Girl On Film
Irish Tatler March 2006

interview: Elaine Prendeville

What makes a top model? In Ireland, the girl who smiles a LOT, dates B-list boys and will happily pose with a sausage in her mouth in the middle of Grafton Street scores the top-paying jobs. And who can blame her? Top-paying, pure fashion jobs are thin on the ground, making full-time employment genuinely achievable to very few. In the international industry, however, models that make it to the top are those who employ a degree of selectivity. Those who succeed are not only otherworldly beautiful - there are hundreds like that - but those with the canniest sense of professionalism; they pick out the right agencies, work with the right photographers and, crucially, they refuse certain offers.

Imperative to the long-term success of any top model, however, is an awareness of limitations. Yes, you can pout impishly to camera at 21, but will it work at 41? Which is what makes Yasmin Le Bon a pretty much unique exception to the rule, and where her self-deprecating wit coupled with down-to-earth personability come to the fore. At 36, she was modelling bikinis for Marks & Spencer, and now, at 41, she's most categorically still got 'it.'

In advance of our meeting, I sluiced my way through the ocean of Yasmin Le Bon photos online. Striking images included a candid shot of a young Yasmin, all tousle-haired nonchalant beauty, the proprietary arm of a similarly tousled Simon Le Bon draped casually over her shoulder. Another shows the model playing the part of a busy eighties exec, replete in a Miami-Vice style linen suit, and totally getting away with it. A profile photo shows Yasmin wearing a slick of eyeliner, a pair of (what look suspiciously like Marigold) yellow rubber gloves and gargantuan bangles more than authenticate her chameleonic ability to look utterly dignified in the most bizarre of accoutrements.

This versatility has landed her every job worth having, from a stint as the sexy Guess girl to gracing the cover of Vogue, to striding the catwalk for Chanel, YSL and Lacroix. By 21, she was a fully paid-up member of the supermodel club, sharing lens-space with Cindy, Christy, Naomi et al. She'd also found time to meet the love of her life and marry him. Like Argos for rock stars, lead singer of Duran Duran Simon Le Bon saw Yasmin on the cover of a magazine, snagged her phone number from a model friend and immediately asked her out. It was a case of love at first sight for both, whose union remains one of the happiest and most envied in the business.

Yasmin Parvenah was born in Oxford to an English mum and Iranian dad. Her very normal upbringing seems to have provided the tools necessary to maintain sanity in the globetrotting, hedonistic industry that awaited. Yasmin's father, both a photographer and photography teacher, was of particular influence, instilling an educated appreciation of the mechanic and the power of the image. This background, combined with an inoffensive acceptance of her genetic advantages brought her to modelling. "It wasn't that I thought I was particularly attractive. I just had all the requirements," she remembers.

While the UK proved a cinch to triumph, the US seemed an unlikely stomping ground for a girl from Oxford with an angular, exotic breed of beauty. Conquer she did, however, quickly becoming a firm favourite with fashion editors who had previously employed models of the busty and blonde-haired mould. Success followed success but never, somehow, did scandal enter the equation. True, the height of her career predated our celebrity-obsessed malaise, but keeping her private life just so was a feat in itself. She admits to an old school ethos, believing a model should remain polite, poised and elegant in all situations - well, especially when there's a camera around anyhow. Typically reserved, she has however spoken out on the vacuous, often vicious elements of the fashion industry and has publicly criticised the increasingly commercially led world of fashion photography.

I'm meeting Yasmin to discuss, amongst other things, her latest gig: that as the face of Newbridge Silverware's Goddess jewellery line, a 10th anniversary marker for the Irish phenomenon. The announcement of her involvement has already stirred interest in the Irish public and Newbridge Silverware CEO William Doyle is enjoying the coup. "A real natural beauty, a wonderful mother, a strong and mysterious personality - she offers a unique spirit of modern femininity - a true Goddess!" reads the press release. And, one hour later, any thoughts of overblown hyperbole have vanished. She's the real deal.

Standing over six feet tall in heels, Yasmin is in open, lively mood as she poses for a snap with Barry Egan of the Sunday Independent (she even manages to smile almost convincingly as he cracks a couple of obsequious jibes.) Photocall finished; we take a seat on a big bed in her Four Seasons suite. Apart from looking nothing short of incredible in a simple black dress, her warmth of character is evident from the outset. Her skin positively glows with radiance and her eyes are warm and sparkling despite an early morning flight from London. Ah, she'd make you sick.

I tell her I've found a wealth of information on her life and loves from a dedicated, 'unofficial' website set up by her number one fan, a 30something French literature student based in the US. This site boasts everything Yasmin-related, with quotes and trivia, editorial mentions and lots and lots of photos, naturally. She is, likeably, a bit freaked out by the whole thing. "I was really shocked - I had no idea about it!" she laughs. "Somebody told me about it a couple of years ago but, being such a technophobe I had no idea you could do this kind of thing. So I finally went onto the site and saw all the work she had done and all the people writing in questions and I'm thinking, WHY? Why are they asking that question? How strange!" She eventually got down to returning the tribute. "I had to write to her, just had to thank her because it really is extraordinary." The online compendium got her thinking about an as-yet unfulfilled project. "A couple of years ago I was going to put a website together, with the information definitely correct as it's coming from me. Then, I was getting excited because I felt I could start creating stuff for it, image-wise." Did she feel there was a gap in fashion that needed to be filled, I wonder. "Yes," she replies. "At the moment, I'm not enamoured with the magazines in England. Some are really stuck in a rut and seem to have lost their edge and freedom of creativity. So I thought it would be a great idea to get a group of people together - photographers, stylists, and models - to do something just for everyone to see. You can't underestimate how much people like fashion: they love photography, love images. I have been surrounded by images all my life: that's why I got into the business."

A cut above your average clothes hanger, she is vehement that the model should be the soul of professionalism when it comes to the creation of a striking result. Has her experience made her difficult to work with, and, dare I say it, controlling? "I have a little bit of a reputation, it's true," she concedes with a giggle. "But you feel things when you're in front of the camera and because you've been doing it for a long time you start to pick up things about lighting, about angles. When you work with someone with whom you communicate well, it's a doddle. Then you can really start making things happen. It is very hard to do something important with someone you haven't worked with before. That is why people should definitely listen to what models have to say."

The career longevity - she has famously claimed she "never wants to stop modelling" - could, in part, be due to this determination to play a significant role in the entire creative process. "I want to ask how are you doing this, how do you envisage that, because I have to know if I want to be on board or not. I don't want to be in a position of getting work and absolutely hating what's going on. Then everyone has a bad day."

With three kids, Amber Rose, Saffron and Tallulah, she works to "pay the bills." A committed homebird, she's taken lengthy career breaks surrounding the births of her kids. These, coupled with a strict level of job-rationing has meant that Yasmin's face is unlikely descend to ubiquity, the suggestion of which brings a certain Croyden-born model to my mind. "I won't sell out," she says, very seriously. "The money's just not that important. I have been approached to do all sorts of things, but your heart and soul has got to be in it. If you're going to put your face and your name to something then you should do it properly." There is a marked shift now, from lively chattiness to sombre contemplation.

"You've got to be very, very happy with what you do. Otherwise you're selling a piece of yourself and at some point it will come back and bite you emotionally. You have got to be able to sleep at night and if you don't feel proud about the things you have done then you will pay the price."

Having posed nude, albeit tastefully so, I question what she will not do... and why she has specifically chosen the Newbridge contract above other suitors? "You have to like the brand," she explains. "Some people are happy to do a line of this, a brochure for that. For me, I have to be a little bit careful. It's a small world and your choice is that you're either being paid a hell of a lot of money to do something or you are guaranteed is that it is going to look good. I prefer to have an affinity with a brand, and I get excited about lending my image to something and seeing the effect it creates."

I'm listening, and nodding, and all of that, but I'm also trying to work out why, at 41, she is virtually wrinkle-free. No doubt she makes efforts to maintain her svelte figure, eats well and has a facialist on speed dial, but hers is a face that argues the case for the superiority of good genes over expensive cremes. Sleepless nights, if any, have left little evidence in their wake. As I resist the urge to rifle through her handbag - to find the secret of eternal youth, and steal it - she reminds me that it isn't all plain sailing. "I am at a stage in my career when I'm paying the price for having been successful so young. But I'm lucky because I'm in a loving relationship and I have my kids; it's a happy home. I do have my bad days - of course I do - but I know they're not insurmountable."

A life lived under public scrutiny, where a flawless appearance is paramount to financial reward must take its toll emotionally, I concede. But what about all the good stuff? The fabulous holidays, A-list parties and wardrobes packed with luxury labels? "This might sound awful," she says, "But sometimes choice is a terrible thing! Whenever an event is happening I'm always in denial that I'm actually going there. So I leave it until the day and then it's like, oh my god, what am I going to wear? I think most people are the same; it's blind panic. And then, if you asked them to choose one dress out of any dress in the world it's just worse! You're like a rabbit in the headlights thinking, erm, brown paper bag?"

Sitting upright, with a dancer's posture and a steady, measured tone of voice, it's hard to imagine Yasmin Le Bon getting in a panic about anything. She remains something of a mystery despite the trappings, the rock star hubbie. I like her better than any other model I've met because she's held onto that air of anonymity that so many others try but fail to achieve. "It has been a concerted effort," she reveals. "It's hard to keep yourself a mystery. Overexposure is not something I encourage and I only really come out of the woodwork for special reasons. Growing up, I looked up to the old movie stars but I didn't want to hear all about their private lives. I wondered about their relationships, the glamour, but I didn't want to know the details. Mystery is attractive."

Ah go on, I say, in the inevitable way you become when you realise that you can't match someone's classiness, so you give up trying. There must be a bit of gossip, something? "Everything is normal!" she laughs. "Blindingly normal. So shockingly normal it's pathetic! I need more drama. Maybe I need to get rid of my kids! Whenever I get stressed out I tell them: 'You're holding me back! I could have done this, I could have done that!'" She really is insistent on the no-frills factor. "I keep it low key. I don't have an assistant or a secretary. What I do have is a housekeeper. We live in a big old house so between the two of us we manage it. I do the same old rubbish that everyone else has to do and I get just as pissed off as they are when I am doing it! And there isn't a day goes by that I don't wish I could just abandon everybody and take off to Heathrow! Then I get over and say, 'Ah hell, I better go pick up Tallulah from school.'"