An Icon for All Ages: A Conversation with Model and Activist Lauren Hutton

October 22, 2019
In our feature article, the legendary Lauren Hutton shares travails from her multifaceted career as a model, an actress and an activist.

Fifty-five years into her career, Lauren Hutton – model, actress and activist – shows no signs of slowing down. As part of a dynamic, highly selective industry, Hutton has consistently questioned and changed the way the world sees modeling. She was the first model to secure a contract, has been honored by leading high-end fashion designers and is an influencer for beauty at all ages. Throughout it all, a key driver of her passion and enthusiasm comes back to a childhood dream: to travel the world. We recently sat down with Hutton to discuss her multifaceted career, the modeling industry through the years and several extraordinary experiences along the way.

You have been in the modeling industry for 55 years. Tell us about how the journey started.

During college and before getting into modeling, I worked on Bourbon Street at a jazz nightclub as a waitress, often until 2 a.m., for about two and a half years, which was exhausting. The club’s opening night featured Dizzy Gillespie, and we integrated Bourbon Street. I knew I was swamp smart, but there I learned to be street smart.

One day in 1964, I was so tired, and someone asked me, “What do you really want to do?” I kept thinking over that question, and the answer was that I wanted to go to Africa; it had been my dream since I was young. Another waitress said that she wanted to do that too, so we planned to meet in New York and take a steamer that she knew about there together.

My friend never showed up at the New York airport. I had $200 on me, two suitcases filled with everything I owned and was all alone. I took the bus to Port Authority and was terrified when I got off. I had nowhere to go, but I remembered where Tiffany’s was, so I hailed a cab and went there. It was a Sunday morning, and no one was out on the street. I got out and started crying because I didn’t know what to do.

Another girl who I vaguely knew had moved to New York. On the off chance, I looked her up in the phonebook. She said to come right over, and when I got there, I started talking to her and her boyfriend about what I was going to do. He showed me the help wanted ads in the Sunday New York Times, and we went through pages of them. I didn’t have experience in anything, but I knew I never wanted to waitress again. I had grown contempt, and working at night scared me. There was an ad for a house modeling job at Christian Dior New York. The next morning, I arrived bright and early. When my turn came, they called me a “baby elephant” and said to lose 10 pounds. I was on my way out, and they called me back and asked if I would do it for $50 a week. I accepted.

What kept you motivated during those early days?

We used to look at magazines while waiting for the buyers from department stores to come in, and the other woman I worked with told me that I had a gap in my teeth, was short and had a funny face and not to think that I could ever do photography modeling, even though those models made as much in an hour as I did in a week. With that comment, my first lightbulb went off in New York. I quickly realized I needed to make more money, especially if I wanted to go to Africa. This sparked an increased enthusiasm and excitement in me because I saw the whole future opening up.

How did you eventually go from being a house model at Dior to revolutionizing the modeling industry with your Revlon contract?

That was a 10-year journey. From the start, I would call photographers every day to see if they were looking for test models so that I could get free shots and continue to build my book of photos. I would have eight to nine appointments a day. When I look back, I get overwhelmed! But I had a reason: I was going to see the world.

Whenever I’d meet with someone, I’d ask, “When can I come back and show you new pictures?” Because people were very upfront and often told me that they weren’t interested. Fortunately, I also understood that none of this was personal – it was not my soul. Often, young girls think people are seeing inside of them, that they’re seeing their soul, but they’re not. They’re often reacting to whatever kind of day they’ve had. It’s not personal; they don’t know you.

Once I had my book together, it came time to find an agent.

Often, young girls think people are seeing inside of them, that they're seeing their soul, but they're not. ... It's not personal; they don't know you. 

How did you approach that?

By 1964, half of the U.S. was under 25 years old, and the best and brightest all seemed to be in New York. I was frequently hit on, and if someone seemed interesting, I would make a tea date at Chock Full O’ Nuts on my lunch break. Dutch treat. They paid for theirs; I paid for mine. On my 39th tea date, we went to dinner because I knew he was different. He liked all the things I liked, and that is what I was looking for. I was looking for an athlete and a scholar, and that is what I found.

I give this background because he gave me very good advice, though he knew nothing about modeling. Still, he was smart about everything it seemed. There were only five modeling agencies. He told me to start with the least revered, find out what they didn’t like, fix it and work my way up. That’s exactly what I did. The agencies all told me the same thing: “Lose 10 pounds.” I did that – despite the fact that I was living on Chock Full O’ Nuts hot dogs for lunch and 27 cent chicken pot pies for dinner – and I kept getting new pictures and seeing more people.

I finally got to the best agency after over a year of doing test shots and making improvements to my book. They instantly turned me down, and as I was walking out, I did something out of character. I noticed that the agent had a picture of a boy on her desk. I said, “Is that your son? He must be in college. I wish I was back at Sophie Newcomb.” For some reason, her head shot back up, and she told me to sit down. I had an agent.

After that, I kept getting more and more jobs. I continued to grow and always had a goal of what I wanted to see and do – travel the world.

How has the industry changed over the course of when you started to where it is now?

When I started, the modeling industry was not what it is today. It was still a business – not an industry. There were no modeling shows anywhere except Paris. Everybody showed in their showrooms.

Almost overnight, it became about money, which happened after I got the first modeling contract ever with Revlon. Before that, there were only hourly jobs, and models were paid a dollar a minute. A good working model had six working jobs a day at $60 an hour and made about $300 in two full working days. Within three months after the Revlon contract, there were no hourly jobs at any agency, and the average day was $1,500.

It was a big change. I was working 20 days a year, and the rest of the time, I traveled.

Was the contract your idea?

Yes. I got the idea while reading an article in The New York Times about Catfish Hunter, in which he said he had to have a contract because he was in a youth-oriented business. Instantly, a lightbulb went off again. I yelled across the living room, “How can I get a contract for modeling?” That same smart New Yorker didn’t even look up from his Wall Street Journal. He said, “Makeup companies. They have the most money. Tell your photographers you want a contract. Tell your agent you won’t do any more makeup ads.” I called my agent and said I wanted a makeup contract. At first, she pushed back, but I wouldn’t budge. Needless to say, I got it.

Clearly a lot of factors played into your success in modeling, but if you had to summarize them, what would they be?

First, have talent for the work and study it every way you can. Second, work four times harder than anybody else. Third, hope for luck. And fourth, you must have horse strength.

Eventually, you made the move to become an actress, but you came back to modeling at 47. What prompted that?

“American Gigolo” came out when I was almost 40. It was not a hit. It became a classic much later on. My relationship was in crisis at that point, and I was taking on four or five movies a year just to stay away from home, but I wasn’t proud of my work.

Around age 46, I decided to face my life again. It was the mid-1980s, and women were going into every profession there was – except for modeling, which was only for girls. Models were pretty much finished by age 28, and that was if they were really good. There had never been any model over 40, but I was still healthy, alert and valuable. Like most of us, I was just starting my prime time. I realized I could be youthful and proud of myself again if I could put women into modeling – and that was really the grail. So I called up every editor I could.

You are now the global ambassador for StriVectin, an anti-aging skincare line. How did that come about?

StriVectin was started by a husband and wife team of biochemists who were looking for a cure for burns and wounds. Eventually, they realized it worked really well when it came to preventing aging. They also found there were 10 types of collagen in our face. They have about 15 products now that target collagen.

It’s the best line I’ve ever used. It’s my skin medicine. I use the advanced retinol and layer that with the antiwrinkle serum. The first time I used it, my skin looked different almost instantly. You can see the difference the next day. Two friends asked me what happened and what I did.

The partnership was important to me because women my age and my generation have been shunted aside. A lot of the time, we just believe what we’re told. That’s foolish, but it’s been going on since the beginning of time. Women need to know that we can be beautiful at all ages. And it doesn’t need to be expensive – people think they need all these expensive products and procedures, but they don’t.

How do you say no to that pressure, especially as you get older?

I had so many weak times where I felt battered and bruised. But when you get weak, you need to head for whatever heals you. A lot of times, simply calling friends gives you energy. We lose energy with age, and we have to remember where we get it from. It could be hitting a museum, a movie, a bed, a beach – find it, and get it.

We lose energy with age, and we have to remember where we get it from. It could be hitting a museum, a movie, a bed, a beach - find it, and get it. 

How has your vision of success changed over time?

It is constantly changing. Originally, I wanted to be the best model I could be. I was never worried about competition, because I knew that we all were so different. Now, it’s a little different, because models are picked by how many social media followers they have.

I would say that to be successful now, you need to get some wisdom and find out how you can be of use. All the problems that we see feel unsurmountable, but you can have an impact.

You are an environmental activist. What sparked your passion for the environment?

Life in the wild. When I was growing up, my mother remarried, and we moved from Charleston, South Carolina, to a swamp in Florida. I was so happy, and it didn’t matter that I was no longer in a beautiful city, because I had turtles, alligators and snakes in the backyard. I loved the wild, and that’s where I learned the most. I think we learn everything from nature.

You’ve been called everything from unconventional to an icon. What is something that you haven’t been called that you wish you had?

One word that comes to mind is wise. I have had so many opportunities to learn that other people have not, and I feel like I should be putting my ideas down on paper to drive more change.

What advice would you give to young women starting out in the workforce?

Think about what moved you. What grabbed you, helped you clear your mind and took you away? Think about what really interests you, because you want to be interested for the rest of your life.

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