Isabella Rossellini has returned to the beauty brand that fired her two decades ago. She tells Carolyn Moore
As leading ladies go, they don’t come more iconic than Isabella Rossellini. ‘Hollywood royalty’ is an overused term – almost as much as the equally misused ‘iconic’ – but Rossellini’s pedigree in both departments is beyond dispute.
The daughter of screen legend Ingrid Bergman and director Roberto Rossellini, hers is a face that has been frozen in time, countless times over the last four decades – the mournful countenance of Dorothy Vallens in Blue Velvet; the wickedly seductive Lisle Von Rhoman in Death Becomes Her; and the wistful, sepia-toned glance that will forever come to mind when women over 40 hear the word ‘Trésor’.
But in 1982, when Lancôme cast her as their leading lady, she had yet to embark on the acting career that would make her name. At 30 years old, with just two years modelling experience under her belt, she went on to become the sole face of Lancôme’s advertising, and at the time, the world’s highest paid model.
But before you cry foul, as she assures me on the occasion of her first campaign with the brand in 22 years, it wasn’t her famous name they were after, but her famous face, which still today has echoes of her mother.
“At the beginning of my career the attitude was ‘be beautiful and shut up’,” she recalls.
“Models were anonymous then; we didn’t know anything about them. I had to remove my wedding band; my name wasn’t used; they didn’t want anything that could identify me.”
Sitting opposite me – resplendent in tones of russet and gold, her dark hair still framing that exquisite face, that face still exquisite all these years later – she picks up a pearlised pink pot of Lancôme’s new Renergie Multi-glow.
“To me, the word ‘glow’ was very important,” she says. “I don’t like the term ‘anti age’ – I think telling women they have to look younger than their age is discriminatory.”
Wearing barely any makeup, with what is there used to accent those striking features rather than camouflage the passing years, she cuts a serene figure.
She has given up her trademark tailoring, preferring instead softer, more fluid shapes, and her complaints about the limited fashion options available to women her age chime with Lancôme’s research that women in their 60s feel invisible – a somewhat ironic observation, considering the circumstances of Rossellini’s forced hiatus from the brand.
While most cosmetics companies through the ‘80s and ‘90s insisted on frequent injections of new blood, Rossellini and Lancôme lasted 14 years together.
As they told her at the time, no one tested as well as she did with their customers, so they kept renewing her contract – until one day, they didn’t.
She was 44 when it was decided she was too old to be the face of a beauty brand.
A single mother to two children – facing into what her mother warned would be “the in-between years” of 45 to 60, when she would be too old to play the love interest but too young to be the matriarch – if she resented Lancôme then, today she is nothing but magnanimous about their shared past.
Now in her sixties, as her mother predicted, she’s back on our screens, and gratifyingly, she’s also back on the department store light boxes that once made her face so instantly recognisible.
In the interim, “instead of being sad about it”, she used her time to add some strings to her bow, returning to college to study animal behaviour, and becoming an author, a filmmaker, a philanthropist, a conservationist, a farmer, and most recently, a grandmother.
A glance at her Instagram page reveals the kind of full and multi-faceted life that makes her the perfect role model for older women today. Refreshingly unfiltered, devoid of vanity, she plugs her upcoming theatre production in which she co-stars with her dog, Pan, one day, and throws it back to her modelling days the next.
She jokes about her star-making turn in Blue Velvet and her good-natured cameo on Friends; shares clips from her charmingly low-tech ‘Green Porno’ web series; and posts nostalgic photos of her famous parents and intimate snaps of Isabella, the doting ‘nonna’, painting an utterly fascinating picture of a life less ordinary.
It’s now two years since Lancôme announced her return as ‘muse’, and Instagram is where she shared her first campaign images for Renergie – unfiltered at her insistence, proving in 2018, Isabella Rossellini is not merely the Lancôme muse we want, she’s the Lancôme muse we need.
Bringing her back to the fold was inspired. Simply put – and with a twinge of modern marketing parlance – Rossellini is in Lancôme’s DNA.
There’s a generation for whom her face is inextricably linked to the image of the brand, and this time she joins a roster of ambassadors celebrated for their talent and their accomplishments as much as their beauty.
“It’s a funny word,” she says of ‘muse’, a term that has followed her throughout her acting career. “It somewhat removes you from the process – it’s the genius and the muse; one was the brain, one was the look.
“It’s part of this tradition that women’s role is their appearance; that women don’t talk,” she says.
“Now, Julia, Penelope, Lupita… those are women that talk. They don’t have a Svengali, they are totally in charge of their career, they’re intelligent, they’re talented, they’re profound artists, they’re women, they’re mammas that take life, and I like that association. I love being part of that group.”
Her enthusiasm stands to reason, particularly when you consider that it’s part of an overarching industry acknowledgement that diversity is to be embraced – a need Rossellini herself identified when she launched her own cosmetics line, Manifesto, in the late ‘90s.
Describing it as “a secret feminist plot”, Manifesto’s revolutionary advertising campaign involved women diverse in nationality, age and body type.
It may have taken an inordinately long time for the mainstream beauty industry to catch up to her thinking, but, she says, “The first step was to show diversity in skin colour, and now it’s age. I’m 65, and Julia is reaching 50 - I said to Julia, you know, I was fired at 44, so she already represented progress.
“What made the big difference was having a female CEO in Francoise Lehmann, and more female journalists, because women’s voices are heard more strongly now,” she says.
“I’m talking like I’m a sociologist, but as a human being I understand that a man sees makeup or clothing as they are addressed to him,” she says. “They only understand them as tools of seduction.
“But we women like to use makeup, even if we’re single, or we don’t have to seduce a man because we’re gay. I’m single. I dress up. I don’t only exist for a man’s eye, to be visible because he’s noticed me. That’s very old-fashioned, but it’s dissipating, and having women making the decisions is changing it.”
What she’s describing of course is the idea of the male gaze, and parallels between the beauty industry and the movement for change in Hollywood aren’t lost on her. As an actress and a farmer, she’s a vocal supporter of the #MeToo movement, as it affects women across all industries.
“All of us have had certain degrees of abuse, whether it’s a comment or unpleasantness or a certain fear, so I’m happy that we’re able to talk about it openly because things have progressed,” she says.
“I remember when I was a teenager in Italy men would comment, ‘Oh, I’d like to do this to you, look at your tits, look at your ass,’ and it was every day, and it was totally accepted. I don’t think every one of them was going to act upon what they were saying, but I think somehow in this twisted cultural mindset, they thought we liked it.
“There’s a cultural change now, and women can say, ‘We don’t like it!’” she says, grateful that the Time’s Up movement is giving voice to those calls for change.
“The problem of sexual abuse doesn’t just exist in Hollywood. I have an organic farm, and I received an incredibly touching message from the coalition of women farmers saying, ‘We are with actresses, because we have the same issue’. They were happy the actresses spoke about this problem, because it exists in every industry.”