She's worth it!

Hollywood diaries

She's worth it!

In the grand tradition of great British stars, Dame Helen Mirren has always been a rule-breaker. She married late, never had children, broke Hollywood in her 50s and is, at 70, a bona-fide global icon, happy to reveal that her beauty secrets fly in the face of everything your mother ever told you.

“I have absolutely no beauty regime,” she says in that perfectly modulated, husky voice. “I sunbathe — I know I shouldn’t but I love sitting in the sun. I drink wine and occasionally I’ll drink to excess. I eat French fries. I’ve never managed to go to the gym for longer than two months. I always forget to take my vitamins.”

‘I’ve done everything but I haven’t done too much of anything — I’ve never had a Coca-Cola, ever. Sometimes I use hotel body lotion as conditioner for my hair. I’m not particular. Life is too short and too precious.”

Beauty for Mirren is never skin deep. The greatest compliment she ever received, she says, was to be compared by a former boyfriend to one of the peasant women in Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters.”

She laughs. “I’m not a goddess type. Never have been. I absolutely love the goddesses. French actors and Italian actors always want to be goddesses. But I’m very real. In Britain, we produce beautiful women. Kate Moss is beautiful but not just because of her looks; her character and personality are why she’s still an icon. There’s a realness about her that I love.”

Matters of age

As she talks, she emphasises her words with her hands. She flits between being funny, wise, reflective and, every now and then, just a little bit saucy. A free spirit for most of her life, she once dated Peter O’Toole and Liam Neeson, but only settled down in her early 50s when she married the American film director Taylor Hackford.

Ageing for her has been a process of simply becoming more of who she is. “As you get older, you have learned things, you are able to deal with things. As each age develops you understand your role in the onward sweep of life. It’s all part of the wonderful process of being a human being.”

Her happiness, she believes, has come from making good choices. She pauses. “I have lived the life I wanted. You never know because it’s all a crap shoot — terrible things can happen to knock you off your perch and make life hard, so I fully understand how fortunate I have been. And I have had a series of good men in my life. My husband, obviously, is the uber good man, but all the men I had relationships with brought something positive to my life.”

Despite her success (along with that Oscar she has four Baftas and three Golden Globes), her homes in LA, New York, London and France, and her 19-year marriage to Hackford, Mirren remains her own woman. She paints, she writes, she practises naturism in the privacy of her own home.

Ask what she misses about Britain and she says immediately, “Oak trees and hedgerows. And I do miss my London when I’m not there.” Her heroes include, “David Hockney, Dawn French, Jo Brand and Olivia Colman. Olivia is the distillation of everything I love about British actors: great but completely accessible.”

As for the Queen, Mirren — a woman who once described herself as ‘anti-monarchist’ — now admits, “I respect the Queen and yes, I do kind of love her. It’s a loving respect.”

In person, Mirren is warm and often hilariously off-message. She gives surprisingly honest answers.

The word Mirren uses most during our conversation is “lucky”; in the space of 30 minutes she describes herself as lucky seven times. But Mirren’s success is due to more than luck.

She grew up in Essex, the middle child of Vasily, a Russian immigrant, who fell in love with an East End butcher’s daughter, Kitty. It was a bohemian upbringing. Her father played the viola for the London Philharmonic, while her mother sewed clothes. The young Helen performed in every school play put on by St Bernard’s High School for Girls in Southend.

One of the most important messages Kitty passed on to her daughter was never to worry about growing old. “She told me that when I was 20 I would dread the idea of being 40. But that when I was 40 I would never want to be 20 again. It meant nothing to me at the time but she was so right and I always think of it. For me, one of the best things about getting older is finally being relieved of the whole sex-symbol tag,” she says.

“I’m happy being in my 70s and there will be another person in me at 80, hopefully, and I can’t wait to meet her. I’m just incredibly grateful to be here and incredibly grateful for my health. When I do anything it’s always to do with health, not beauty.”

Definition of beauty

She is, she says, thrilled that a new generation of women have redefined what it is to be beautiful. “When I was growing up, it was thought to be unbelievably sluttish to even have a bra strap showing. Everything was about women conforming. I love shameless women. Shameless and proud! Women were controlled by being shamed, so I love women who have claimed their own bodies: Madonna, Chrissie Hynde, Joan Jett, Bonnie Raitt. I love Pussy Riot more than anything in the world. They all raise their middle fingers to this epithet of ‘slut’. They wear what they want to wear, behave as they want to behave.”

Even Kim Kardashian gets the Mirren seal of approval. “I’m not into the Kardashians, it’s a phenomenon I just don’t find interesting, but — and this is the big word: B-U-T-T — it’s wonderful that you’re allowed to have a butt nowadays! Thanks to Madame Kardashian, and before her, J-Lo. We’re also allowed to have thighs now, which is great too. It’s positive.”

It’s easy to forget that of all the great roles in Mirren’s life, it was playing DCI Jane Tennison in the Lynda La Plante television series Prime Suspect, which ran from 1991-2006, that was the real game-changer.

A tough, independent woman, Tennison was one of TV’s first great feminist heroines. Mirren nods in agreement. “That was the beginning of a whole new view of women and of drama. And that was thanks to Lynda.”

A new series, Tennison, is soon to be screened on ITV, a prequel to the classic series, about Jane’s early years in the police service in Hackney. Mirren has had no involvement in the show and up until now has made no comment but says, “It’s a lovely idea to go back. It’s good for young women to see how the world used to be for women who wanted to become police.”

As she gets up to prepare for the photo shoot, I tell her she looks great. She initially
demurs then laughs, “You see, we hate compliments, us Brits.” This is a woman who is genuinely worth it.

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