Posted by Stephan Moskovic | May 7th, 2020

MARISA BERENSON

The ultimate It Girl, Marisa Berenson has been an outstanding witness of our cultural history since the second half of the 20th century, The granddaughter of the legendary designer Elsa Schiaparelli, she entered the modeling world in the sixties thanks to Diana Vreeland. She  was photographed by everyone from Richard Avedon to Irving Penn, Guy Bourdin, Helmut Newton, and David Bailey. One of her rare runway appearances was at the famous Versailles show in 1973, where she modeled for Halston, whom she considered as a brother. She starred in three cult movies of the seventies: Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, and Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. She made cameo appearances on The Muppet Show and sang with Tom Jones. She partied at Studio 54, where she would hang with such famous friends as Andy Warhol and Truman Capote. She wrote two autobiographies and a book compiling all her pictures was edited by her close friend Steven Meisel and published by Rizzoli in 2011. In France, she recently garnered rave reviews for her performance as a cabaret owner in Stéphan Druet’s musical play Berlin Kabarett. 

Now in her early seventies, the ever-active Berenson has set up home in a beautiful villa in Marrakech, where she decorated the Sofitel Hotel spa, and where she notably works on her beauty brand, Sublime Care. In this exclusive interview, she recounts her brilliant modeling career, shares memories of her famous photo sessions, and explains why she never took drugs.

Marisa Berenson at Models 1 (London)
Photography by Matthew Llyod for Models.com
Creative direction by Paul Rowland
Interview by Stephane Gaboue
Style by Benjamin Galopine
Hair and Makeup by Karima Maruan
Stylist Assistant Arthur Gallegari

You’ve modeled, acted, sung, written books, decorated hotels. What profession defines you best?
 
I think I can’t be defined by just one profession. I’m holistic. I’m whole. I express myself through different channels of creativity. That’s the same with my multiple roots.
 
Indeed, you have several origins. What nationality are you?
 
I always respond that I’m a world citizen. My mother is half-French, half-Italian. My father was American, but originally from Lithuania. My mother has Polish and Scottish heritage. But on a pragmatic level, I have an American passport.
 
And you can speak five languages…

Yes, I can speak French, English, Italian, German, and Spanish.
 
How did you learn to speak German?
 
I studied in Switzerland, at three different schools. My parents had a house there, and I lived there for a while. I also went to school in England, and in Italy. So I was brought up in four languages.

Your modeling career started thanks to Diana Vreeland…
 
Diana Vreeland met me in New York when I was 16. I was there because my father was very ill. For one of his last nights out, he took me to this ball in New York. Diana saw me and said, “We have to photograph Marisa.” And just like that, my career was launched.
 
Patrick Litchfield was the first to photograph you?
 
Patrick Litchfield’s picture is the one where I have straight hair, and the title says “Who’s on next?” It was not a fashion picture. They were interested in photographing new girls, maybe because of my social life or background or whatever. After that picture was published, David Bailey photographed me in London, where I was living at the time. I was studying architecture with Michael Inchbald. I liked the idea of being an interior designer. And I found myself in the London scene, at a very early age.
 
How were those Swinging London years?
 
They were very funny, free, dynamic and creative. It was a sort of non-stop party. There were extraordinary people who expressed themselves in a unique way. Being unique was a plus back then. Nowadays, everyone wants to look the same. But the world was also a much smaller place then. People hung out more together. All the circles, be they social, artistic, creative, and even political, mingled. It was very stimulating. We had a lot of possibilities.
 
Apparently Eileen Ford refused to hire you as a model…
 
I dreamed of being a model without really believing in it. I wasn’t raised to become one. I didn’t find myself pretty. It was a girl’s dream. So I went to see her, and she told me “You’ll never make it as a model. You don’t have the look.” So I was a bit discouraged. But then Diana Vreeland saw me and put me in the pages of Vogue.
 

Then Stewart Agency represented you?
 
Yes. Barbara Stone and Stewart Cowley, who owned the agency, came to see me while I was doing my first Vogue pictures with Bert Stern. I remember like it was yesterday. Barbara said, “We’d like to represent you.” I accepted. Then I immediately went to Paris with David Bailey to shoot the collections. It was the beginning of the big September issues of Vogue. I stayed with Stewart Agency for my whole career in America. I also had Models 1 in London. I’m still with them.

Did you have to go through all the castings or did you only do direct bookings?
 
No, I had very little of it, I have to say. For the big magazines, I never did go-sees. I did for commercials and advertising jobs, though. We traveled around with bags full of headpieces, eyelashes, makeup, stockings, bras, thongs… and we did our makeup ourselves. You did everything on your own back then. That’s how I learned to do makeup and hair. There were big hairdressers, though.
 
How were the fees?
 
They were totally different. For Vogue, we were paid about 100 or 150 dollars a day. The market has changed a lot .
 
Was there any sort of competition between all the big girls of that era?

There was no competition with Lauren Hutton, Veruschka, Twiggy, and all the girls I worked with. We had fun. I think I was very lucky to start my career in an era that was much easier. There were fewer girls. Fashion was a smaller world. You didn’t have thousands of girls from around the world wanting to become models. Now this industry is a bit colder. It doesn’t have the same human warmth. Besides, back then, beauty standards were different. Individuality was very important. If you look at all the girls from my era, they were all very different, with big personalities. We were no classic beauties, starting with me.
 
Don’t you consider yourself a classic beauty?
 
I remember that when I began, I would see these sophisticated ladies in Irving Penn’s studios, girls like Mirella Pettini and Birgitta [af Klercker], with these aquiline noses, high cheekbones and very chiseled and sophisticated faces. When I looked at myself, with my round face and my very different nose, I wondered what I was doing there.

Speaking of Penn, how was it to work with him?
 
Working with him was like entering an extremely silent, minimal, and monastical place. There was no music. Everybody was very calm. No one talked. He was very nice but also shy. He was an old school gentleman with a very dry sense of humor. When you worked with him, you had to be very patient because the lighting took a while. You had to be perfect and you had to stay still. But we also made images that broke his barriers, in which I moved. And I posed naked for him. Penn taught me patience and discipline. Diana [Vreeland] told me that discipline was the most important thing in life. Modeling taught me a lot of that. It took me out of my shy cocoon. I never thought I would work with all those people but I eventually felt very much at ease in front of the camera.
 
You also worked extensively with Richard Avedon. He notably photographed you with [former boyfriend] David de Rothschild. Do you remember that session?
 
Yes, I do. I was used to working with Dick. David wasn’t so we had to reassure him. Dick was very enthusiastic. Dick’s sessions were all about movement with light following you, loud music… We could jump, dance… It was part of his personality. He had an ability to put you in a context that gets this special thing out of you. That’s what great directors or photographers do. Penn and Avedon were like night and day in their working processes. Penn’s images were more like still lifes.
 
How was your experience with Guy Bourdin?

His sessions were very difficult. I remember he once painted me all silver, with a metallic wig. And he set it all aflame on either side, for the picture’s sake. So he literally set me on fire. He often put the models in non-comfortable situations. He wasn’t very friendly. He was severe and focused on his art.
 
You also worked with Robert Mapplethorpe…
 
I loved Robert. We were very good friends, We went out a lot with his friend David Crowland. One day, I was alone with [Mapplethorpe] in a studio and he shot me with my wet hair and a leather coat. He gave me the photo, by the way. He was a very nice guy, a true artist.

Your images by Arnaud de Rosnay are also iconic. I read that it was you who introduced him to Richard Avedon, who he reportedly assisted…
 
No, I introduced him to Diana Vreeland. She loved young, talented and beautiful people. She loved the idea that we were a couple. I was 17 then. So she sent us to those far-away countries to take pictures. She liked the way he photographed me.
 
You seem to be particularly close to Steven Meisel, with whom you did your book. I read that the first time you met him you were struck by his beauty…
 
His beauty is both interior and exterior. He’s one of the most refined men; in his mind, his spirit, his talent, and his friendship. I met him because we hung out with the same people in New York and Los Angeles. He then asked to photograph me. It was Steven who wanted to do the book. I was enchanted all the more so as he had never done a book before, not even about his own work. That was very generous of him. He art directed the project. It was he who chose the images in the book. He knew pictures even I had forgotten. Steven sees and knows everything.
 
What makes him such an outstanding photographer?



He is just a genius, quite simply. He is immensely talented and he has an extraordinary culture and knowledge and also an incredible fantasy life. He’s in love with beauty, cinema, photos; he knows how to create incredible universes that make him dream. Since he’s very deep there’s always an important message and a side of the subject he reveals through his photographs. He creates almost cinema-like, bigger-than-life universes. He could have been a director. He’s an extremely private, shy and discreet person. He has his group of people, with whom he feels himself and protected. He’s one of my great friends.
 
Do you mentor young models or model hopefuls?
 
Sometimes I do. I gladly give advice. A lot of young women are vulnerable and unprotected. I was lucky to be protected by Diana Vreeland and also by many other wonderful people. I was never in a vulnerable or dangerous situation, which is not the case for everybody.

You said you had to protect yourself and that you were never involved in drugs or promiscuity…
 
That’s because I wanted to build and not to destroy myself. When I started, I was sensitive, fragile and not ready for the world. So I tried to evolve in a positive, spiritual, and healthy path, and that helped me my whole life. I went to India for US Vogue, where I found myself with the Beatles. Ringo Starr and George Harrison were there. I stayed there for a while. That’s when I started being a vegetarian. I learned about natural ways to heal and a holistic lifestyle. I was a precursor of what is happening today. You know, I was at the center of many worlds; artistic, social. There were a lot of drugs and promiscuity. I was in this world, but not of it. I never did drugs. I wanted to evolve spiritually. It saved me. I wanted to be healthy. I partied, went home and woke up early to get to work.
 
How did you balance your professional career and your role as a mother?

I did the best I could. I would take my daughter on set with me. She traveled the world with me. At some point she went to live with her father in Los Angeles, then she lived with me in New York. I’m very close to my daughter.
 
Last year, two designers who were great friends of yours died; Emanuel Ungaro and Karl Lagerfeld. Do you remember how you met them?

I don’t remember how I met Emanuel. He was a great friend. A real gentleman; talented refined, generous, seductive, good looking. He loved beauty. I met Karl socially. I did photos with him when he became a photographer. He was a true Renaissance man. So brilliant, intelligent, cultured and funny. He had this extraordinary outlook and distance on life. Dior, Ungaro, and Chanel were the brands I wore the most.
 
You considered Halston to be like a big brother…
 
Halston was my big brother. I met him in New York before he even became a designer. He was making hats for [Henri] Bendel at the time. He dressed me a lot and I hung out with him a lot. He walked me down the aisle for my second wedding. He also did the dress.
 
You were there when American designers rose to prominence in the 1970’s. What were the differences between American and European fashion?
 
There was a huge difference. At the Versailles show in 1973, the French were competitive and they didn’t take the Americans seriously. The latter brought a freshness that moved all the barriers and took the dust off fashion. They arrived the way Americans arrive, with their energy, like a Broadway musical. Liza Minelli, Josephine Baker and Kay Thompson were there. There were designers like Stephen Burrows. And that didn’t exist before. I was in Halston’s show, wearing a black dress. I sensed that the moment was historical. There was such a tension. But unfortunately there is very little footage of it.
 
You actually didn’t do many shows in your career…
 
Indeed. Back then, editorial girls didn’t do fashion shows. I walked for Ossie Clark, Halston, Tom Ford, Dior by Galliano, Alberta Ferretti, and Naomi Campbell’s Fashion for Relief show, and that’s it.

You now live in Marrakech. Why did you choose to move to Morocco?
 
Several circumstances led me to come live here. I came here often, so I finally decided to set up home here.  I also spent a lot of time in Morocco because of my beauty line, Sublime Care, which is made in France from 100% natural ingredients. I first launched the line in the spa of the group Accor’s Sofitel Hotel here before unveiling it worldwide. Life is marvelous here. I have a little paradise with a vegetable garden. This is where I regenerate and get my strength. That’s where I can meditate before traveling around the world to work on my different projects.
 
Do you still follow fashion?
 
I still follow fashion with interest. I think that there are a lot of new talents. Fashion is more individual now. People are becoming more creative. We’re living in difficult times. But in these moments, people still need to live and dream.

 

One Comment to “Marisa Berenson recounts her brilliant modeling career”

  1. Lom says:

    Very interesting. Her sister was a beautiful photographer who was married to Psycho’s Anthony Perkins and who was killed in the 9/11 attacks. RIP

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