The secret to ageing well

By Noelle McCarthy

As the decades fly by, it is gumption and a life well lived that makes a woman beautiful, writes Noelle McCarthy.

Helen Mirren and Helena Bonham-Carter. Photos / AP Images.
Helen Mirren and Helena Bonham-Carter. Photos / AP Images.

Last month I went to the castle Salvador Dali bought for Gala, his Russian wife and muse, on the Costa Brava. Gala would spend her summers in this castle in the tiny village of Pubol. Dali could come and visit her there, so long as he wrote first and asked permission. He was 10 years her junior.

She stayed in Pubol until she was well into her 80s, roaming around her castle in her exquisitely beaded, handmade Christian Dior dresses, seducing the handsome young musicians she had shipped in to entertain her. She is buried in the crypt now, where a life-size giraffe watches over her. A hell of a woman by any measure, neither Gala's wardrobe nor her love life were much constricted by getting older.

I thought of her last week when looking at photos of Joan Collins dancing in Saint-Tropez. Collins is resplendent in a sparkly sleeveless top and perfect make-up. Some would say it's impossible to look queenly while raving, but she is doing it. She looks like Cleopatra at the disco. Joan Collins will be 82 on her next birthday (see story on page 14.)

We can't all be Joan Collins and Gala Dali. Nor is this advisable. For all their fabulousness, neither are straightforward role models: Collins lives on a diet of salmon and Champagne now, she says.

Gala used to cover up radiators because they freaked her out, and she was a bit crazy in general. But they are both great templates for how to keep it funky as you get older. Partly this is about finding a look and working it; neither Gala with her velvet bow and couture wardrobe, nor Joan with her chandelier earrings and raven hairpiece, are likely to be mistaken for anyone else in a hurry.

Partly also, it's about pigheadedness; Gala and la Collins are exemplars of a stubborn refusal to go gently into that good night, the part of life deemed "old age" by medical science - a remarkable achievement, especially in a society that doesn't make it easy for women.

For better or for worse (and it's for worse, usually) longevity is not a quality much associated with female beauty. If you're buying what society is selling, loveliness, and sexiness, is strictly the preserve of the young and dewy.

That's one of the reasons I cried on my 30th. I woke up and bawled because my 20s were over. Then I went to Zambesi to find a dress to fix me. Black Russian it was called. A cowl-necked sheath in obsidian coloured silk, it was daringly, shockingly simple. No frills, no bows, none of the usual trimmings required for the "more is more" aesthetic I'd spent the past decade rocking. It drew no attention to itself whatsoever.

When I put it on, I looked just like myself, except a hundred times better. More polished, more sophisticated, taller even. I preened in the changing-room and told myself that the trauma of my birthday was redeemed by the Black Russian. Getting older made sense now; this was not a dress I could have worn before the age of 30.

I looked at my new reflection in the mirror and told myself I loved it. I was a proper grown-up woman. I was gutted.

The Black Russian was beautiful, but I still wasn't happy to be getting older. I was devastated, in fact. And badly frightened. I hadn't a clue how to be 30, a fact I proved later that night, when, wrecked on mojitos, I made a kamikaze move on an ex-boyfriend. His rebuff was all the more excruciating for the mortified politeness with which it was delivered. He even drove me home afterwards, the bastard. I spent the first night of my 30s in bed on my own, watching Jerry Maguire and crying.

All of which is to say that ageing is not for the faint-hearted. I look back now and laugh at the disaster of my 30th. I might as well, worse awaits me. If 30 sent me off the deep end, how will I cope with turning 40? And 50? And then 60 and onwards into the Joan Collins phase of living? I don't think I can be 80. I feel sick at the thought of it. The prospect of being an old lady fills my stomach with the same queasy dread I woke up with on the morning of my 30th.

It's the same fear, but for a different reason. Vanity. I'm not scared anymore of being too immature to get older, as I think I can rise to the challenge. But though the emotional side of ageing is tough, the physical stuff is brutal. Crow's feet. Laughter lines. Chin sag. Belly wobble. The thousand natural shocks the flesh is heir to. Sooner or later they all start showing up on the radar.

I've stopped reading interviews with actors in glossy magazines because they often talk about how they "can't wait" to be older. They're all raving on about becoming wonderfully interesting old ladies with lots of stories, and all I can think is: You're looking forward to crepey skin and digestive troubles, and your face turning into an aerial map of a river system? Really? Any woman who tells you she's excited about the ageing process is either born after 1997 or loopy.

Charlotte Rampling and Emma Thompson. Photos / AP Images, Getty Images.
Charlotte Rampling and Emma Thompson. Photos / AP Images, Getty Images.

How could you, with the spectre of menopause looming? How to cope with hot flushes? What will happen when the oestrogen leaves the building? Will my skin turn into papyrus? Is it going to be itchy? These are the questions that keep me awake at night, when I am not lying there, desperately working out how best to lose the weight from the hypothetical babies I must have before it's all over.

On top of this crippling anxiety about the future, there is another fact to deal with, simple in its cruelty. At 35 I don't look as good as I used to. I may have been crazy at 24, but at least I was perky. Now I have wrinkles around my eyes and on my forehead. Certain parts of my body don't bob up and down anymore, other parts have started doing it. I have grey hairs like steel wool on my temples. I pull them out. I don't care if 10 more come to their funeral. Five years ago I panicked because I didn't feel my age. Now I'm panicking because I'm starting to look it.

Thankfully, there is a solution. Charlotte Rampling. The latest face of NARS makeup is here to save us all from fears of ageing. There she is in the campaign shoot, in a tuxedo with kohl-rimmed eyes, and cheekbones you could use to sharpen a lip-pencil. Her hair's in a quiff and she has one hand in her pocket. If she looks like she couldn't give a shit, I imagine it's because she doesn't. Rampling was born the year after World War II ended, before the 50s were invented. She has an OBE and a 23-year-old daughter.

She's probably best known for doing kinky Nazi dress-ups in a film called The Night Porter. She posed naked in the Louvre for Juergen Teller not so long ago. She's basically spent the past half century being dangerous and foxy. The new NARS lipstick shade is called Audacious (available at Mecca Cosmetica exclusively from September 28). They could have just called it "Charlotte Rampling" and got away with it.

Helen Mirren's the same age as Rampling. She's another one who didn't get the memo about women past their 20s not being allowed to look great, or be sexy. She does both of those things everywhere, so often, I'm almost loath to mention her. Ever since the Daily Mail website ran a shot of her in a red bikini, journalists aren't legally allowed to write about women over 60 looking good without invoking Mirren.

The thing about Helen though, is that she's always been gorgeous. Even in Prime Suspect, when she spent seven seasons smoking Silk Cut and scowling. It's the same with Rampling and Collins, they've never not been lovely. Ditto Gala, who was always powerfully alluring even though you couldn't really call her a conventional beauty. It's harder to think of women who have really grown into themselves as they've grown older.

Emma Thompson is one, though. She's always been smart and funny but recently she's grown into her own skin, and the transformation is astonishing. Back when she was married to Kenneth Branagh she understandably often looked awkward, never more so than in the weird green genie-pants two-piece she showed up in to collect her first Oscar.

Fast-forward 20 years to Emma at the Baftas, a stone-cold fox in floor-length, fire-engine-red Maria Grachvogel. She's 55 now and she's smoking. Likewise Helena Bonham Carter who, in her late 40s, has blossomed from wispy Merchant-Ivory prettiness into full-on beauty, regularly showstopping on the red carpet in Vivienne Westwood, (even better because you know she probably wears it to the dairy). The cover of Vogue she shot last year was so beautiful I tripped over someone's trolley trying to get a better look at it.

None of these women will see their 20s, 30s or 40s again, and in some cases their 50s, 60s and even 70s. The other thing they have in common, is that, apart from Gala, they're all English. I don't think that's a coincidence. English women tend to have gumption. Shrewd or spirited initiative and resourcefulness is the dictionary definition of the latter, having a sense of yourself is what it means in practice.

New Zealanders also have gumption, it's a national hallmark. Helen Clark has always had it and took it to the UN. Karen Walker has plenty. She showed it when she ran a sunglasses campaign full of joyful, 90-year-old women. Kate Sylvester has it, that's why she named the Eleanor dress in her latest collection after a writer who won the Booker.

Gumption is character, the stuff that experience gives you. Character is the reason why some women look better in their 50s than they ever did in their 20s even though their skin was brighter then and certain parts of their anatomies were tighter and higher. It's the work you put into yourself that defines your experience of getting older, and by "work" I don't mean surgery or botox.

I mean the development of useful traits such as compassion, resilience and humility. These qualities sound good in theory but the process of growing them can be decidedly unsexy, painful even. It's not only hard, but sometimes boring, learning how to be responsible, congruent and honest. But there's a pay-off, not least in earning yourself the freedom to walk through life with a smile on your face, or at least without killing someone.

That this "inside job" pays off on the outside too is obvious. Do you think Helen Mirren could possibly look like she does without a generous measure of self-acceptance? Even more so than good genes, it's your attitude towards yourself that defines your experience of getting older.

Of course some women will never be convinced that ageing is a joyful process. Simone de Beauvoir wrote that "no one ever speaks of 'a beautiful old woman'."

If you want to know how wrong she was, just look at her photos. In the last decade of her life no one was rocking a turban like the vanguard of French intellectualism. De Beauvoir said old age was repulsive, but I love looking at her. At 70 she doesn't look young any more, but she does look strong, stylish and memorable. Halfway to that age I can't think of anything better to aim for.


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