interview: Alex Blimes
After all these years, Yasmin Le Bon, supermodel and rock star's wife, remains a fashion icon, the beautiful warrior princess who has seen and done it all lives to tell the tale (some of it, anyway)
In a rough-and-ready fourth floor photo studio with panoramic views across the rooftops of northwest London, one of the original supermodels - those rare, coltish colossi that stalked the world fashion capitals in the 1980s and '90s - is perched on a high stool in front of a vanity mirror, having her war paint applied.
Yasmin Le Bon, at 41, is an ornament and a delight: still darkly beautiful - yes, even off duty in her purple-ribbed wife beater and her denim cut-offs, her chestnut hair freshly curled - she's utterly unassuming. One would never guess that the slender, honey-dipped, businesslike woman waiting patiently for her close-ups was a famous rock star wife and fashion icon of two decades standing, let alone that she could possibly be the mother of Amber (aged 16), Saffron (14) and Tallulah (11).
But if Le Bon doesn't remotely look her age, she certainly speaks with the voice of experience. A model since 1984, she has worked for enough designer names to fill a department store - Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, Christian Dior, Dolce & Gabbana and Missoni, to name a few. And she has appeared on the cover of pretty much every major fashion magazine you could care to mention, including countless editions of Vogue, Elle and Harpers & Queen.
More than that, the girl born Yasmin Parvaneh in Oxford, England - daughter of an Iranian photographer father and an English mother - has been half of one of showbiz's most glamorous couples for more than two decades, since her marriage, in 1985, to Simon Le Bon, lead singer of Duran Duran, arguably the biggest pop group in the world back then.
The Le Bons were as much a part of the mid- to late-1980s scene as shoulder pads, big hair and conspicuous consumption. And if their stars are slightly dimmed today, then few people can be as well-placed as Yasmin Le Bon to talk about the changes in celebrity culture, the vagaries of fashion and the pressures and pleasures of lives lived in the public eye.
Who better, too, to mount a spirited defence of modelling, the much maligned and misunderstood profession she has successfully plied her trade in for more than two decades? And that, settling ourselves into our high stools, is where we begin.
It's an obvious statement to make, but you've been modelling for a long while now.
A long time.
Twenty-two years, I think.
You've done your homework!
Why have you had such a long career?
Probably because I have no shame! I probably should have stopped 10 or 15 years ago, but nobody's actually had the balls to tell me to quit.
I've retired loads of times. I kept getting pregnant. One voluntary retirement and three forced ones. But I just really enjoy it. I love what I do. I didn't get into modelling because I thought it was glamorous and I'd make lots of money. I sort of fell into it. But I love the fashion business. I love being part of the image-making process, the creative aspect of things. If I hadn't been a model I would have become a photographer. It was one or the other, really.
Do models have creative input?
A good model definitely does. And the older you get the more confident you get, and you start to pick and choose teams that you work with. You can say yes or no to jobs and ask all the pertinent questions that you should be asking as somebody who's self-employed. That's part of the beauty of this business - that I can say yes and no to things. You make your choices. Sometimes things don't work out, but that's another aspect of the job that I really enjoy. You never really know 100 percent what you're going to do until you get there and do it. That's very exciting. It's quite narcotic, actually. You get hooked on the spontaneity. It's quite extreme. I don't really know another job like it.
Is that what prompted you to do this shoot?
Yes, I thought it would be fun, I suppose. It's an opportunity to work with people I haven't worked with before and a magazine I haven't worked with before, and for a part of the world that I haven't been to. I thought that was quite interesting - another box to tick.
A bloody good sense of humour. And good joints!
So how good are your joints?
Mine were great and now they're completely screwed. But there you go. It's a very physical job.
To me, shoots always seem incredibly boring. There's so much sitting around.
There's not much sitting around on my shoots, I tell you. Maybe there was a point in the '80s, when there were a few big catalogue companies in America that used to book too many girls on shoots, and you used to work with five other girls and you'd spend half the day sitting around. That stopped very quickly. When I go to work, I tend to be working flat out. The only sitting around I do all day is getting hair and make-up done. It is a very physical job. To be a good model you have to have stamina. You have to enjoy getting on with people. You have to like the company of strangers and be happy to work with different people and benefit from their input.
It is very hard, yes. I've been incredibly lucky. I was married at 21, and I've been in that kind of relationship for such a long time, it always gave me a reason to get back on another plane and come home. I think if you are on your own, and doing that much travelling, it must be incredibly difficult. And very, very lonely.
Have you always been interested in fashion?
Yes. Partly because my father taught photography, so I'd been surrounded from a young age with Helmut Newton photographs and Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, and I was very intrigued by photography in general.
What is it about photography that you like?
It's a snapshot of the world. I still find it quite extraordinary that you can capture a moment in time. And not just a moment in time in a two-dimensional sense, but you can manage to capture the spirit of a moment, the emotion.
Yes. I mean, I love the artisan quality of things. I love the idea of people who are specialists in their field working away at a beautiful garment. But, you know, I have moments where I think it's all a complete load of rubbish and the world is just going to choke on yet more mountains of clothes that nobody can wear or use. That side of things I find incredibly difficult to deal with sometimes. But saying that, I think fashion's incredibly important, and I think people need to be able to express themselves more and more in this day and age, in the police state that we're becoming. It really is vital that people are able to make those seemingly silly decisions at the beginning of the day - whether they're going to wear black or red or whether they're not going to care and put jeans on. It's a form of self-expression that I think is very needed, and it's part of what being a human being's all about.
That's interesting because fashion's often characterized as a superficial, shallow industry.
Yes, terribly! It's awful. I think it's just because it's this funny little world full of people who are only really used to talking to each other. And we talk in silly fashion-speak and take it for granted that everyone understands. When we get out into the big wide world we really don't know how to explain ourselves very well, in a very articulate way. It's really quite shocking how badly perceived the fashion industry is.
And models especially.
Oh, you're not allowed to be beautiful and have a brain.
And people think that models are spoiled and stupid and bitchy.
It's quite extraordinary how misinformed one can be. I mean, do you know what? I always played on it. I always thought it was quite good if people thought I was stupid. I think you can play that to your advantage, definitely. But most models are incredibly hard working, very bright, independent women who from a young age have been looking after themselves, have travelled the globe, worked on different continents. Many of them speak many different languages. You've really got to have your head switched on to be able to cope with all that. And generally, they're really nice people. Because if you're not, you don't get booked again. It's a highly competitive industry. If you make life difficult for people, why would they choose to work with you again when there's someone younger, cuter and cheaper down the road?
Younger, cuter and cheaper, eh?
Damn them! And they're all like that now!
That is another criticism, though, isn't it - that fashion creates an impossibly youthful physical ideal that even the models can't measure up to?
And it's true! Because now with post-production and Photoshop, we're not giving people reality. We're not selling reality, we're selling fantasy. Nobody really looks like that. That's impossible. And that is quite difficult. I've been in the business 22 years, and there are moments where it even affects me. I think, 'Why can't my legs look as good as that?' I have to smack myself round the face and go, 'Honey, it's Photoshop. No one's legs look as good as that.'
As a model in her forties, do you feel like you're striking a blow for older women? Sorry, I don't know how else to put it.
Go on, dig yourself in a bit deeper. No, I used to feel more like that. But I feel it's more normal now, there are a lot more girls who are prepared to do it and it's much more accepted, thank God. I used to feel more strongly about it when I was younger. That everybody needed to be represented. I didn't feel there was enough of that. When I first started modelling, I felt we were really getting somewhere. I mean when I first started out I had dark skin, dark hair, brown eyes - they just didn't use girls like that. It felt like quite a breakthrough. I was excited about it. And then I felt there was this huge lull where we weren't getting anywhere, where every girl I saw was just so white and Waspy it was ridiculous, especially here in Britain. Things have started to get better again, but for the past 10 years, I felt like we were getting nowhere and it started to upset me. I wasn't seeing Asian girls or even black girls. And that's extraordinary. I do think people have started to realize that that's not acceptable. And the age issue seems to be dealt with better, to be honest, than the race issue. So I feel a bit more optimistic about the business. I don't feel like I'm the only old girl out there: Cindy's still working, Linda's working again now.
But presumably it is harder for you to book big campaigns?
It's much harder. I can sort of liken it to being a professional athlete. They've very similar careers. Great footballers at their peak are in their twenties. It's a short lifespan, and while everyone else is beginning to ascend in their careers, at 40-plus you're on the descent. It's a strange position. But it's very, very hard to maintain that fighting fit quality for so many years. Honestly, it's a very physical job. That's why a lot of people give up. It's almost impossible, and with every year that goes past, I think, 'I don't know if I can keep up with this anymore. Maybe I should call it a day.' But saying that, the rewards are great. It's been the most brilliant job. To be free and have kids and bring them up and say yes or no to work when I want, that's tremendous and I've been thoroughly spoilt in that way.
Lots of models diversify. They launch swimwear lines or perfumes or their own range of jewellery or whatever. Have you ever thought about that?
I have thought about all those things, but unless my heart and soul were really into something, then I'm not prepared to do it. It would be such a cynical move.
You don't want to licence the Le Bon brand?
The brand's definitely worth something, and that's why I wouldn't want to cheapen anything I have done or any reputation I have gained.
You first became famous in the mid-'80s, and then you married Simon and you were thrust into what we now think of as the celebrity world. But it was different then.
It was totally different. We were able to totally sidestep it. Simon was in a job where he could record albums anywhere in the world, so we just stepped out of England, basically, and lived out of suitcases. He was making albums in Paris and New York and nobody could really get to us. I was working all the time, and we just lived in our little bubble. And by the time we came back we were old news, which was fantastic. I'm not quite sure how we'd be able to deal with it now because it's completely different. It's brutal. I think it must be absolutely atrocious.
When you look at people like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, do you feel a sense of 'There but for the grace of God'...
Absolutely. If I had been born a generation later, it could be us and it would be awful - really, really terrible. I can't even imagine what it must be like. It's quite crippling, that kind of attention. I feel for them.
You've watched from the inside as this amazing obsession with celebrities has mushroomed.
It's changed so much. When I first started modelling no one knew who I was. Unless you were in the business, you had no idea what my name was or even which agency I was with or anything. Models didn't get credits. They were quite unknown. And I liked that anonymity. So it changed dramatically. I still can't quite understand this obsession with celebrity. It's the dumbing down of half the world. Why we're not chasing around after scientists and glorifying writers I just don't know.
You were one of the supermodels. For a brief period, models were international celebrities.
We were just the next step. Movie stars weren't quite as glamorous as they used to be and, at the time, we were young, beautiful, seemingly very glamorous. And the whole media industry just needs more fodder to fill those pages. They'll fill them with anyone or anything. I'm sure my cat could get on the cover of something. So I don't think it was our fault, I don't think we encouraged it. To be honest, video at the shows changed everything. I can remember fashion shows before videos, and you did it that one time for the buyers and they had to sketch everything and remember everything. I mean, it's supposed to be a private, industry thing: tall, skinny girls walking up and down like clothes hangers. The general public weren't really meant to see those things, you know? But once camera crews were allowed backstage, we did start to become personalities. That's when it all started.
Looking back on that era now, was it fun?
It was fun. It was absolutely exhausting. And not something you can keep doing indefinitely. But we had some great laughs.
There's a perception - especially at the moment - that there's a really dark flipside to the fashion industry, because of drugs, because of exploitative people, because of girls having too much too young...
God, you know what, I've never seen any of that. I'm no angel, but I have to say that it's been such a demanding job, and in an industry that's based on looking good you can push the boat so far but you can't push it that far. I was 19, which I think is a fair age. And listen, there are dark sides to every business. I'm not quite sure how sinister the dark side to the fashion industry really is. I've seen maybe a few characters around who were a little seedy, but I was at the end of the industry that was just working really hard and we were pretty professional. I think there are other things we should be worried about. These people are pretty harmless in the big picture.
You have three daughters. Would you like to see them follow you into modelling?
It's a strange old business. Most children are inspired by what their parents do. It's the way we learn. It's natural. But my job is slightly different: modelling chooses you. You don't choose modelling. They could easily step into the fashion world and the fashion business, but for my particular little world you either have the genetic predisposition or you don't. And even if you do, you then have to have the drive and the desire and the personality to see it through. It's difficult. With regards to their father being a musician, that's different and it's something they could work toward, although again you need the passion and the drive and the ability. But you can't really work toward being a model.
Okay, then: hypothetically, would you want any of them to become a model?
I would make them think long and hard. I've had some talks with my oldest daughter because obviously they get offers all the time. At the moment, I'm just saying no to everything, but at some point they're going to have to make the decisions.
And they will grow up into this new world where celebrities are minted overnight.
You have to be careful because the day you decide to do something, you can't then step back into the comfort zone that you've known. Suddenly, you're in the public domain. And yes, they are already to an extent. I mean, people know their names, but they don't necessarily have that kind of attention, so it's going to be a big decision, what they do and how they want to play it.
Based on your own experience, would you recommend any of them marrying a pop star?
Ha! I don't think one ever recommends something like that. What can I say? It's been amazing. It's not something I ever expected. I had this mad fairytale where I was completely swept off my feet. So as much as I want to be real with my daughters, things happen. Things you have no control over. And I wonder how important rules really are.
It's an old cliché, this, but it's so unusual for a showbiz marriage like yours to endure as long as it has.
I think it's unusual in everyday life, isn't it? In fact, I think part of why it's worked is that we understand each other's businesses so completely. They're so similar. And especially, actually, marrying into Duran Duran. I mean, if any band was going to understand the fashion business it was going to be these guys. They really understand and embrace it. And Simon going off and working and having adulation and being part-owned by the public to an extent - that was never an issue. I think if I hadn't been in a similar business it would have been very, very difficult to deal with. In a way, it's a blessing. And I think it's really important to understand and to enjoy having time apart from each other, too. At times it's been very difficult to be apart, but if you have the right attitude to it, it can really work for you.
From the outside, the life of a touring rock hand seems incredibly glamorous - the jets, the hotels, the parties.
It seems glamorous, but it's really not. Simon's a complete bookworm. He just reads and reads and reads. There's not a lot else to do on tour. When you're jumping around and singing for two hours every night and having to take a couple of flights each day, believe you me, after six weeks of that... that's hard.
So what do you do for fun?
You're joking, right? No, I have lots of fun. I spend most of my day laughing, due slightly to senile dementia probably but, hey, everything's got its upside. And being married to Simon keeps me constantly amused, I have to say.
How about exercise?
I do wing chun. It's a martial art, a form of kung fu.
How good are you?
You could beat me up?
Are you settled in London for good? Will you always be here?
God, I hope not. I hate that idea. It's a big world out there. The thought of living here for the rest of my life frightens me. There's a lot of the world that I still want to see. We went to Croatia a while ago, which I thought was fantastic. I want to travel more, definitely. I think Simon and I would like to do a lot more of that.
Do you have any other ambitions that are still unfulfilled?
None that I'm going to tell you. Ha! Do you think I'm completely insane?
Come on. You can tell me one ambition.
I'm not sure, actually, whether I can. They're very private things, ambitions. I haven't got anything up my sleeve, let's put it that way. Maybe I should, but I don't. Although I do see a lot changing in the next few years. My life changing and the girls' lives changing - that's the biggest thing really, them growing up. What a thought! One of them mentioned children the other day, and I was like 'Heurgh!' I'm not ready to be a grandmother. Not yet.