A few months shy of her fourteenth birthday in the summer of 1945, Carmen Dell’ Orefice, an introverted, skinny kid of Italian-Hungarian extraction (father a musician, mother a dancer) walked over to the Vogue studios at 480 Lexington Avenue in Manhattan and reported for work.
Her first pictures – by the underrated Clifford Coffin – show a serious, disconcerting beauty with an intense gaze, a dancer’s elongated lines and a swimmer’s athletic shoulders, and on the strength of them Vogue offered her an exclusive $7.50 an hour contract.
Within weeks Carmen was working with the defining fashion photographers of the era: Cecil Beaton, who introduced her to Dali, Irving Penn, who dubbed her ‘Little Carmen’ and shot her as Snow White, Cinderella and Red Riding Hood, Erwin Blumenfeld who saluted her talents as a “great actress” and Horst P. Horst who rhapsodized over her “American beauty of another, antique age”. The $7.50 an hour went dutifully home to her mother on Third Avenue.
By 1950 however, her career appeared to be running out of steam. She was no longer Vogue’s ‘baby star’, and no longer a novelty. Added to which, a series of hormone and vitamin treatments resulted in the anemic, pre- pubescent ‘Little Carmen’ developing breasts and hips, a fact not lost on her increasingly panic-stricken agents. Ignoring their advice she took a job as the Vanity Fair girl in a lingerie campaign ( at that time high fashion models did not do lingerie campaigns) that discreetly shielded her identity while highlighting her new, all American curves. The first ads were a sensation, an Eisenhower era “Hello Boys” and the campaign, shot initially by Mark Shaw, and subsequently by Richard Avedon, eventually ran for ten years.
Carmen’s fee rose to an unprecedented $300 an hour, making her the highest paid model of the moment, and, alongside Dovima and Suzy Parker, one of the most photographed faces of the Fifties. Free to work outside Vogue, her career reached a high water mark in 1957 when she shot the Paris collections for Harper’s Bazaar with Richard Avedon under the fashion direction of Diana Vreeland and the all-seeing eye of graphic genius Alexey Brodovitch.
Carmen retired in the mid-Sixties after twenty years as a model, having married for the third time. She continued to appear in magazines, only now she was on the social pages as “Mrs Richard Kaplan” (her architect husband’s family were social-register stalwarts). When the marriage broke down a decade or so later, she found herself in need of a job and made tentative steps back into the industry. She returned to her old agency, Ford, hoping to find work as an agent, but they turned her down flat, assuming she was trying to revive her modeling career and convinced that, at forty-seven, her future was behind her. Lacking other options, she did model sporadically, mainly catalogue work.
Then she ran into her old friend Norman Parkinson at a party. Declaring that she “didn’t look bad for an old bag,” he took a gamble and flew her to Paris for French Vogue. The resulting portfolio revealed a new Carmen: sexy, silver-haired and sovereign. Along with her subsequent work with Parkinson for Town and Country (which chimed perfectly with the opulent glam-slam of the Reaganite Eighties), it reignited her career. Ford did a volte-face and opened a new division specifically to handle her, and she began working with a new generation of photographers: Helmut Newton, Patrick Demarchelier, Arthur Elgort , Peter Lindberg and Steven Meisel.
Things had changed radically since her heyday and models were now expected to be personalities as well as faces. Carmen adapted. She wrote a beauty book, hit the chat-show circuit, took cameo roles in movies by Woody Allen and Martin Scorcese and appeared on the catwalk for the first time in her Sixties. Along the way she made it into the Guinness Book of Records.
Last Summer Carmen turned seventy-five, and her modeling career now spans more than six decades, a unique achievement in an industry that gets panicky around thirty year olds. How has she done it? Firstly – and most obviously – there is her beauty, which, by some alchemy, has intensified rather than diminished with age; the years have become assets. She’s also great at her job, (contrary to popular opinion there IS such a thing as a ‘great model’). Perhaps most importantly, she has faced life’s reverses, of which she has had her share and more, with an open heart and an unfaltering sense of the absurd.
Today Carmen views life with equanimity and has the air of someone who is unlikely to be surprised by much. Oh, and she won’t be retiring any time soon. She may have “earned the right to work part time,” as she recently told an interviewer, but she remains steadfast in her resolve to “die with my high heels on”.