to become her husband. In 2004, Junichi set up his own label, Kolor, whose sporty mens- and womenswear is defined by lively combinations of fabrics and slender cuts. They’ve never been to each other’s catwalk shows – more a consequence of diaries than of intention, she said. They married 16 years ago, with Chitose wearing a kimono made by her husband’s family’s company, at an inn owned by another relative in Fukushima. “We just turned up empty-handed,” she said. “Now I’d be more interested. I’d make my own dress.” She ate throughout the reception, to her mother’s dismay. “In Japanese ceremonies, the bride and the groom are meant to sit there a bit like dolls at the wedding feast,” she explained.

In a country where women’s lives are still circumscribed by traditional roles and difficult career advancement – Japan came 105th out of 136 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report of 2013; just 6 per cent of its career-track employees are women – it’s fair to say that Chitose stands out. “It’s not easy for a woman to be a boss,” said Akiko Fukai of the Kyoto Costume Institute. “Since Shinzo Abe became prime minister, the government announced they would encourage promotion for women. The words sound good, but nothing’s happened yet.” Chitose said, “Japanese business journalists often ask me the gender question. And I say that fortunately the fashion industry is open to everybody – men, women, all nationalities. Running a business is hard, not because you’re a woman but because it’s business. But fashion itself has great power, and it’s a global industry. It follows different rules.”

As does Ms Abe. One night we met in a woody little restaurant in Hiroo – part of Tokyo’s Shibuya shopping district – and ordered generous amounts of cold sake, which we drank from tiny porcelain cups. We ate mussels with cucumber; sea eel and tuna sashimi; and generous helpings of delicious uni, though Chitose wasn’t starving, as she’d had takoyaki, balls of octopus coated in a wheaty batter, for lunch. We were joined by friends of hers, Tokyo’s It couple, the locally feted DJ Verbal and his beautiful wife, a jeweller called Yoon, who arrived laden with her own pieces – huge gold cuffs and a large gold chain necklace. Verbal, with his delicately bleached hair, was wearing Sacai Man in its most elaborate form, layering an already layered jacket over a Comme des Garçons shirt.

Sacai’s menswear is as complex and demanding as its women’s line, though Chitose doesn’t base her decisions on trying the clothes on herself, as she does with the womenswear. The A/W ’14 collection majors in outer skins and inner linings – baseball jackets have parts of their wool shells cut away to reveal the insides – but there are also plenty of woollen sweatpants and polo shirts with drawstring hems (a Sacai motif). “I wear as much of it as I can fit into,” said Tim Blanks. “I’ve ordered cardigans from the new collection. They’re quite psychedelic. One’s a pinstripe with its lining showing. There’s something beautifully dishevelled about it all.”

At dinner, Chitose was wearing a mesh dress that finished above the knee and ankle socks with high-heeled shoes. Her hair was more bouffant than before, like a black-haired Bardot, and she had a black lacquered whistle hanging round her neck. A safety pin, subtly encrusted with diamonds, was in one ear. The effect was hip-hop washed over with a minimal Japanese elegance. There was plenty of unrepeatable fashion gossip, and talk of various travels, including the observation that there isn’t a decent hotel in the Marais in Paris, where Sacai now has its showroom during fashion week. In London she likes to go to the Punchbowl, Guy Ritchie’s old pub, for fish and chips, and since the Edition, Ian Schrager’s new hotel, opened last autumn, it’s where she likes to stay. “I tried Claridge’s, but it was too… classy,” she said. In Tokyo, every other night, she’s at home cooking dinner for her daughter, Tohko, who’s nearly 16. Junichi does the nights in between, and they share the housework. “I’ll stay in the office till 1am sometimes when Junichi is at home,” she said. “This year they had to go on holiday without me. I was just too busy.” On Sunday mornings, her trainer comes to the house and she works out with dumbbells.

Also at the table was Daisuke Gemma, a charming bilingual creative consultant with a round, open face; he and Chitose met seven years ago through a friend. “I’d been a buyer at Browns in London for five years before I came back to Tokyo in 2002,” said Daisuke, who was casually dressed in a blue polo shirt and navy shorts. “By the time we met, Abe-san was interested in making the brand into something more European. So I started off by making a lookbook, and for Sacai that was a big step. There was no press or promotional material until then. It was 2008 – the seminal collection with the hems hanging down.”

Sacai’s clothes, in their complexity (a jacket might fasten many ways; a skirt can be worn to show a lot of leg or wrapped closely for modesty), don’t necessarily sell themselves on their hangers. But when someone appears to be wearing a shearling jacket and it morphs into a heavy wool coat as they turn in the street or on the catwalk, there is pure magic. Daisuke urged Chitose to put the clothes on models. “She still insisted on not doing runway,” he said. “So in March 2010, we did a presentation in that place behind the Ritz in Paris – the Hôtel d’Évreux – and invited 150 people. That was when we met Karl Templer. He came backstage and said, ‘Why aren’t you working with me?’ He’s brought us to a different place.”

The first runway show, in September 2011 at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, showed just how successful the designs could be once Chitose let them move. It also delineated her personality. Sacai shows have become renowned for their feelgood atmosphere and fun music. “I want people to leave happy,” said Chitose. “And if that means playing Kylie for the finale, we’ll play Kylie.” I think she designs in the same spirit. “Chitose understands women’s lives,” agrees Karl Templer. (Incidentally, the other Karl is also a major admirer.) “She designs for herself. Sacai is one of the few shows where the models want to take the clothes away. They fall in love with them.”

For several years, Daisuke and Chitose had been looking for a spot in Tokyo to open a store. The building they eventually found by chance was old and decrepit, damaged from spending years as a restaurant and then lying empty for quite a few more. At the back of the first floor, the walls of the former kitchen were still covered in oil. The pair had recently seen a book about a new library in Tokyo’s Musashino district designed by the young Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, also responsible for the white gridded Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London’s Kensington Gardens in 2013. The library challenged assumptions. “It was full of windows and light,” said Chitose. “It was controversial; usually libraries are dark to protect the books.” So they gave him a call. “He’d never designed a shop,” said Chitose, with satisfaction. “Retail specialists just talk about circulation routes and where the counter should be. But that wasn’t what we talked about. I told him that I wanted somewhere uplifting.”

Fujimoto knocked down some walls and created framed spaces that are visible, one after the other. “I used colours like black, silver, concrete and white and tried to layer them in the way Abe-san creates her clothing, blending together textures and materials,” he said when we met in London (he was wearing a white Sacai Man shirt with a drawstring hem beneath a black jacket). “I was immensely inspired by the building she’d chosen. I added sharp, clean glass to bring the green of the courtyard right into the building,” he said, referring to the big new windows. Inside, the walls are sometimes plaster, sometimes concrete, and sometimes, messily, both. The clothes look light and fresh in the space. As well they might. Their designer is one of the lightest and brightest of them all.

Kirsty Young

Kirsty Young

The smart Scottish broadcaster

Kirsty
Young

The smart Scottish broadcaster who’s asking all the right questions

The Gentlewoman
Issue no. 10

The Scottish broadcaster Kirsty Young, 46, has a voice like honey and hair to match. She made reading the news modern and glamorous when she started presenting perched on the desk rather than behind it. She went on to turn BBC Radio 4’s stolid Desert Island Discs into a cunningly revealing exploration of her interviewees’ lives.

A straight talker, she’s been known to say she prefers radio to TV for its lack of “make-up cobblers” and that she would prefer her children to have self-worth more than happiness. Though outwardly utterly metropolitan, Kirsty lives in a country house and likes nothing better than a night in with a good cookery book.

Text by Lauren Collins
Photography by Benjamin Alexander Huseby

Technically, Desert Island Discs is a radio programme, and Kirsty Young is its host. Forty-two Sunday mornings a year on BBC Radio 4, she revisits the lives of the most significant people of our time through a musical selection of their choice. DID debuted in 1942, and its rules have hardly changed since: each guest, or castaway, is invited to name eight pieces of music they’d want with them if they ended up stranded on a desert island (the all-time most popular being Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in D Minor, the Choral), one luxury item (it must be inanimate), and one book (in addition to the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible, the Qur’an or another holy substitute). For its devotees, DID is a sort of secular church. Kirsty, eliciting lessons and cueing hymns, is the nation’s substitute vicar. Three million people listen to DID each week as they wash their cars or baste their roasts – more than attend Church of England services on Christmas Day.

In seven decades, DID has had four hosts. In 2006, Kirsty replaced Sue Lawley, who in 1988 – after Michael Parkinson’s brief interregnum – had succeeded Roy Plomley, the programme’s creator. Under Kirsty’s stewardship, DID has become a place of mystery, grace, catharsis and good humour. “She’s given a new glow to that old programme,” Gillian Reynolds, the radio critic of The Daily Telegraph, said recently. If DID is a church, it’s a broad one. Lynn Barber, the profile writer, recently admitted on the show that at Oxford she’d slept with “probably 50 men”. Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s voice caught as he discussed his rift with his brother (he also confessed that he hadn’t had a serious girlfriend until after university and went on to dedicate Robbie Williams’s “Angels” to his wife). Morrissey told Kirsty he considered suicide honourable. The comedian David Walliams talked about questioning his sexuality. Ben Helfgott, the Holocaust survivor and weightlifter – he left Theresienstadt in 1945 and represented Britain at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 – said he had never hated anyone, and yet his pain remained as great as it had ever been. DID was conceived as light entertainment, but Kirsty, building on the work of her predecessors, has used it to tap something profound.

Kirsty also presents Crimewatch, the crime-solving television programme, and occasionally hosts Have I Got News for You, a satirical current events quiz, both on BBC One. If Elle Macpherson was the Body, she is the Voice, turning ears with the superiority of her delivery. Writing about her is a little bit like trying to record a painting. Her Scottish brogue has been likened to autumn leaves and expensive tweed. As a metonym, it exemplifies the qualities of warmth and depth that make her so attractive to such a wide audience. “It’s like a wonderful, warm, scented bath,” John Lloyd – producer of TV’s Spitting Image, Blackadder and QI – said recently. If the voice is an instrument, she’s got something like the Stradivarius of larynxes.

One afternoon not long ago, Kirsty was taping an episode of DID with Dame Wendy Hall, a computer scientist who’s done pioneering work on something called open hypermedia systems. DID is recorded at Broadcasting House in central London, in a studio consisting of a soundproof room where Kirsty and her guest conduct their interview and an antechamber from which her producers supervise it. The setting might be more of an archipelago than the desert island proposed by the show, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of companionship or material comfort. Sitting there with Hall, Kirsty was like the sun cream (the luxury requested by Annie Lennox), the mosquito net (politician Diane Abbott) and the can of caviar with spoon and opener (writer Thomas Keneally) all in one, maintaining eye contact with her guest as though their rescue depended on it. When I arrived, the session was already in full swing. I learned that Kirsty had contrived for me to get there late, fearing that my presence would distort the process by which she greets and quickly bonds with her guests.

Kirsty sat looking out of the recording booth; Hall faced in. I wasn’t sure how heavily the program would be edited, but their conversation unspooled pretty much just as it would later on the air, save for a few false starts. Kirsty has a round, generous face and tawny highlights. She was wearing a sweater and trousers in a blueberryish colour, a gold cuff on each wrist, and glasses on her nose. A sound engineer played Hall’s chosen music at the appointed intervals in the program, giving the session a festive vibe. During the breaks, Kirsty and Hall kept up their chatter in the overflowing way of old mates so excited to see each other that they haven’t had time to look at the menu. Kirsty said later that she spends at least three days researching each castaway. She puts together a list of subjects she wants to make sure to cover, but the show is essentially a live performance. “Once I’m in there, what I hope is that I’ll abandon at least half of the questions I’ve written down and pursue what they say to me,” she said. “You can judge the heft of someone’s cloth when they’re sitting opposite you.”

When Kirsty landed the DID job, grumps and reactionaries tutted. “How I hate the new presenter,” one listener wrote on a BBC message board. “A nice enough girl but I miss a clear, English accent and Kirsty’s voice is so simpering.” Detractors still surface from time to time – usually to complain about her perceived bias toward showbiz types – but fears that she’d dumb down the franchise now seem silly, even to her early sceptics. Gillian Reynolds, of the Telegraph, initially criticised Kirsty’s eagerness – “She gabbles on, as if to demonstrate she’s done the homework” – but admitted recently that her friendly approach had proven an asset. “She’s brilliant at letting people feel free. She’s a real journalist, and she can contradict people, but first of all, she’s warm and welcoming.” For John Lloyd, the TV producer, Kirsty belongs with David Frost and Melvyn Bragg in the all-time triumvirate of BBC interviewers. Lloyd recalls his own appearance on DID as Kirsty’s 257th castaway, in which he spoke searingly of his depression, as a sort of out-of-body experience in which Kirsty’s words coaxed him into such a relaxed state that he was willing to divulge and discuss things he’d never spoken about with anyone, much less a stranger. “You sort of fall in love with her, and then she’ll ask the killer question and look at you with those huge blue eyes,” he said. “You’ll be flummoxed and put off kilter and ready to reveal something of yourself.”

Kirsty’s role requires a tricky mixture of empathy and aggression: she has to be, at once, a therapist who can push a point and a debating-team captain who can be kind. At the taping I attended, her producer fed a hint into her earpiece every now and then – follow up on this, don’t neglect to bring up that – but she was essentially on her own, segueing among topics with impressive dexterity. At one point, Hall talked at some length about her and her husband’s decision not to have children. Afterwards, as Eric Clapton’s “Layla” spun, she became a little bit teary. Kirsty knew what to say: Music, she told Hall, has an ability to speed-dial emotion. Later, when Kirsty flubbed the difference between the Internet and the Web, she confidently worked her ignorance into the do-over, in the process rendering an arcane topic comprehensible. Her ability to absorb, digest and feed back information suggested an extraordinary intellectual metabolism as the interview cruised on. Every once in a while, Hall flashed Kirsty a thumbs-up sign, as though the scientist were waterskiing behind a very fast boat.

Kirsty’s former colleagues at BBC Scotland once joked to a reporter that she managed to make even fish prices sound sexy – “halibut, herring, cod”. As ichthyological origin stories go, hers rightly begins with Cullen skink. It was the summer of 1986, and Kirsty was 18. A year earlier, she’d left Stirling High School, where, on account of her deep voice, her nickname had been Old Man River. She had no idea what she wanted to do with herself. “I was cursed with a very smart big sister who sailed through everything,” she recalled. “My parents knew I was different. But as long as I was in employment and wasn’t sleeping till midday, they were sort of fine about it.” Her sister, Laura, went to university. Kirsty went to Geneva. There, she worked as an au pair for a family from Stockholm. “We lived in a tiny little village just across the French border,” Kirsty recalled. “I used to practice some Swedish with the dog, but I didn’t learn any French.” Eventually, the family moved to Barcelona, and Kirsty followed. After about a year with them, she returned to Stirling and took a job at a pub called the Foresters Arms, pulling pints and serving soup. Then one day a regular, a cameraman, started talking about his job. She recalled, “He said to me, ‘Well, my runner’s gone sick this weekend, and I need someone to lift cases,’ and I thought, ‘I’d definitely prefer that to working in the pub.’” He hired Kirsty, who showed up and liked the work. “The money was crap, but I was fascinated by it.”

Demonstrating her signature desktop position, Kirsty is pictured in the Desert Island Discs recording studio at Broadcasting House in London. She is wearing a navy-and-green wool cardigan by CÉLINE from Joseph, grey wool trousers by PAUL SMITH and a leather-and-brass cuff by CHLOÉ. On the opening photograph, the black-and-white houndstooth wool jumper is by SPORTMAX and the jewellery is by VANRYCKE from Kabiri. On the next photograph, she wears a cashmere jumper and wool coat by BALLY.

Kirsty wasn’t slotted into her position by wealth or birth. The lack of inevitability to her trajectory is perhaps one reason her explorations of the key junctures of her subjects’ lives – why they took this turn rather than that one, and where the decision led – seem unusually attentive. She was born in East Kilbride, a suburb of Glasgow, in 1968. Her biological father, Joe Jackson, was a police detective; her mother, Catherine, known as Rena, worked secretarial jobs, having married Joe when she was 19. When Kirsty was three weeks old, Joe walked out of the house and her life. (“Due to varying shift patterns,” he wrote in a 2008 tell-all, “I could not see the girls every weekend as I would have liked, and after a while Rena suggested that seeing them irregularly was causing Laura too much heartache, so it might be better if I did not see them again. I reluctantly agreed.”) When Kirsty was 2, her mother married John Young, a trained carpenter who ran a newsagent’s. She unreservedly considers him to be her father. The couple had a son, Iain. “I felt like I was in a nuclear family,” Kirsty said. “Though it wasn’t, that’s what it felt like for me.”

Kirsty’s sister, now Laura Ewing, remembers her as a funny and perceptive child, very much an individual from a young age. “I think she was listening to a slightly different beat,” Laura said. “When we were little, I loved ballet. Kirsty came along to join the class one day. She was two rows behind, and I thought I’d show her the ropes. But instead of watching me, she was off doing some sort of Isadora Duncan impression.” When Kirsty was 8, the family moved to Stirling, in central Scotland. The transition from new town to market town was eye-opening. “If you were to ask my mother, she probably had an entirely different experience of it,” Kirsty says, “but for me, there was incredible freedom in the egalitarian nature of East Kilbride. Everywhere I looked, everybody had the same house. Everybody’s dads drove the same sort of cars – and they were dads, then, that drove the cars. I can see how that would feel constraining and inhibiting and stifling if you were an adult, but there’s a huge degree of comfort in that when you’re a child. So I think when we moved to Stirling I felt a sense of differentiation between people who had more money and less money, and I was suddenly aware of the social mix to a much greater degree.” She left school with five O-levels and two Highers, one in English and the other in art and design: barely enough to progress to university had she wanted to. As studiously gracious as she is, Kirsty still bristles a bit when confronted with breezy middle-class expectations of what a successful life should look like. She told me, “I was given an honorary degree from the University of Stirling, and after the ceremony a journalist said to me, ‘Kirsty, do you feel better now that you’ve gotten a degree?’ And I said, ‘You know what? I think me and John Humphrys have done just fine without one,’” referencing the highly respected host of Radio 4’s breakfast programme Today. “And I thought, What are you talking about? There’s no part of this journey, through all the work I’ve done, that doesn’t make sense.”

After her stint as a cameraman’s assistant, Kirsty worked her way up from production assistant at a company that made adverts to researcher at one specialising in documentaries, and in 1990, she landed a job as a trainee newsreader and announcer at BBC Radio Scotland. Soon she was presenting the news on STV, Scotland’s leading independent channel. Blair Jenkins, her former boss there, remembers her as a popular figure, both with colleagues and with the focus groups the station often consulted. “She could get guys to pay attention, but she worked very well for women, too,” he said. “She probably had a slightly stronger Scottish accent then.” In 1996, Channel 5 hired Kirsty to anchor its flagship evening news show, which launched the following spring. She made her name, and the channel’s, with what was then a revolutionary tweak to the format: she sat on her desk instead of behind it. Soon she was a raging success. ITV poached her away; Channel 5 hired her back (“Young Returns to Channel 5 in Deal Worth £1m”). She wore YSL and Gucci pantsuits, drank wine at lunch with girlfriends, and went on the celebrity-impersonation show Stars in Their Eyes in a Peggy Lee outfit. She got engaged “for about three minutes” to a salesman she met while hosting a show about fanciable men. She dated the Scots rugby star Kenny Logan, who called her a “cracking bird”. Her sense of control was such that somehow, amid the hubbub, she never particularly embarrassed herself. She said of her 20s, “I was sort of in perpetual motion.”

Kirsty met Nick Jones, who would become her husband, at Babington House, a country hotel and private members’ club in Somerset, in 1998. Having gone there in search of a relaxing weekend, she struck up a conversation with him – so legend has it – on the misapprehension that he was the porter, not the proprietor (Jones is co-owner of the Soho House group, whose properties include 12 other clubs in cities from Berlin to Chicago). He was in the midst of a divorce. They were both immediately, profoundly smitten. “It was all over,” she recalled. “I had no say in it. It was absolutely a fait accompli. I was not a romantic – I suppose I thought of myself as being a realist – and then I met Nick and it was hilariously sort of lovebirds and roses everywhere I looked. I fell for him like a ton of bricks.”

Nick and Kirsty married at Babington House in 1999. He wore tartan; she wore a white sheath dress and matching bolero jacket by Amanda Wakeley. Nick already had two children, Natasha (now 21) and Oliver (19). He and Kirsty had two more: Freya (13) and Iona (8), with whom they now live in Oxfordshire. Judging from the way Kirsty speaks about Nick – she prefaces her comments by saying, “I in no way want to sound smug about my marriage,” as though she might jinx their luck – they remain an unusually connected couple. “He’s super-smart and really at home with himself and more than able to handle me,” she said. “We like the same things domestically; we’re happy to sit with a bottle of red wine and watch a movie. We like to cook together, and there are lots of silly little things, like I’ll say, ‘Maybe we could have a filet of beef,’ and he’ll say, ‘I’ve ordered one, because I was thinking we hadn’t had one in a while.’” Nick describes Kirsty as a wit. “There’s a whole list of people she can mimic, and she makes them sound perfect,” he said. (I can vouch for her impression of Dustin Hoffman’s “sort of velociraptor-like LA publicists”.) She sees him as a risk-taker, a man of action who counteracts her tendency to fret. She said, “I worry whether I’m good enough at anything, whether I can make my work interesting to people. Actually, I used to worry about whether I did enough as a mother, but I don’t worry about that anymore – I do enough. I worry about ageing. When you’re on TV you have to come to terms with that. What I do has never been based on my looks, but – ageing on HDTV?”

By the time her 40th birthday arrived, Kirsty had acquired not only the DID job but also the ultimate proof of being a successful woman: a story in the Daily Mail tabloid titled “The Ruthless Rise of Kirsty Young.” (Among her offences were participating in career negotiations during maternity leave and attending parties in Notting Hill.) Her life is now undeniably one of global-scale glamour and influence. She vacations in Miami (recently she alternated between Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Tiny Fey’s Bossypants, which she read “sitting on a lounger on the beach with tears running under my sunglasses”) and her work has taken her to Burma (she was so nervous interviewing Aung San Suu Kyi there for DID that she forgot to ask her the format’s final question: Which of the eight tracks would she take to the island?). But she’s the rare celebrity whose claim to being a homebody – one who spends most of her free time in the company of cook books by Yotam Ottolenghi and Simon Hopkinson – carries the ring of believability. “Domesticity is a massive part of my life,” she said. “I’m not a particularly creative person, and at home I can create a nice atmosphere and cook good things and have people round the table, and I like that my kids like it. And, of course, as a woman at my stage in life, I’m getting increasingly obsessed by gardening.”

Despite having lived in England for more than 20 years, Kirsty still thinks of herself as an outsider there. When I asked how important being Scottish was to her, she replied, “It’s absolutely at the core of who I am in a way that I probably am not articulate enough to express. I think a massive part is the humour, and there’s often a little dialogue in my head that’s the Scottish version of what’s going on in the world.” (She failed to make it through a story involving a woman standing in a queue and the words “cannae” and “swally” without dissolving into laughter.) She continued, “You know, I’ve been to 10 Downing Street, I’ve been to Buckingham Palace, I’ve been to Chequers. But when my husband and I moved out of London, people said, ‘You’re moving out of London?’ And I said, ‘I’m a foreigner; it doesn’t matter to me where I live in England. If I’m not in Scotland, I’m in a foreign place, so I’d rather be in foreign place with a nice back garden than one where I’m looking at a lot of concrete.

“There’s no part of this journey, through all the work I’ve done, that doesn’t make sense.”

“With DID, I’ve probably had a kind of stock cube of human experience,” Kirsty said. Taping had finished, it was a sunny afternoon, and we were drinking mint tea at Little House Mayfair, one of her husband’s clubs. DID is a kind of anthropological survey, a decades-long inquiry into the human condition, at least as experienced by those who have confronted it particularly successfully. I asked Kirsty what her takeaway was from eight years of vicarious introspection. “That very intimate friendships sustain people through the very worst bits of their life,” she answered, her voice growing serious. “That it is much more the norm than we think to fall apart at some point in your life. My grandmother used to make us laugh like drains when she would say, in a very Scottish way, ‘They’re no happy for aw their money.’ It was, ‘Yeah, let’s placate the masses with that thought, Grandma’ – but she was right. You meet people who have everything, and beyond everything. They’ll be in Portofino, and they’re miserable.” She paused for a moment. “You know what’s interesting, actually? I’ve learned a lot about class, and my own preconceptions about class. I’ve met incredibly privileged people – you know, products of great wealth who’ve been educated at the finest schools, whose path in life has been smoothed in so many ways that I suppose, in my earlier life, I would’ve thought: What could I learn from somebody like that?”

Listen to Kirsty for long on the radio and you’ll notice that she’s unfailingly interested in the first stirrings of success. She’s forever wanting to know when a guest had the earliest inkling that he or she might be destined to become someone distinguished. “I hope it’s not hackneyed when I ask people that, but it comes out of a very old-fashioned belief that so much of what happens to us has been laid down early on,” she said. To her mind, it’s the “grit in the oyster” – the hard, formative thing – that often determines character. I asked her if she applied that theory to herself. “You know, I’ve spoken to my sister a bit about this, and I’ve said to her that I would like to think this isn’t the case, because it’s too obvious and really simplistic, but I can’t help thinking how when I was younger I was a bit of a show-off. I think that there was probably a bit of me saying ‘I’m here, I exist!’ because my parents broke up when I was just three weeks old. I’ve never been in psychoanalysis, but I can’t imagine that if I did sit down I wouldn’t have an aha moment where I was like, ‘Shit, OK.’” She added, “That’s an unpleasant thought for me, but if I apply the same rigour to try to find out what got me to start doing what I did as I apply to Discs guests, then that’s going to be one of my conclusions.”

Listen to her for long in person and you’ll notice that she’s an unusually generous interlocutor (after the recorder goes off, she burns the better part of another hour talking about her favourite restaurant – the River Café – and the irresolvable dilemma of how, and when, to have both work and children). Kirsty and the DID team keep a running list of potential guests, but she has veto power, more or less, over who comes on. Her favourite categories of castaway include scientists (“because it’s really far away from where I am in my head”) and people like George Michael or Dustin Hoffman “who’ve been through the white heat of fame a long time ago.” (“The three marriages are behind them,” she elaborates, “and they’ve kind of made up with their kids, and, whatever it is, they have perspective.”) In the spirit of compiling lists, I asked her to name her desert-island Desert Island interviewees. She would only admit that one of her favourites had been Zadie Smith. “It’s tricky when you meet someone you admire,” she said. “It’s a loaded situation, because you’re invested in it; you care too much. But she was one of the most affable, engaged, thoughtful, in-the-moment people I’ve ever interviewed.” I knew what she meant.

Marlene Dumas

Marlene Dumas

The world’s most expensive female painter

Marlene
Dumas

Inside the studio of the world’s most expensive female painter

The Gentlewoman
Issue no. 10

The Dutch artist Marlene Dumas insists she’s not an activist, but her provocative, unnervingly intimate portraiture runs the gamut of race, sexuality, deformity and every other complexity of being human. People get in the way for Marlene, though, at least during the work day: the 61-year-old likes to be alone in her Amsterdam studio with just photographs and press clippings for company. But once the painting’s done, Dumas is always up for a big glass of wine – she grew up on a vineyard in South Africa – and a hearty discussion about art. She also does an excellent Lucian Freud impersonation.

In 2008, her work became the most expensive by a living female artist, but Marlene isn’t motivated by the market. She prefers giving her work away to friends.

Text by Cristina Ruiz
Photography by Viviane Sassen

This summer, visitors to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg were greeted by a series of wash portraits of 16 men, many of them Russian and all of them gay, staring down from the wall. They included Nikolai Gogol, Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Sergei Diaghilev as well as Alan Turing, the British computer scientist and codebreaker who was chemically castrated for being homosexual. There was a Russian man whose eye had been gouged out in a brutal homophobic attack, and Leonard Matlovich, an American Vietnam War veteran. Underneath each image was a short, handwritten summary of the subject’s life. Matlovich’s included a quote from his tombstone: “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

The series, entitled Great Men, is the work of the Dutch artist Marlene Dumas and a part of Manifesta 10, an itinerant contemporary-art biennale that this year landed in the Russian city. (Manifesta 9 took place in Genk, Belgium, in 2012.) Marlene admits she was reluctant to participate at first because of the anti-gay legislation passed in Russia last year. “I didn’t even want the trouble of thinking about whether I should do something there or not,” she says. “But then I started to look into the stories and tragedies of these people’s lives, and what I found was profoundly upsetting.” She hopes her portraits will provoke the homophobic to re-examine their prejudices. “If you don’t like gay people, I want the drawings to make you think, ‘What a stupid, horrible person I am.’”

Marlene has a knack for quiet subversion. Her art works its magic on you sotto voce. When I visited her in May at her studio in Amsterdam, where she’s lived for nearly 40 years since leaving her native South Africa at 23, the portraits were still hanging on the walls, about to be packed up and sent to St Petersburg. “She really intends to be a painter of our time, to relate to the global, political situation and what’s going on around us,” says Leontine Coelewij, the curator of a comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s work set to open at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam this autumn before travelling to the Tate Modern in London and the Fondation Beyeler in Basel. It spans four decades and includes over 100 drawings and paintings.

For the most part, Marlene Dumas paints people – women, men, children, babies – zooming in on her figures and removing any background or context which might locate them in a time or place. Her portraits are emotionally charged, confrontational, unsettling and ambiguous. Some of her subjects stare directly at us, appearing to question us as much as we would wish to question them. Others seem oblivious to our presence, engaged in private pursuits such as masturbation or positioned with their backs turned. Many are naked. Few smile. Several are dead, mouths agape. If you think portrait painting is for artists who aim to flatter and please their subjects, you haven’t met Marlene.

She is not interested in creating realistic likenesses but in exploring what she calls “the psychology of people”. She mostly paints from photographs: images cut out of newspapers and magazines, film stills, pictures culled from art history. She never uses live models. “I don’t want people in my studio,” she says. “I want to be alone when I paint.” Getting to know her subjects, she says, hinders rather than helps her, making her sensitive to what they will think of their representation on canvas, denying her the freedom of “the amoral touch”. She works quickly, without outlining her figures on paper or canvas beforehand, building them up instead with loose, fluid brush strokes that suggest form rather than detail it, and the spontaneity of her gestures sometimes takes her representations in a different direction to the one she originally imagined. “There is an element of play to what I do,” says Marlene, “where something suddenly appears from something else.”

For the series of photographic portraits on these pages Marlene posed for her fellow Amsterdammer, artist Viviane Sassen.

While she is the very definition of a serious artist who thinks deeply about her work and tackles the most difficult subjects head on, in person, she’s tremendously welcoming and enormous fun. She loves to talk and laughs easily and often. Questions are answered by way of numerous diversions and anecdotes, many of which she finds deeply amusing. English is her second language (her native tongue is Afrikaans), and though she’s totally fluent, she often pauses to find the right word or correct the terms she’s just used, her speech inf lected with the cadences of her homeland and accompanied by emphatic hand gestures.

There is a naughtiness to Marlene’s demeanour, a twinkle in her eye, and an almost childlike quality in her propensity to smile and giggle. Her dishevelled blonde curls are swept off her face into a bun that at all times seems on the verge of collapse. Her clothes – soft black trousers, matching jacket and crumpled white blouse – are probably chosen for comfort as much as style. When she’s not working, she admits, she does only what she likes, eschewing tasks she finds tiresome. “I don’t have any hobbies,” she says. “I don’t exercise. I don’t ride a bicycle. I don’t even like brushing my teeth.” Instead, she spends time in bed reading or watching movies (she singles out the Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini and the German one Rainer Werner Fassbinder as personal heroes) or television – she signs off one email saying she’s off home to catch an interview with Hillary Clinton and then a documentary about gay rights in Russia. She also likes drinking wine: “I’ve drunk too much for a lot of my life,” she says. She’s a prolific writer, having produced many texts over the years about her work and that of other artists, which give a profound insight into her thinking. There’s no shortage of Marlene, if you go out and look for her.

One evening, we had a white-asparagus-themed dinner at a restaurant near her studio with Jolie van Leeuwen, her studio manager. Jolie is a distinguished curator who has worked with the artist for over two decades (“She was one of the warmest artists I’d ever met,” said Van Leeuwen, recalling her first encounter with Marlene). Talk turned to the art market and its rapidly escalating prices. “That has been the worst thing for art,” said Dumas, whose painting “The Visitor”, showing a group of women awaiting a customer in an Amsterdam brothel with their backs to the viewer, made £3.2 million at Sotheby’s in London in July 2008, setting a record for the artist at auction. “I do not want to be remembered for this,” she said. “I would like to be remembered for having done at least one good painting in my life.”

Rising art prices have led to a process known as “flipping”, in which buyers sell works not long after acquiring them in search of a quick profit. Marlene abhors the practice, not least because it makes keeping track of her paintings difficult. So she vets prospective purchasers, blacklisting speculators. “If you’ve got three paintings everyone wants, and I have to choose between collectors one of whom has just sold something, I prefer not to sell to that collector,” she explained. And the conversation turned back to art, not prices.

It’s probably her favourite pastime of all: discussing art, often with her students, late into the night over drinks. “Me and her, we’ve got into a few very interesting debates,” says the artist and Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen, who also lives in Amsterdam and met Dumas when they both taught at the artist-run school Ateliers ’63 (now called De Ateliers). “The thing I love about Marlene is that she’s not scared to share her opinion and she’s not scared to be wrong,” he says. “When we argue, either I learn about something or she does. Since we met, it’s always been a debate. It’s always been a conversation.”

Marlene’s workspace consists of a series of interconnected rooms in two adjacent buildings in Amsterdam’s De Pijp district. On one side is her office; on the other is her studio, its floor littered with mounds of crumpled paper and tissues and piles of discarded rubber gloves. Numerous tables are covered with containers full of dirty brushes. The place is a mess. “When I started to get known, people would say, ‘Can we come and take pictures of you in your studio? You must have a beautiful studio.’ I would reply, ‘Not particularly,’” she says, giggling.

Family photographs, newspaper clippings and images of paintings by old masters such as Leonardo, Titian and Vermeer cover the walls of a small room next door. Dumas collects imagery of every kind, immersing herself in pictures she finds interesting. Cabinets storing her works on paper are everywhere. Books line the corridors. It is an Aladdin’s cave of images and texts relating to her life: a museum of Marlene Dumas.

It is here, surrounded by her things, that she often finds inspiration. She can go months without painting, and then suddenly an image preserved years earlier will inspire a work. In 2008, she was preparing for a major retrospective that toured the United States, stopping in Los Angeles and Houston as well as at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “I was just rearranging some things, and this old article fell out of a folder,” she says, eyebrows lifting. It was illustrated with a photograph of Marilyn Monroe, dead and laid out on a slab in the morgue. “Right then, I was occupied with images of the dead, and as I was going to America, I thought: Here’s my American painting. I didn’t want to paint Marilyn Monroe, but things literally fall together like that sometimes.”

Marlene Dumas was born in South Africa in 1953 and raised on a wine farm in Kuils River, 25km east of Cape Town. She was brought up with two older brothers in a Protestant Afrikaans household. “We were taught to be caring towards those that had less than we did,” she says. Apartheid, however, was not discussed. “My father was still angry with the British who put the women and children of the Afrikaner farmers into concentration camps.” She was 12 when her father died and her oldest brother took over the farm. “After that, I started to notice how everyone seemed to talk politics in some way or another. In my late teens, apartheid was defended as a separate-but-equal development, where eventually everyone would have the same rights. People really did think that the white European settler and black indigenous cultures were too different to mix and that only trouble-seekers were dissatisfied and violent. The ones who protested were called terrorists and communists.” Then she went off to the University of Cape Town, “and the horrors of the system really became clear,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do. Apartheid was working.”

Shortly afterwards, Dumas left South Africa, armed with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and a two-year bursary to study abroad. She’s returned only to visit family and friends. She moved to the Netherlands and attended Ateliers ’63, located in the city of Haarlem in those days. Her decision to leave her native country was an act of pragmatism more than protest, she says. “Some artists are activists, and that’s fantastic. But I am an artist. I’m not saying that to be a painter is a higher calling than to be a feminist or an activist; it’s more a statement of fact. I’ve been awarded honorary doctorates by universities in South Africa in 2010 and 2011, and I had to tell them, ‘I wasn’t here.’ I have extreme respect for those journalists and documentary photographers who did stay.”

Her first years in the Netherlands were tough. Although she enjoyed freedoms she’d never known back home – “As a woman, the fact that you could walk around late at night here and not be scared was amazing” – she was displaced, alone and often judged for being a white South African. “People in bars would tell me I should be shot,” she recalls. “And I would say, ‘I can’t help where I come from.’” She recounts a conversation with a black taxi driver in Amsterdam in her early years in the city: “After a friendly general talk, he asked me where I came from, and as I took too long to answer, he said, ‘Oh, no. When you take that long to answer, I know where you’re from!’”

Before moving to Europe, Dumas had imagined she’d find an exuberant counterculture and mix with creative types akin to her hero Pasolini. “But the ’60s were over. The Dutch were not at all flamboyant, and I was very disappointed. The art being made here, or at least the painting, wasn’t at all exciting, and I didn’t really understand the Dutch humour. It’s taken a while, but I have become very attached to Amsterdam, and I do find it beautiful.”

Leontine Coelewij is devoting an entire room at the Stedelijk to works produced by the artist during her early years in the Netherlands. One is a pencil drawing of a houseplant inscribed with the words “I won’t have a pot plant, they die on me.” “Marlene found a really bourgeois society when she came here, and it was really not for her,” says Coelewij. “This drawing especially is about what it’s like to be an outsider in this new country, with all these neat and tidy houses with their neat little plants.”

Marlene’s studio is located in the De Pijp district of Amsterdam. Marlene takes gleeful pride in the messiness of her studio, where she’s made many of her famous paintings. One of the most widely-recognised is the next image: “Het Kwaad is Banaal (Evil Is Banal)”, a self-portrait in oils from 1984.

Marlene’s turning point came in 1984, when she was invited to participate in the Biennale of Sydney; her work was displayed alongside that of the late installation artist Mike Kelley from Los Angeles and the German painter Anselm Kiefer, who produces giant abstract canvases infused with the tragedies of his country’s history. “I had a very small room to myself,” she says, “and I showed a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It wasn’t very coherent, and I was unknown at that time. And nearby there were these vast pieces by those guys, and they looked so heroic. It made me realise that I wanted to compete a bit with the boys.” She started to paint portraits in oil on canvas, searching for her voice as an artist. “I always had an interest in the human form, but I didn’t think I had a new way of expressing it,” she says. “To call yourself an artist, I thought you had to contribute something new, just like a scientist who has to discover something.” A year later, she had her first solo show at the Amsterdam gallery run by Paul Andriesse, whose artist cousin Jan would later become her partner. (The couple have been together for nearly 30 years. Jan was born in Indonesia, though his family left when he was 6. Marlene describes their relationship as “not so conventional”.) The 11 large-scale portraits in that first Amsterdam show included representations of Sigmund Freud’s wife, Martha Bernays; Dumas’s grandmother; and the American poet Emily Dickinson.

In the intervening three decades, Dumas has painted people at stages ranging from the beginning of life to the end, experimenting with traditional formats from art history such as the nude and the funerary portrait and always exploring the question of what painting can do in an age of pervasive imagery. Her subjects have included terrorists, explicitly posed strippers and murder victims. She has often painted Christ, not as an otherworldly divinity but as a dying man, abandoned and alone.

“The newspaper is full of dead people,” she says of her frequent return to mortality. “And I want painting to be part of real life. I’m not Degas, painting pretty ballerinas. Every time we look at the news, there are much more horrible things than those I paint – like child soldiers in Africa. Painting is about exploring one’s fears, but also I feel that it can be beautiful somehow.”

Many of Dumas’s canvases have the power to unnerve their viewers, but one in particular is as disturbing today as it was when it was first exhibited more than 20 years ago. “The Painter” is based on a snapshot of Helena, Dumas and Jan Andriesse’s only child, taken while their daughter, then 3 or 4, was in the garden finger-painting. In it, she is naked, covered in the different colours she’s been using.

In the monumental painting that emerged, Helena, now nearly 2m high, is shown in a full frontal pose with a surly expression on her face. Her belly and torso are blue, recalling the discolouration that can occur on the skin after death and thus suggesting a mother’s unflinching depiction of the mortality of her own child. “Since Helena was born, the fear that something can happen to this child has been like nothing I’d ever known before,” explains Dumas. “That fear is definitely very much present in the painting.”

But there’s more. The girl’s left hand, covered in red as if it has been dipped in blood, suggests that the toddler has been involved in some murderous activity, as if Dumas is confronting her own child’s capacity for evil. It is a radical departure from traditional parental portraits of offspring. “I think if you bring this new person into the world and you don’t have that fear that they may do bad things, then there must be something wrong with you,” says Marlene.

The Museum of Modern Art decided against using a full image of the painting, however iconic, on its posters for her solo exhibition there in 2008 (they chose a close-up of part of the face instead). The director of another museum was troubled by the work because the toddler seemed angry. “I’m still surprised that ‘The Painter’ causes so much controversy. I would like to know how a painting that seems to be of such a simple thing can bother people to such an extent,” says Marlene. Helena is 25 now. “And she thinks it’s one of the best paintings I’ve done.”

“I don’t have any hobbies. I don’t exercise. I don’t ride a bicycle. I don’t even like brushing my teeth.”

Susan and Michael Hort live surrounded by art in their cavernous four-floor loft in New York’s TriBeCa. The couple have been collecting work by emerging artists for over two decades and now own around 3,000 pieces. A small selection decorates their home, while the rest stays in storage; the art is rehung annually. This year, pieces by the Scottish artist Jim Lambie, the American painter Jonas Wood and the English sculptor Thomas Houseago are carefully arranged in the generous spaces, along with a room of works on paper by the emerging Los Angeles artist Jon Pestoni.

“If you come back next year, you won’t find any of these same works,” says Michael Hort when I visit one afternoon in early summer. That’s not strictly true: the art in the couple’s bedroom includes one work that is never replaced. It is a portrait by Marlene Dumas of the Horts’ late daughter Rema, who died in 1995 of stomach cancer, aged 30. The couple had bought several works by Marlene early in her career, visited her in Europe regularly and “loved, loved, loved her work,” says Michael. Shortly after Rema died, Dumas asked them for a photograph of their daughter. Soon afterward, the couple received the portrait as an unexpected gift.

Jane Hamlyn of London’s Frith Street Gallery, who has held four exhibitions of her work since 1993, has also experienced Dumas’s generosity first-hand. “Once Marlene asked me for some photographs of my children, and a couple of years later when she was showing me around her exhibition at the Metropolitan Art Museum in Tokyo, we came across a huge wall with only two small paintings in the middle of it. One was of her daughter, Helena; the other was of my daughter, Scarlett. ‘It’s for you,’ she said.”

When we spoke in Amsterdam, Dumas was busy preparing for the Stedelijk retrospective. Her first solo exhibition in the Netherlands for over 20 years, it includes examples from numerous major cycles of work. Among them is a portrait of Osama bin Laden, originally shown in a 2011 Frith Street Gallery exhibition entitled Forsaken, accompanied here by a painting of the late al-Qaeda leader’s son Omar. “Bin Laden was also a father,” says Leontine Coelewij. “You would never think of him like that, but Marlene makes you do that.”

“There is usually a certain outrage that will trigger Dumas’s images,” says David Zwirner, the powerful gallerist with two spaces in New York and one in London. He started representing Marlene in 2008 after courting her for five years. “This is the engine that drives the meaning of much of her work and ultimately makes it so powerful, political and raw. You can’t really understand this unless you realise that apartheid, which was basically a fascist regime that wasn’t unlike the Nazis’ in many of their structures, wasn’t abolished in South Africa until the early ’90s. I think this is always with her and drives her moral compass.”

In 2010, for her first solo show at Zwirner’s West 19th Street gallery, Dumas painted a series of works based on the security wall built by Israel to separate itself from the Palestinian territories. With its focus on a specific time and place and identifiable architectural elements, the series was a major departure for Dumas, who showed multiple figures facing the wall, disempowered. “She could have made portraits for the rest of her life and done very well,” says Steve McQueen. “But she’s always been interested in searching. When you answer one question as an artist, another one arises. Her work is evolving; her art never stays still. That’s Marlene.”

But Dumas has her limits. “If something horrible happened to Helena, I would never paint that,” she says. Neither did she take pictures of her mother after her death. Instead, a massive portrait of her late parent as an elderly woman hangs in Dumas’s studio, looking down on her daughter as she works late into the night.