interview: Angela Buttolph
In 1985, Yasmin Le Bon became British ELLE's first-ever cover girl. Now, 21 years later and still in demand, Yasmin talks to Angela Buttolph about her illustrious career
"Look at those un-plucked eyebrows! That shouty smile! It's so 1980s!" ELLE's original cover girl, Yasmin Le Bon, is somewhat disrespectfully guffawing her way through our illustrious debut issue. "Ugh! Green crushed velvet!" she says of her cover outfit. "What were you thinking...?"
Green crushed velvet? 1985 certainly seemed like a long time ago, but looking at Yasmin it's hard to believe it's been 21 years. Yasmin in 2006 looks only slightly older than she did in 1985, and she's not even wearing any make-up...
"As you can see, I've made a huge effort to be the height of fashion today," she jokes about her dressed-down appearance: faded army cut-off Spanish army combats ("I've had them 22 years"), an old white Agnès B shirt ("It's so soft now, I love it") with tan leather Roman sandals "from Rondini in St Tropez; the best sandals in the world. They're incredibly comfortable and cheap as chips."
Of course, Yasmin's not always able to be so off-duty. Only last week she was hanging out with supermodel Linda Evangelista at the Serpentine summer party; both of them in black floor-length evening gowns. "We always have such a great time together. There are so many weird, amazing modelling experiences you can't really talk to people about, so it's reassuring to have friends who can understand what you've been through."
What they'd both been through was the Supermodel Era; the most high-profile moments in the history of modelling. So there were the million-dollar contracts, catwalk shows in every fashion capital, shoots with the world's best photographers, endless glossy magazine covers, aeroplanes, money, glamour and adulation.
And while she perhaps never achieved the global name-fame of a Linda or Naomi, it was only Yasmin who had it all: marriage to Duran Duran hunk Simon Le Bon, three daughters (Amber Rose, Saffron Sahara and Tallulah Pine) and a career at the top of the industry that continued even during her pregnancies.
Besides, she insists, she was never in it for the fame: "I love what I do, earning a living from it was always secondary. All the glamour and celebrity, when I first started the industry wasn't like that, it was just work. So that's what I assumed I would have - fun, but anonymity."
At the age of 41 she jokes about being an "ugly old has-been", but she was modelling on the Chanel catwalk this season. "I got talked into it by Karl," she shrugs. "I was worried about being the old grandmother - I only knew a couple of the other girls!"
She thinks the fashion industry is changing. "There doesn't seem to be any camaraderie in modelling any more," she says. "A lot of the girls are very young now, so they're shy, and many of them don't speak others' languages, so they tend to stick in cliques with girls from their own countries.
"And they told the girls to smile and they were all horrified! They were whispering to each other, 'Do we really have to smile?' I heard one girl say, 'I can't hold my smile!' And I thought, 'But you have to; that's your job - you're a model!'" She laughs incredulously. "I do think modelling used to be more fun."
Today Yasmin is having a croissant and a cappuccino, like a mere mortal, and she insists she's not a faddy eater. "If I can buy organic I will, and I don't eat loads of meat; but I'll eat anything, really - red meat, carbs!" Although her favourite snack is the rather more modelly sounding toasted Ryvita and olive oil - seriously! (FYI: later, for research purposes, I try this out and it is astoundingly tasty.)
"I work out by doing wing chun; it's a really full-on self-defence martial art. Someone comes to my home to teach me." Yasmin wanted to learn it because she has always been "obsessed" with watching kung fu movies. But a recent back injury means she can't exercise so often. "I used to go to the gym three times a week and do Pilates twice a week. So now I'm the size of a house." She must mean a dolls' house - she's barely a size 10.
She is, unexpectedly, blonde ("actually I wanted it mousey. That's typical of me, going for what everyone else is trying to avoid"). But she still has those distinctively fine, pretty features; the delicate mouth and the intriguingly almond-shaped eyes (she's half-Iranian).
It's no wonder Simon Le Bon felt compelled to track down her number after seeing her on a magazine cover. "Not that he was looking; it wasn't a mail-order bride-type thing!" she laughs. A modern-day fairly tale with a happy ending, after 21 years of marriage and three daughters, the couple remain inseparable.
Today, this type of model-musician relationship would be torn apart by tabloids (see Kate and Pete, Heidi Klum and Anthony Kiedis, and, er, Jordan and Peter Andre). But she insists that back in the early 1980s "it was a more naive time; we really didn't get that much [media] attention. Plus, we were always flying around on tours or shoots, so I think it was hard to keep track of us. We were basically living like gypsies."
And her wardrobe reflected that. Forget supermodel glamour: "I didn't really have a lot of clothes in the early 1980s and I never had time to shop anyway, so I just wore scrubby Levi's 501s and old T-shirts. Sometimes I'd go out in Simon's clothes. In those days, models didn't really wear good stuff to work. It wasn't as 'party, party' as everyone thinks it was. It was about working! I was on an aeroplane all the time. But that's not to say I didn't have fun as well."
Their wedding in 1985 changed her wardrobe, and her outlook, overnight. "I suddenly felt like a different person," Yasmin says. "I started wearing Azzedine Alaïa; lots of stretchy little dresses and flippy skirts with French riding boots. It was my uniform, and I felt empowered by it, because by that time I was Mrs Le Bon, thank you very much! Even though I was so young [only 20], I wanted to be treated with a bit more respect. I'd travelled the world, been very successful, and I had undertaken this huge commitment of marriage."
The 1990s were a more glamorous decade for her. "I wore quite a lot of Gucci - all those slinky dresses. I thought Tom Ford was a genius. And I always bought things from Prada. Every couple of years I'd go in there and get really classic things, like maybe a cardigan or a beautifully cut skirt. And it all still looks so great."
Do her daughters (now 17, 15, and 12) realise how cool she is? She snorts. "They don't think I'm cool! Although they think some of my clothes are cool. I didn't keep everything, but I kept almost all the Alaïa things, a couple of Chanel things, a couple of Comme des Garçons things. They walk around in all my clothes, nothing's sacred now. The only rule is I have to wear it first!
"I actually stopped buying clothes for quite a while. Except for when I had to get something for an event. The super-cheap fashion thing kind of depresses me. I think people need to think more and start paying the right price for things. That's why I like to wear so much vintage now; partly because it's a darn sight cheaper, but it's also the quality of the clothes. Some of them are handmade or just beautiful, exquisite things of a quality that you really can't get now. I'm a bit of a rummager; I love vintage fairs, wandering around all the stalls."
She hasn't really made plans for the future; no product lines like Elle or Christy, or movie roles like Naomi, Shalom, or Amber. Mainly, she just wants to keep modelling.
She loved doing the shoot in this issue with Rankin. "It was great. It was quite a varied collection of clothes. There was no real thread so it was a bit tricky, but he really pulled it out of the bag. Rankin's quite old school. He reminds me of David Bailey, and I always loved working with Bailey."
We talk about how many 1980s trends are back on the catwalk. "I do like those tulip skirts, I think that's a very chic look with a really fitted top. But puffball skirts, or leggings and T-shirt dresses - I just couldn't go there again.
"It is scary how quickly time goes by," she says. "People always say, 'I wouldn't go back to my twenties!' but I always think, 'I would!' Not that I'm not also very, very happy now. I'm so lucky in that I married someone who is very contented. I think he's had a huge effect on me. I've been very blessed."