China Machado in 'About Face': A Fashion Legend Takes On Aging

Model China Machado, 82, who appears in HBO’s new documentary, ‘About Face,’ tells Isabel Wilkinson about being the first non-Caucasian woman in a major fashion magazine.

These days, it's rare to find a woman of a certain age who doesn't use face cream or get her hair done, who has never had plastic surgery or been on a diet.

The last person you'd expect to live like this is China Machado, Richard Avedon's glamorous former muse who, in the 1950s, became one of the most famous fashion models of her day.

But Machado, now 82, has aged gracefully—and, by her account, completely naturally. “I couldn't afford [plastic surgery],” she tells The Daily Beast. “Maybe I would have done it, but I stopped modeling in 1962, and at that time I didn’t need it. And now it’s too late!” She lets out a deep, guttural laugh, the kind that sends her into a body-shaking cough away from the phone. But when she returns, she continues midsentence: “No man has ever paid a single bill in my life—I didn't want it.”

Machado was the first non-Caucasian woman ever to appear in a major fashion magazine when she graced the pages of Harper’s Bazaar in 1958. At 24, she was an in-house model for Hubert de Givenchy in Paris, where she learned to glide and spin in a way that evoked attitude and character.

She demonstrates that signature walk in About Face, a new documentary premiering on HBO Monday, about how iconic models such as Isabella Rossellini, Jerry Hall, Beverly Johnson, and Carol Alt have come to terms with aging. With long, graceful steps, one hand on a jutting hip, and her chin pointing straight outwards, Machado struts and spins for the camera as if she were circulating through an old couture house. When she began modeling, she says, every model “had a certain walk—you could detect [models] from afar who they were. Now you clunk down the runway looking as sad as can be. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

After an introduction to Diana Vreeland—then the editor of Harper’s Bazaar—Machado became muse to Avedon, working with him until his death in 2004. Despite bitter protests, Avedon blackmailed Harper’s into running a picture of Machado—which won her global attention. She modeled exclusively for him for the next three years, until 1962, when she took over as fashion editor at the magazine. She stayed there for 11 years, until she worked as a television producer and eventually became the editor of her own magazine.

A lot has changed since China—pronounced “Cheena”—Machado was a household name. Comparing models of her day with the women working now, she explains: “At our time, [models] knew what clothes were, you knew how to walk and spin. You knew about clothes because they were made on you, so when you became a photographic model, you looked in the mirror and saw what the clothes were supposed to be.” She pauses to take a deep breath. “Now, they see the dresses the day of, but they’re not even interested—they just want to go in and out and be photographed—they don’t even care about the clothes. A model needs to know how to project herself into the camera.”

We live in a time when a blog dedicated to celebrating the style of older women has become a sensation, where an octogenarian is used in Lanvin’s fall ad campaign, and where an aging actress lashes back when told she has a “puffy face.” But as many of the models in About Face say, society still doesn’t like images of women getting older. “I wonder if it is harder for a woman who was beautiful to get older or a woman who was never looked at,” Machado says open-endedly. “When I was young, you weren’t considered anything until you were 21. Now, the woman who is older can’t even grow old gracefully because no one will let her.”

Despite this, Machado re-signed a modeling contract in 2010 at age 80. She appeared in a 20-page spread in W magazine. Since then, she says, there has been so much work that it is “complete madness.” Though the closets of her Sag Harbor, N.Y., home are still filled with Dior and Givenchy dresses from her early career, fashion for her has become about wearing what makes her “look good.” She’s writing an autobiography, and her daughter is making a documentary about Machado’s life. She appears frequently in profiles and editorials. And she hasn’t ruled out returning to the runway. “I might if it’s the right clothes,” she says with a laugh.