Cover Feature on Older Models for Observer Magazine

Published by Observer Magazine, Sunday 25th February 2018

It’s been 25 years since Karen Dobres last worked as a model. Could she harness her ‘grey power’ to once again make it in an industry driven by youth?

 Classic looks: Karen Dobres wears jacket by Molly Goddard, shirt by Maggie Marilyn at Selfridges, and earrings by Marni. Photograph: Ram Shergill for the Observer

Classic looks: Karen Dobres wears jacket by Molly Goddard, shirt by Maggie Marilyn at Selfridges, and earrings by Marni. Photograph: Ram Shergill for the Observer

Recently, I read online that Vogue Italia had dedicated itself to “timelessness” with 73-year-old Lauren Hutton gracing its cover. By a weird quirk of fate, on the same day, the call to join a “grey rebellion” landed in my inbox. Grey Models, an agency for older fashion models, was running a one-day intensive Grey Rebellion workshop – a “coaching session for new faces, returning models and pros”. It promised training on catwalk, poses, expressions, castings, fitness, contracts and even “a hi-res photo from a Master Photographer” to take home.

With my 50th birthday looming, was this a signal from the cosmos to resurrect my part-time modelling career from 30 years ago? Could I tear myself away from a comfortable life of box set bingeing on Game of Thrones, throw off my Greywalkerchains and reject a life of House of Fraser to re-join House Givenchy or House McCartney? Oh, what the heck, I thought, 50 is the new 25, right?

  Last year’s model: Karen wears coat by Ganni at Liberty, blouse by Gucci at Matches Fashion, trousers by No 21 at Harvey Nichols, and earrings by Louise Olsen at Dinosaur Designs. Photograph: Ram Shergill for the Observer

 Last year’s model: Karen wears coat by Ganni at Liberty, blouse by Gucci at Matches Fashion, trousers by No 21 at Harvey Nichols, and earrings by Louise Olsen at Dinosaur Designs. Photograph: Ram Shergill for the Observer

Panic creeps in. Should I smile? Or do the teapot with a hand on my hip?

Since my time in the industry, some model agencies now actually have a “classic” section. Online research led me to discover that there are some 60 legitimate agencies (according to the British Fashion Model Agents Association) employing more than 700 “classic” (aged 30+) working female models. Not too sure how many are as old as me though. Seven hundred isn’t exactly a huge rebellion, but it’s a start. I quickly came across the excellently named agency Mrs Robinson. So, despite a loud voice in my head shouting: “What the hell are you doing?” I gave them a call.

“Height?” they said. Literally like that, no pussyfooting around. “5ft 11in,” I answered. “OK, have you modelled before?” “Yes,” I said, “in the early 90s.” “Age?” “50,” I said proudly. “Oh don’t worry,” they chuckled, “we have ‘girls’ a lot older than you!” I hadn’t been worried about my age, but concede that referring to 50-year-olds as “girls” caused a twinge of anxiety. It was arranged that I’d pop in and introduce myself.

I won’t lie, I was jittery walking into the agency. I’m past the days of spending hours in the bathroom getting ready – preferring to leave that to my teenage daughter – and wasn’t sure that my greying hair and loosening skin were up to focussed visual scrutiny. But they’d allow for that, surely?

An agency booker shows me to a side room. Two big lights are shone towards me, from left and right, and an iPad pointed in my face. Any instructions are painfully withheld. When I realise I’m supposed to know what I’m doing, panic creeps in. Do I smile? Or at least – that old stalwart of the seasoned model – make like a tea-pot with a hand on a hip? So I try both these things.

“Well,” says the booker, “you’re a bit rusty, but you’ve got everything we need. You’ll have to get a new set of photos, and be looser in front of the camera, but the main thing to remember is that it’s not like it used to be. Don’t try to recreate your old poses – fashion’s changed. You’ve got to show personality,” she emphasises. Ah, I ponder on this. Personality? But isn’t that kind of, err, to be expected? I mean… can you avoid it?

They offer to arrange a “test shoot” for me. It’ll cost me £100, but I’ll make that back if I’m any good. I am to take four outfits, two of which should make “a story” and a couple of which should be “classic casual wear”. “White shirt?” I ask, “God no!” comes the answer.

The shoot with Mark, the photographer, is surprisingly relaxed and fun. Just a couple of years my junior, he talks incessantly, putting me at my ease. He doesn’t seem too bothered about my clothes choices or rustiness. But neither does he give me much direction.

A week after my test I call the agency. “Oh yes, we’ve got the pics somewhere, hang on.” I hear shuffling papers and busy office sounds in the background and feel rather small as I wait to hear my modelling fate.

The agency explains that they will choose 10 pictures, and that I should do the same. “Then we’ll send our final selection back to Mark for retouching. We’ll be in touch.”

Weeks pass. No call, so I contact the agency. “Oh yes,” mumbles the booker. “I thought we’d dealt with that.” This doesn’t bode well. She sends me the final images and I gingerly ask what they think of them. “Well, we’re not sure you’re right for us: we need models who can do different expressions.” Oh.

I’m smiling, well, some might say smirking, in every image. But that’s not because I can’t do different expressions: “It’s because I’m trying to look attractive.” The booker is somewhat sympathetic, and says: “Come in tomorrow and we’ll take some Polaroids to see what you can do.”

Back at home, inspired by Zoolander’s famous “Blue Steel” pose, I determine to create some looks. With my husband grinning supportively beside me, we sit down and capitalise on what I’ve already got. We call it Vanilla Brain – a sort of welcoming, if insipidly attractive, smile. Then we study the older models on the agency’s website and work out what I need in my tool kit. Blank Stare won’t cut it. It’s clearly classic model eats classic model out there.

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We study the agency’s website and work out the expressions that I need

We come up with Silver Cow – a disdainful gaze that’s all about the eyes. Then we christen Wisteria Hysteria – a classic perfect housewife, involving a look that could easily be mistaken for mental illness were I to over-egg the pudding. I suggest Excited as a good expression, but my husband overrules it, saying that I don’t want to run before I can walk. He has a point.

Taking The Bliss is a mouth half open, dreamy, chilled look, and finally, Happier Than You is a full-on in-your-face laugh, designed to create Fomo in every viewer.

Next day, I take the train to London. Fully loaded with expressions, this time I’m ready for the booker’s iPad camera. Head up, eyes to iPad, head to side, eyes to iPad, fold arms, stare bloody iPad out, laugh like a maniac at nothing, ad infinitum… We flick through the results. The booker is clearly still unimpressed. Look, she says disbelievingly, you’ve got the same eyes, in all of them. At a bit of a loss, I scan Mrs Robinson’s photo-lined walls for inspiration, but with only one shot of each woman, see no examples of Changed Eyes.

She says she’ll call me later. I think she’s already made up her mind, but wants to transfer the awkwardness of face-to-face rejection to a text or an email. In the end, I never hear from Mrs Robinson again.

  Green goddess: Karen wears coat by Shrimps, dress by Ganni, roll neck by 3.1 Phillip Lim, and earrings by Dinosaur Designs. Photograph: Ram Shergill for the Observer

 Green goddess: Karen wears coat by Shrimps, dress by Ganni, roll neck by 3.1 Phillip Lim, and earrings by Dinosaur Designs. Photograph: Ram Shergill for the Observer

I decide to have one more go at joining the Grey Rebellion. Continuing my quest in Covent Garden, I visit the buzzy reception of Models 1, the largest model agency in Europe. I’ve pulled my greying locks into a tight bun and am sporting a large pair of black-rimmed glasses. I’ve gone for an Audrey In Her Unicef Days look since Pretty Old Girl Next Door clearly wasn’t working.

Beautiful young women built like young giraffes glide in and out in heeled black boots. Behind screens, bookers tap and chat away securing jobs with photographers, designers and big online sellers. I have an appointment with Uwe Herstein and Chantal Murray, both senior bookers who run the classics section, to ask about the reality of older modelling and whether I could do it.

“I could get anyone a one-off photo on a shampoo packet, but a career – that takes skill, care and professional handling, and we deal with careers,” explains Uwe.

Chantal tells me that previously advertisers have asked for Daphne Selfe to advertise a walking stick or a walk-in bath – “but that would have done nothing for her long-term career!” Daphne is 89. One of the most classic of the classics, she shoots regularly for fashion editorials. So at 50, I must still be in the first (or second) flush of youth. That’s nice to know.

“It’s refreshing,” Uwe smiles. “It’s not just mother-of-the-bride work any more. In the 80s Mr Versace created the supermodels. Those five girls dominated the market, and they are the older ones now.” I nod and think admiringly of Linda, Christy, Naomi, Claudia and Helena. They will never be crones with their golden chromosomes.

“Err, so what about me? I’ve done a lot of catwalk, and some photographic work,” I say.

“Well, we’d need you to be able to do everything otherwise there’d be no point,” Uwe explains. “We assess a classic model in terms of whether she’s had experience modelling. That’s our most important consideration. Then, if we think a woman has something incredible we’d try a test shoot with a full team and see how she moves in front of the camera. If we like that, then we’d send her picture to selected clients for feedback… Then possibly sign her depending on how the market is responding. But it’s very rare. Even then we may part ways after a year if it’s not working.”

I’m informed that they’ve just had to “let 22 classics go” this month. I picture a herd of 22 sharply coiffed but discarded old dears meandering aimlessly down the King’s Road.

Models 1’s classic division is contacted by 150-200 prospective older models every year and, from those, they take just one or two on. And I am not going to be one of them I realise, unless I can come across as incredible (and quickly).

In a reassuring voice, I mention that I walked for Chalayan, was a house model for Ally Capellino (“when she did clothes”), strutted bewigged for Zandra Rhodes, and was once Ms Scotland for Catwalk Model of the Year in Turkey. (Ms France won – I don’t talk about it much). I start to falter, mentioning Dorothy Perkins’s maternity brochure and, no doubt becoming instantly less incredible, while Uwe is now himself making an expression I can’t quite place. He manages to still look kind – and kind of unimpressed. No wonder he’s so renowned in the industry – I’m feeling prepared for rejection and to be loved at the same time.

Chantal kindly tells me that I “still have the height and bone structure”, but that unless I “had a back catalogue of Vogue Paris covers or Avedon shoots” they wouldn’t take me on. I don’t. “We can’t work on development with older models.”

Now I get it. The Grey Rebellion workshop is really for older women who want a great photo, a fun day, and the odd job. But it’s not for re-establishing careers like that of Selfe or stablemate 72-year-old Jan de Villeneuve (who have just starred together with other classics in a 28-page shoot for Harper’s Bazaar Netherlands).

And, thinking of these two iconic classics, another penny drops. I’m at an in-between age: my lines aren’t etched deeply yet, my hair isn’t remarkably silver or white or block grey, and my sun spots are still few and far between. To misquote Britney: “I’m no longer a maiden, but not yet a crone.” There’s nothing challenging or arresting about my appearance, no juxtaposition to be made between my age and what I wear. Were I to shoot for Vogue Italia, they could retouch enough to make me look a million dollars but put Selfe or De Villeneuve in a high-fashion advert and punters will double-take at the hair, or the time-wrinkled face, or even the beautifully aged and elegant arms as they drape the body. These amazing ladies stand out from the pages – they interrupt the youth; they are incredible.

I walk out on to Drury Lane, unroll my hair, and shake off any feeling of rejection. I adjust my oversized glasses and a thought enters my brain like a tonic for any middle-aged woman facing invisibility. It is this. There’s no point signing up for a Grey Rebellion just yet. I need at least another decade to mature and reach my modelling prime.

Karen Dobres

Katie Price Doesn't Bare All

Published by Huff Post UK Entertainment, 18th November 2016

Remember Jordan, uber glamour model of the 90s? I just went to see her re-incarnation Katie Price in conversation with Alain de Botton, hosted by The School of Life (Katie Price and Philosophy, 16 November 2016).

TSoL is ‘devoted to developing emotional intelligence through culture’ and the idea of this public chat was to ‘discover what drives someone to surrender a big part of their identity to the public, what happens when they do, and what we might all learn from the life of a figure in a constant media storm.’

 

By way of introducing his guest, de Botton dwelt on the unconventionality of having a glamour model and entrepreneur talking at an organisation normally associated with academics and intelligentsia, and said his colleagues had laughed when he suggested Price as a candidate. In the audience, I felt immediately uncomfortable: wasn’t Katie ‘intellectual’ enough for TSoL? I began to suspect that this evening may be a stunt as opposed to an authentic revelatory conversation about narcissism and the hunger for celebrity in popular culture.

Katie came on stage - all long blonde hair, make-up and over the knee high-heeled boots - looking very much the ‘celebrity’, glass of white wine firmly in hand. The juxtaposition was clear - we didn’t need Alain to point it out further. He did all the same, and Katie asked the audience ‘why are you all laughing?’ Actually, we weren’t all laughing.

After some introductory questions where it was established that Katie didn’t want to talk about politics or religion, and that she saw herself as very ‘open’, chatty and amusing company (she partly puts her success as a model down to ‘having a personality’), Alain produced a box of cards.

On sale at TSoL these cards (‘100 Questions: Love Edition’) are ‘designed by leading experts’ to quiz you in a searching and provocative way about relationships. Most of de Botton’s selection were slightly sexual in nature.

“After a long pursuit, you realise that someone is as keen on you as you are on them. What feelings does this bring up for you?” he asked Price. The questions were similar to those quizzes in womens’ mags that are supposed to reveal your personality, but succeed only in either making you laugh or belittling your intelligence. I couldn’t help wondering whether de Botton would have reached for the same box of cards with Stephen Hawking sitting opposite him.

Price responded well, gamely quizzing de Botton right back. She made her interlocutor blush asking him the risqué question he’d just asked her: “Would you entertain group sex or a threesome?’ (She has, but not nowadays, and he loves ‘the idea but would worry about the practicalities’).

Overall, however, I got the impression that Katie hadn’t really thought things through. There were a lot of contradictions in her statements about herself, and although she’s clearly had a life full of diverse and unusual experiences, I was left wondering how much this life had changed the worldview of the 17 year old trainee nurse who was made into Jordan by a hungry media.

For example, Katie loves the doctors and nurses of the NHS and thinks they should be paid a lot more (‘they’re saving our lives!’), but with the next breath proclaims she hates paying tax (‘they’re robbing us!’) leaving us to wonder where the medics’ wages would come from.

She’s proud of her own openness about her extensive use of plastic surgery and Botox, and lives in a reality where she bets ‘the person sitting next to you has had a bit of Botox and that, but they lie about it’.

I look at the person next to me and doubt it very much. But then those image-conscious, youth-worshipping circles are the ones in which Katie operates, and always has.

Author of 17 books, Katie also freely admits that she doesn’t write them all herself but contributes ‘ideas’. She’s scathing of celebrities who claim to write their own books, or create their own products, when in fact they have little to do with the goods they lend their names to. Price is nothing if not honest about her career, and the extent of the fakery involved. She seems happy to be exploited as long as she’s making money. She thinks winning Celebrity Big Brother was “probably rigged” and has little faith in media reports judging by the lies that are regularly printed about her own life. In Price’s World there is little Truth in the public arena: life’s taught her that the concept exited the stage years ago, pursued by a Paparazzo.

Katie’s good fortune is built on consumerism. ‘If Coca-Cola or L’Oreal want me I wouldn’t say no, would I?’, and the best thing about being famous is the ‘free stuff,’ she tells the audience.

Price delivered lots of amusing one-liners, the event becoming more of a show than an in-depth look into her motivations and wisdom. The cards didn’t help.

Asked what a typical night out was, Katie explained that it was ‘watching The X-Factor at home with the family, with the neighbours round’, as, at 38 and with five kids, she wasn’t into clubbing anymore. “Last time I went I was like, ‘is it me or is it really dark in here!’”

The one moment which felt thoughtful and poignant, where Katie wasn’t playing for laughs or to her public persona, was an insight she shared, during the audience Q&A. She told us that had she known during her pregnancy with her eldest son Harvey, that he would be born blind and then have complex developmental problems, she would definitely have aborted him. But, now, having been his mother for so long, she wouldn’t dream of aborting for those reasons. Life has taught her that terrible things are not always as terrible as you think. As she spoke about this, her face changed momentarily.

This moment aside, both Price and de Botton seemed to want to keep the conversation fairly jokey, fairly superficial, and Price even chastised the audience for asking ‘tame’ questions.

I left amused but ultimately disappointed. I had expected something more insightful, dare I say ‘deeper’, from the conversation. More fool me. Katie was quoted on the publicity leaflet as saying “No-one will ever work me out”, and she turned up and spoke true to her image, right on-brand. We didn’t get to know the real Katie. However, from de Botton’s blushing and willingness to engage with Price as a publicity stunt to be exploited, I came away with more questions about Alain and his motivations than Katie.

Corbyn’s Therapeutic PMQ Style

 

 14/10/2015 11:00 | Updated 13 October 2016

Published by Huff Post UK Politics 14th October 2015

The other evening I was invited to a “Circle” led by a Native American elder - we do this kind of stuff down in deepest, darkest Sussex. Manitonquet (Medicine Story) is in his eighties and held forth on the subject of replacing power and dominance in human relationships with equality and respect. He told us, amongst other things, that a Leader should be like a ‘walking stick’ and then he paused to great effect. “Leaders should be there to help a person on their way without telling them where to go. They know their own way”, the wise elder said. This is the view of a Leader as facilitator, not director and it appealed to my own experience as a former person-centred therapist.

The next day, I got an email from Jeremy Corbyn on my phone. The email asked for questions to pose to the Prime Minister in his ‘People’s PMQs’. Unusual, thought I, but rather enjoyed the transference of power that was on offer. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to send in a question, but apparently some 47,000 other people did. I decided, for the first time ever, to tune into Prime Minister’s Question Time live to see what a different style of Leadership might look like, what it might feel like.

I was struck by the difference in atmosphere to the usual full-of-itself pantomimic fiasco I’d heard on the radio. Corbyn’s manner seemed to bring the temperature way down. David Cameron seemed nonplussed, perhaps not wishing to be seen to disrespect the questions of the people of the country. And a degree of quiet, respect and focus was subtly demanded from the whole House.

I pondered that we all live in such a narcissistic society, that the ego-led farce of PMQs had become normal, and as the TV commentator described Corbyn as having started a “Revolution in Beige”, I chuckled, and a bell rang in my one-time therapist’s brain. It hit me. What I was witnessing wasn’t the usual battle of ‘charismatic style’, one monologue versus another, but felt more like the Therapist dialoguing the Narcissist.

Narcissism is, of course, a state of personality in which one has little real empathy and is driven, often unwittingly, by self-aggrandisement. This occurs because the person never had their real self offered back to them by the primary caregiver when they were very young, and so the ‘narcissistic wound’ develops, and the person has an empty core, with no genuine sense of themselves, but an over-inflated ego and superb skills in charm and manipulation, which they use to get on in the world and form relationships. That is to say they have a ‘charismatic style’. A therapist may tell you that when you’re in a relationship with a narcissist the best thing to do in order to defuse them and disengage (narcissists do not like to be disengaged with unless it is on their own terms), is to become a “Grey Pebble”. Create no dramas, try not to look attractive, be boring and straightforward, do not draw attention to yourself, and be as smooth as possible with no emotional hooks to give fuel to the narcissist. This way you have far more chance of not being manipulated.

 

I believe that this is what Corbyn is doing in The Commons with his approach to PMQs. No wonder Cameron looking uncomfortable - there was nothing to engage with, little supply of fuel.

Now, I’d say that most of us are a bit narcissistic - I know I am. We live with wallpaper that glamorises attractive people, the high life, material wealth, instant gratification, and plays down patience, common-ness, humility, ordinariness and plainness. Our society has normalised rating outward appearance as more important than what is in the heart, and we have, to some extent, swallowed these values whole.

Personally, I might even watch PMQ’s live again if Corbyn continues as the neutral, but warm and real therapist in the House, with his apparent integrity and patience.

Some are suggesting Corbyn needs a Spin Doctor (an essential job, of course, in narcissistic times, and one that we have normalised!), and maybe he will get one. I hope he doesn’t, but rather that he continues to show us an alternative way of being, a more healing way of relating to each other that gives politics a chance to become human-centred again, and shows the value of grey pebbles on beaches.

I’m not saying I want an eighty-year-old Native American Elder as Prime Minister, but I’d certainly appreciate a world of politics where ‘charismatic style’ has less sway.