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Lauren Hutton on Modeling, Dating and Style

The 70-year-old model chatted with Fern Mallis at 92Y here on Wednesday night.

Lauren Hutton Fern Mallis

NEW YORK — Lauren Hutton, née Mary Lawrence Hutton, might hail from Charleston, S.C., but she has never been your typical Southern Belle.

During a chat with Fern Mallis at 92Y here on Wednesday night, the 70-year-old model lived up to her reputation as a rebel and a freewheeling spirit in a wide-ranging discussion full of zingers and sass. Ever upbeat and mercurial, Hutton occasionally preferred to talk about what she wanted (whether it be African tribes or skinning a catfish) rather than answer Mallis’ questions. She appeared bored by a few questions on her movie roles, but lit up when giving the audience advice about achieving personal style. Twice, she asked for a cigarette.

Hutton, who is known equally for her unquenchable wanderlust as she is for her 26 Vogue covers and 44 movie roles, explained that she only ever modeled so that she could travel the world. This was often met with disapproval from her former agent, Eileen Ford. “Eileen said, ‘Don’t forget, you can’t go anywhere more than two weeks. You’ll never work again, they’ll forget you.’ So I went away for a month,” Hutton said. “When I got back, I had a model look at me and sniff, ‘What are you doing here? I thought you committed suicide.’ The word had gone out, because I disappeared for one month, that I had killed myself.”

Hutton is currently working on a memoir, which will be out “very soon.” Here, some highlights from the two-hour chat:

On her mother, Minnie:

My mother was really something else. She met [my father] the way she got all her husbands — on the tennis court. She loved being independent and having a job and all those things good Charleston girls aren’t allowed to do. World War II was a big change for women because of that — they all got jobs. Diana Vreeland told me many years later [after the War] that she was asked to start glamorizing the house [in Vogue], because the men were back and they needed the jobs. I remember being a kid and just never getting why these women were wearing their skirts and bouffant hair and heels this big while they were vacuuming.

On her stepfather, Jack Hall:

He knew about snakes and wild things. I was wild from ages 10 to 13, during which Mr. Hall was extremely informative. He taught me how to catch a six-foot rattlesnake with a fork stick. I can still catch a lot of things with my hands. I’ll tell you the trick — if it’s a bad snake, you wanna get it right by the neck so they can’t pull out. If he spins his head, you wanna get the tail next. I’m serious, I had to do this a couple years ago.

On her stint as a cocktail waitress at the Playboy Club:
Back then, you could serve drinks but you couldn’t drink them until you were 21, so girls from ages 18 to 21 were Lunch Bunnies. We would come at 11 p.m. and work until 4 or 5 a.m. and we’d be getting off as the Night Bunnies, who were 21-plus, were coming on. Gloria Steinem was a Night Bunny; Debbie Harry was, too, but we didn’t know each other at the same time. We wore mini skirts before there was such a word. It was 1961 to 1963, so everybody thought you were a hooker. You would be in there and all these people were looking at you. It was debilitating. I didn’t have the staunchness of mind to let it fly over me... I was starting to think of myself in a sort of degrading way. I said no matter what I’d never do it again. It made me feel bad.

On coming back to New York for two reasons — to get to Africa and to try LSD:
There was no such thing as a hub back then — the only way to get to Europe or Africa was through New York. And I had read about LSD in Playboy, I think. I read these great interviews [with some people who had taken it], and it sure sounded like something I wanted to try. And I knew I wasn’t gonna find it anywhere else but New York City.

On how she got her first modeling job at Christian Dior, for $50 a week:
I learned to read the front page of The New York Times. I was looking through “wanted” ads, and then [my friend] Arnie said, “Look at this. It says ‘Model wanted. Christian Dior. New York. Must have experience.’” I said, “I don’t have experience.” He said, “Of course you do.” I learned my first great New York lesson: lie. Tell them what they need to hear. Figure out what they need to hear, and lead from there.

On her “lightbulb” moment:
One of the other models [at Christian Dior] was a mistress, going out with this married man, and she kept asking me all the time to go out with one of his friends. I kept demurring, although I certainly wasn’t seeing anyone else; I would politely say no. She was angry at me [for that]. So one day, she looked over at me and said, “See those girls? They make more in an hour than you make in a week.” I could almost see this lightbulb in my mind. It was really quite wonderful. I started asking around to see what those other girls did.

On signing a groundbreaking deal with Revlon in 1973, the first ever exclusive modeling contract:
I went around and told all the photographers I wanted a beauty contract. Dick [Avedon] said to make it an exclusive contract, and next thing you know, I was making a million bucks in three years. I only worked 20 days a year. I had also figured out how to do catalogue. And no one did lingerie modeling at the time — they had a dirty girls agency — but no one did that. Those girls were making $300 an hour. I cornered one of these little beauties and asked her what’s going on. You would have to go behind Eileen Ford’s back. You’d have to go to your booker and tell them what you wanted to do. I was making a lot of money.

On meeting Diana Vreeland in her Vogue office:
I went up there and went into this gigantic room that was red everywhere — leopard skin carpet — fake, of course — and red ceilings all the way around. We had nothing like this in the swamps of Tampa or in Charleston. [The room was full of editors and models.] Diana looked over at me and went — “And you?” I actually looked behind me at first. She said — “You have quite a presence.” I did not know what presence meant. I figured it was good. I said, “Yes ma’am, so do you.” She said, “You stay after.” I opened my book and she said, “I think I’ll call Dick [Avedon.]”

On her first photo shoot for Vogue with Avedon:
When I got there, to Dick’s studio on 56th Street, I was pretending to be Verushka. I did all these things I couldn’t do. Finally, Dick was so exasperated, as he should’ve been. He said, “Where do you come from?” I said Florida. He said, “What did you do there?” I said, “Well, I, uh, used to hang out in the woods a lot. I would catch snakes and then run and jump over turtles.” He said, “Jump?” He would sort of dance when he would get happy about something. He said “Go over there, run and then leap.” That started the running and jumping pictures. Because I couldn’t model [otherwise].

On New York dating in her early twenties:
I had been with this guy for two-and-a-half-years. I was unable to escape. I wasn’t ever going to waste time [in a relationship] again. So when I got back to New York, I had interviews — my goddaughters say I invented speed dating. At the time, the best and brightest [men] all seemed to be in New York City. You were followed down the street. You had four hits by the time you were up from one block from another. I was turning heads — at least 10 to 1. But I was only interested in brains and kindness. If I was vaguely interested in someone, if he didn’t look too dumb, I would meet these guys [for tea]. I would explain ahead of time that they’d pay for their tea, I’d pay for mine. We didn’t have lunch or dinner. I had 39 teas [with 39 men]. Five minutes in and that was that. And on my 40th tea, it was over for the next 40 years.

On her namesake cosmetics line:
I love to make things. It was fun to make the packages and the cases — I loved that part. But don’t go into business, that’s all I can say, unless you have some weird love for it. I never talked to a business person really, and I didn’t know anything about it. And then suddenly I was 57 and I had this business I put all my money in. And I was stuck and it was terrible.

On her stint as an actress:
I was always the prop. I had played the photographer six times — I had an unbelievable amount of camera equipment. That was the only way you could show a woman having a job without holing her up. Women were pretty much only props for men in the Sixties and Seventies.

On working with Richard Gere for “American Gigolo” after John Travolta had to back out of the role:
I was in this room with a bunch of these suits at Paramount, and Richard was standing there and they put this baby blue jacket on him. It’s hanging all over his body, and he just looked directly at me — I was sitting tight between two suits — and he said, “What do you think about this?” I had a choice of either being liked by the directors and producers or telling the truth. So I got up and I said, “Horrific. Really horrific.” He said, “That’s what I thought.” He swept his eyes down to look at the shoes, and he had these lavender eyelids, and I was very impressed by him.

On how to be fashionable:
People like to say you’re either born with style or you’re not, and that’s complete hooey. You’ve gotta develop your own and find your own. We’re all completely different — different bones. Go for what suits you. Get in the mirror and you really look at yourself, not with your mother’s eyes, not with your sister’s eyes — just try to get rid of everybody’s ideas of who you are and who you’re supposed to be, and take a good look at yourself. Start to think back on [compliments people have given you] and pull those things out. If you just put on whatever they’re trying to sell you, you will always be out of fashion. Otherwise, they can’t keep selling you. So, you will always be out of fashion. Get used to it. That’s the game. Whatever they say is fashionable, chuck it.

The moment she felt like she’d made it as a model:
It was scary. People Magazine wrote a headline [about me], “She’s Got It All.” And I remember this chill went right up my back. ‘Cause there is no such thing. She’s got it all? It’s insane. No one can have all of anything. Life has got millions of choices, every minute of every day.

Advice to aspiring models:
Do what I did.

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