DAPH! Gimme a Christine Keeler on that chair, can you?” calls photographer Gary Heery to model Daphne Selfe.
He’s referring to the 1960s Lewis Morley portrait of the notorious British party girl at the centre of the Profumo scandal, in which Keeler (naked) straddles a chair – backwards, so the furniture provides a modicum of modesty – and her endless legs stretch out on either side. Wowee. Selfe (not naked) gets the reference immediately, high-kicks her own enviable leg over the chair’s back and strikes a pose.
At this point I think it’s pertinent to mention that Selfe is 86. Although to say so makes me cringe, because she’s of a generation raised never to ask a woman’s age. “I never knew how old my own mother was for years,” she says. “It wasn’t discussed. But it’s different now. Although I’ve still got friends who won’t say, in general, once they get to 80 they are happy to tell you.”
Anyway, about that high kick. “It’s the yoga,” says her agent, Chantal Murray. “And she used to be a dancer, of course.” Murray tells me a story about how, after the first earthquake hit Nepal in April, the agency, Models 1, staged a charity ‘spinathon’ in the office. Selfe happened to walk in on this, hopped on a spare bike and did the entire class without breaking a sweat. “Evidence!” laughs Murray, showing me a snap on her phone.
I ask Selfe about this later, and she says, “Oh yes, that bike was riding me! It was very funny. Not like mine, I’ve got one at home; it’s very old and rickety, but it’s enough for me to do my 15 minutes of pedalling in the morning.” Selfe routinely follows her bike sessions with ballet and yoga moves before breakfast. “I adore exercise. I miss it if I don’t do it. I don’t think a lot of people bother, but I never wanted to be one of those types who don’t move. Couldn’t bear it.”
You could never accuse Selfe of that. She’s just nipped over to Sydney from London to shoot the new OPSM eyewear campaign, a job that yesterday saw her on-set for eight hours straight. And she still found time to visit the Opera House. “Well, I’m not going to come all the way here and miss that, am I? You’ve got to do what you can while you can.”
Selfe started modelling in the 1940s after winning a competition in a local magazine. Was she nervous? “I didn’t care one way or another; it was just something to do. But it turned out the photographer was quite famous – Gilbert Adams, he’d photographed the royal family. He taught me how to behave with the camera.”
Selfe’s first catwalk job, for a department store, soon followed. She was subbed in at the last minute – “They were one short.” Was she any good? “Apparently! I’ve got an upright posture, and I look all right. Obviously I wore the clothes fairly well, and the girls all said, ‘Ooh, why don’t you come to our agency and learn?’ In those days you did three weeks training, so off I went.” She learnt to apply her own camera-ready make-up and fix her own hair. “There was none of this sitting about in a chair, getting pampered.”
When she married, Selfe gave up modelling – “That’s what you did in those days.” But she liked working too much to stop at home. Anyway, she had a nanny to help with the three children. Selfe’s husband worked in TV production, and one day a colleague asked if Selfe fancied being an extra on a show. She did! She spent years doing extras work, and even appeared in two Bond films. “I was not a Bond girl, though.” Did she never yearn for leading roles? “No, not really, because I haven’t an acting background.” She did enjoy being centre-stage as a dancer, though. She took her first ballet class at 20 – “Always a late starter!” – then joined a troupe led by choreographer Buddy Bradley. They toured a bit: “It was a good opportunity to go abroad. Nobody flew! We went by boat and train – awful, endless!”, did TV spots and “a few nightclubs”. It was, she says, “great fun”.
Selfe made her modelling comeback aged 70, when the edgy British fashion brand Red or Dead put a call out for an older model for its London fashion week show. “From that, a few weeks later, this stylist said Vogue is doing an article on ageing. They liked the look of me and I was photographed by Nick Knight. The scout from Models 1 was there and said, ‘We want you on our books.’ It got busier and busier, and here I am.”
Since then she’s worked with Mario Testino and Rankin, and starred in a Dolce & Gabbana campaign and in the pages of Harpers Bazaar. She says it’s right place, right time stuff. Old is the new black!
As I write this, Jane Fonda, 77, has just graced the cover of W magazine. <Sunday Style>’s recent cover of Jenny Kee, 68, was a big hit. “I mean, the world is getting older, isn’t it?” says Selfe. “People over 60 are retiring, they’ve got more money than they used to have and they take more care of themselves. They want to see fashion on older people.” The OPSM campaign is a case in point. Titled Style At Every Age, Kee, Heery (67), journalist Ita Buttrose (73) and surf filmmaker Alby Falzon (70) join Selfe modelling frames.
Ask her what makes a good model, and Selfe says, “Professionalism, being on time, adaptability, reliability.” But it helps if you’re beautiful, too, right? “Well, the camera likes me,” she says simply. So what does she like about working in front of the camera? “It’s good fun,” she says. “Fun is the thing. I will probably be a bit tired after this trip, but that’s OK. I’m not going to stop. You can rest when you’re in your coffin.”