In the 1950s, China Machado made fashion history as the world’s first non-Caucasian model. She went on to model for the great couture houses of Paris, before relocating to New York and working exclusively as Richard Avedon’s muse. China recently returned to modelling aged 83, confirming her reputation as true fashion royalty.
With her razor sharp cheekbones, doe eyes and elegant bone structure, China Machado is just as awe-inspiring today, as she was 50 years ago. The 83-year- old wife, mother and grandmother is once again enjoying life behind the camera, proving that beauty and style really do transcend age.
Dressed in a kimono with a two-foot trail and “a giant headpiece that must have weighed over ten pounds”, China stands proud in this i-D story, shot last year, one part puppeteer and one part dominatrix. She describes the shoot as “something out of the Lost Empire”, and thoroughly enjoyed her matriarchal role. “The headpiece was so heavy someone had to hold my head to put it on,” she recalls. While on her feet she wore a pair of nine-inch heels. “I’m 82, for Christ’s sake!” she laughs over the telephone from her South Hampton home. “Darling, I’m amazed I got through it. If it wasn’t for the photographers being so energetic and inspiring, I couldn’t have done it. It was hysterical.” Born Noelie Dasouza Machado in Shanghai in 1929, to a Portuguese father and a Chinese mother, China’s life has never been straightforward. The luxuries of her colonial childhood were stripped away during the Japanese invasion of WWII. “Fear was installed. Our servants fled back to the countryside, our house was confiscated, it was a horrific change,” she recalls. “I went from one day when I asked for a glass of water it was bought to me, to the next day cooking on the stove.”
China’s family fled Shanghai on the last boat out, and set up home in Argentina. It was during a visit to her brother in Lima, Peru, that China met the world famous bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín, a chance meeting that was to take her world in a whole new direction. Captivated by her beauty, Dominguín pursued the young China and three days later she eloped with him to Mexico. “I was madly in love and I didn’t realise the consequences of my actions,” she recalls. “My whole family ostracised me. I made a huge sacrifice and gave up everything for a man who every woman in the world wanted.” Sadly it didn’t last, and two years later Dominguín left her in Paris for Hollywood starlet Ava Gardner, China’s idol. Finding herself alone, with no family to fall back on and no money, China made a pact with herself. From that day forth she would never rely on another man again. “That was it,” she declares. “I vowed to be independent, whatever it took.” It was a combination of chance and good fortune that set her on the path to success.
“I was down and out. It was a matter of survival,” she says of her introduction to the fashion industry. “I was staying with a girlfriend of mine at the time, so that afternoon she taught me how to model walk. Up and down the room. The next day I went to Balenciaga, but it was too late, Balenciaga had already gone back to Spain. They said ‘Listen, go and try Givenchy’. So I went there and they thought I was a replacement for a girl who was sick. So I got the job and I stayed there for three years.”
China went on to become the highest paid runway model in the world. But she still had not been photographed professionally. “At that time, in the 1950s, you were either a runway model or a photographic model,” she explains. “You did not do both.” All that changed in 1958 when China met American fashion designer Oleg Cassini, who whisked her away to New York to star in his show. “Many people refused to buy his collection after seeing me wear it,” she recalls. “I only found out twenty years later, but he said ‘Well, don’t buy it then’. He was very ahead of his time.” It was through Oleg that China met Diana Vreeland (the legendary American Vogue editor, who then worked for Harper’s Bazaar). Vreeland had a keen eye for style and cast China in a show at the Waldorf-Astoria the very same night as meeting her. Balanced atop a twenty-foot ladder wearing a Balenciaga bat wing top and a pair of hot pink trousers, China caught the eye of photographer Richard Avedon, who was immediately smitten.
Avedon went on to photograph China for the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, refusing to renew his contract with the magazine unless they wavered their reluctance to publish a photograph of a non-Caucasian model. “People will cancel their subscriptions”, the publisher told Avedon. But he believed China was “probably the most beautiful woman in the world” and stood his ground. China and Avedon went on to work together exclusively for three years, remaining good friends until his death in 2004. “As models back then we had enormous pride in what we were doing,” China explains. “Models today are coming in to the industry too young. They need to hone their craft. They should look at photographs of themselves and see what they’re doing wrong. Look at a model they admire and learn from her.” For China, modelling was an art form, a beautiful synergy between photographer and muse. Entering the fashion industry later in life - China was 28 years old when she landed the job at Givenchy - gave her the inner confidence to explore different facets of her personality in front of the camera. “A photographer trusts you to give yourself to him and you trust him to get the best from you,” she says.
Diana Vreeland left Harper’s Bazaar in the early 60s, and China took over as fashion director. She continued to work for the publication for a number of years, before enjoying stints film producing, designing clothes and running a gallery. “Anytime I was bored I moved on to something else,” she informs. IMG Models signed China to their books at the end of 2011, making her the world’s oldest signed model. Campaign work with Carine Roitfeld and Barney’s soon followed, as did shoots with Bruce Weber and Steven Meisel. Ivan Bart, head of IMG Models, explained her appeal to CNN. “First of all, she’s legendary. This amazing woman who has given so much to the fashion industry ... and also, oh, by the way, she happens to be in her 80s. How inspirational is that for any woman of any age?” Inspirational it certainly is. China marks a new era for the industry, where age is less relevant than style. When asked what it feels like to have returned to modelling, China lets out a self-deprecating chuckle: “Darling, I’ve just done a few shoots. It’s hardly a return to modelling.”
Either way, we’re happy to have her back and there’s little chance she’s going to take a back seat now. China is busy writing her autobiography, I Was Always Running After the Laughter, and working with her daughter on a documentary celebrating her life and work. “I have hundreds of old photographs, clippings and movies of my days as a model,” she reveals. “I used to photograph Avedon as he was photographing me, so all these things are to be correlated and published.” China’s energy and passion for life is infectious. “My secret is I never stop moving,” she concludes. “The most important things in my life are my family, first and foremost, and my friends. I like to keep myself interested, and as long as I’m having a good time I’m happy.”
China Machado Photography Daniele + Iango Styling Patti Wilson, The Royalty Issue, No. 318, Spring 2013
Text Holly Shackleton
Photography Daniele + Iango
Styling Patti Wilson
China Machado on Being Avedon’s Muse and Staying Fabulous at 87
Is China Machado’s fabulosity innate or learned? One can never be sure, and after 87 years of life, who even has time to parse such things? I first met Machado to interview her for a New York cover story in the summer of 2011 at the Sag Harbor home she shares with her husband (businessman Riccardo Rossa), and instantly knew I wanted to be her when I grew up.
A mere 81 back then, she wore head-to-toe denim and showed me through room after room whose walls she’d painted with scenes from her childhood in Shanghai before her family fled following WWII. (Her mother, from Macau, met her father, a Portuguese gold trader, in Hong Kong. Machado’s first name is pronounced Chee-na, like chinita in Spanish, which is what she was called when her family finally settled in Buenos Aires.) Machado’s remarkable life has included running off with the most famous bullfighter in the world, Luis Miguel Dominguín, who then left her for Ava Gardner; becoming a couture-house runway model for Givenchy, Balenciaga, and Dior in Paris; taking on the role of fashion director at Harper’s Bazaar; and of course being the muse of Richard Avedon, who made her the first non-Caucasian model to grace the pages of Harper’s Bazaar in 1959, and who was her great friend and collaborator until his death in 2004.
Now, at the behest of the National Arts Club in New York, she’s put together a fascinating record of her life in fashion in the form of an exhibition of photographs and paintings of her made over the past 60 years from the likes of Avedon, Bruce Weber, Steven Meisel, and even Karl Lagerfeld. It’ll be on display from October 3 to October 16. In honor of the occasion, here’s Machado on the photographers who’ve shaped her, racism in fashion, and her advice on beauty, health, and relationships.
Tell me about how you first met Avedon. Was there an immediate connection?
I arrived in New York in 1958, and three hours later I was in Diana Vreeland’s office. She’d booked me for the International Fashion Group Show at the Waldorf-Astoria, which at the time was the most important show of the year. It was couture and I opened the show on a ladder, 20 feet in the air, in hot-pink, bat-wing Givenchy pajamas, and when I came down the stairs, Dick saw me. About three days later I went to his studio. When I met him, I hadn’t even been photographed. I’d been photographed by a couple of stock photographers in Europe, but I was really a runway model for Givenchy in Paris, not a fashion model. At that time, it was separated, you either did runway or you did photography. You didn’t do both.
When I went to Dick’s studio, I was absolutely petrified. I used to do my own hair and makeup when I did runway, and here they had all these people! The first thing Dick did was call over his assistant and they sit down and they’re sort of staring at my face and he said, “Get the bones! Get the bones!” And I thought, Oh, my God, the man is insane! What is he talking about? Then they did a makeup that was very, very pale, almost luminescent, much lighter than my skin, so it looked like porcelain. And then they had this white hat on. There were four or five famous photographs — you know that one with the cigarette that has become the iconic Avedon photo of me? That came out of that first sitting in September of 1958.
How did you become his muse, ongoing?
I was only here for three months, and I went back to Paris, and when I got back to America in January of 1960, Dick photographed me exclusively for five years. It was an unofficial thing, but certainly no one in Bazaar could photograph me except for Dick. He didn’t want me to be overused, and I was perfectly happy with it.
He did my first nude, which you’ll see in the show, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be nude. It was 1961! And he wanted it frontal, and I thought, What is he talking about?! So Diana Vreeland says, “Don’t worry, China.” She called me “Golden Bones” after that first shoot and I went to the studio and she said, “You’ll have chains all over you. You won’t see a thing.” She brings me this tiny thing and she says, “It’s Tiffany,” as if that explained everything [laughs]. And she put it around me, and of course it’s nothing! It wouldn’t cover anything! So finally I decided to do it lying down with my arms crossed over my breasts.
Why do you think you and Avedon got along so well?
I think a lot of models feel the same way. Once you were in front of him and a camera — and with Meisel also — you think you’re the most beautiful woman in the world. It’s just between his lighting and his manner and his charm, of course. He’ll say, “Oh my God, that’s beautiful! That’s beautiful! Oh!” and he takes the picture at that exact second. That was it. He encouraged me to do anything I wanted in a certain sense because he thought I had an incredible sense of fashion, since I worked with Balenciaga and Givenchy and Dior. If you look at my pictures then, some of those shoots with Dick, they could’ve been taken yesterday. They were so modern, you know? It wasn’t like the stiff pose of the ’50s. It was some kind of simplicity and acknowledgment of fashion that he has.
Very often he didn’t have to talk to me. I knew what he wanted. And after I stopped modeling, from 1962 to 1966, I was the only editor from Harper’s Bazaar to work with Dick. I went to London and did the Beatles shoot with him, Frank Sinatra. A lot, a lot.
You were the first non-Caucasian model to be featured in Harper’s Bazaar. Did you know that at the time?
No, I didn’t. I knew I was considered kind of “exotic,” if you want to use that word, in Europe, but it wasn’t any kind of a slur. So when I came here I didn’t know that. I was new to New York and going to parties. I met everybody. I met Kennedy at that point. So I didn’t know that! I had no idea! When I went back to Paris, it was then that Dick said that he would not sign his contract for another seven years unless those pictures were published. And he never told that to me until 20 years later.
Did you experience a lot of racism in fashion when you first started?
Yes, but it was sheltered from me. When I first came to New York, I did runway for Oleg Cassini [Jackie Kennedy’s favored designer] and he brought me to his showroom on Seventh Avenue, and after the show I sort of felt there was a little funny thing going, and the Southern buyers would not buy a single dress that I was wearing. Oleg said, “What are you talking about?” And they said, “Oh, she’s black.” He said, “She’s not even black!” Oleg was something else. He stood up for me. After that he booked a lot of black models in his show. That was 1958. Like Dick, Oleg didn’t let me know about it until quite a bit later. I really didn’t know.
There’s a photograph of you jumping with Jack Nicholson. Were you close, or was that just something for the shoot?
No, we were pals. New York in the ’70s, you know, you met everybody, and he was very much into the model scene, you know.
Wait, did you date him?
Now, Jada! [Laughs.] Don’t forget I wasn’t modeling anymore. I was fashion director for Harper’s Bazaar. But he was a pal. He’s something else. He had incredible energy, very, very funny, highly intelligent, and he liked to have a good time. He was a good-time Charlie!
After we put you on the cover in 2011, you got an IMG contract and were featured in the Cole Haan “Born in 1928” campaign. How did that come about?
[IMG chief] Ivan [Bart] asked my daughter Manny and she asked me [about signing on to the agency], and I thought, Well, okay, better than having people call me at home. I didn’t expect to become a commercial model at the age of 80! But Ivan Bart is kind of a humanitarian. He always goes after something different. So he wanted to conquer the age thing and show that women over a certain age could still model. And he’s signed transgender people and disabled people. It’s all Ivan and it’s certainly not commercial on his part. So, chapeau to him.
You’re also starting a fashion line, correct?
It’s going to be on my website, Cheenawear.com. It’s spelled the way that it’s pronounced, not the way that I write it. It’s a line for the woman on the move. I’ve always been a very practical person, and I made these jackets and stoles and scarves that can be worn doubly. They can be worn all black, or with an animal print, so that instead of two jackets you’re taking one. They’re 100 percent wool. And it folds into 12-by-16, so you can use it as a pillow; you can put it in your suitcase very neat. And I think they’re chic!
What’s your beauty secret for looking good for 87 years?
Well, I never had a face-lift, and it’s mostly because I wasn’t rich enough to have a face-lift — I had to take care of two kids, and I never thought about it. I couldn’t spend money on expensive creams, and I’ve never been to a facial. I had other things to do. I was working all the time. And I think that helped a lot! If you don’t do too much to your face and don’t think about it too much, that’s good. The minute you think about it then you think everything’s wrong with your face! Somebody said to me one day, “Do you ever think you’ll start doing something [to your face]?” And I said, “Oh, yeah! But once I start, there’s going to be so many things I want to do! Forget it!” [Laughs.]
The only thing I ever use, for 40 years, is Pond’s Cold Cream to clean my face. And then I wash it with water. Everybody sends me beauty products. I have drawers full and don’t know what to do with them! I’m so impatient. They say, “Listen, lines will go away within one week.” I don’t know what I looked like last week! How can I know whether it did any good or not? Forget it!
No, I eat five times a day because I hate to be hungry. So, usually in the morning I’ll have my coffee and half a croissant or toast or something. Then at 11, I might have a small sandwich. Then at 2:30 or 3, I’ll eat the leftovers from the night before because that’s hot food. And then at 5 I’ll have a biscuit and some tea, and then I’ll have a normal dinner. But it’s not because I’m dieting. I think it’s good for your body that you digest a little at a time instead of having a full meal and walking around with something in your stomach. I eat quite a bit of Mediterranean food and a lot of Shanghai and Macau food.
You have two daughters, and you’re friends with a lot of single women like me. Any advice about men you can pass on?
Do not in any way underestimate yourself. Don’t take any kind of crap. I’ve always been that way because of the first love of my life [the bullfighter]. I really got kicked in my head. So I always say, “The doors are always open,” meaning that he can always leave and someone else will come in. I think most men, they didn’t like it very much, but they understood what I was saying.
You learn a lesson every time you’re with a man, and what you gave him and what he gave to you, and that’s very important in your next relationship. I was very aware of a woman’s financial problems because I was left high and dry and alone without a cent, and anything could have happened to me. I learned that lesson. I said, “You have to be financially independent. You make your life.” I didn’t buy clothes, I didn’t go to spas. No, I bought land, and that’s why I’m completely independent. I haven’t had an income in 25 years. I have never been dependent upon a man since I was 20. Nobody ever gave me 20 bucks. I paid my own way.
Well, you’ve done very well for yourself over the years, China.