Happy 50th birthday, Yasmin Le Bon. You’re our new poster girl!
High50 24 October 2014

interview: Simon Mills
She’s been a top model for 30 years and appeared on 400 magazine covers. As she turns 50 on Wednesday, long-time friend Simon Mills gets an exclusive insight into who she is at 50

She loves a full-bodied red wine, a bracing walk across Richmond Park with her pugs or a sweaty kickboxing workout. She isn’t big on email or texting, or answering the phone much at all for that matter (which, by the way, is a prehistoric Nokia, heroically, defiantly, bereft of any kind of smart functions).

She goes in for radical, reckless haircuts every now and then – bleached blonde, 80s mullet, Eton crop etc – likes a laugh (silly, giggly, high-pitched, utterly infectious) and a post-prandial, heated debate around the table.

She is forthright, opinionated and a fearless, foot-to-the-floor petrolhead, rockstar wife who races Jaguars and Renault Alpine sports cars.

Somewhat perversely (for someone so irrefutably pulchritudinous) she reckons her wrists are her best feature. 

And there’s the modelling, of course. The term supermodel is employed with a casual and misinformed alacrity these days, attached, almost daily to thin, pouting, forgettably featured callow waifs who disappear as fast as they are discovered.

Yasmin, the woman and the brand

With Yasmin Le Bon, the superlative epithet is justified. She’s still an astonishing, traffic-stopping beauty, who has been a world-class mannequin for 30 years, achieving countless runway shows, advertising campaigns and more than 400 magazine covers.

She’s a single-name, one-woman brand, ‘Yasmin’, that resonates beyond the catwalks and with the same familiarity as her peers – Kate, Naomi, Cindy etc. 

In the 1980s she was a Guess? Jeans girl, on the cover of the debut editions of both US and UK Elle magazine and working commercially for Calvin Klein, Gianfranco Ferre, Versace, Chanel, Dior, Banana Republic, Escada and many, many more. Last year, at 49, she was announced as the new face and body of Speedo Sculpture’s spring/summer 2014. Swimwear! At 49!

I watched her work, from the sidelines, as a kind of fashion groupie, on two occasions recently. Once at a tiny, downbeat studio in Battersea, when Yasmin was doing an editorial shoot for a niche fashion magazine, and a few years earlier in the basement of the Savoy hotel when she made her debut in a pop video.

It was a Duran Duran pop video, naturally. “I was never allowed to before,” she told me, between shots. “Simon wouldn’t let me. There was this rule that wives and girlfriends didn’t appear in the videos.

“Which is fine, but the thing is, I wasn’t allowed to be in any other bands’ videos either.” 

That day, she was playing the role of Duran Duran’s guitarist (Naomi Campbell played the part of her husband, Simon Le Bon) and looked sensational: long, dip-dyed hair, velvet trouser suit and plexiglass guitar. Yet she remained typically modest about her limitations, quietly confiding conventional age-related aches and pains in between takes.

“Having spent years contorting myself into the strangest poses, a couple of years ago my back and hips started troubling me and I had to stop exercising. I gained a lot of weight. But that’s life.”

Needless to say “gaining weight” is supermodel speak for anything more than super skinny.

Yasmin on turning 50

When people talk about Yasmin’s age it makes her wince. “I don’t want to be judged because of that or by those ideals any more. It’s fine when you’re younger; it’s not so fine when you have three grown-up daughters. I need to move on from it.” 

So, how come I get such privileged access, to talk to Yasmin on turning 50, without being a make-up artist, a crimper or a rock star? I have known her for half of her 50 years, having first met her 25 years ago in the Silverstone Paddock at the British Grand Prix.

Back then, my girlfriend’s name happened to be Yasmin too, so my opening gambit was something brass-necked and cheesy, along the lines of “Hey, we are the other ‘Simon and Yasmin’.”

Sweetly, the Duran Duran singer and his wife played along and we’ve been friends ever since, sharing holiday houses in Ibiza along with our respective daughters, cruising around in Simon’s Riva speedboat, going to some truly fabulous parties together on several continents or simply getting sloshed on red wine in the garden of the Le Bon family house in Putney.

“I really don’t deserve this face,” she will tell you. “I’ve been trying to sabotage it pretty much all my life.”

The Parvaneh family, Tehran-born Oxford Polytechnic photography lecturer Iradj, his English wife Patricia and their two tomboyish daughters, Nadreh and younger sister Yasmin, lived in Oxfordshire.

Yasmin’s father was the son of a music shopkeeper, who left Iran at 20 years old and came to the UK via Germany. Liberated by swinging, freewheeling London, he became a Bowie fan, fell in love with England… and then fell in love with a nurse called Patricia. (The word Parveneh, by the way, translates as butterfly.)

The family was never particularly religious. Instead, the Parvanehs’ modest Oxford home was more about music, photography and house parties. Yasmin’s mother would prepare traditional Persian food for days in advance. The girls’ friends would come over and gorge on this exotic food, entranced by the smells and textures of her unusual home.

“Persian cuisine is very labour intensive, but for Iranians, it’s all about entertaining at home,” says Yasmin. “No matter how little money we had, we always found enough to invite people over for big lunch parties that would go on all day.”

Also in the fridge were rolls of 35mm film; Helmut Newton photography books were lying around and both Western and Iranian music played almost constantly.

“My father plays Tar (Persian Sitar) by ear, so I would fall asleep listening to him play when I was a child. It was the most beautiful thing. The best musical education imaginable.”

Yasmin’s start in modelling

Yasmin Parveneh was discovered by a provincial model scout while working in an Oxford fashion boutique back in 1981. She caught the train to London and knocked on the door of Models One’s HQ on the Fulham Road.

Despite being soaking wet and dressed like a boy, agency proprietor Jose Fonseca snapped her up immediately.

Within a matter of days Yasmin was working regularly and making proper money. “My first job was standing next to Martin Sheen and throwing money up in the air for a Daily Star bingo promotion,” she says.

Not long after, she was walking the catwalks in Paris and Milan, and appearing on the premiere editions of Elle in the UK and the US, where the Persian beauty had signed to the Elite agency. Campaigns for Calvin Klein, Dior and Lagerfeld followed. 

Her longevity in the fashion business is, she reckons, all about versatility. “As a model, I can look like I come from anywhere. I am half-English and half-Iranian, but really I can look like half anything. People always say I am exotic but I actually have dark skin with pale eyes and quite fair hair.”

Yasmin learned to take advantage of her unique adaptability early on in her career. “When I first started, everyone wanted blondes and blue eyes and there were very few brunettes.

“If you had brown hair and brown eyes it was really tough. People felt like they were taking a big risk when they booked me. Like they were being completely alternative.”

But the 1980s, Yasmin insists, proved to be a progressive time in the modelling industry. “We wore Comme, Yohji and Azzedine and pretty much nothing else, because fashion clothes were, generally, boring grandma stuff you couldn’t have paid me to walk out in. So we had to create the vibe.”

Accordingly, the supermodels all hung out together, shared rooms, partied together and watched out for each other. “We all looked very different but we all got on really well.”

Black and Asian girls came on to the scene. Yasmin became friends with Naomi Campbell and Anglo-Indian model Gail Elliot. “There was a feeling that we had to stick up for each other and help one another,” she says. “It was exciting and you really felt like things were moving forward.” 

Yasmin on the fashion industry

Now in her fourth decade at the top, Yasmin feels that the modern-day fashion industry, perhaps with its eye on the bank balance, has since taken a racially retrogressive turn for the worse, becoming ever safer and more WASPy.

She tells the story of a recent commercial shoot where the client seemed slightly unhappy with her look during the working session and then, post-shoot, called Yasmin’s agency, asking if they could Photoshop her brown eyes to blue. “After all this time in the business, you’d think they’d know what they were getting with me, wouldn’t you?” 

As she reaches her half century, her career is still going strong. But she has made occasional hints that she is “in the twilight years of my modelling career” and “almost ready to step off that bandwagon”.

When she retires Yasmin has wild plans to open up a rock’n’roll rest home in Mayfair. Invitation only, with great food and 24-hour room service (think: Soho House meets the Best Marigold Hotel).

Her temperament, meanwhile, shows no signs of mellowing. “I’m half-Persian. We never shut up so I’ll say what I think whether people want to hear it or not.”

She says she and Simon will be “hell to cope with” in their respective dotages. Giggling like a teenager, she says: “If we make it to grandchildren, they are going to really get hell. I’ve spent so many years being so diplomatic and sweet. Now it’s payback time.”