What is beauty? It’s a loaded question, but surely Isabella Rossellini can answer it.
The famed actress, former supermodel, and now author exudes grace. She is sophisticated and worldly - what is beauty for her? Does it fade? Improve with age? “I have no narrow definition,” the 45-year-old Rossellini says.
Does she think of herself as beautiful?
“When I became a successful model,” she says simply, “I thought my looks must be liked.”
That’s an understatement. After posing for 28 Vogue magazine covers, starring in 16 Hollywood movies, and modeling as the exclusive face of Lancome cosmetics for 14 years, Rossellini knows how to glam it up.
So you won’t believe her beauty secrets. She wears men’s suits and shoes, appears almost exclusively in the colors black or gray, and, unless she’s before a camera, applies little makeup.
“I never wore makeup before my years at Lancome,” she says. “My contract required that I always wear it in public.”
That’s not exactly the image expected from the daughter of movie star and beauty icon Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, the Italian filmmaker renowned for his neo-realist flicks.
But Isabella Rossellini is full of surprises. Lounging recently in a suite at the Copley Plaza Hotel, her face adorned with only the faintest hint of makeup, she dramatically announces to a hotel manager that she might faint from hunger and exhaustion.
After appearing on a morning radio show, she signed 300 copies of her new autobiography “Some of Me” at Lauriat’s in Copley Place. Now her police escort wants her autograph, and her aides are reminding her of an afternoon photo session, television interview, and flight to Toronto, where she’ll sign books all over again.
“I really need 10 minutes alone,” Rossellini confides in a throaty voice reminiscent of her mother’s, but punctuated with her father’s Italian accent.
She can forget it. Everybody wants time with Rossellini because she’s finally talking publicly about her life. In her book, she discusses her mother (“Second to acting, mother loved cleaning”) and her father (“He loved being in bed … He read a lot and talked on the phone. He had meetings with collaborators, students and producers, all from his bed.”)
She reveals she had scoliosis as a child and, in search of a cure, endured being hung for hours and stretched by a machine until she passed out. She was finally cured after wearing a cast for 16 months.
The book details her shame at being a high-school dropout, her embarrassment when confronted in an elevator by actress Katharine Hepburn about her controversial nude scene in “Blue Velvet,” and her anger over being fired as a Lancome model when she turned 42.
She also exposes details about her marriages to director Martin Scorsese and model Jonathan Wiedemann, and her relationships with actor Gary Oldman (“The Fifth Element”) and director David Lynch (“Blue Velvet”). Her 13-year-old daughter, Elettra, is the child of her marriage to Wiedemann. She adopted her 3-year-old son, Roberto, who is part African American, as a single mother.
Nibbling on a spread of red grapes, Rossellini doesn’t look like a movie star or even, attractive as she undoubtedly is, like a head-turning beauty. It’s clearly an off day. Her eyes are droopy. She’s wearing no jewelry and only foundation, faint eyeshadow, and lipstick.
“I don’t have a standard beauty routine for putting my face on, as some women do,” Rossellini says. “If I’m going to a party, I’ll be more elaborate. If I’m picking up my kids, I may not wear makeup at all.”
Rossellini does wear makeup professionally, and the results - after a typical two- to three-hour session of applying makeup, styling hair, and dressing in designer clothes and accessories are generally dazzling.
Dazzling but not perfect. Rossellini’s smile reveals a chipped tooth, broken by her brother Roberto, who threw a telephone at her in a childhood argument. She never repaired it out of fear it would bring her bad luck with dentists (she’s never had a cavity). Lancome initially covered the chip with the same wax that undertakers use, but, she writes, left it alone after “my tooth started to be perceived as cute.”
Her hair is cut in an almost crew-cut style, and she’s dressed in a men’s suit and men’s ankle boots. “I wear men’s clothes because they’re elegant, comfortable, and I always feel dressed appropriately,” Rossellini says. “Men’s shoes are beautiful.”
Rossellini shed a wardrobe full of uncoordinated women’s clothes years ago after she saw the organized closet of a Lancome executive.
“All he had was gray suits and black shoes,” she says. “I thought, ‘What a great idea. Find one thing that works.’ ” Now Rossellini’s closet consists of almost all gray or black outfits and exclusively black shoes (except the brown ankle boots she’s wearing).
Her favorite designers are Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, and France’s Agnes B. “I admire many designers but if I buy too much from too many, I end up uncoordinated,” she says. “It’s easier to be faithful to a few.”
After growing up in Paris and Rome, Rossellini started her career as a costume designer for some of her father’s films in Rome. She later worked as a television journalist for an Italian station in New York.
She began modeling at the age of 28 by chance, when a friend who owned a modeling agency introduced her to the New York photographer Bruce Weber. He asked to photograph Rossellini, and those photos resulted in a second photo shoot with the New York photographer Bill King. King’s work landed Rossellini on the cover of Vogue four times in 1982. “From there, my career as a model took off. I was an overnight success,” she recalls.
Rossellini was paid $15,000 a day to walk runways, $5,000 to pose for catalogues, and $3,500 for a half-day’s fitting. “The amounts were absurd,” she says. “But it was fun. I had to shed a lot of prejudices I had about fashion - that it was silly and that modeling was a stupid job. I found out it was great.”
Rossellini signed with Lancome in late 1982 as the exclusive model for its international publicity campaign. She spent most of her days in photography studios and department stores around the world, meeting the public. In 1989, she negotiated to help create and promote the fragrance Tresor.
Rossellini’s success at Lancome ended in 1994, when she turned 42. “They decided that the campaign should not reflect reality but should reflect the societal dream to be young,” she says. “I believe promoting eternal youth is foolish.”
Now Rossellini is doing it her way. She’s developing a new line of makeup, skin-care, and fragrance products for the Lancaster Group in New York. She won’t discuss the products but she expects to release them in early 1999.
Rossellini is still interested in acting as well, although she says her foreign accent limits the roles she can play. After working with Stanley Tucci in “Big Night” last year, she’s agreed to appear in another Tucci film in 1998, a comedy called “Ship of Fools.”
A New York City resident, Rossellini says she has no typical day. “I go from periods where I’m very intense to periods when I’m very calm,” she says. She often takes her children to the movies, the ballet, and a country home whose location she does not reveal, where they read, swim, and cook Italian food.
After divorcing from Scorsese and Wiedemann, Rossellini remains single. She is rumored to be dating New York theater producer Gregory Mosher but declined to confirm or deny the reports.
Three times a week she visits her fraternal twin sister Ingrid, who lives nearby with two children of her own. Ingrid is an author and lecturer on medieval literature. “Our lives are so different,” Rossellini says, “that if she weren’t my sister I doubt we’d have ever met.”
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