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Yasmin Pulls It Off
Elle UK November 1995

Supermodel, rock wife, mother of three - ELLE's first cover girl has come a long way since 1985. Here, Yasmin Le Bon, now 30, looks back over the past 10 years, and ELLE joins her family on holiday in Jamaica

It's Jamaica, it's my holiday, and they're my children who are getting hot, sweaty and fractious about who wears what dress for the shoot, and who's going to twist whose ankles in whichever pair of high heels. Amber is six, Saffron's four, and mercifully Tallulah - who is almost a year old - thinks that shoes are just for chewing. Simon's good at holidays. He floats and reads endlessly. He also makes a mean Dark and Stormy, thereby atoning for my sins.

Ten years. Where do I start? When Nicola (Jael) faxed me, asking me to be in the anniversary issue, my reply was delayed - more because I was in a state of shock than because of my usual phone phobia. In one way so much has happened, yet at the same time so little has changed.  Recently I've been panicking at the thought of being trapped in a never-ending cycle of supermarkets, nappies, and school runs. But when I think back over the past 10 years, I realise that, honestly, if anything more had happened, I probably would be institutionalised by now.  When you're 18, there doesn't seem to be a life after 25, and then before you know it you're 30.  Now I'm looking forward to the next 10 years, and doing all the things I didn't have time for in the last 10.

I've never looked back and been amazed at the life I've led. Falling into the fashion business seemed perfectly natural. I must have expected something like this to happen. It's difficult to explain to someone who has no desire to perform or be anyone else. My main motivation was to travel, and experience as much of everything as I possibly could. Being married at 21 and having three kids by the age of 30 was certainly not in the game plan (if there ever was one).

I was ready to live life to the full, ready for anything. I was not ready for love. How could it happen to someone so stubborn, so fearlessly independent? The one thing I didn't expect knocked me sideways and suddenly it was all out of my hands. Only now that I have three kids do I look back, like most women in similar circumstances, and wonder what the hell my life would have been like if things had been different. Those moments of silent, blissful contemplation are so rare now. But I'm glad nobody tried to prepare me for all this, because this rollercoaster ride has unleashed all my passion and pride, and a love that runs so deep that at times it still scares me.

Ten years ago I stood, knife in hand, ready to cut the cake of my face. It was the launch party of ELLE, and, unbelievably, I was on the first cover. It was not a cover I could look at easily, but then again, in those days there were so few pictures of myself that I could look at. Some things do get better with age and, believe it or not, models are one of those things. It takes quite a long time to understand how to work your face and body; how to make the most revolting garment look like a million, while working with uncommunicative, or stroppy, or even worse, very, very slow, photographers. What you learn is the art of diplomacy and calm. I have always said, and truly believe, that great models would make great diplomats.

British ELLE has also aged well. It has survived against the odds. Fashion as a whole entered a new phase of global retailing in the 80s. Anything seemed possible. Everyone was opening businesses, launching magazines, and a lot of them seemed to think that they were charmed; that no matter what they did, they would always come up smelling like roses. Not true. I agree with taking risks in life, using your instincts and spontaneity. But in business there has to be an element of planning and sound financial equations. Inevitably we hit a recession. These were the Thatcher years, where the needs of the individual outweighed those of the community. People abused themselves, and others, with a flagrant disregard for life.

Yuppie madness passed me by, thankfully. I was so cocooned in my own little world, rapt to such an extent that by the time the first issue of ELLE hit the newsstands, I had retired for the first time. I phoned the agency and announced that 'I want tomorrow to be my last working day, ever. Thank you for the past year.' It was obvious there was nothing anyone could do. Smitten was an understatement. We were inseparable. Of course, by the time I returned to modelling 10 months later there were still a lot of the same annoyingly difficult clothes around. Annoyingly difficult for a model, because they were almost impossible to make look good. Puffball skirts, ski pants, jackets with enormous shoulder pads and ridiculously puny lapels. But the designers who were most notable in the early part of the 80s - leading the way with their dark, abstract, minimalist clothes - were the Japanese: Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto. A new kind of label snobbery was born: understated chic, which the fashion world fell for, including me.

It's impossible to mention all the people who have influenced me over the past 10 years, so I won't. But one person stands out: Azzedine Alaïa. His clothes are modern, minimalist and sexy; his attention to detail and cut was an education to me. I now judge all clothes by his standards.

My sense of fashion, my likes and dislikes, really haven't changed much. I am, and have always been, a real fashion schizophrenic. I couldn't bear to look the same every day. Just wearing the same outfit all day is bad enough.

I didn't realise quite how much all the attention that you get when you work as a model had affected me, until I stopped the last time. Admittedly, I was depressed and pregnant (not a good combination), but also quite alone. Simon was on a never-ending tour, or so it seemed.  When you model, you are touched all day. Hairdressers brush your hair for you, and make-up artists are constantly touching your face; stylists are dressing you, and then, for a minimum of eight hours a day, people are staring at you. This alone, quite apart from everyone telling you how good you look, has an amazing effect on you. I'm sure my body misinterprets this kind of attention for affection, and believe me, you get used to it very quickly. It becomes so normal so fast that you don't even think about it.

Unless, that is, you've given up modelling as many times as I have. I'm an expert now; I seem to have spent the past 10 years in a permanent state of expectancy. I'm either expecting babies or expecting to go back to work. Which means there has always been a lot to look forward to and a feeling that anything could happen. I'm sure every time I phone my booker, Karen, she feels a moment of dread in those few seconds before I speak, as she looks anxiously at my bookings for the month ahead. It has never been a good idea to book me well in advance - so we don't.

Commitments just seem to be there to be broken. Nobody wants to hear that, but it's true, well, with me anyway. As much as I'd love to be committed to many things, I can't. I get so far, and then something inside makes me scurry away, relieved. I'm constantly thinking: Phew! That was close. How terrible, but I feel like my freedom is slipping away. I suppose so much of it has to be with Simon and the kids, and home. I can only be committed to my family and friends and being happy. So, now I'm holding onto my freedom with a vengeance.

How lucky we are to have such freedom of thought and speech when the past 10 years has seen an escalation in oppression, brutality, poverty, and despair all over the world. The scenes of massive famine and corruption are still ongoing in Africa: Ethiopia has been surpassed by Rwanda. Colombia and all her drug relatives continue their wars. The conflict in the Gulf left everyone in an appalling state of anxiety. With virtually no medicine or sanitation, and food shortages, it seems that the people there have been punished for living in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There was such elation when the eastern bloc finally opened to democracy. This was something I never thought would happen in my lifetime. The Berlin Wall came down, and there was relief that the anxiety of the Cold War era was now at an end. But those days of hope are now overshadowed by the brutality and violence of wars and struggles that no one ever believed could happen again.

We seem to be tearing at breakneck speed through every kind of human upheaval. Political and moral standards are changing as fast as fashion, which is also moving at an exhausting pace.  Technology is informing us, arming us, and displacing us at a frightening pace. Science and business are propelling our lives. Are we being used as commodities? And does the fashion industry help cultivate this attitude?

This train of thought always gave me problems. My first retirement was mainly due to Simon, but there were also other issues that I had to resolve, about myself and society, and what my role was. At that particular time, I couldn't deal with the conflict between what I did for a living and what I believed in.

But there is a positive side. Fashion images are very powerful, and can be enlightening. They give credibility to all races and creeds. I used to get letters from Asian girls. They said seeing my photographs gave them confidence. I was someone they could identify with. In that way, fashion can change people's attitudes and lead to greater tolerance. So I talked myself back into the job, as you can see.

I was now Mrs Le Bon, apprentice rock wife. For some unknown reason, being married gives you instant respect from most people in the big wide world. I had never realised how useful it would be. Only once you leave the insular world fashion do you have any idea how women are really treated. The fashion world is a family where women rule: they have most of the power, and they make most of the decisions. This, among many other things, makes it a difficult world to relinquish. And despite all its pettiness, it is a family I cherish: I find it charming, entertaining, exhausting and revealing.

Working with different people every day may be demanding, simply because you have to give them 100 per cent all the time. But the variety of characters, nationalities and backgrounds that you meet in my job has always enchanted me. My father was right: the best education you can get is to travel, whether you are crossing borders or just boundaries.

By the end of 1987 I was pregnant. I miscarried five months later. So it was back to work and, before I knew it, back on tour. Simon and I hadn't seen each other for two and a half weeks. I had been on location in Cuba, and returned to Paris for a one-day job, before flying to a shoot in Kenya. The client I was working for in Paris lied about the timing. I was booked on the last flight to meet Simon in Stockholm, and arrived at the airport 10 minutes before the plane took off. But there was no way the airport staff could keep me off that plane. It was my last chance to see Simon in quite a while and when you scream as loudly as I did, they let you on the plane.  I saw him for one night. The next morning, at 7am, we both went our separate ways. To this day I still breathe a sigh of relief. Amber was conceived that night. She was born in August 1989. A few months later I was back at work. The patter of tiny feet made me more motivated. I had a purpose beyond the purely aesthetic. Every time I come to work after a baby it is like a new beginning. If you've lived as free a life as I have, it was impossible to deny, indefinitely, that side of your spirit. I love my family more than anything, but I need a stage to perform on and I think it's better that the stage is at work rather than home. We have enough dramatics already, thank you!

Sixteen months later, I was pregnant again. Saffron was born in September, and two weeks later I was back on the catwalk. Fashion, thankfully, has grown up to encompass all influences and styles simultaneously - allowing us all to be fashion schizophrenics. It's a relief not to have to persuade my mother to wear hot pants again! When I do finally hang up my false eyelashes, I will leave with fond memories of all the ridiculous scenes that seem so normal to models: sitting in hotel lobbies, immaculately dressed with full make-up on, and a head of fluorescent curlers; businessmen with puzzled looks, as they think, 'Nice girl, but do you think she'll forget to take them out?' But hell, they'll have to bury me before I give up.

 
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