With her snow white coif, striking blue eyes and regal posture, Carmen Dell'Orefice looks like an imposing portrait from a country manor come to life. She is not, of course.
As the world's oldest working model, the 83-year-old is full of life and in demand, most recently walking in local designer Max Tan's show at Singapore's Digital Fashion Week last Friday.
Clad in a voluminous hot pink coat, she closed the show with the steady confidence developed during her 70-year career, blowing kisses to the eager and waiting audience. The 29-year-old designer says the model was a joy to work with.
"She's very dedicated to the work that she is doing. It is such an honour to have a legend walking my show."
Dell'Orefice, who has a 61-year-old daughter and 70-year-old stepson, is beautiful even at close range. It is no wonder that in an interview with Urban last year, top Chinese model Liu Wen cited the older model's long career as an inspiration when asked about her own retirement plans.
Behind the elegant visage rests a steely core and refreshing frankness, perhaps a by-product of the freedom that comes with age.
Her profession was a complete accident, as she puts it bluntly. "I didn't ever think of it as a career. I just think of it as good luck, every booking that comes in," says Dell'Orefice, who has been married three times.
The daughter of immigrant parents - an Italian father and Hungarian mother - the model grew up in New York City, where she was talent scouted at the age of 13.
Though modelling was at first simply a means to help support the family, success came quickly.
She landed her first Vogue cover at the age of 15 and went on to model for celebrated photographers, including Cecil Beaton, Norman Parkinson and Richard Avedon.
She also walked the runways of fashion luminaries such as Jean-Paul Gaultier, John Galliano and Thierry Mugler.
"I never chose it. But I knew enough to keep doing it," she says of her modelling trajectory.
And her love for what she does keeps her going.
"If you love what you do, why stop? People ask me, 'do you think of retiring?' And I say yes, every night I retire.
"But do I like breathing?" she says, emphasising the point that modelling is a part of who she is.
"I'm a rent-a-body," she quips.
While her good looks came naturally (when complimented, she replies wryly, "my father thanks you. I just carry his bones and try not to offend him"), there have been man-made improvements.
The model is candid about the work she has had done on her face and body, which includes silicone and collagen injections and a major medical dermabrasion process which peeled off a layer of her facial skin when she was 37.
She has also had her knees replaced, ovarian cysts removed, lasik surgery, bone implants and more.
On the topic of plastic surgery and women, she cautions people to shop carefully and think about the aesthetics and experience of the doctor at hand.
Dell'Orefice adamantly defends American actress Renee Zellweger, who has been in the news lately for speculated work on her face.
"I think she looks very pretty. I thought, clever girl, isn't that a courageous thing to do a big change?
"She didn't want to age the way the public wanted her to, and she doesn't live for them," she says.
"How dare the press and everybody jump on her like a 'gotcha' moment. It's none of their business. I hope someone gives her a wonderful part that's different from the parts she's famous for."
Dell'Orefice says she does not consider herself a particular role model for models, but more for people in general.
Living is about the attitude, she says.
"It's very important that when I walk out of my building, to smile and be happy," she says, of making choices in her life.
"I get up every morning and look in the mirror. I meet a stranger and say 'hello', you look familiar. I'll get to know you better by the end of the day."
She continues, in a reflective zen-like train of thought. "Beauty is so dimensional, it's not one thing. It's the sun coming up in the morning and the smell of the pavement after the rain."
She is the embodiment of the growing diversity in modelling and the changing definitions of beauty. Modelling should be inclusive, rather than exclusive, she notes.
"I mean, is there one flower? Please! People are marketed a certain idea of beauty and they put themselves down because they don't look like that or can't dress a certain way," she says, sounding slightly exasperated.
Dell'Orefice has lived a colourful life and it is clear others think so as well. A video crew has been filming her for more than three years for a documentary.
She could, in theory, write her own memoir, she says, "but not this week and not next week".
"So that's the thing. It's not a driving force in my life," adds the forward-looking model, of putting her legacy down on paper.
This article was first published on Nov 7, 2014.
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