Natalie Portman: A rare bloom

By Beatrice Thomas-Wachsberger

The face of Dior and mother to be Natalie Portman is a breath of fresh air.

Natalie Portman as the new face of Miss Dior Cherie. Photo / Supplied
Natalie Portman as the new face of Miss Dior Cherie. Photo / Supplied

Natalie Portman is one of young Hollywood's most rounded stars and, no, we're not talking about her baby bump, even bigger now than when she wowed the red carpet at the Oscars. Fashion flair and acting talent aside, Portman is an outspoken activist and independent thinker.

With a Harvard degree in psychology to her name, the 29-year-old has not let teenage stardom turn her into a screw-up. She's graduated from playing Princess Amidala in Star Wars to inhabiting a complex series of characters, culminating in her Academy Award-winning performance as tortured ballerina Nina in Black Swan. Now expecting her first child to fiance Benjamin Millepied - a dancer she met while he was working as choreographer on Swan - Portman is also the face of Miss Dior Cherie perfume.

The advertising campaign for the fragrance is almost cinematic in scale and includes a television commercial shot by director Sofia Coppola in which Portman captures the effortlessly elegant look of the French New Wave. Fashion photographer Tim Walker shot the stills. Portman models a frothy Dior couture mini dress, but she showed in February that she was no mere clothes horse when she condemned its designer John Galliano for an anti-Semitic rant that saw him sacked soon after.

Portman, born in Jerusalem to a Jewish father and an American mother, holds joint Israeli-American citizenship and said the day after her Oscars triumph: "I am deeply shocked and disgusted by the video of John Galliano's comments that surfaced today. In light of this video, and as an individual who is proud to be Jewish, I will not be associated with Mr Galliano in any way. I hope at the very least, these terrible comments remind us to reflect and act upon combating these still-existing prejudices that are the opposite of all that is beautiful."

The House of Dior is supporting her advocacy for women in developing nations. She is also an animal rights and anti-poverty activist. While supporting worthy causes is common among celebrities, Portman's trips to Africa and South and Central America and her ability to discuss the provision of micro-finance to start small women-owned businesses that can transform lives lends a credibility to her campaigning.

For now, Portman and Millepied are quietly awaiting their baby's birth, but the public will be seeing plenty more of her in 2011, with roles in Thor, No Strings Attached, Hersher and Your Highness. During her pregnancy, Portman, a vegetarian since childhood, has moderated her strict vegan diet. But she hasn't dropped her sartorial standards, showing that mothers-to-be can top best-dressed lists.

In this interview she talks about her passions, how family and friends ground her and how she isn't much of a shopper.

Which causes are closest to your heart?

Girls' education. Seeing how many girls in the world do not have that opportunity, I feel so lucky that I was able to go to school. It affects the rest of their lives, the age at which they have children, their susceptibility to disease, their job, earning power and their status in society. Education really is a powerful way to change the lives of girls and women in the world.

What were your feelings about becoming the "Miss Dior Cherie" ambassador?

It was a real honour to be asked by Dior, which has such an amazing history and is such an elegant brand. It has been wonderful to see how supportive Dior has been of both my artistic endeavours and the non-profit organisations I work with such as FINCA [an organisation promoting village banking to break poverty cycles] and this girls' education project Dior and I are working on.

Has travel changed your views?

Yes. It is so abstract to imagine someone else's life going on at the same time, so different from yours. There are literally billions of parallel lives. So, to actually travel the world, meet all kinds of people, talk with them and hear what their day is like, what makes them happy or sad, what their problems, joys and successes are, makes it less abstract and more real: it takes you out of your own petty circumstances.

What is the most powerful life experience you shared?

I have been lucky to have many, such as meeting the women who were clients of FINCA, all of whom have been very inspiring. Seeing the depths of poverty in places like Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya really stays with you. I have also seen the hopeful side: it is possible to make changes, it just takes a lot of work. Those things definitely change you, because you do not encounter them in a middle-class upbringing in the United States.

You used the word "inspiring". Who - or what - inspired you the most in your career or in your life?

My parents were definitely the ones who were always encouraging and supportive of me. Career-wise, [veteran director] Mike Nichols has been wonderfully encouraging and supportive, and to have someone I respect so much believe in me was very helpful.

What is the most important thing your parents taught you?

The desire to go to any length to be good to another person. My parents will stay up all night to help you with your homework or make sure you have the right doctor; they will do that not just for me but for my friends or theirs, other family members, or people they barely know. They will really go out of their way to help them. That is really unique. It gives you a sense of security to know that your parents will drop anything to help you. They showed me what true friendship and true love are.

As a film star, and now a Dior muse, do you have any icons of your own?

I do not think there is one person in particular, but I admire the wisdom and strength of women like [chimpanzee expert and conservationist] Jane Goodall and [US Secretary of State] Hilary Clinton.

Who do you consider a beautiful woman?

Audrey Hepburn is so beautiful, because you also see her internal beauty. So much kindness comes through.

Are there people you wish you could have met, or wish to meet one day?

Probably writers I love like Chekhov or Nabokov.

As a busy woman where do you go and what do you do to relax?
I love being home. My work takes me away so much that it really feels like a vacation just to be home and be able to stay in bed all day and not get up. However, I also love travelling and have had amazing trips to many parts of the world such as East Africa, India, China, Cuba and Mexico.

What do you do to overcome stress?

To me, exercise is definitely the best way to combat stress, whether swimming or hiking. I do yoga sometimes, but not regularly anymore. And I also get acupuncture and massage when I am feeling stressed.

What is your favourite retreat?

Probably one in the Maldives. I went to the Four Seasons there: not only was it really amazing, but the diving there was incredible.

What are your favourite cities in the United States?

New York and LA are obviously favourites. But Austin, Texas, is really special, along with Santa Fe and New Orleans. And I do love Cincinnati, where my grandmother now lives and my mother used to live when she was younger.

In Europe?

Paris and Berlin would probably be my favourites.

What about Asia?

I love the Japanese countryside. Tokyo is amazing, but it is a little too much for me. I would say the same about China where I love the rural areas most, such as Lijiang and Guilin.

What are your favourite shopping destinations, in terms of fashion or design for instance?

I am not that much of a shopper. I like Steven Alan and Bauman Rare Books in New York. I like American Rag and Galerie Half in LA.

Favourite restaurants?

There is a place called Blue Hill in upstate New York, where everything comes from the farm. There is a restaurant called Bazaar in LA that I absolutely love. And they have delicious vegetarian food at L'Arpege in Paris.

Favourite moment of the day?

I love getting into bed at night. I really love sleeping!

Are there things you have a real distaste for?

I do not like coffee or beer, my tastes are like a kid's. And I do not really like techno music. However, not many things offend me too much.

What is elegance to you, and do you notice it in other people?

Elegance seems to be related to effortlessness. You see it with someone who is comfortable in their own skin, feels comfortable with what they are wearing.

Who are your favourite designers?

I love Rodarte and Lanvin (Alber Elbaz).

When you dress up, do you dress according to your mood or the circumstances?

I think I do both. I might just stay in my pyjamas if I am able to stay at home all day.

What makes a woman "feminine" in your eyes?

It is usually the way a woman moves that makes her more or less feminine.

What's a treat you cannot resist eating when you see it?

I am definitely a bread and pasta person.

You are an animal rights activist and a vegetarian; could you tell us your views on nutrition and how you stay true to this choice?

Everyone has to find what is right for them, and it is different for everyone. Eating for me is how you proclaim your beliefs three times a day. That is why all religions have rules about eating. Three times a day, I remind myself that I value life and do not want to cause pain to or kill other living beings. That is why I eat the way I do.

Do you consider fashion to be an art form?

I think it can be, but I do not think it always is.

What other art forms are you interested in?

I see a lot of movies with my friends, but I love art and try to keep up with music, photography, literature and theatre. I listen to everything from soul, such as Etta James, Otis Redding and Aretha, to hip-hop and classical.

Regarding books, I read a lot of contemporary American fiction, but I also read older and international writers. I love Nabokov and David Mitchell and Flaubert. In photography, I love Hiroshi Sugimoto and early Stieglitz. For painters, I love the work of Schiele and Anselm Kiefer.

Fresh fragrance

Natalie Portman was fascinated to find out the lengths Dior goes to source ingredients for its perfumes: "Vanilla from Madagascar and sandalwood from India; and how they grow all their flowers in so many different places.

"It is truly amazing to see how much they do for the sense of smell."

At the heart of Miss Dior Cherie are Turkish roses. Strawberry leaf, popcorn and patchouli are other notes.

The bottle echoes the original bow-trimmed Miss Dior fragrance of 1947. Cherie, though, is a newer, less green scent aimed at a young, modern buyer with a sweeter taste, but distinguished from other less elegant fruity-floral blends by an underlying sophistication.

Portman, who wears perfume on special occasions rather than daily defined this one as playful and womanly. Asked to typify its mood, place and colour she chose these words to describe it: mischievous, Paris and pink.

- NZ Herald

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