Childhood poverty and being swindled out of her hard-earned money fuelled LAUREN HUTTON’s rage

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I was feeling slightly apprehensive about meeting Lauren Hutton – I didn’t want her to be a moody diva because if you’ve had even a passing interest in fashion and beauty over the past seven decades, you’ll know that she is one of the greats. 

The face of the Studio 54 era, a favourite of legendary photographer Richard Avedon, pioneer of the megabucks modelling contract (she signed a record-breaking deal with Revlon in 1973 for $250,000, then equivalent to £100,000), actress in American Gigolo and all-round style icon. 

She’s informed my sense of womanhood for most of my life. 

That face, as she walks into a hotel in downtown New York, may be older – she’s 78 – but it’s as recognisable as ever. 

I was feeling slightly apprehensive about meeting Lauren Hutton (pictured) – I didn’t want her to be a moody diva because if you’ve had even a passing interest in fashion and beauty over the past seven decades, you’ll know that she is one of the greats

Even talking with her isn’t standard stuff: it’s the conversational equivalent of herding cats, as topics flip-flop and tumble around and timelines criss-cross. But, boy, is she a hoot

Even talking with her isn’t standard stuff: it’s the conversational equivalent of herding cats, as topics flip-flop and tumble around and timelines criss-cross. But, boy, is she a hoot

The broad mouth and high cheekbones are partly hidden under a baseball cap which covers her signature golden hair. Later she tells me that being beautiful isn’t something ‘you believe of yourself too much. 

‘I know I’m handsome but that goes back and forth; I need a really good photographer.’ She’s dressed in black trousers, white shirt and blazer, and slender as a reed, even though she claims she needs to lose 10lb. 

Her bag isn’t some logoed designer number but a hand-woven rattan I backpack she picked up in the Philippines. Hutton isn’t interested in rules or the expectations of others. Just look at the famous gap between her front teeth that she refused to fix – it’s still there in her big, easy smile. 

Even talking with her isn’t standard stuff: it’s the conversational equivalent of herding cats, as topics flip-flop and tumble around and timelines criss-cross. But, boy, is she a hoot. First she launches into a diatribe about her expensive hearing aids, warning me as soon as we sit down that she’s lost them. ‘They’re so tiny it’s easy to do. I’ve lost so many. And they were selling them to me for $8,000 [£6,700] a pair. Then I found out Costco had the exact same thing for $1,400 [£1,200].’ Fortunately the lack of them doesn’t impede our conversation. Hutton’s life story is like something from a novel. She was born Mary Laurence in 1943 in Charleston, South Carolina: Lauren came later. 

I was invited to the 1975 Academy Awards and I only found out about it a week beforehand. I didn’t have time to shop and Halston was a friend, so I called him and said, ‘You’ve got to send me something.’ We didn’t have FedEx then so he posted this dress to me in an envelope. The chiffon was a special kind – they don’t make the same materials they used to. A friend insisted I took her fox-fur coat and I knew it would hurt her feelings if I refused but I didn’t want to wear it – I love foxes. However, it was cold and raining so I took it. I watched the recent Netflix documentary Halston but I didn’t like it. He was a very complicated character and it didn’t portray any of the parts of him that I knew

I was invited to the 1975 Academy Awards and I only found out about it a week beforehand. I didn’t have time to shop and Halston was a friend, so I called him and said, ‘You’ve got to send me something.’ We didn’t have FedEx then so he posted this dress to me in an envelope. The chiffon was a special kind – they don’t make the same materials they used to. A friend insisted I took her fox-fur coat and I knew it would hurt her feelings if I refused but I didn’t want to wear it – I love foxes. However, it was cold and raining so I took it. I watched the recent Netflix documentary Halston but I didn’t like it. He was a very complicated character and it didn’t portray any of the parts of him that I knew

My stove exploded and blew all my hair off. That’s why it’s short here in 1982. I had a place on the Bowery [New York’s oldest thoroughfare] – an entire floor of a giant building on the corner. Two friends came over and I forgot that I was cooking a wild turkey that I’d bought on the street. This was an Yves Saint Laurent blouse – it was about $99 [£55] and the first one I bought. I ended up buying three or four and I still have some of them

My stove exploded and blew all my hair off. That’s why it’s short here in 1982. I had a place on the Bowery [New York’s oldest thoroughfare] – an entire floor of a giant building on the corner. Two friends came over and I forgot that I was cooking a wild turkey that I’d bought on the street. This was an Yves Saint Laurent blouse – it was about $99 [£55] and the first one I bought. I ended up buying three or four and I still have some of them

‘There was only one Lauren back then, the great Lauren Bacall,’ she says. ‘I met her at the Academy Awards once – there’s a ball afterwards that’s just like a high-school prom and just as boring. And all of a sudden I heard: “So you’re the other Lauren.” I looked up and there she was. I charged over, she threw out her arms and we collided, it was wonderful. We became friends.’ Hutton came from what you might call good stock, although she never met her father, who moved to England during the Second World War. By the time she was five, her mother was remarried to ‘a reprobate’ and they moved to Florida for a life in ‘the swamps’. 

‘We were poor,’ she recalls. ‘[My mother] didn’t know about being poor. She couldn’t cook. She always had cooks.’ At 11 Hutton couldn’t read and her mother hadn’t even realised: ‘She had her own problems.’ It was thanks to a kindly teacher that this changed. Her mother went on to have three more daughters. ‘I grew up in the trees until I was yanked out of them at 13, because suddenly I was getting sisters. And my mother had no staff. So I raised babies.’ 

Hutton never had children herself, though she has spoken in the past of the time when, at 41, she told her partner Bob Williamson that she was ready to be a mother: ‘He blew up and said, “I don’t want to ever have children. I’m your baby.”’ Given their considerable age gap, she was probably alluding to this sort of behaviour when she tells me: ‘If you’re a young girl, and you’ve got some idiot after you who’s 20 years older, tell him to go f*** himself. It just means they’re not big enough to talk to a woman their own age because they’re too underdeveloped. You want a man, you don’t want a child.’ 

This is by the great Zoran from 1980; it’s shorts, top and a scarf. I still have this outfit. I did something very foolish with the top, though – I thought I could cut down the neckline as my neck got shorter. I haven’t worn it in a long time, but I think I’ll bring it out again. I’m certainly being awfully cheerful here, aren’t I?

This is by the great Zoran from 1980; it’s shorts, top and a scarf. I still have this outfit. I did something very foolish with the top, though – I thought I could cut down the neckline as my neck got shorter. I haven’t worn it in a long time, but I think I’ll bring it out again. I’m certainly being awfully cheerful here, aren’t I?

Of her own childhood, Hutton says: ‘I had a very bizarre background. Extreme.’ Ah, but look what she did with it. She knew she wanted to get out and see the world. She loved reading National Geographic and she’d regale her sisters with stories of the places she would visit one day. What she needed was money to fund it. ‘Travelling was my vocation; not modelling or acting.’ 

In the mid 1960s, Hutton arrived in New York and saw an advert for a showroom model at Christian Dior. ‘It was $50 [£18] a week – you could barely live in New York on that but I did. I saved a tiny bit of money too. I had chicken pot pies every single night. I’d buy five at the start of the week and usually one person would take me out for dinner.’ One day, as she sat in the showroom looking at magazines, a fellow model told her: ‘Those photography models make more in an hour than you make in a week.’ 

Forget just being a showroom model, this was how she’d earn enough to travel to Africa. Not one to be pigeonholed, and with her mind set on making money, she went on to become one of the most recognised faces in the world. Realising, as she hit her 30s, that her modelling days were numbered, Hutton reinvented things and signed the cosmetics contract with Revlon in 1973. She worked solidly so she could take time off to travel abroad and only visited Manhattan’s celebrated Studio 54 a couple of times (‘I had to get a lot of sleep so I could get up the next day and be good at work’). 

This was at the opening of an exhibition of photography by Peter Beard in 1975 and that’s my camera. I don’t take too much equipment with me when I am travelling, though. The necklace is Arabian

This was at the opening of an exhibition of photography by Peter Beard in 1975 and that’s my camera. I don’t take too much equipment with me when I am travelling, though. The necklace is Arabian

I wore this Fortuny dress in 1974. Diana Vreeland [former editor of US Vogue] got it for me from Gloria Vanderbilt. And I think Gloria got it from her mother, but I could be wrong. Someone cleaned it and the next time I put it on it split everywhere and my knees came through it

I wore this Fortuny dress in 1974. Diana Vreeland [former editor of US Vogue] got it for me from Gloria Vanderbilt. And I think Gloria got it from her mother, but I could be wrong. Someone cleaned it and the next time I put it on it split everywhere and my knees came through it

What drove her? ‘Rage!’ she says. ‘I had remembered a really good life living in Charleston. Suddenly this other thing happened to us and I’d seen my mother dissolve into… well, they both became alcoholics because I think they were unhappy.’ Her mother died last year, aged 98. Of that historic Revlon deal Hutton says now: ‘It killed [modelling]. Because once girls started making $1,500 [£600] a day, suddenly you were sitting there alone in the dressing room.’ 

Magazines couldn’t afford to have lots of models so the thing she enjoyed most about the job – ‘talking and hearing people’s histories’ – was gone. Stories of how people live around the world matter to Hutton: she had always wanted to see it first-hand. She’s lived with African Pygmies and Kalahari Bushmen, and has ‘learned the ‘travelling was my vocation; not modelling or acting’ most about men and women from the Maasai’. She believes that more women should be in government. ‘We are long-term thinkers, men are not and they need to get that through their fat heads.’ Yet she adds: ‘I love men. I mean, I tried the other.’ You did? ‘Yeah, once; it was the 70s. 

This is Katharine Hepburn’s jacket, shot in 1977 – it’s in my closet right now. There’s a beautiful skirt that goes with it. All this detail was done by hand. It used to have a label with her name on but that got lost. I got it from Western Costume, which used to make all the movie costumes. It’s where I got my jeans too – they had really good jeans because they’d done all the cowboy movies. They were used and they would fit. I was 8st 4lb then

This is Katharine Hepburn’s jacket, shot in 1977 – it’s in my closet right now. There’s a beautiful skirt that goes with it. All this detail was done by hand. It used to have a label with her name on but that got lost. I got it from Western Costume, which used to make all the movie costumes. It’s where I got my jeans too – they had really good jeans because they’d done all the cowboy movies. They were used and they would fit. I was 8st 4lb then

‘It’s just, I like the difference [between men and women].’ One of those men was Williamson, her partner of 27 years and also her manager. But when he died in 1997, it was discovered he’d mismanaged her millions. I suspect that rage reared its head then too, but it’s a topic that’s off limits today. Hutton still models and is currently the face of the global skincare brand StriVectin. 

She’s low maintenance with her appearance in that way truly beautiful women can be, possibly even reckless with it. After a near-fatal motorbike accident in 2000, friends visited her in hospital: ‘I think they thought they were saying goodbye.’ But she’s a fighter. ‘Listen to no one but yourself’, is what she says she learned from the accident, adding, ‘I try not to be afraid of anybody or anything. Because it takes your energy.’ We’ve been chatting for three hours – our allotted time was 30 minutes – and finally Hutton is feeling tired. 

What’s next, I ask. ‘I’m off to see my honey,’ she beams. Whoever he is – she won’t say – he’s a lucky man. And what of her plans? She wants to go to the most northern town in the world – she’s read about it. ‘It’s melting away. Polar bears are coming in. It’s dangerous to run dogs, or your snowmobile, because it’s caving in. I want to see that because it’s not yet got into my brain how little time we have.’ Evading polar bears with Lauren Hutton – now there’s a trip I’d like to be on.

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