The Prime of Lauren Hutton

Published in Vanity Fair on May 1, 1989

lauren hutton

 

Years ago, Richard Avedon called Lauren Hutton "the link between the dream and the drugstore. She's the girl next door, but she moved away." Very far away. Only now she's back, posing at a preposterous age for a model, wrestling alligators and taunting the libidos of the newly middle-aged. That face, those eyes—still voguing after all these years. And why not? Hutton is an unreconstructed counterculturist who acts as if Woodstock were next weekend. "I think that I am in my prime," she declares, her taut body tightly swathed in faded jeans and her feisty-beautiful forty- five-year-old face devoid of all makeup. Mrs. Robinson indeed.

Two decades ago, Lauren Hutton was the world's hottest model—fresh, funny, bawdy, and baaad. The salty, straight-on "swamp skunk" from Florida had taken her profession to new heights by parlaying her fashion clout into the first major celebrity contract for a model, as Revlon's Ultima girl from 1973 to 1983. Her restless and irreverent image coincided with the economic independence of women.

In the eighties, when freewheeling sassy took a nosedive and uptight savvy ascended, Hutton was dethroned by the virginal and virtuous Brooke Shields, breathing hotly that nothing came between her and her Calvins. So? Hutton hadn't worn panties since before Brooke was born. Meanwhile, the veteran actress of several dozen films and TV shows, most of them forgettable, was sick of trying to look younger. "I had found that I could see people's expressions and then by rearranging the muscles in my face feel what they were feeling. When it first started to happen it shocked me, but I became an artist at it. Then I got tired of making the expressions of a thirty-year-old. In this business it just becomes a habit: at twenty-five you try to look twenty, at thirty-five, thirty."

Hutton had become famous as the action girl who skipped and jumped across the pages of Vogue so perfectly that the magazine put her on an incredible twenty-four covers. (In 1974 she even garnered her own Newsweek cover story.) But today, as she spreads out a career's worth of magazines on a countertop in her downtown-New York work studio, she feigns indifference. "I could never relate to all these faces," she says in a swamp-queen rasp. "I have a funny feeling looking at them. How do you identify with a bunch of magazine covers that are supposed to be you? This is me."

The me in question appears to have defied gravity, and instead of hiding her age, Hutton revels in it. That's important for the powerful market of upscale consumers in their thirties and forties for whom Hutton is living proof that getting old isn't what it used to be. She is metamorphosing into a major Middle-Aged Glamour Girl. Her career in modeling could never reach the saturation level it once had, but she can still make waves.

Last year, after posing for an American Legend mink ad and before popping up in Italian Vogue, Hutton startled jaded New Yorkers as the arresting personality in the now widely copied Barneys New York catalogue, a low-paying job she had to be coaxed into taking. But as soon as Hutton appeared for Barneys, a chic downtown store with decidedly haut prices, the items in the catalogue completely sold out and the store was inundated with letters and phone calls from grateful customers thanking them "for not selling women short."

This year Hutton is becoming a cover girl once again—she has been photographed for the first issue of Mirabella—and is continuing to be heavily promoted as the Barneys image. Hutton's agency, Ford, says it is in the first stages of a new exclusive cosmetics contract for her, because today, as Eileen Ford points out, "getting older in this business is a more distinct possibility." "Numbers are not the thing now, whether you're twenty-five or fortyfive," says the glamorous fortysomething president of Ultima II cosmetics, Andrea Robinson. "There are more opportunities for people—it's attractiveness at any age that counts." Robinson finds Hutton appealing because of her aura of intelligence. "She doesn't have that sort of blank model's look on her face." New York advertising man Peter Rogers, who art-directed Hutton's mink ad, thinks she is still a major turn-on. "She's sexy, hot, funny, smart. She just eats the camera up, plus she knows every angle and exactly how everything ought to be shot. She's got style and brains—she's the real modern woman."

Yet one doubts that many real modern women, particularly among those who could coast on looks alone, would be willing to wrestle a live two-hundred-pound alligator just to impress a not easily amazed famous photographer. But Hutton did, and it was her idea. "When I was a child I watched some Seminole Indians wrestle gators and I remember it was one of the first times I wished I were a boy." This is the daredevil side of her talking—a side she cultivates vigorously. After the session, she proudly proffered Polaroids of the bruises on her legs.

The story of the Helmut Newton alligator shoot—"I said, 'Give me a retarded alligator.' They said, 'There's no such thing as a retarded gator' "—is only the latest chapter in her tumultuous true-life adventures, which include eating termites with Pygmies in Africa and encouraging tarantulas to crawl up her arm in Mexico. In conversation Hutton drops little throw-aways such as "I didn't bathe once for twenty-four days in the Kalahari Desert and my skin never looked better." Then there are the endless stories about knives drawn by hostile African women, guns in her ribs in Colombia, fleeing certain Third World towns when the moon was full, rogue elephants, runaway rhinos.

But even cowgirls get the blues. Or flab. To remain toned during the years she doesn't climb Kilimanjaro, Hutton has started sweating it out two hours a day at the gym, seven days a week—"I didn't like the way I looked when I got out of the bed naked. I started doubling over and doing these crab walks from the bed to the bathroom." At 130 pounds, the five-foot-seven-and-a-half-inch Hutton is about fifteen pounds heavier than her previous posing weight. "I think I single-handedly put the girdle industry out of business—now I'd like to bring it back," she cracked recently at Barneys as she was trying to pour herself into Romeo Gigli's tiny-cut 42s while outfitting herself for a new film. "You know what Catherine Deneuve told me?" she called out from behind a screen. "That famous Parisian expression—'In your forties you have to choose between your face and your derrière. ' " Mais oui. Words to live by for the aging beauties of the world. The extra body fat that goes south also helps fill in wrinkles above the neck.

In the beginning, Hutton was considered too offbeat-looking to have much of a career as a model. (As Vogue once described her, "Her nose flies west, her mouth flies north, she can cross her left eye at will.") But all that changed one day in 1966 when she wangled her way into the office of Vogue's legendary editor, Diana Vreeland, to try on clothes being considered for the magazine.

Vreeland's flamboyant and eccentric style so totally nonplussed Hutton that she perched on a window ledge and hid behind some racks to catch the great editor in action. "D.V. was like this bird of prey leading with her nose and wearing white gloves so as not to get her hands dirty. The room was all red, Chinese-lacquer red, even the ceiling. I'd never seen anything like it. I realized she was doing these tricks, talking in these highflown phrases. Suddenly in the middle of a sentence she'd shout, 'Clothes and modeling!' And she'd jump up and all these editors sitting there would jump up. She'd point and say, 'The hem of that dress is just like a cloud of barley!' And all the editors would say, 'A cloud of barley' Then she'd sit down while they were still standing up."

In the middle of one of these lines, Vreeland's gloved hand suddenly pointed to Hutton. "You," she shouted. "You have quite a presence." "So do you," replied Hutton. At the end of the session, D.V. asked to see Hutton's modeling book. She said, "You're going to see Dick Avedon tomorrow." "Oh, I don't think that'll work. I've already seen him three times." "I think it's going to work," pronounced Vreeland. Avedon was wary. "What can you do?" he asked. "What did you do?" "Well, I can climb trees and I ran through the woods and I jumped," replied Hutton. "Jump!" commanded Avedon, and a whole new style of fashion photography was born. What followed was a Hall of Fame career in modeling. But the desire to show herself off was rooted in sadness.

Lauren Hutton never knew her father, and his loss has caused her enormous pain. Lawrence Hutton was off at war when she was born November 17, 1943, in Charleston, South Carolina. He had grown up next door to William Faulkner's "Rowan Oak," in Oxford, Mississippi, and in emulation of his illustrious neighbor joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, just as Faulkner had done in World War I. Stationed in England when he received word of her birth, he wrote on November 23, "My precious girl: you and I have never been introduced but I feel confident my writing you will not be irregular. You see, honey, I'm your daddy and I want to welcome you into the family."

Unhappily, that was nearly all Mary Laurence ever knew about her father when she was growing up. Today her only paternal mementos are an album of old pictures, some letters, and a little sketchbook made for her, filled with colored-ink drawings of animals. Lauren's mother was raised as a belle of the Old South in Charleston and attended Ashley Hall at the same time as Barbara Bush. She was only twenty when Lauren was born, and somehow at war's end she and her husband didn't get back together. Eventually they divorced. But Lauren was never able to confront her mother about this, and her mother could never bring herself to explain to her curious little daughter why Daddy was gone.

At three Mary Laurence—she began calling herself Lauren because it sounded more like her father's name—went with her mother to live in Miami, but summers were spent back in Charleston. Out on the porch on hot languid nights she would listen to stories about "the real war—the Civil War. In those days still, nothing else counted." She was told about a great-great-grandmother, also named Mary, who had owned hundreds of slaves. "She was described as the only woman in the South with her own railroad car to take her cotton to the coast." But lest Yankees think ill of the family, Lauren Hutton's mother, on her first trip north, told friends of her famous daughter, "We never separated a mated pair," meaning they were not the sort of people who sold off slave couples separately.

Eventually her mother married an ex-oil wildcatter who had spent time in the South American jungle. They went broke in land speculation and, after moving to Missouri for a time, settled in Tampa. A gawky kid, Lauren became an incorrigible tomboy. Her stepfather taught her how to survive in the woods and the swamp. She doted on spiders and snakes; her mother tried to instill good manners. At times her schooling and often her play were interrupted because her mother became ill, and it was left to Lauren to help raise her three younger half-sisters. She speculates that raising siblings is part of the reason she hasn't tried harder to have children of her own, though she does admit to periods of intense "baby lust."

Throughout her childhood Mary Laurence's fondest wish was to have her real father come get her. "My daddy is gonna come in the window," Hutton prayed every night before trying to sleep as prettily as possible. "I had to be beautifully arranged so he'd take me, just like a little angel."

Shortly after receiving the third letter he had written her after the divorce, Hutton learned that her father, who had been working as a newspaperman in New Orleans, had died of a heart attack at age thirty-six. Or was it complications from an old war wound? Even his death remains a mystery. "I know one thing," Lauren Hutton says, "I look just like him."  Today Hutton never fails to take Xeroxes of his letters and his animal book with her when she travels.

Which is frequently. Hutton makes much of her lack of education and thinks of travel as a passport to knowledge, a way to escape the desolate swamp-cum-suburbs where she was raised. Even at the height of her career she made it clear that she was modeling only to earn the money to get away. Over the years, however, motion covered void—a moving target doesn't get shot down. "It's always been easier for me to be fast, flash, and shallow," she admits, "If I could do it fast enough, no one could hit me—and I wouldn't have to deal moment to moment with life."

The pattern began early. Certainly she couldn't wait to blow out of the asphalt-jungle high school she attended, where learning was not prized and she was not popular. (Yes, even Lauren Hutton had to be fixed up for the senior prom.) She lasted a year at the then brand-new and unaccredited University of Southern Florida; during her time at Sophie Newcomb—that New Orleans bastion of the fairest flowers in the South—she worked her way through school as a waitress at Al Hirt's jazz club on Bourbon Street. "I was a sex waitress" is the way Hutton explains the skimpy outfit she wore to serve drinks. "I quit when I started seeing everyone as a mark."

Hutton had first come north at eighteen, spent several months as a Playboy bunny, working days because of her age, but soon fled because New York terrified her. To this day she lives downtown because the scale is more human. "I only go uptown for money, museums, and movies." Glitz, however, was never the main attraction—she had not come to New York to become famous. "I came for two reasons," says Hutton, "to go to Africa and to take LSD, before Timothy Leary opened his big mouth and wrecked it for everybody."

Thus, in 1965, on a lonely Sunday morning, the twenty-one-year-old Hutton arrived for good, practically penniless, with two suitcases filled with old tennis shoes and college exams. She blurted out to the cabdriver the only address she could think of, "Fifty-eighth and Fifth." She had missed being a real Holly Golightly by one block. But like Miss Golightly, Miss Hutton also had her standards.

"I knew there were gonna be some slick tricks, so I decided I'd be beholden to no one." For fifty dollars a week, she got a job as the house model at Dior. Prospective dates got auditioned at Chock Full O' Nuts: they had fifteen minutes and she bought her own fifteen-cent cups of tea. Thirty cups later it was no-go. "We just never had anything in common." But one night she met her match at a Village hot spot called Duke's Cube. Not long after, her career took off.

"Drop it" were the first words she heard from the love of her life. The mysterious Bob Williamson, or "Bob God," as she refers to him, was short, with Coke-bottle glasses, and several years older than Hutton. He had worked in the printing business for years before quitting to hang around Max's Kansas City at its apogee, pal around with the hippest macho artists at the latest in art bars, play the stock market, and seriously travel. Williamson eventually became Julian Schnabel's best friend. Schnabel lovingly celebrates him in his memoirs, CVJ, for his eye, his "encyclopedic mind," and his late-night conversation. To this day, much to the weariness of those who serve him, Williamson is known for pontificating loudly in chic downtown watering holes until the wee hours of the morning. But when the fresh young Floridian tried to grab a carrot out of his salad one night, he was ripe for action. "He looked at me and looked at me in a way I've come to know that desert Arabs look at you," Hutton exclaims in wonder. "He just looked at me and I felt I had been completely 'seen. ' "

For the next twenty years Williamson and Hutton were seen all over the globe together. His world of the swaggering art guys became her scene too. Despite her wealth—for close to a decade Hutton probably earned more money than any model in the world— they for years shared a tiny apartment in the Village. Money might not have been important and his tight hand managed hers, but it was held on to for dear life. Williamson honed Hutton's swashbuckling style. He chose most of Hutton's clothes, guided her every career move, and still advises Ford on Hutton's contracts. It was he who planned their exotic trips and he who Hutton says saved her life five times, the last time in Africa when she fell off a truck. "He knew about the stars and Lichtenstein and spiders and snakes," Hutton says. "He was like a warrior priest—a definitely uncelibate warrior priest. "

"She seems to be the only person who thinks this," offers Hutton's friend the artist Sylvia Martins. "I never saw anything special in Bob." "Imagine being set up in a relationship like that with this man," opines Betty Buckley, a Hutton chum who considers Lauren Hutton a wonderful role model in terms of graceful aging but not in terms of men. "The other day when we were going to go shopping, Lauren said, 'We'll get Bob to come.' I said, 'No, we'll go.' "

It was certainly no small feat keeping one of the most beautiful girls in the world, who earned plenty of money, in the palm of your hand and having her think she should live as if she had nothing. Friends say Williamson, who can be decidedly charming, allowed Hutton her independence, but "he made her feel stupid," says one woman who observed them closely. "She obviously couldn't get along without him."

Despite their many ties, the two haven't lived together in several years. In 1985, in Los Angeles, Hutton took up with the controversial and iconoclastic British music producermanager Malcolm McLaren (the Sex Pistols), another man with a large ego. Whether that relationship is on or off "depends on what minute it is," says Hutton. Williamson, though, is still definitely a presence. "He cannot be out-grown on an intellectual level, nor on a spiritual-compassion level," she insists. "But I think it's very hard to find out how to live with someone as an equal when I'm so different from him—very difficult. "

Part of Hutton's success as a model had to do with her ability to entertain those shooting and making her up. She flaunted her eccentricities, the gap between her two front teeth, her bohemian life-style. And she specialized in outrageous snappy patter. "For me her most interesting feature was that she had a big mouth and she talked," says a famous observer from those days who was more used to models who behaved like eggs. Hutton made much of her Third World adventures. In fact, she now admits that she took acid only twice, and she never joined a demonstration against the Vietnam War. But she fantasized about running guns to Central America to foment revolution. Says one photographer, "I was amused she'd think of herself as a revolutionary." Hutton's devilmay- care insouciance was such that she once posed for Avedon peeing behind a rock.

Hutton seems genuinely fascinated with confrontations as well as with violence, whether between animals or people. Recently, in her studio, for example, she stopped an interview cold to grab a handy pair of binoculars and crawl out on a ledge to watch a drug-crazed street fight on the Bowery below. Francesco Clemente says she is always amazed when he has no reports of violence from his travels to India. She herself always comes back filled with stories about cannibal monkeys still carrying the twitching arm of another monkey they've just killed, or she'll talk tough about exactly how to carry a switchblade to ward off attackers. What is this frantic, relentless bravado all about? "I've always tried to confront fear in myself" is Lauren Hutton's reply. "I used to be afraid of heights. I'd look down and feel dizzy and sick. Now I can run around the perimeter of this entire building." Despite these antics, Hutton has worked very hard at her career, and she has always dropped the wild act long enough to maintain a certain discipline: plenty of sleep, lots of water to drink, no drugs, and little alcohol. Her will is formidable.

It was probably Bob Williamson's idea—copied, she says, from ace pitcher Catfish Hunter's celebrity endorsements—to wed Lauren Hutton's fame as a model to an exclusive contract with a cosmetics company for big bucks. In 1973, Charles Revson signed her for $200,000 a year for twenty days' work. Sales figures were never published, but Jerry Ford was told that Hutton's face by Avedon as the Ultima girl increased business by 65 percent. The ads ran for ten years and the style she pioneered is still the standard today.

It didn't take long for Hollywood to start pitching movie offers Hutton's way—her first film was Paper Lion in 1968. But her career in movies has fared the way most models' have: poorly. About a year ago, driven by a particularly squalid experience on a set in Yugoslavia, the peripatetic Hutton, who says she has an aversion to competing in something she's not instantly good at, decided to call it quits, to stop making films for a while and stay put for once in New York. While she was still in Yugoslavia, though, she heard that a young photographer, Steven Meisel, had proposed her to Barneys.

Meisel had watched her on the street for years. "When I saw her I'd go crazy. In her trench coat and jeans she looked cooler to me than a lot of younger girls. I found her getting older was more beautiful and I wanted to adopt a more European way of looking at things, to say a woman is not finished at twenty-five." Hutton wasn't interested at first, but like Avedon so many years before, Meisel got to her. "He really encouraged me not to be frightened to be my age," Hutton recalls. "She didn't have to pretend, to be embarrassed," says Meisel. "She opened up and started to project. It can happen in front of the movie camera too."

Hutton prays that it will—she has thrown herself into her Shakespeare workshop at the Public Theater in New York (with fellow thespians Goldie Hawn and Bernadette Peters) and is currently shooting a film with Ally Sheedy, Fear, to be released next year. She recently entered therapy—"because I felt rage and needed to resolve some childhood conflicts." When her stove blew up the Thanksgiving before last and singed half her hair, she was forced to cut most of it off. Short hair, she says, has somehow freed her. "Now I can no longer hide my face." Why would she?

Of course, there are meanspirited wags who simply cannot believe that with all that exposure to the broiling sun she hasn't been forced to deal with its toll surgically. But Hutton emphatically denies plastic surgery. "I'm never going to cut my face," she says. "Maybe collagen, maybe liposuction if these thighs don't behave. But not my face. If I got my face cut I'd never know what I really look like for the rest of my life." Middle- Aged Glamour Girls Unite! You have nothing to lose but taut cheekbones! "We must start to honor the battle," declares Hutton. "That's what life is and it shows on our faces. Plastic surgery is a way of saying you don't believe in experience anymore. That's a weird philosophy. If you don't believe in experience, you don't believe in anything. I feel I look better now. I'd rather talk to this woman than the one before."

Lauren Hutton has spoken. She has chosen her face over her derrière.

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