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  • Rhonda Garelick

Brave Face

Paulina Porizkova wants to talk about beauty: Its contradictions And how her life has been shaped by an accident of genetics. By Rhonda Garelick

Paulina Porizkova at 57, photographed with Ludwig, in New York City. Photography by Adeline Lulo.

Sitting in the garden of her Chelsea apartment in New York City, dressed in an oversized cardigan, tousled ponytail, and no makeup, she warmly set out two glasses of kombucha. Ludwig, her deaf Cavalier King Charles spaniel with big, sad eyes, offered his own welcome.

The model spent last year working on a series of essays that became a new book, “No Filter: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful” from The Open Field, an imprint of Penguin Random House, founded by Maria Shriver. Just eighteen months ago, she was emerging from grief after the death of her rock star husband, Ric Ocasek, of the Cars. (Porizkova believed they were in the process of separating amicably, but when Ocasek died she was shocked to find herself cut out of his will and left with sky-high debt.) Now, she’s coming back into the world full force, thinking about her past, the transformations of age and the surprising benefits that time brings.

Beauty, she said, has been her “entire life”. She is critical of every element of beauty culture — how “shallow it all is”, and the way it separates and isolates women. Before Porizkova was scouted at the age of 15 and sent to Paris from Sweden (to which her family had fled from Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia), she was, she recalls, bullied by her classmates for being “geeky, gawky and weird looking”.

“I’ve spent 40 years thinking about being called ugly, then beautiful, without changing one inch. Then judging myself against other women. ‘She’s prettier, she’s got better legs’ — all the horrible shaming comparisons,” she said.Porizkova takes little pride in her beauty or success in modelling. Becoming a model, she said, was a stroke of luck. “It has nothing to do with who you are.”

So what does she find beautiful? She’s fascinated with what the French call the “jolie-laide”, the allure of irregular, unconventional features. She admires women, she said, who “celebrate what they have with such flair”.

Porizkova is also especially passionate about fighting ageism in beauty culture, insisting on the need for more representation of women over 50, and their social and erotic viability. “You need to be able to find yourself out there. You need to be able to look at a picture of a woman who’s your age and go, ‘She’s hot and no, she does not look 39,’ ” Porizkova said. Plus, she added, “Ageing is so much fun! The insights we get with age! It’s like getting a present every day!”

Her joy felt authentic, but can Porizkova really be our poster child (er, poster woman) for pro-ageing activism? While she often eschews filters in her social media posts, allowing smile lines to show, her face and figure are hardly those of a typical woman her age. Keeping herself this fit is, she admits, “a lot of work”.

So isn’t she participating in the problem? In an interview, we asked Porizkova how her views on ageing align with her continued adherence to the very strictures she denounces.

Your book is called “No Filter”. You’re going to be transparent, straightforward.

I’ve carried so much shame through my life. For everything. For being pretty, or not pretty enough. For having money when I didn’t deserve that much money. For not being the child my parents wanted. Everything in my life, I’ve been ashamed of. My husband was also full of shame. But he erected barriers. He clad himself in armour. And while we were married, I was learning from him. I did the same thing. I was the kid and he was the grown-up. So, I was like, ‘Oh, this is how you deal with it — you just wall it out.’ It didn’t get better, only worse. You let shame sit in that dark corner and it grows mushrooms all over the place.

In the book, you talk about Ric and his self-protection and defensiveness. You draw a fascinating parallel between politics and emotional truth. You describe growing up under Soviet occupation, being trained to revere the Soviets, rat out your neighbours, to obey. It was indoctrinated into you. And this, you say, familiarised you with being controlled, with being with someone controlling. “My marriage was a sort of occupation,” you write. Looking at what’s happening in the US and around the world, do you think about the connection between shame and defensiveness and occupation and politics?

I have sort of a very simplistic view of politics because I am not deeply knowledgeable of them. And I feel they, like religion, are a way to impose rules on us. So I attend to politics when it’s directly related to me as a woman or my children. I think you’re giving me too much credit for making this connection.

But you made that political connection in your essay — between the occupying army and Ric.

Yes, but that was a pretty specific thought process. I was in Israel and jet lagged out of my mind. I was there for a wedding for my godson. And I had three months to write this book.

Three months? How is that possible?

Well, I guess I’m still standing and the book is out, so it’s possible! I was working every single day from the time I woke up until the time my brain crashed seven or eight hours later. I am in Israel, everybody is going out having a great time visiting Jerusalem, and I’m stuck in the ugly hotel room, writing, writing, writing. And news of Ukraine came in. And to me, it was so deeply personal to see. I might get overly emotional also partly because today is my husband’s death day. I might cry even when I might not normally cry. But I did cry when I saw the news of the Russians rolling into Ukraine. It just brought up all those emotions of my childhood.

So the conclusion of the essay was completely accidental. And sometimes you just write and write and that was just, like, a flash. I went, “Wait, what if? Could it be?” Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m drawing parallels that aren’t there. Some essays took me days and days and days. And this one, I just vomited it out on the computer in one day. And I was like, “That’s it.” It pushed a very specific button. And there I was writing about my husband. It was all just a perfect storm.

Grief ages us and ageing comes with its own contradictions. There’s a lot of reversal of ageing we’re supposed to perform. You’re honest in your book about having dabbled in anti-ageing procedures.

I’ve done lasers. They don’t make you look any different.

I’ve heard that can be very painful.

It’s terrible! It sucks. I do that with the knowledge it’s not going to make that much difference. It’s crazy, I’m completely contradicting myself. I still buy the stupid cream that says it’s going to plump and firm my skin even though I know it’s impossible. And unfortunately, my face is still my business. I go to photoshoots and I’m desperately trying not to feel bad about myself.

Why would you feel bad?

It’s training, if your picture is wrong, it’s your fault.

So when you show up to a shoot are you presumed to have done things to “youthify” yourself?

I’m always slightly confused about that. I come on the shoot and they have the board with what they want to do, and it’s always women in their 20s and I’m like, “Guys you know I’m not going to look like that.” And they’re like, “Oh no, no.”

But when you get older and this part starts dropping. [She gestured toward her lower face]. But if you smile it lifts the face! [She demonstrates.] It’s not that I am so happy.

© The New York Times

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our fifth edition, Page 30 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “Brave Face”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.


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