About Helvin

MARIE Helvin had a plan.

On the brink of 54 - "a certain age", as the saying goes - she'd finally had her fill of London. The time had come to spill some home truths and then head for home to spend time with her parents, especially her beloved mum, the dedicatee of her autobiography. With a conspiratorial look and a giggle she says, "I thought I could be really honest and then do a quick runner and move home to Hawaii. Isn't it odd how you go back to where you come from, in one way or another? I'm craving it. I wake up in the morning and I'm like 'Oh no!' I have a beautiful flat, but I don't want it, I want to overlook the sea."

Helvin started modelling as a teenager and has worked non-stop ever since on catwalks, on the pages - and covers - of every magazine imaginable, and on television. She published three books and designed her own line of clothes before returning to modelling at 50, proving that not only wine and cheese improve with age. But she's bought a ranch in a tiny Hawaiian town with a hitching post outside the grocery shop, so you can tie up your transport while doing the weekly shop.

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"But of course it's all changed." Helvin shakes her head. "Life is never as you think it's going to be, it's never as you planned. It comes along and hits you in the face and wow, you get a big surprise." Helvin had been ringing her 81-year-old mum every three days to read her what she'd written. One night in May her dad rang to say something was wrong. The next day doctors operated on her mother for a brain tumour. "It was that quick - overnight."

Helvin and her younger sister Naomi, married to the French Ambassador to Thailand, transferred their mother to a Bangkok hospital to oversee her treatment, and Helvin travelled back and forth. She'd spend days at the hospital and nights waiting for time zones to align, enabling her to ring her editor in London to finalise the manuscript. Days before we met on 10 September, Helvin's mum passed away. The excitement of publishing a book evaporated along with the anticipation she felt about returning home next year. She'll still go, but with the heaviest of hearts. We admire pictures on her mobile. Her mum sports a purple bandana covering her baldness, and a winning smile. Like her daughter, who inherited her age-defying genes, she looks decades younger than 81.

Heads turned when Helvin arrived at this chic Knightsbridge hotel, though whether it's because of her beauty or the rapid-fire, angry retelling of a bitter argument she's having with her telephone provider, I'm not entirely sure. She is 5ft 9in in her stocking feet but vertiginous now in heels. Black trousers give her liquorice whip legs that go on for days, rising to an arresting embonpoint marvellously set off in a tailored white shirt which, despite being opened to there, gives her the look of a glossy, refined businesswoman.

But Helvin doesn't see it that way. She starts violently mopping her face with a tissue and apologising profusely, as if she's given grievous offence. "I'm sorry, I've just come from a photo shoot and I'm wearing so much make-up that I look like a drag queen!" Try as I might, the only resemblances between Helvin and a drag queen that I spot are the enviable absence of hips, saddlebags, and booty. Her bone structure is remarkable, her long hair still dark, and to detect wrinkles I have to squint so hard I risk causing a few of my own. "People need to realise 50 does not look like 20," she says philosophically, "but 50 does not look like three million, either!"

WORKING WITH intensely original people is like standing in the path of a tornado... It is like being touched by fire," writes Helvin, who has known the world's most lauded photographers and designers, and for ten years was married to the most notorious one of all, David Bailey - so synonymous with the Swinging Sixties that he helped inspire Michelangelo Antonioni's film Blow Up.

It was a far cry from running barefoot in Oahu. "My parents' story was like Madame Butterfly with a happy ending. My father was a young American GI from Norfolk, Virginia. He met my mother, a Japanese translator, when she was working at the American officers' club in Sapporo." Marie was born in Tokyo and was immediately bustled down to the US embassy to claim her citizenship. In 1956, when she was four, they moved to Hawaii, not yet the 50th state. By now her dad was an insurance broker, doing "the dullest job in the world in the most exotic place in the world".

With the births of Naomi, Suzon and Steve, the family was complete, and their existence idyllic. Helvin's father, a militant atheist and health nut, instilled his kids with a love of good food and exercise. He rubbed garlic on their feet to ward off colds. Nevertheless, Helvin begged to be allowed to eat at McDonald's. He cured her of that by announcing that the burgers were made from road kill mongooses scraped off the highway.

A tall, skinny beanpole by 14, she ran wild, painting herself silver, dressing in tie-dyed frocks and attending love-ins. By her own admission she took "a lot" of drugs. Pot grew wild and LSD was still legal. "Drugs were my way of escaping the confines of the islands. Hawaii had begun to seem like a very small place."

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Luckily she was discovered by a model scout for Kanebo cosmetics while visiting Japan with her mum. The 16-year-old planned on attending university, but on discovering that her boyfriend was unfaithful, changed tack and returned to Tokyo alone to embark on her first great adventure.

It helps that Helvin has an impressive gift for befriending the most interesting people. At 13 she met Yevgeny Yevtushenko, when the Babi Yar poet visited Hawaii. He took her to a Monkees concert and introduced her to Bob Rafelson (director of Five Easy Pieces). In Tokyo she grew close to Tina Lutz (later Tina Chow) and Issey Miyake. She had a date with Claude Picasso and a relationship with a local rock star, Shoken. She's been close to Jerry Hall and Mick Jagger, and remains tight with Salman Rushdie and Tom Stoppard, to name just a few among her circle of acquaintances.

In 1971 Kansai Yamamoto brought a bizarre fashion show to London, heavily influenced by Noh theatre. What the London audience didn't know was that not all the models were Japanese. Beside Helvin stood Angelica Huston and both were sworn to secrecy and silence. Helvin was an instant success and soon moved to London. From 17 to 19 her life was a succession of airports and fashion shoots, working with designers whose names are now legendary, including Yves Saint Laurent, Versace and Valentino.

But the greatest influence - good and bad - was Bailey. She'd heard the stories about his womanising, but resistance was futile. She was deeply in love and within six months had moved into his mansion, along with a menagerie of animals and a non-stop stream of visitors. Listening to her talk about him reminds me of the stories you hear about Sonny and Cher, and the way, when they split up, Cher sued him for enslavement. Helvin decided to work almost exclusively with Bailey, yet wasn't paid for those jobs, or credited with being more than just a luscious looker, though Bailey even trusted her to edit his contact sheets.

And Bailey cheated. Once, Helvin woke up in their Milan hotel room to find her husband in the doorway making out with another woman. "I was in love and blind to everything. I'd trained myself to accept that I was with someone who was different and unusual. I felt that I had no choice." Worse, she believed that she was nothing without him. "Bailey told me what to read and how to read it, and believe it or not, he would test me! 'Who wrote this, who wrote that?' I have no idea what he'd have done if I got it wrong. What a weird dynamic that was in our relationship."

Why didn't she have a voice? The question nags and troubles her. "I've been thinking about this issue a lot. It's so hard, I've nobody to bounce off ideas with. Writing is an interesting exploration that makes you go to places and think about things, but I didn't really get that chance, because all of a sudden Mom was sick. But I think, maybe, that I was abused in some way. Obviously not by my parents, but we travelled a lot. Who knows?" She once caught her next door neighbour's son peering in her window, and later found out he'd approached her sister, Suzon, with prurient intent. But she's uncertain, casting around for explanations. She admits, "On the other hand, I read a great deal. I don't want to think that I read something that has put these ideas in my head. But why didn't I have this voice? Why couldn't I speak, ever? That time in Milan, why couldn't I say anything? My psyche and whole being was so wrapped up in Bailey. I felt so unworthy and that if I said something, he'd just go. Maybe that's what it was."

Helvin has little patience with self-pity. She chose to be generous in her book - even telling stories that cast her in an unflattering light. "If you're not generous something's the matter with you. I'm sure these people don't want to read about themselves. I don't mind looking like an asshole. In the book world you've got to have a bit of a story, a bit of rhythm and pathos, but I'll be honest, I'm astounded by how fake this world is. The publishers didn't tell me what [to write]. I did it totally of my own choice, deciding which stories I wanted to say. But now I feel let down."

Could it be a form of postpartum depression? Maybe, she concedes, but not entirely. "It's also total disappointment with the process. If you ask have I enjoyed writing this book I would tell you 125 per cent no. The business has changed since my first book in 1985, which was an incredible experience; I was involved at every level. Today they're working on 400 books a day, mine has the interest of about five minutes per day for them. For all anybody says about how nasty the fashion industry is, my modelling agents protect me so much."

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But we hear so many horrible stories about how models are exploited! Helvin insists this wasn't her experience, which rings true, yet her book recounts tales of casual abuse, from burns caused by curling tongs, to the tale of a model nearly blinded when pink powder was blown into her eyes during a shoot.

I'm sympathetic to Helvin's disappointment - she's clearly troubled - yet can't help wondering how much grief is colouring her reactions. Though she's a great spokesperson for solitude, today she seems more lonely than alone, and badly in need of TLC.

Helvin takes a lot of flak for her honesty because she's open about enjoying sex and romance without any urge to cohabit or remarry. Her beaux make an impressive list, from a pre-Withnail Bruce Robinson to Peter Gabriel and Eric Clapton. She turned down Warren Beatty, and succumbed to Jack Nicholson after many years, only to find it a let-down. Mark Shand proposed, but she turned him down. "The last thing I wanted to do was get married again. I was free. I am spoiled, and back then I was even more so. I missed out on a chance to be with somebody great. I can't regret these things, I can only explain how it happens. It doesn't work for me to say, 'Oh, I'm so sad.' I was in love with two really great guys but I was not able to keep them. It's my fault."

Well, not entirely, I'd argue. Her relationship with Bailey came to its inevitable end because she could no longer ignore his outside interests. In 1978 her beloved sister, Suzon, just 23, died in mysterious circumstances in Jamaica. Helvin's family was devastated, and it made her unwilling to settle for second best. When Jerry Hall told her to open her eyes to the truth about Bailey's newest model, Catherine, Helvin took a good, hard look. It was serious, indeed: Catherine fell pregnant and became Bailey's fourth (and current) wife. Today all three are close, but she was devastated at the time.

I admire her independence, but wonder if she's ever met "the one". She smiles wistfully. "I've never met my soulmate and don't think I ever will. I lost that fantasy years and years and years ago."

• Marie Helvin: The Autobiography is published by Orion Books, priced 18.99.

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