It’s telling that Audrey Hepburn, subject of a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and one of the world’s most photographed and adored women, did not think of herself as beautiful. Her son Luca Dotti said recently that the best Audrey could say about her looks was that she had “a good mixture of defects. She thought she had a big nose and big feet, and she was too skinny and not enough breast. She would look in the mirror and say, ‘I don’t understand why people see me as beautiful.’”
If even Audrey Hepburn can’t see herself as beautiful, where does that leave modern women, with another half a century behind them of commercial propaganda pushing unrealistic beauty standards? But what’s interesting about the exhibition is how Hepburn used what she had. Seeing so many portraits of her by so many of the world’s top photographers, you begin to notice a pattern. She holds her head up, to diminish her nose; elongates her neck; uses her ballet-dancer-trained poise to graceful effect.
“She was very much in control of her own image,” the exhibition’s curator, Helen Trompeteler, told me when I interviewed her for Where London magazine. “Edith Head [the celebrated Hollywood costume designer and model for The Incredibles’ Edna “E” Mode] talked of fittings with her which took hours – Hepburn knew exactly what worked for her and how she wanted to appear. She worked closely with photographers, knew what angle was best for her, saw all the contact sheets.”
But there’s more to it than that. Because she didn’t feel she could rely just on her looks, Hepburn always worked hard, and was, quite simply, nice to people. “Obviously she was extremely talented and beautiful,” says Trompeteler, “but she was modest about her achievements. My personal fascination with her is that in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the roles of women were changing so dramatically, she was able to respond to that and create a distinct look for herself – that timeless Hepburn look that has so much currency today.”
Hepburn ended her days working tirelessly for disadvantaged children around the world on behalf of UNICEF, a charity which had helped her family, along with many others, in a Holland starved and ravaged by the second world war. Did the film-going public fall in love with her just for her looks, or for her personality? I think the latter.
The photographer and essayist Cecil Beaton, who later won Academy Awards for his costume designs on Gigi and My Fair Lady, attempted to convey her appeal in an article in Vogue in 1954: “She is like a portrait by Modigliani, where the various distortions are not only interesting in themselves but make a completely satisfying composite… She is a wistful child of a war-chided era, and the shadow thrown across her youth underlines even more its precious evanescence. But if she can reflect sorrow, she seems also to enjoy the happiness life provides for her with such bounty.”
Or as Cary Grant more succinctly said, after filming Charade, “All I want for Christmas is another movie with Audrey Hepburn.”