Monday, September 26, 2016

Fashion's New Role Models: Never Too Thin? No, Never Too Old!

Runway models have never been role models for me. I am not particularly tall and, except in elementary school, I have never been thin. I have never worn make up and have never been over-concerned with how I look.

But runways models -- and models in fashion magazines -- have affected, no doubt, the way some men have looked at me. And they certainly have affect how millions of young girls look at themselves.

So it's good news that the industry finally has begun to rethink its part in perpetuating the idea that the paragon of female beauty is a tall, anorexic 25-year-old. Movements against fat-shaming have been working. More and more fashion magazines have been featuring models who have some meat on their bones. We've been telling men for years that size doesn't matter. It's great to get some reciprocity.

Still, it wasn't until my niece, Christine Kavalauskas, sent me a video about an older runway model that I realized I had my own set of stereotypes when it came to thinking about who deserved to walk the catwalk. It never occurred to me that never too thin could be replaced by never too old.

Meet Deshun Wang: male, Chinese and ripped -- and, at 80, the world's oldest runway model. The actor turned model became an internet sensation in 2015 when -- at the age of 79 -- he walked the catwalk for the first time during China Fashion Week.  In his inspiring video, which Wang created and posted on Weibo and which he made available on YouTube this month, the 80-year-old known as "The Hottest Grandpa" tells his story: "When you think it's too late, be careful you don't let that be your excuse for giving up."

I challenge you to watch this without a smile on your face:

Wang's story got me wondering: Were there other "role models" in the fashion world challenging our expectations of who gets to end up on the runway? (Feel free, by the way, to take "runway" as a metaphor for other successes in life).

Plenty, as it turns out.

Last year The Huffington Post offered up five uplifting moments from the previous 356 days as proof that "The Fashion Industry Is Getting More Accepting" -- fashion projects that honored women of all ages, races and backgrounds:  a Dove ad celebrating girls with curly hair; a photo shoot showing black women of all shades; 80-year-old author Joan Didion as the face of the French label CĂ©line; the first Down Syndrome model participating in New York Fashion week, and the first plus-size model in the Pirelli calendar.

The inclusion of older models, like Joan Didion, has been a trend of sorts. Last year 93-year-old Iris Apfel modeled for both Alexis Bittar, the fashion jewelry company, and upscale Kate Spade. Earlier this year Nicola Griffin, at 56, became the oldest model ever to appear in the infamous Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, the magazine's annual display of, um, beachwear. "More of this, please," said The HuffPost, referring to Griffin, not the scanty bathing suits.  In April, Griffin appeared in a steamy lingerie shoot for the U.K.-based Slink magazine, with the heading "Size 16 & 50 plus still has it!" More of this, indeed.

Iris Apfel, 93, models Alexis Bittar
Nicola Griffin, 56, in Slink Magazine

"Older," however, I discovered is a relative term.

In a slide show offered by the Los Angeles Times with the heading "Demand for Older Models Grows,"  a blurb read: "Models 35 and older are in demand as boomers want ‘to see someone they relate to." Yet only two in the slide show came close to the age of baby boomers -- people born in the baby boom just after World War II: 58-year-old Pia Gronning and Carmen Dell-Orifice, described as "in her 70s." All the other models were under 40, young enough to be children of boomers.

Tracey Norman's story, however, shatters all the runway stereotypes -- of age, race and gender.  Norman is a black transgender model who, at 63, is enjoying a sensational comeback after being ostracized from the fashion world for decades.

In the 1970s, Norman was the Clairol's first black transgender model, but the hair dye company didn't know about the transgender part. Given the intolerance of the times, "I had to hide my truth," Norman explains in a video posted on YouTube. Then during a photo shoot for Essence magazine, a hairdresser betrayed her secret. The photos from that shoot were never used. The agency she worked with told her there were no jobs for her. No one admitted why the jobs had dried up, but Norman understood.

She moved to Paris and, still guarding her secret, found modeling work again, but when she returned to the U.S. she found the doors of the fashion world were still slammed shut: "Oh, oh, you're the Tracey." She ended up getting involved in the drag-ball world, winning a beauty pageant sponsored by Sally Jesse Raphael. She worked in a shoe store.

Then at the end of last year,  The Cut did a profile of Norman that brought her story to a wider public: "The First Black Trans Model Had Her Face on a Box of Clairol. No one knew her secret. Until they did."

Clairol saw the profile and called her. The company wanted the trans model to be part of its new ad campaign encouraging women to celebrate what makes them unique.

"I just had so many emotions going through me. I was being accepted for who I was, and they wanted me to come back as that person, and not be something other than what I truly am—a woman of color, of course."

Norman's face was on a box of Clairol again -- at age 63.

The irst Black Trans Model Had Her Face on a Box of Cl


Saturday, September 17, 2016


    This is a story of coincidences -- although I don't really believe in coincidences.

     It is the story of why, after a long absence, I have decided to start up this blog again.

     It is a story that celebrates creative late bloomers, people whose creativity has no expiration date, who are creative until the day they die -- and sometimes even after.

     Late last night when I heard that playwright Edward Albee had died at the age of 88, I was transported back to the day more than 30 years ago when I went to his Tribeca loft to interview him for an airline magazine. Albee was rehearsing a play called "Marriage Play," due to debut in Vienna the following week. I had recently been divorced so the play had a particular resonance for me.

Photo by Michael Childers, 2012 (The Edward F. Albee Foundation website)

     When I heard the news of Albee's death, I wondered if I had a copy of the piece I had written about that visit tucked away somewhere. But quickly I realized that even if I did, I probably could never find it in the mounds of boxes filled with clips and papers I had stored in my garage. The airline magazine which published the piece had long gone out of business -- TWA didn't even exist anymore. I went to bed, giving up any hope of putting my hands on the piece. I contented myself with the vague memory of that day in New York, sipping white wine with one of my favorite playwrights.

   Forgetting all about that long-ago memory, I woke up this morning and began to busy myself with a project that I had been putting off starting for months: the creation of an inventory of everything I owned. Everything, that is, that is stored in the house where I have been living with my second husband for more than 20 years. A lot of stuff accumulates over two decades and I wasn't looking forward to the job. The creation of an inventory was prompted by a suggestion made by our lawyer more than a year ago when we drew up our wills. She wanted us to add an addendum to the wills that would state what should be done with our earthly possessions in the event of our deaths. My husband and I agreed to first take an inventory of those possessions.

    I decided to start with my office: plenty of stuff to catalogue there. Almost immediately, I fell upon a stack of yellowing papers in a file drawer: the first drafts of profiles I had written for magazines, typed out on my old Remington, no doubt, during my freelancing days long ago. Among the pieces -- and here is that amazing coincidence -- was the original, unedited version of the story of my meeting Albee. Re-reading it, I realized that I had forgotten whole chunks of that visit to his Tribeca loft and particularly the curious answer to a question I had posed to Albee. "Where do you do the bulk of your writing?" I had asked him. "Airplanes," he had replied. "I find airplanes -- especially on long flights -- a very good place to concentrate."

    When we were saying our good-byes at the end of the interview, I must have pictured Albee scribbling away on his long, upcoming flight to Vienna because I concluded my piece with this line:

     "Somewhere over the Atlantic, I realize with a start, he will once again begin Act One."

     Re-reading that line, I thought: We all need to have the courage to begin Act One...again and again. To take on new projects -- or finished old ones -- and remain creative until the end.

     It was in that spirit, I decided to re-launch this blog, celebrating late bloomers.

     Albee may not seem at first to be a role model for "late" bloomers. He bloomed, after all, relatively early on in his career. He almost won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" when he was 35 and won it for "A Delicate Balance" when he was 39.

     In the 1980s, however, he experienced a run of flops on Broadway; critics scoffed at his efforts. He began to drink and fight with producers.

     But he sobered up -- thanks to AA and the support of his partner of 32 years, Canadian sculptor Jonathan Thomas -- and he eventually began to write Act Ones again.
Albee's last play premiered when he was 82.
     In 1994 he won his third Pulitzer Prize for drama for "Three Tall Women." He was 66. In 2005, at age 77, he was awarded the special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement. His last play ("Me, Myself and I") premiered five years later in 2010 when he was 82. At 83 he was directing revivals of his plays off Broadway. And throughout his career he presided over the Edward Albee Foundation, encouraging writers and artists who gathered under his name for yearly Long Island retreats.

    When I met him in that Tribeca loft, he was 59.

     By then he had gained the wisdom of an aging creative. As he was approaching his sixties, he was less concerned with striving for recognition and more interested in concentrating on his own discoveries. "I have been both overpraised and underpraised," he told an interviewer. "I assume by the time I finish writing -- and I plan to go on writing until I'm 90 or gaga -- it will all equal itself out. You can't invove yourself with the vicissitudes of fashion or critical response."

     At the time of our visit, Albee was more celebrated in Europe than in his native land -- "Marriage Play," after all, had been commissioned by The English Theater in Vienna, not by an American theater -- but he seemed unbothered by this fall from U.S. attention. What mattered was his own satisfaction.

     At one point in our conversation, he contrasted the sensibilities of American and European theater audiences. Europeans, he told me, were more willing to be tolerant of ideas, more willing to go to the theater "to suffer an experience."

     When I expressed surprise that we should have to suffer when we go to the theater, he told me that he wasn't using the word "suffer" in the sense of embracing pain, but rather evoking an older meaning of the word: to be willing to be open, to expose oneself to an experience that may be disturbing.

     "God knows, when I go to the theater I don't want to emerge from it exactly the same person that I went into it as," he told me. "I want to be made to think about something, I want to be changed in some way, at least to be forced to reconsider my perceptions. Because life is very short. Why waste your time?"

     The airline magazine cut out the comments Albee made about suffering. I think they were the wisest thing he told me. Keeping ourselves open to life in all its disturbances seem to me to be the best definition of creative aging.

     God knows, I don't want to emerge from life exactly the same person I was when I came in.

Here is the original, uncut version of my article on Edward Albee: 

"Hi. Welcome and thanks for coming," says Edward Albee, greeting a handful of guests seated in a semi-circle in the middle of his spacious loft in New York's Tribeca. Invited to see the playwright's latest work, a two-character, two act play called "Marriage Play," we are staring at two leather chairs, cordoned off by asking tape on the wooden floor. At the far end of the voluminous room, which looks like an eclectic art gallery, a shaft of sunshine from a skylight, like a moment of divine intervention, is illuminating a large cross sculpture on a wall of exposed brick.

We are in the fourth week of rehearsals," explains Albee, whose pepper-colored hair and mustache have added liberal dashes of salt since his first full-length play, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," assured him a place of honor in the history of American theater. This, he adds, is the final run through before the cast leaves for Vienna where the play will open at the English Theater, which commissioned the work.

Dressed in a dark grey sweatshirt, baggy pants and sneakers, Albee still manages to look boyish despite his 59 years. Soft-spoken and unassuming, he has an air of modesty about him that is almost unnerving.

"I am the author and director of the vast cast," he deadpans. "We pay no attention to the economies of theater so we have a cast of two -- but if you have the right actors that's enough." Kathleen Butler, he announces, will play Gillian and Tom Klunis, her husband Jack.

"It is 3:30 on a weekday afternoon in a suburb or a city -- I'm not sure. This is a living room," Albee tells us, indicating the masking tape. "Out there is a garden," he adds, pointing straight at us. "And if this were not a wall it would lead to the kitchen." He waves his hand toward a sketch by Lipchitz of two figures locked in combat hung in a heavy wooden frame. "Have I forgotten anything?"

A Siamese cat is dispatched to the kitchen. Albee, warning us that he may stop the action at any time, takes his seat beyond the masking tape. "Curtain going up," someone intones.

The play is dense with ideas and lengthy monologues. Gillian and Jack are allowed to lock in verbal and they physical battle without interruption. I wonder: Is the author of the director watching this play? Albee shows no sign of emotion as he carefully follows the script in front of him. "He's really nervous although you'd never know it," a friend whispers.

"You can't worry about what people think," Albee counters later. "You can't allow yourself to worry about it or you become a nervous wreck -- or worse you become owned by the critics of owned by commercial pressure." All his other guests have departed. He has broken open a bottle of white wine, but only pours a glass for me. "There are some people who want to write their first big his and sell out to Hollywood as quickly as they can. Some people you just can't stop from selling out. And there are others who can't figure out how to do it," he says, his fingers gripped around a coffee mug. "But there are still those who are serious about their craft, who just go about their business.

Albee's own work keeps him occupied "16 months out of the year": teaching, lecturing, overseeing the Albee Foundation, which includes an artist colony four miles from his home at Montauk on Long Island, and, of course, writing plays. "Where do you do the bulk of your writing?" I ask. "Airplanes," he replies solemnly. He is serious: "I find airplanes -- especially on long flights -- a very good place to concentrate. I used to do it on ocean liners. I would get on an ocean liner to Europe and I would have a play written by the time I got there. But they've taken most of them off. Now I have to rely on airplanes...and this may be a critical comment on my work. I don't know," he adds with a wry smile.

"The business of playwriting can be tough," he admits. "We have a TV and a film tradition in this country," he points out. "Generally speaking Europeans tend to be a bit more tolerant of ideas, a bit more willing to go to the theater to suffer an experience."

 I am puzzled. Do we have to suffer when we go to the theater? "I don't mean suffer in that sense," Albee told me, like a patient teacher. "If you look up suffer, an older use of the word, it doesn't mean pain but to be willing to be open to an experience, to be expose to an experience that may be disturbing." He is clearly delighted that the conversation is turning on a word. "God knows, when I go to the theater I don't want to emerge from it exactly the same person that I went into it as. I want to be made to think about something, I want to be changed in some way, at least to be forced to reconsider my perceptions. Because life is very short. Why waste your time?"

The loft's walkways, wooden beams and objets d'art are now streaked with evening shadows. Albee accompanies me down the building's drafty warehouse elevator to street level to say good-by. I am struck once again by his diffidence. He is, no doubt, already thinking of the next day's long flight to Vienna. 

Somewhere over the Atlantic, I realize with a start, he will once again begin Act One. 





Tuesday, December 17, 2013


     Welcome all newcomers to Creative Late Bloomers. I hope you enjoy this blog dedicated to those souls who have found creative success late in life -- in their fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties and even nineties. For my already faithful followers who have been clamoring for their weekly fix of inspiration, I am happy to report that my profiles of creative late bloomers will resume right after the holidays. Promise. Meanwhile for those in need of immediate inspiration -- or for those who are looking for something late bloomerish to put under the tree this Christmas, here are my Five Top Books For Creative Late Bloomers.

                           -- Margo Hammond

 Abecedaries (those A-is-for-Apple-books I loved as a kid) are no longer just for children. British photog Tim Walker, famous for his extravagantly staged fashion shoots, has produced one that is truly grownup and deliciously surreal: The Granny Alphabet, published by Thames & Hudson. When I received my review copy, I was gobsmacked, as the British might say: Elderly models posing as the dearly beloved grannies of our imaginations. All the characters are "entirely fictitious," but we've met them all, from Annie with her cane, sensible black shoes and crocodile bag (a deadringer of Memere, my French grandmother-in-law) to Zelda with her plaid coat and walker (the British call it a Zimmer frame). Kit Hesketh-Harvey supplies clever verses for each letter. Here's the one for Y: Years fly, thinks Yvonne,/Youth flies, too./Yesterday, thinks Yvonne,/I was you.


     As if that wasn't enough, Walker offers a second volume in the twinset: another abecedaria, this time featuring drawings of little old ladies by English illustrator, designer and portrait painter Lawrence Mynott that begins "A is for Adventurous, B is for Batty, C is for Chic."

And here's the best part: Walker is donating all proceeds from the sale of The Granny Alphabet to Friends of the Elderly, an English organization that provides residential care, nursing care and dementia care for the elderly.


     As this rollicking novel opens, Allan Karlsson is stepping out of the first floor of his nursing home in his slippers to escape the tedious celebrations planned for his 100th birthday. While waiting for a bus to get out of town, Karlsson inadvertently steals a suitcase filled with cash owned by a gang of criminals, setting off a picaresque chase across Sweden. A Zelig-like character, Karlsson is not a stranger to adventures: He has had a lifetime of them, saving the lives of a slew of famous people in the process (not to mention inventing the atom bomb). Originally published in Swedish in 2009 and published in the U.S. by Hyperion Books at the end of last year, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared is set to be released as a movie in Sweden on Christmas day. Penned by first-time Swedish novelist Jonas Jonasson, the novel has sold more than five million copies in 35 countries.


     Harry Lipkin at 87 is the world's oldest private detective and star of this whodunit. Harry works out of Miami, carrying a Smith & Wesson snub-nose .38 in the glove compartment of his 40-year-old Chevy Impala, where he also keeps his dentures. This is not a crime novel that you read for the plot, which is lame. You read it for Harry who is one of the most unique characters you'll encounter anywhere. His creator, Barry Fantoni, was a cartoonist and wrote jokes for over 40 years for the British magazine Private Eye. 


     Author Hilary Boyd is herself a creative late bloomer (see her Creative Late Bloomer profile at Hilary Boyd: Don't Call It Gran Lit ): In 2011 she published Thursdays in the Park when she was 60 after 20 years of rejection slips. The story she tells in Thursdays in the Park also has an it's-never-too-late theme. A 60-year-old woman in a sexless and unhappy marriage falls for a 60-something man she meets in the park where they both bring their grandchildren every Thursday. The novel became an international bestseller last year when it appeared as an e-book (in Britain, it even outsold Fifty Shades of Grey). The Brits called it Gran Lit, a term Boyd roundly rejects. And no wonder. Her protaganist is no "white-bun, baggy-cardie, specs-toting granny," she insists. Well, she's a granny but a sexy one who learns that it's never too late even for sex. On a roll, Boyd this year published two more novels -- Tangled Lives in February and When You Walked Back Into My Life in October. Tangled Lives is about a woman with three grown children who harbors a secret: At 18 she gave up a baby boy for adoption and now her son wants to make contact. When You Walked Back Into My Life tells the story of a love affair that falls apart and may or may not get rekindled years later.