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Supermodel Carmen Dell'Orefice, middle

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Model Talk

O.G. Supermodel Carmen Dell'Orefice

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Our new campaign, COPYCATS, spotlights three generations of women wearing the statement jacket of the season, the rhinestone Miller. If you recognize the grand dame at the cafe, there's good reason—that's Carmen Dell'Orefice, the O.G. of supermodels. She was there before Naomi, before Linda, before Twiggy, before fellow VB Edit feature Marie Helvin. Dell'Orefice's an icon, all cheekbones and impossibly long and graceful limbs. Go ahead, think of a major fashion era or milestone: Dior's New Look, the louche Seventies, power Eighties… She's lived through them all and at the heights of her career, too—and that's plural, heights, because Dell'Orefice, in her eighties now, continues to climb high as the oldest working model in the business. We get to know the legend here in this exclusive interview.

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How were you discovered?
It's kind of an ordinary tale. Somebody saw me on the 57th street cross town bus. It was a photographer's wife. I was 13 years old, World War II had just ended—1945, either October or November. I did the test pictures—it was ostensibly for Junior Bazaar—and my mother received a letter afterwards. It said I was a charming child, but totally unphotogenic. You win some, you lose some!

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How did you become a model then?
My godparents were famous cartoonists and they knew a person who was a staff writer at Vogue. To cut to the bottom line, that was Carol Phillips, who went on to start Clinique. And from 13 years old to the day she died, we remained friends. She was responsible for bringing me to Condé Nast. On my first day, I worked for [photographer] Clifford Coffin and had two or three pages in Vogue by the next spring. So that was the beginning.

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First fashion obsession?
By whom? I'm not obsessed by fashion. Everything was a job. I consider myself a silent actress—it's always a part I have to figure out when I walk into a shoot.

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You worked with so many great photographers: Avedon, Beaton, Horst, Parkinson… Who was your favorite?
Well, that's like asking me which child I prefer. Who's my favorite photographer? The photographer I'm working for and certainly the photographer who has me back for the second job.

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What's your personal style?
Classic. Because of my weight, height, my father's bone structure, I look ridiculous in some of the things I see a lot of people wearing.

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What's one accessory you can't live without?
Hairspray.

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What's in your bag?
As little as possible.

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One

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Beauty must-have?
A good night's sleep.

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And for wellness?
Must. Have. Water.

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How do you recharge?
Exercise. I recharge by not slowing down. Exercise is my recharge. You know, I'm a proficient swimmer—I had trained for Olympic swimming in 1948. I did ballet too. I've had to let go of those things since I had double-knee replacement and in both my hips... the hips got jealous of the knees, you see…

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What's the most memorable shoot you ever did?
Oh, in 72 years. You want me to…

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Yes, please!
The photographer I had the most fun with over the years really was Parkinson. I met him when I was 17 and we knew each other until the day he died. So pick one of them—maybe the underwater one where we both had helmets so we could breathe, and I was in the bikini.

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Fashion then vs. now?
What I see in fashion today is wonderful. I must say, I give Anna Wintour all the kudos in the world for seeing to dress all the world and not the 10% or 1% that we were used to looking at as role models. And I think it is wonderful to show different sizes and shapes and colors.

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"I consider myself a silent actress—it's always a part I have to figure out when I walk into a shoot."

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What do you love about your look today?
It is me 100%. There's architecture, freedom of movement, a little bit of flash… I must say, I take refuge in finding a jacket I loved so much. It cheers me up. Styles change and I like to buy things that are going to last the same way I have. I was so thrilled to be asked to be in a photoshoot in clothes I love to wear. It doesn't always happen.

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What makes you look good?
The right lighting… I think I look good when I do the right thing and no one is looking or when I've done the best job I can possibly do. People on the outside don't make me feel the way I feel. I have to process everything myself.

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That segues well into my next question: What makes you feel good?
Oh, probably a nice rare steak. Seeing my friends happy.

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What do you love to do?
Well, I love to cook... and paint… and be with my friends, the ones who are kind enough to stay alive. Nothing much changes. I was that way as a child.

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What makes you laugh?
The way everyone takes themselves so seriously and what they should take seriously gets overlooked. People make me laugh. Circumstances.

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If you could trade closets with someone else, who would it be?
Babs Paley—she had great individual style.

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Carmen Dell'Orefice in an undershoot shoot for Vogue, 1959; left, with photographer Norman Parkinson

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What's the most sentimentally valuable piece in your closet?
You're not going to believe this—it's something I made myself. I'm quite the seamstress. I had a Hungarian mother who taught me everything she knew and somebody I loved dearly gave me an antique obi. I cut it up, not knowing it would offend some people because it was ancient, and made the most wonderful jacket, which, every five or 10 years, I take out and wear.

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Favorite restaurant ever in New York?
Well, certainly Sirio's Le Cirque. But then there was Pearls Chinese restaurant on the West Side, who made the best lemon chicken. Now it's just a memory.

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And for a nightcap?
I don't live that way. I'd rather go home and read. You know, when I do my socializing, I don't need liquor for it. Of course, there are places I love, like Feinstein's on Park Avenue, because it has music I love, the music of my time.

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Must-visit places in NYC?
The Metropolitan Museum. The Metropolitan Opera. Carnegie Hall.

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What's the word or phrase you most overuse?
How are you today?

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If not a model, you'd be…
A scientist. Probably astrophysicist or something to do with the brain and cell replacement. You see it has to do with design.

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Watch the Interview

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