THE TIMES – November 23 2005
Ginny Dougary

The Body has a mind all right, but it’s hard to fathom.

Wth rings on her thumbs and rings on her toes, Elle still turns heads wherever she goes. She is clearly a hippy chick at heart, particularly where accessories are concerned. The half-moons of her big toes are adorned with tiny crystals that twinkle as she wiggles them. Her bronzed forearm is covered in bits of string, ribbons and shells and each one has a story: “This one’s for breast cancer and Kylie. We’ve known each other for years. I haven’t spoken to her since she’s been ill and it’s on my mind.

“This is from a friend’s wedding that I organised by the sea and I gave everyone a bracelet in a box with sand; this is an elastic band for my hair; this one says ‘peace’; I have another one that says ‘patience’ but it’s probably in my son’s hair,” and so on.

When I enter the room where the interview is to take place, Elle Macpherson is sitting down trying to tuck into a bowl of leaves — assembled with a supermodel’s appetite in mind, but The Body says it’s too insubstantial for her — and a double espresso. She has been modelling ballgowns for a photoshoot and apologises for her charcoal-rimmed eyes. She stands up, and one almost gasps: it is like being confronted by a beautiful freak. The impression is of someone superhumanly tall, with the broadest and squarest of shoulders, tiny hips, huge hands, a narrow face and those panda eyes. Her look is fabulous but ultra-studied, in marked contrast to the effortless carelessness that is projected in the broad-grinned, outdoorsy image of her photographs. All in black, from head to toe: leather peaked cap, leather jacket, skinny poloneck and clinging trousers, a wide, wide belt resting far below her navel. Think Marianne Faithfull in Girl on a Motorcycle; Jane Birkin Je t’aime-ing with Serge Gainsbourg; Diana Rigg in The Avengers.

My impression of Elle La Belle from all I had seen or read about her was positive. She seemed straightforward; no bullshit; in command of herself and her assets; a bit controlling, but only because men usually call the shots in the world in which she operates. Perhaps it’s because she looks so strong and athletic that I had assumed a certain robustness of character, too. There was a little question mark when she checked into a clinic in Arizona after the birth of her son Cy, now 2; apparently she was suffering from postnatal depression. But you needn’t be intrinsically unstable to be knocked sideways by the hormonal tumult that can occur after giving birth. And in June she separated from Arpad Busson, a French financier and the father of her sons, Cy and Flynn.

Still, I had been expecting a certain directness, but found myself in less predictable territory. The first surprise was the way she spoke: with a pronounced French inflection that makes her sound more affected than I think she is. When I comment on this, she says: “I don’t know why I do today. Sometimes when I’m tired. It’s an interesting thing. I’d like to question why is that so?” Perhaps because of her early marriage and subsequent longish relationships with two Frenchmen? “From the time I was 18 I spoke French probably more than English. I speak it with my children.” So I ask her to speak French. “Pourquoi?” she asks, laughing nervously. Because I want to see if you have an Australian accent when you do. And she rattles off her response in fluent, accentless Français.

Her first and only husband — she and Busson never married, but were together for ten years — was a French photographer, Gilles Bensimon. They met on a shoot in Tahiti; she was 19, he 40. They were married for eight years and lived in Paris, where he was the head snapper for French Elle, and his Elle became the magazine’s favourite cover girl. She credits him with introducing her to the finer things of life, helping her to developing a discerning palate for wine — which seems a bit of a waste, as she gave up drinking two years ago. Had she become over-partial to her vino, I ask? She shrugs it off good humouredly. “I just decided I wasn’t going to drink any more,” she says.

I had said that of all her ex-beaux, the one I envied her most was the Irish actor Gabriel Byrne. “But I haven’t been out with him!” she says, shocked, adding: “People’s looks are really not the first thing I look at.” Was Gilles a dreamboat, or more in that Gainsbourg toad-with-attitude mould? “Well, he’s 21 years older than me, not very tall, grey curly hair, glasses.” Hmm. Sexy? “Charismatic.”

Her mother, Frances, married Peter Gow when she was 17 and had Elle soon after, followed by two more children. Elle’s parents separated when she was 10, and she has talked about the awkwardness of coming from a broken home at a time when divorce was rare. When Frances remarried a lawyer, Neill Macpherson, Elle took his surname. Frances, I had read, was not all that happy about her daughter marrying so young, let alone repeating the pattern of becoming a teenage mother. I had also read that Elle wanted children early on and took no contraception. “Who said I wasn’t practising contraception?” she asks. It was in an article. “Do you think that I would have spoken to a journalist about that sort of thing?” she asks, more amazed than angry. You were young, you might have. “I may have. I just can’t imagine it. It’s not the sort of thing I would do.” Anyway, she says: “I loved having a young mother. We grew up together; in a way she was like my sister.”

When I ask whether her parents might not have been able to see some advantages in their daughter receiving a different sort of education in sophistication, Macpherson says: “I was fortunate. I was saved from a lot of the craziness of the industry because I had security and was with an older man. So when the girls went partying I’d go home to him and cook dinner.”

On the subject of partying models, I ask her view of the coverage of Kate Moss. “There’s a big difference between a fashion model and a role model, and Kate has never pretended to be the latter. She’s the same as she’s always been. But you know what? It’s absolutely none of my business.”

Given that she is increasingly drawn to exploring the connections between a healthy mind, body and spirit, I expect her not to be guarded about her postnatal depression. It is so common — I had it after the birth of my first child — that it might be helpful for someone in her position to lift the veil on the realities. But it is not a subject she wishes to be drawn on. “It’s different for every individual; painting broad brushstrokes is not recommended, especially when we’re talking about other people’s health,” she says firmly. Are you embarrassed about it? “No, no. I think the healthiest thing to do if someone has difficulties is to get help, whatever that is. That’s really healthy recovered behaviour,” she says. “I have zero shame around it all.” But nothing to contribute? “No.”

Are there areas in your life for self-improvement? You seem to be on some sort of path. “I believe it is the journey inside that is rich and interesting. In my life I’ve understood that it is stuff on the outside — clothes and people and places and acquiring things — that doesn’t necessarily make me happy. Twenty years ago I probably felt that if I had lots of money, I was important to some extent. My belief system supported that; now I’m a lot more centred.”

I wonder if you have anything to say about how you are — er — bearing up — er — under the whole — um . . . As she sees me struggling to put a question that I don’t feel comfortable asking, she laughs, but not unkindly. I must say that her composure and the grace with which she handles press intrusion into private matters is impressive. “I have nothing to say on that,” she says, knowing that I’m trying to broach the subject of her separation. “My children are well, I’m well and I’ve made a statement to the press that says it all.”

When I ask Macpherson what she thinks of Arki’s city academies to help deprived children (her ex describes himself, rather cutely, as a “venture philanthropist”), her response is so stilted it makes her sound like an automaton: “I think Ark is a very interesting charity and I think the philosophy behind it is commendable and what they’re doing is remarkable.”

She is an odd mixture of different parts. At times she comes across as a Valley Girl, every phrase swooping upwards in a dangling question mark — like, you know? The aforementioned French cadence; the occasional posh English word and — the voice I like best — down-to-earth Aussie, which is the only time she sounds really natural. This comes out when she tries to define the Australian character: “There is a sort of honesty of spirit, which is about trying to find out the truth behind a thing. ‘What are you trying to say, OK? You wanna do it or you don’t wanna do it. It’s cool by me, whatever it is’.” And explaining why she likes to accentuate the positive: “I don’t feel good when I s**t on other people.”

In the same vein, I like it when she calls me on what she perceives to be my interviewing technique: “I feel you’re much more savvy than you’re letting on. I think you are trying to play dumb to me.” A huge, gusty laugh. When I protest that I would never try to play dumb, she says: “You don’t even sound dumb so don’t try to play it.” But at odds with this bracing directness is her manner — which made me wonder whether her sun-kissed photographs captured an idealised version of herself, not in the way she looks, but conveying a freedom of spirit that she strives for but doesn’t find that easy to attain. For much of the interview she reminded me of a far more anxious, vaguely troubled individual than I had imagined. With those big blackened eyes and that serious expression, she reminded me of Diana, Princess of Wales, in the Martin Bashir interview. There was very little in her body language to suggest the sense she wishes to project of her newfound “centredness”.

When we part — she is punctilious about picking up her boys from school — she is concerned that she has taken herself too seriously. “I’ve tried to be as honest and open with you as I can,” she says engagingly.

In a Sydney Morning Herald interview in 1992, the journalist noted the lack of books in her Manhattan flat. “I don’t think you should read what you haven’t written,” was the 28-year-old’s response. This could have been an ironic riposte, but she doesn’t really do irony. It could have been invented, but that also seems unlikely. What is certainly the case is that Macpherson is now a reader par excellence. She asks if I am familiar with Noam Chomsky: “He is quite a modern thinker. His Hegemony or Survival is interesting: he talks about the rise of American culture and its effect on the world.” She is very taken with William Blake, and quotes philosophers: “As Socrates said, ‘ The unexamined life is not worth living’ . . . when I was in my twenties I was interested in finding out who I was, and to some extent I didn’t like what I found.” Why? “Because I was young, I didn’t get it.” Get what? “I didn’t have self-acceptance.”

I think the area she finds most difficult to balance is her success as a businesswoman — through licensing agreements on her lingerie, Elle Macpherson Intimates, and The Body, a new range of potions and lotions — with her desire to be womanly. I’d read, with astonishment, that she used to pack Busson’s suitcases. Was this a legacy of her early wife-training in Paris? “I have always been conscious — because I was financially independent — not to emasculate men, and it was important to me to maintain contact with my femininity. That is a thread throughout my career: not to become a hard-arse ball-breaker. Alhough I’m sure that, along the way, I’ve slipped into that mode. But I didn’t want to. But there’s stuff I like to do with a guy I like to be with. You know, to please him. I also like the domesticity of life.”

Where she loses me is when she goes into Gaia-speak about the differences between men and women. “I believe in the empowerment of women in their femininity, sensuality and sexuality. I cherish women as being Earth Mother Nature, protector of the Earth and Universe and femininity and goddess energy. We have disrespected and disregarded that as a culture, especially with women going in the workforce, you know, glorifying women in the workforce.”

Are you saying women should go back into the home? “No, I’m using it in my lingerie and beauty products, saying the beauty in women should be nurtured and respected and loved, for themselves.”

Ah well. In the meantime, Elle Macpherson will be nurturing and respecting and loving herself through her daily meditation, pursuit of her creative self, muscling through the demands of single motherhood in Notting Hill, striving to quieten her “inner chatterbox” and live in the here and now. As she says: “One of my interests is to find peace and serenity. I want to feel good about myself.” And at last I see that great, broad, captivating Macpherson grin.

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