Interview: Daphne Selfe, the UK's oldest supermodel
PUBLISHED: 10:15 10 November 2015 | UPDATED: 13:27 20 November 2015
At the forefront of a celebration of older women in fashion, and photographed by the likes of Mario Testino, Carrie Bone talks to Baldock's Daphne Selfe
Daphne Selfe has had a remarkable career as a model, dancer and actress. She is now the UK’s oldest supermodel after being spotted again, nearly 17 years ago, aged 70. A long-time Hertfordshire resident, now living in Baldock, and with three children and four grandchildren, she describes how her journey in the world of fashion began.
‘When I left school I was looking after horses – it didn’t work out so I went to work in a store in Reading. At the same time there was a competition to be on the cover of the Reading Review, a magazine like Hertfordshire Life, which I won.
‘The store was having a fashion show and needed an extra model so I was propelled onto the catwalk. From that, the other models said “Why don’t you come join our agency”. In those days you had to train to be a model.’
She took a three-week course with Gaby Young who taught her how to walk, take off a jacket, and get out of the car in a ladylike manner as well as hair and make-up lessons. Her first job was as a house model at wholesale dress manufacturers Landau and Diamond before moving to fur shop L. Woolf.
As her modelling career progressed she did various shoots and shows for Marshall and Snelgrove, Berkertex and Edwin Jones. Aged 23 she expanded her CV by joining Buddy Bradley’s Dance Troupe, while also modelling for sculptors and art classes in Chelsea and at the Slade.
She married her husband Jim Smith – a theatre lighting director and stage manager at the Theatre Royal - in 1954 and carried on modelling for Berkertex and also Walter Bird while expecting her first child.
In 1962 Daphne and her family moved to Hertfordshire when Jim’s commute had become too strenuous from Surrey. He was working for Sunday Night at the London Palladium at ATV Studios in Borehamwood, now part of Elstree Studios.
‘I did all the usual things as a model and when I got married I thought “That’s it, I won’t do anymore” but 40 years later here I am again.’
They lived in the village of Kimpton near Welwyn for several years, reinventing the Kimpton May Festival along the way. ‘It was 1966 and they hadn’t had their May Fair for many years. Jim was in a good position to find somebody to open the fete so he got Eric Morecambe, who lived in Harpenden, to do the first one.’ The event is now one of the best attended village shows in the county.
Her acting career began on The Arthur Haynes Show – a role secured through a colleague of her husband, after which she gained an agent and continued to work in commercials, TV and film, appearing as an extra in The Benny Hill Show, Dr Who, Upstairs Downstairs, and James Bond films. She also became a respected dressmaker, before starting store modelling again in 1979 as Miss Dannimac at what was Welwyn Department Stores, now John Lewis, as well as Miss Berkertex until 1989. Her career came full circle when she worked for Astraka, one of the first fake fur coat fashion labels.
Aged 70, in 1998, fashion label Red or Dead asked her to walk the catwalk at London Fashion Week. After which she modelled for Vogue before joining renowned agency Models. Her career then boomed, modelling for a wide variety of brands including D&G, DKNY, Olay, Evian, Nivea and H&M as well as filming work for Absolutely Fabulous and appearing in pop videos for Will Young and Paul McCartney. She has been photographed by some of the world’s leading fashion photographers – Mario Testino, Nick Knight and David Bailey.
Daphne says returning to modelling was like ‘falling into the same groove’. She adds, ‘You’re always excited about going to do a show, some of it is sort of nerves but I’ve always been told, “Get on with it”.’ But what’s not to like about it?’ she laughs. ‘I go places, I meet lots of people and I’m very happy. It’s ever such fun prancing around in the studio.’
Daphne feels that at her age there is nothing left to fear: ‘That’s the great thing about getting old, you can talk to anybody,’ - even Johnny Depp and Pierce Bronson, she says. ‘It doesn’t matter what you wear, and if people think it’s funny, let them have a laugh. My grandchildren laugh when they see me in the paper, but they think it’s quite cool; I think it gives them a certain kudos at school.’
Technology has changed hugely since Daphne started modelling. ‘It must be easier to find models now because you just bring up the internet and look for them’, she says. ‘It’s good for models because I don’t have to carry around a huge portfolio anymore. You still have to go for castings because sometimes the photos are rather too good, if you know what I mean,’ she smiles.
Daphne has a refreshing view towards ageing naturally, saying she would never have surgery. And her style advice for other women is to ‘wear what suits you. Look in the mirror and don’t worry what other people think.’
She says there is now a greater acceptance and celebration of ageing in the fashion industry, something she has played a key role in. ‘I suppose I was one of the first starting the trend and that was nearly 20 years ago now but since then there have been a lot more older models.’
Daphne says a central part of her philosophy is to enjoy the simple things in life. ‘I eat cake and potatoes - a little of what you fancy does you good I think. I sleep well. I exercise by doing a set of yoga and ballet exercises to keep trim and limbered up - although I can’t do the splits anymore - I’m about four inches off the floor.’
Her real passion is travelling. ‘I’m always ready for the next trip abroad. I tend not to bother going on holiday. I wait until somebody wants me to work, hopefully,’ she laughs. Budapest, Vienna, Iceland and America are next on her list after recently ticking off Australia, Denmark, Brussels, Beijing and Sweden.
This year she also found time to create the Daphne Selfe Modelling Academy to teach young models what to expect, how to stay safe and healthy and how to behave. Daphne adds the classes are also good for anyone who’s lost their confidence in how they look. ‘I’ve got people who have literally lost all their confidence and don’t think they’re worth anything at all.’
Daphne has also just released her autobiography, The Way We Wore (Macmillan £16.99). People said it was unusual to be modelling at my age, so why don’t you write a book about your life? I’ve always kept diaries since I was 17.’ But finding a publisher was challenge, ‘They love sensation and I had nothing sensational to add at all, we’ve had no divorces, no poor childhood. Trouble is, I’ve left so much out about the extra work that I could really write another one.’
And as for retiring? Guinness World Record winner Daphne hopes to still be in a job at 100. ‘I think I’m a Tigger; I try hard to keep going. My mother was 95 and I’ve got lots of friends who are over 100 so it is getting quite possible these days.’