Meet Daphne Self, the face and figure of the greynaissance
No retirement date for this 90-year-old model. Her tip? Eat well and smile: a smile is as good as a facelift
It takes photographers at fashion shoots less time to get their shots of model Daphne Selfe right.
On an average fashion shoot, you might expect a model to wear three looks in four hours, but Selfe rattles through four in two. “Everyone goes home quicker. I know what I’m doing, I suppose. It’s not like shooting with some young girl.” As the world’s oldest working model, with a career spanning 69 years, she’s certainly got the experience.
Selfe was born on July 1 1928, meaning that it was her 90th birthday on Sunday. She’s gung-ho and full of energy, laughing loudly and gamely climbing on cabinets to get the shot. Watching her you get a firm sense that she brooks no nonsense.
She no longer drives, but will happily go anywhere by train. Her three children are in their 50s and 60s, her four grandchildren in their 20s. She is widowed, but does go on dates “occasionally”, to the theatre or cinema. With whom, however, is none of our business.
Her health is good, aside from the vasculitis in her feet, which prevents her from wearing heels. Her marbles are entirely intact, thanks for checking. She’s 1.67m tall, although shrinking a bit, if she’s honest. She’s undeniably, most definitely, beautiful, which explains why, back when she was 70, she made the (grand)mother of all modelling comebacks and launched herself as a stereotype-challenging, social-media-dominating supermodel for the new millennium. But more on that later.Selfe was discovered in 1949, aged 21, when she won a modelling competition that was held in the department store she worked for. The Gaby Young Modelling Agency took notice and added her to its books.
“Modelling then was nothing like it is now,” she says. “Colour [photography] was just coming in. We didn’t have a London Fashion Week; that’s only been in the last 25 years or so. Our main catwalks were in the big stores in London, and the Ideal Home Show, of course. Only one or two girls, like Barbara Goalen, ever went to Paris. People wouldn’t have heard of anybody who was a model.”
Considering that many models today are household names with personal brands worth millions and agents to negotiate what types of work they will or won’t do, it’s fair to say that Selfe comes from another world. It is all the more remarkable that she has adapted to the industry we now have. The egos, she says simply, were a lot smaller back then.
“As a model you were there to advertise a product. I’ve advertised sausages, wine and couture. You did anything and you always did your own hair and make-up.”When Selfe married Jim Smith in 1954, her career slowed down a bit. By the time she was considering fashion again it was the 1960s, she had three young children, and ideals were changing (“I was not appropriate to the 1960s, it was Twiggy’s turn,” she says). Selfe continued doing commercials, some artistic modelling, and worked frequently as an extra in theatre and television.
Jim died in 1997, after 43 years of marriage. “He’d been ill for four years. He’d had three strokes,” she remembers. “We’d moved to a village two years before he passed away. That was perhaps not a good idea, on reflection, as I did everything and I was a bit cut off. While he was ill, it was impossibly hard.”
In 1998, a couple of months after Jim’s death, Selfe received a call asking if she would be interested in returning to the catwalk for Red or Dead at London Fashion Week. “It was something to do,” she tells me. “I thought it might stop me moping. I’m a fairly optimistic person. I just hoped it might remind me of that and help me enjoy life and keep going. The children were pleased that I was OK.”
Aged 70, she got an ovation as she fronted the show. The press hailed her appearance as a breakthrough moment for older women in fashion, the start of a “greynaissance”. A week or so later, Vogue called.
“They were running an article on how it feels to be old,” Selfe laughs. “Nick Knight was the photographer and a scout from Models 1 was there on set. At the end of the shoot she said: ‘I think we want you on our books’, and that’s how it all began again.”Since signing with the esteemed London agency Selfe has enjoyed some of the most high-profile jobs of her career. She’s modelled for brands from Dolce & Gabbana to TK Maxx. She’s changed perceptions of what it means to look like a model and started conversations around ageing.
“I didn’t know I was going to get these amazing opportunities,” she admits. “I could never have done them if my husband was alive, unless he had been fit. I thought Models 1 would drop me after six months – how much work would there be for a 70-year-old? But I’ve now been signed with them for 20 years and I’ve got as much going on as ever.”
Instagram, needless to say, is a totally new part of the job, which Selfe has embraced. She joined the platform aged 85 and now has almost 60,000 followers. But the pressures of the industry today, she considers, are in some ways the same as they have always been for women.
“When I started you had to go round to the photographer’s with your portfolio to see if they liked you. I lost jobs when I was younger, by saying no [to advances]. I didn’t care. I was quite a strong young person to always say no. Perhaps for people who needed the money it was a more difficult situation to be in.”
Does she think progress has been made, in diversity at least? “I don’t encourage the models who are too fat, or too thin, because both of those are bad for health. But it’s brilliant to see different ages, skin tones, disabilities, everything being accepted, yes.”She says that there wasn’t such a focus on having “vital statistics” when she started out. She weighed 63kg, was happy and healthy. “Most models were probably 30. I was a young one,’ she notes. “I don’t think teenagers should be in it, they’re far too young and their figures aren’t developed.”
“My style has got more adventurous,” she says. “Now I wear whatever I like. It’s very easy for older people to shock just by wearing nice clothes. It’s a shame when people lose interest in what they look like,” she goes on. “Young and old have lost their sense of occasion – people walk around in their pyjamas, which is terrible. I remember when jeans first came in. I’ve never liked them.”
Diet, for Selfe, is also very important to feeling good. “I don’t eat nightshade vegetables,” she says firmly. It’s a dietary requirement that I’ve never come across before, even among the most picky of fashion folk. “A lot of plants don’t want to be eaten and contain lectins, which are ‘poisonous’ to humans. Of course we eat them all – it’s in potatoes, courgettes, marrows, peas ...”
Has she noticed a difference since cutting them out? “Perhaps not,” she admits. “I’ve got a Nutribullet, and every morning I have half an avocado, spinach, almonds, blueberries, half an apple and half a banana. I’ve never eaten processed food. I was brought up during the war so there wasn’t much to eat, we had rations. I think that was good for us. A lot of people my age are living longer.”For exercise, she still does morning ballet stretches and some yoga. She wears make-up every day and always takes it off properly at night, with rose water. She’s never smoked and has never, ever, considered Botox. “Why should you put poison in your face?” she asks. “No fear. I’ve tried a lot of nice creams, but they don’t make any difference. I just use Nivea. Eat well and smile – a smile is as good as a facelift.”
Age is a fascinating thing. For many, it is something to be feared. That’s all propaganda, Selfe says. “I do realise the body is not quite the same, but I push myself,” she affirms. “The children think it’s hilarious that I’m still modelling. I don’t do retiring, though. When life is so interesting, why should I give it up until it gives me up?”
© The Daily Telegraph