When Isabella Rossellini was 43, she was fired for being too old.
The renowned beauty and daughter of Ingrid Bergman had been an actress and the face of Lancome’s skincare and cosmetics for 14 years.
She was beautiful, yes, but age was against her. ‘I was told that advertisements represent women’s dreams, not reality, and that women dream of looking young. So I had to go. It felt very unjust,’ she says.
The enforced retirement devastated her career. When the Lancome contract came to an end, all her other modelling and film work dried up, too. ‘I can’t say I wasn’t sad,’ she says. ‘I know how to pose. I know how to give expression, and I had all this wonderful experience, but I couldn’t exercise it or offer it to anyone. Yes, it was painful.’ So, when she got a call from Lancome’s new general manager, Francoise Lehmann, two years ago, inviting her back, you would have thought she’d have told her where to stick her offer.
Isabella Rossellini, 65, (pictured) revealed why she agreed to be the face of Lancome twenty years after the brand fired her
Besides, 20 years on, Rossellini had a new life. In the interim, she had bought and moved to an organic farm on Long Island, a couple of hours’ drive east of New York, gained a Master’s degree in animal behaviour and ‘started to make funny films, just for fun’, about such things as the sex lives of insects, for Robert Redford’s Sundance Channel. She walked guide-dog puppies, kept bees and tended to her chickens.
Yet the Lancome offer was intriguing.
‘I was just so surprised! I said: “You let me go at 43 and now I’m 63. I haven’t got any younger!” But I agreed to meet, because I was very curious.’
Arriving early at the meeting, she saw a motorcycle draw up. ‘A fantastic-looking woman got off, took off her casque [helmet] and this blonde hair fell out.
‘Then she walked up to me, shook my hand and said: “Hi, I’m Francoise,” and, just with that, I knew things had changed. Before, I used to deal with 60-year-old men who were paternalistic and condescending.
‘I thought: “My God, this is a revolution!” I asked her: “Why me? You are digging up an old story.” But she said: “We made a mistake. I want that story to be rewritten.” Her courage in saying that touched me so much, I wanted to work with them again.’
Now, two years on, her career is back on track with a vengeance. Alongside the worldwide Lancome campaign, she is in two forthcoming Hollywood movies — Vita And Virginia (about the love affair between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf) and Incredibles 2 — has a book coming out about chickens and is about to start a theatre tour across Europe.
That Lancome is banking on a 65-year-old to front its multi-million-pound campaign marks a radical and welcome shift in the beauty industry’s attitudes to women and ageing.
Yes, we have seen ads featuring 72-year-old Helen Mirren and 80-year-old Jane Fonda, but Mirren prides herself on looking years younger than she is, while Fonda has admitted she’s had work done.
Isabella (pictured in 1990) says the new Lancome manager claimed the brand’s previous decision to fire her was a mistake
To celebrate natural beauty such as Rossellini’s — well, that feels genuinely ground-breaking for older women, as is the fact that the first product she is promoting, a radiance-boosting cream called Renergie, is aimed squarely at the 60-plus market.
On the day I meet Rossellini, in a flower-filled suite at the Savoy Hotel, I find myself trying not to stare too intently at a face that is beautiful, yes, but which also looks very definitely 65.
The bright, merciless London daylight pours in through the huge windows as I scan her face for telltale signs of anti-ageing help.
As a beauty journalist who has tested pretty much everything going for the past 20 years, I pride myself on my ability to spot even the subtlest of work.
Rossellini’s default expression is a polite, animated smile that lifts up the contours of her face, bunches her still-full cheeks and starts up the crinkles in what can only be described as crow’s feet.
I didn’t have cosmetic surgery because, frankly, I’m afraid of it. And I cannot reconcile Botox with eating organic!
Her famously strong eyebrows, while neatly shaped, sit a fraction lower than they used to on her eyelids. Her lips have lost their youthful volume, but are still a beautiful shape, picked out in a deep-pink, matte lipstick (How can she get away with matte over 60? On anyone else, a shine-free finish would render the lips a pair of desiccated earthworms).
Her jawline has softened and the skin on her neck is thickened and creased — but her face has a glow to it, rather than that dull, papery finish age tends to confer.
Has she felt a need to preserve the face that has been her fortune?
‘I didn’t feel this urge to preserve,’ she says, thoughtfully. ‘I do not define elegance as being 60, but looking 58. What I have looked for in cosmetics is something to express elegance and sophistication. It’s the same with my clothes, or the way I decorate my house.’
Today, her clothes — long, loose, colourful layers — drape across a surprisingly normal, generous figure.
I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone in the beauty world who has such a clear lack of interest in looking younger, or whose face moves exactly as nature intended. When she tells me that she would never countenance cosmetic surgery, I don’t doubt her.
Isabella (pictured) revealed she eats organic food and uses good cosmetics to maintain her health and wouldn’t undergo plastic surgery
‘I didn’t do it because, frankly, I’m afraid of it,’ she says. ‘I was born with a spinal deformity called scoliosis and I’ve had two major back operations, one aged 13 and one five years ago. I couldn’t walk for six months.
‘I had to have a nurse. Even if plastic surgery isn’t this bad, just the word “operation” fills me with fear.’
I can see she is telling the truth. But I ask her, just for good measure, hasn’t she even tried Botox? ‘I have an organic farm,’ she replies. ‘I eat organic food not to look younger, but to preserve my health. I use good creams to take care of my skin. I cannot reconcile eating organic food and doing Botox [or Bott-ox, as she pronounces it].
‘Some of my friends do yoga, eat organic, avoid alcohol, but they do Botox. I say, how can you live with that? It’s a total contradiction!’
Her beauty routine is minimal. ‘Every day, I use a cream, a lipstick and a perfume,’ she says. She even wears a slick of lipstick on the farm.
I sneak a glance at her hands, which look well-kept, with light liver spots on their backs. Her fingers are surprisingly long and strong-looking, with short, practical nails adorned only with clear varnish. They are the sort of hands that are good for working with animals. She will wear more make-up when she is meeting people but, day-to-day, she likes to keep things simple.
Isabella’s mother Ingrid Bergman (pictured with children Ingrid, Isabella and Roberto) was widely regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful women
Besides, she adds, her mum was Scandinavian and they are much more focused on a healthy, natural type of beauty.
Ah, yes, her mother, the actress Ingrid Bergman, widely regarded in her day as one of the world’s most beautiful women. Wasn’t it difficult growing up in her shadow? She shrugs.
‘She was my mum! She was fun to be around. I liked to hug her and play with her. I didn’t look at her and think: “Wow, she’s such a beauty.” ’
And what about Rossellini’s non-identical twin sister, Ingrid? Has she ever been resentful that her sister stole the beauty genes?
‘Well, you know, we are 65,’ she says, in an amused, “get real” sort of tone. ‘My twin is a scholar and she is incredibly shy. She couldn’t care less about my looks. She has always had completely different interests.’
Together with their siblings, the twins had an extraordinary upbringing.
Ingrid Bergman was already married, with a daughter, when she fell for film director Roberto Rossellini (also married, with two children) while filming Stromboli, in 1950.
The scandal intensified when she gave birth to Rossellini’s son before leaving her husband. They married — Isabella and Ingrid were born in 1952 — but, four years later, the marriage was already falling apart. After that, all the siblings lived first in a hotel in Paris, then an apartment in Rome, looked after by nannies, while their parents flitted in and out for work and argued about custody.
Isabella (pictured with her baby grandson) claims she fainted while her daughter was having her first grandchild
But it didn’t make Rossellini think any less of her mother. Far from it: ‘She was one of the first women to have a huge career and be the breadwinner and still be at home,’ she says. ‘She gave me a wonderful example of how to reconcile work and family.’
Rossellini herself has married and divorced twice — to director Martin Scorsese and model-turned-Microsoft exec Jonathan Wiedemann, with whom she had a daughter, Elettra, now 34, before later adopting her son, Roberto, now 24.
Just weeks ago, she became a grandmother for the first time. She had been in the delivery room with her daughter, hoping to help, ‘but I was really bad’, she admits with a peal of laughter.
‘The delivery took 24 hours, but I fainted within the first two. I didn’t know emotion could be so strong that you could faint.
‘When I came to, my daughter said: “Mama! You’re fired!” I had to be taken home.’
She was allowed back the next day and promptly Instagrammed a photo of herself, without a trace of make-up, exhausted, but beaming, a picture of happiness cradling her new grandson.
When I ask whether she sees herself as beautiful, she laughs so much she can barely answer.
She once said she felt like an impostor with her looks and had to put on lots of make-up to go to parties so that people who had seen her pictures wouldn’t be too disappointed.
Isabella (pictured) as a teenager with her sister Ingrid who she describes as a shy scholar
‘Well,’ she says, in a kindly tone, when she finally regains her composure. ‘You know those photos take three hours of make-up, the best lighting, the best photographers . . . sometimes, when people saw me, the real Isabella, they would say: “You have the most beautiful sister!” ’ — and off she goes again into another gale of laughter.
She is truly puzzled as to where her appeal lay (‘I just thought: “How lucky I am!” ’), though others could certainly see it.
She went into modelling late, at 28, but almost instantly won the cover of Vogue, notching up another 22 Vogue covers over the years. When she asked the magazine why, they told her a simple fact: more copies were sold when she was on the cover.
During this time, she worked extensively with Bruce Weber and when, earlier this year, the photographer was accused by 15 male models of subjecting them to ‘unnecessary nudity’ and ‘coercive sexual behaviour’ — allegations that he denies — Rossellini was quick to leap to his defence. What troubles her about the Me Too and Time’s Up movements, she tells me now, is that people like Weber, her friend of 40 years, have lost their jobs over accusations of sexual abuse, without due process.
‘He might have done something wrong, but innocent until proven guilty, and then, if guilty, you are given proportionate punishment.’
Certainly, Weber’s shots of her were stunning, but then, so are the latest campaign images, albeit in a very different way.
Rather than that unattainable Eighties perfection, the new shots, by photographer Peter Lindbergh, look refreshingly real.
In one, she is leaning on her elbows, her face resting on one hand. If you try this pose at home, you’ll see it distorts the cheek you’re leaning on. You can see this in the Lindbergh shot.
You can also see the pigmentation marks on her forehead, neither masked with foundation, nor blanked out by strong lighting, and the shadows under her eyes.
And yet, goodness, how her face draws you in!
Now, her looks still have power, but the years have softened them into something more accessible, to which other 60-year-olds might relate. And that, surely, is where her magic lies for Lancome.
Isabella Rossellini is the campaign face of Lancome Renergie Multi-Glow, £64, at Boots and lancome.co.uk from March 14.