Marie Helvin has the same problem as other women in finding clothes that suit her. She may have what her former husband, the photographer David Bailey, called a “perfect body”; she may appear enviably un-crêpey at 55, but in the wrong kit she can look scrawny.
I can vouch for this, having witnessed her trying on a whole rack of clothes intended for publicity junkets surrounding the launch of her new autobiography.
Experience has taught Helvin how to avoid obvious mistakes, as she riffles through the assembled options.
“Too short. I don’t show my knees.” “Too frilly.” Girly dresses are out. “Too frumpy.” The Ralph Lauren suit joins them. “Too weird.” So does the tartan Vivienne Westwood two-piece.
On and on goes the weeding process: too hot; too covered up; too pastel; too low-cut for television. That leaves just a handful of outfits for her to try on. The skirts swim around her bottom, and one dress fits below the waist but won’t do up around her bust. This, she assures me, is entirely usual: “My mother was known as Jayne Mansfield.”
Helvin knows she is too thin. In her youth, Bailey, who she credits with developing her look, said she looked “mighty meaty matey” and kept her on a broccoli-only diet. But these days her problem is maintaining her “fighting weight” of 130lb.
She has dropped to a size eight in the month since her mother died of a brain tumour. “It’s the adrenaline. I find it hard to keep things down.”
This is an agonising time for Helvin. Every night her octogenarian father rings from Hawaii, her childhood home, in tears.
Each morning starts with her sister Naomi, in Thailand, calling about when she can get home to Hawaii to scatter the ashes. In between those fixtures, she has to go out, sparkle and look glamorous. Even for a pro who has been modelling for nearly 40 years, that’s tough.
What makes it worse is that her friends aren’t rallying round. “I think they’re too scared to call me,” she says sadly. What about Jerry Hall, who used to be known as her terrible twin? “Jerry and I haven’t been close for years. We made a good foursome when I was with Bailey and she was with Mick, but then she had a family and wanted to talk about nappies.”
Helvin maintains that she is single and childless by choice. Last week, when challenged on television by Fern Britton, she blurted out: “I don’t like children,” and is now regretting her words. “She asked me whether I hadn’t had children because I wanted to keep my figure. I was so shocked that anyone could think that that I made things worse. It’s difficult when people tell me I look good for my age, so I say that I don’t have the stresses of children and a husband. Of course I like other people’s children. I just don’t want my own.
“At one time Jerry persuaded me to try, but when it didn’t work after six months I was relieved to go back on the Pill. I never wanted children – maybe because my mum didn’t want grandchildren. Maybe it’s genetic; none of my siblings has had children. Maybe it’s to do with the abortion I had in my early modelling days in Japan. It could be to do with my younger sister Suzon dying.”
Suzon was 23 when she fell off a cliff in Jamaica in mysterious circumstances. It was the beginning of the end of Marie’s marriage to Bailey, who offered minimal support. Later, she moved in with Mark Shand, the Duchess of Cornwall’s brother, but it was “torture”. “I’m spoilt. I like my own space,” she says. “I don’t even own a microwave and men don’t like that. They want to be looked after.”
In their time, every playboy – Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Dodi Fayed – tried to add Helvin to their list of conquests. Sometimes she had a fling, sometimes she resisted. She had enough money to travel and be independent. Then financial disaster in the aftermath of September 11 swept away her savings and five years ago, aged 50, she started modelling again.
“It’s flattering to be asked and it’s good money,” she says. She certainly knows how to do it. One minute she’s feeling grim and asking for a paracetamol, the next she turns on the “alert but at rest” look for a good photo: “You should look as if you have just exhaled – ‘Aaaah’,” she explains.
Her look is unchanged from her modelling heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. For a while she had short hair, but her publishers insisted that she grow it for the book so she looked like Marie Helvin.”It makes me recognisable. If I go to the supermarket wearing it in a scarf, with no make-up and baggy jeans and I don’t make eye contact, no one recognises me. Monroe used to say she could become Marilyn. It’s about the way you walk.”
Plastic surgery? “Absolutely, I approve,” she says, “but everyone says once you start it’s difficult to stop. I’ve considered Botox but my forehead is so high it might make me look like an alien.”
Instead, she trains herself not to frown, does facial exercises and sleeps sitting upright to avoid puffy eyes and crumple marks on her face. “Iman had to do it for six months after a serious accident and discovered that her skin looked better.
“Otherwise, I do what everyone else does. I use soap and water. Sometimes I eat, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’m lucky in love, sometimes I’m not.”
But, of course, she knows how to dress. Jeans or a pencil skirt and a white shirt are her daily uniform. British tailoring delights her, so she adores her Edward Sexton suit. For the evening, something clingy – like the Roberto Cavalli dress; or sparkly – like the Ben de Lisi jacket; or cinched in around her waist, as with the Maria Grachvogel blouse.
But she can’t bear tights or closed-toe shoes. “I’m an island girl.” And, as soon as she can, she wants to turn off “Marie Helvin” and just be Marie with her family in Hawaii.