Charles Nevin meets a model who is more successful in her 80s than she was in her 20s ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2012
Daphne Selfe is 83. She likes sugar in her tea, cake with it, biscuits, Downton Abbey and raising money for her local church. She has a son, two daughters and four grandchildren. Daphne doesn’t like playing bridge, or sitting around. She also wears a black leather jacket without looking ridiculous, and has been working as a model for 63 years. In the past two years she has been on assignments in Paris, Prague, Berlin, Beijing, Ibiza, South Africa and more. She is, to be fair, a little bemused: “What’s going on? Perhaps this is my swan song.” It seems unlikely, although she does have “certain limitations”, such as being unable to wear high heels now, unlike, as she acknowledges, the Queen.
“She’s amazing,” says Daphne. “She looks even better than when she was younger.” Which might also be said of Daphne, who got her big break when she was working at a Reading department store in 1950 after her ambition to work with horses had suffered a setback, and “Mummy said ‘you just can’t sit around’.” First it was a local magazine cover, and then she was off to London: “Mummy thought that was a lot better than horses…less dangerous, to some extent, or perhaps dangerous in a different way.”
Daphne, you will gather, has a twinkle and an accent of a type—somewhere between Fenella Fielding and Joanna Lumley—heard less often now than then (her father was a schoolmaster who read Greek in bed for fun). London and modelling in the early Fifties, though, “wasn’t anything special. There were no supermodels, it wasn’t talked about much at all…I wasn’t nearly as successful in my 20s, I didn’t get anything really exciting.” Daphne married Jim, a television stage manager, produced three children, and returned to modelling in the Sixties. “But they didn’t like me. I wasn’t the right type: Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton had the blonde fringe, I was dark with wavy hair, much more classic, really. I didn’t fit in at all. But I did do a lot of what they call store modelling, wearing somebody’s clothes and walking round the restaurant.”
And so her career continued, supplemented by any number of appearances as a television and film extra, and arriving, in a stately way, in the early Nineties, at an advertisement for Stannah Stairlifts—“first floor, please, Stan!” Work became more difficult, as she was caring for Jim after he’d had a stroke. Then, in 1998, the year after Jim’s death, came her great rediscovery, at the age of 70, when she was hired by Red or Dead for a London Fashion Week show. Suddenly, Daphne was in Vogue, “which I’d given up dreaming about years ago…I was very surprised, extraordinarily surprised…70 was very unusual for a model…I’ve been very lucky, the camera likes me.”
She was 5ft 7 and 10 stone (“a big strapping horsey girl!”) when she started; she is 5ft 6 and 8 stone now. She exercises “most days”. She has always had energy, doesn’t get jetlag and loves doing new things, a trait she clearly shares with her son, who has been, inter alia, a banker and an explorer, and now teaches yoga in India. One of her daughters sculpts; the other has been a ferociously keen sky-diver. Daphne has modelled for Mario Testino, Mary McCartney and Rankin, who told her that the difference between her and younger models was that they had nothing behind their eyes because they had no experience. Or, as Daphne puts it, “The reason why I’ve lasted so long is because I’m not quite as thick as some…you have to bring an element of intelligence to any job, that’s what sustains you and the people you work with.”
And, “You’ve got to take rejection. I go to lots of auditions, and you only get one out of several, that’s how it is. It’s not necessarily your fault, it’s what they’re looking for, and if you don’t fit the bill, it’s nothing to do with how good or bad you are. That’s quite difficult for young girls to get used to. But I’m old and sensible—or insensible now—so I don’t worry about it, and on to the next one.” With that, she was off home to watch Sir David Attenborough, 85.
Tomorrow: Freeman Dyson, 88, physicist
Charles Nevin is a freelance writer who spent 25 years on Fleet Street. He is the author of "The Book of Jacks"
Photograph by Nick Ballon