It’s not often that I get invited to cop a feel of another woman’s breasts. And yet here I am doing just that. Marie Helvin, the supermodel of the 1970s, has just unsnapped her bra to show me her new left breast, reconstructed after a mastectomy in 2022.
She encourages me to have a prod. It is indeed a work of art.
Perfectly matched in texture, shape and uprightness to the right one, with no visible scarring. ‘Well, you should have seen the amount of pictures of myself I sent to my surgeon beforehand,’ she says. ‘He had his whole team on tiptoes making sure they got it exactly as it had been before.’
The pair of us meet in South London near the high-rise riverside flat where Helvin now lives. She is dressed in head-to-toe black, her ebony hair scraped back into a severe ponytail. She has just fronted a lingerie campaign in which the pieces are cut so low ‘I had to shave everything off’, she says matter-of-factly.
But then Helvin, who virtually lived in a bikini growing up in Hawaii, has never been a prude. Famously married to David Bailey back in the 70s and early 80s, and a muse of the controversial German photographer Helmut Newton, she was constantly being photographed naked. She sees no reason why, just because she is now of a certain age, she suddenly needs to act like it.
Nevertheless, it is only since last summer that she has been truly comfortable enough to resume having sex, and even then it is with reservation.
‘First of all, it still aches,’ she says, her hand reflexively patting her chest, ‘and second, it’s hard to have to say to someone, “You can’t touch me like that”, and to have to explain why.’ It’s because of this, she says, she prefers lovers to be ‘anonymous’.
Suit, vintage Gucci, atelierninetyfive.com . Earrings, theysso.com . Belt, black-brown.com
‘But when I use the term “anonymous sex” I don’t mean sex with a total stranger, such as someone you might pick up in a restaurant or at a party, but someone who you might meet through a friend or acquaintance and you both agree that it is going to be “relationship-free” but casual and most likely just for that once.
‘I always vet them carefully,’ she adds, ‘and it would always be very safe. I don’t remember what sex is like without a condom! It hasn’t happened in quite a while, but last summer I did have a very brief hook-up with a Frenchman I met through a friend of a friend of a friend.
People always used to want to fix me up with someone – but not anymore
I was able to say, “I don’t want my breasts touched”, because I doubt very much I will ever meet him again.’
If, like me, you were born in the early 60s and loved magazines, you’ll recall what a phenomenon Helvin was back in the day. And how it was impossible to buy a copy of Vogue without either her or her bestie Jerry Hall on the cover.
‘The terrible twins’, they were nicknamed, as they stalked down the runway for designers such as Valentino and Kenzo. ‘Yeah, we were getting £5,000 per show, which was a huge amount in those days,’ says Helvin. ‘Of course, that’s peanuts now.’
She says they drifted apart, primarily because Hall became tied up with motherhood. ‘I felt useless with her,’ says Helvin. She recalls a trip to the theatre in 1984 when Hall, who had just had her daughter Elizabeth, turned to her and said, ‘I’m leaking’. Helvin was completely baffled. ‘What am I supposed to do with that? How can I help you?’
The daughter of an American GI and a Japanese translator, Helvin was born in Tokyo and raised in Hawaii and has some cracking tales to tell. Like the time when, as a precocious ten-year-old, she got to sit on Marlon Brando’s knee. T
he actor had been a friend of her putative godfather’s, and had stopped over on his way back from Tahiti to LA. ‘Who are you, cutie?’ he apparently growled, as he swept her on to his lap. As children, she and her sister Suzon (who later died in a cycling accident) would get stoned with the surfers and make garlands out of plumeria blossom, charging tourists 25 cents for a photograph.
An idyllic childhood, then, but Helvin was always desperate to get out in the world. It was on a trip to Japan with her mother that she was discovered by a model agent and at the age of 15 found herself plastered all over billboards in the Far East as the face of the cosmetics giant Kanebo.
I don’t know which is my favourite story. Maybe the one about her being in a lift with Jackie Onassis and suddenly feeling so sick she vomited into the former first lady’s Yves St Laurent handbag. Or the time she was in a nightclub in Rome with Bailey and realised she was expected to have a threesome with her husband and fashion doyenne Loulou de la Falaise. (She didn’t.) But everyone was in pursuit of her back then.
Diana Vreeland told me to give up alcohol because it went straight to my jaw
She recalls in her autobiography the incessant phone calls from Warren Beatty, Eric Clapton’s rage when she initially turned him down, the weird vibe she got from Aristotle Onassis, whom she met in St Tropez: ‘He made a beeline for me and I just sensed, no, this man is way too dangerous.’
Her next big love, after being divorced from Bailey in 1985, was Mark Shand, the dashing late brother of Queen Camilla. It was an amusing clash of cultures. She recalls the time she went to stay with his family in the country, turning up for breakfast in full make-up and a silk peignoir, horrified to learn that the British upper classes eat breakfast in their tattiest dressing gowns.
They never married, in part because Helvin has never wanted children. She continued to date over the years, her exes including Peter Gabriel, Marco Pierre White and the actor Neil Pearson.
When Helvin and I last saw each other, maybe 15 years ago, she was very mucha fixture on the London social circuits, both fashion and literary (Helvin had read all of Dickens by the time she was 16).
She counts herself lucky: ‘Because my looks are my livelihood. If I lose them, I can’t pay my rent
Tom Stoppard, whom she met through Mick Jagger, was a mate, as was Salman Rushdie, for whom she house-sat in the 80s. At the time she had been single, and my partner and I were trying to matchmake her with a theatre-producer friend of ours.
‘People always used to want to fix me up back in those days,’ she says, adding, entirely without rancour, ‘but nobody does that any more.’
Marie on the cover of Vogue, 1974; Marie modelling a bikini for Woolworth fashion stores in 1974
Today she looks very different. Skinnier. More chiselled. More beautiful, in fact, reminding me of how she looked way back in the 70s. She has absolutely no lines. It must be a face-lift, I say, having previously inspected behind her ears (no scars thereat all).
Marie on the town with Jerry Hall, 1985;
But no, she swears not, just a ‘twice yearly shot’ of Botox around the eyes, lots of castor oil and a little metal pebble with which she religiously massages her jawline. Indeed, if she looks thinner that’s probably because just before hitting the age of 60,she made the decision to hammer it on the exercise front and give up alcohol.
‘Diana Vreeland told me early on in my career to stop because it went straight to my jaw,’ she says, ‘and eventually I took her advice.’
But events of the past few years have clearly taken their toll. She’s like a piece of bone china that if you tap too hard might break. The overall effect is that she comes across as fragile, not at all the bouncy, apple-cheeked glamourpuss I remember from the mid-noughties.
Having supported herself for four decades since she split with Bailey, Helvin was hit hard financially by the pandemic. Though her modelling career was rebooted when she hit 50 (‘That’s what clients suddenly wanted, the whole “ageless beauty” thing’), once lockdown happened, the work dried up.
Soon she found herself having to dip into her savings; funds she had been planning to eventually spend on returning to Hawaii, the place she has always considered home. It was just as work started to trickle back in, the summer before her 70th birthday in 2022, when she found the lump in her breast.
Marie with (from left) Terence Stamp, Hall, Michael Palin, Nigel Havers and Sean Connery, 1989
‘I was on the floor doing my stomach crunches and I suddenly felt it,’ she recalls. ‘It didn’t hurt, but it was large, and when I looked in the mirror I could actually see it.’
A year and a bit on, she counts herself lucky. For one, her surgeon managed to keep her nipple intact (many mastectomy patients have the nipple removed and a new one tattooed on).
Secondly, as the cancer was stage 1, she did not need radiotherapy or chemotherapy, which meant no hair loss. ‘That was my first thought when they sat me down,’ she says, delicately touching the side of her head. ‘Because my looks are my livelihood. If I lose them, I can’t pay the rent.’
At the same time, the medication her NHS oncologist put her on, anastrozole, so immobilised her both physically and emotionally, she could barely move for six months without howling in agony.
‘Honestly, the pain in my joints made me feel like I was 1,000 years old,’ she says, ‘and I’m the kind of person who leaps out of bed in the morning.’ She has since switched to a low dose of tamoxifen, which has helped ease the joint pain and low mood, but brought on constant hot flushes, drastically interrupting her sleep.
‘Luckily, I don’t have a nine-to-five job. It’s OK if I sleep late. And I have a fan by my bed. The only thing I have to do is work out, and luckily there is a gym in the building.’
Marie at home with David Bailey, 1977
For now, anyway. The overarching plan is to go back to Hawaii and, yes, maybe settle down with someone – but then again, maybe not. ‘Look, I hope I’m not going to be by myself when I die,’ she shrugs. ‘But I went through cancer by myself and although it wasn’t a piece of cake, it was fine.
‘The pandemic uncovered a lot of truths for me,’ she goes on. ‘People I had thought were friends were actually acquaintances, and they kind of fell away by the time lockdown ended. But I enjoy being on my own, especially in winter when I like to hibernate.’
She adds that she has no emotional ties to London and is only really here for the next four years because of her NHS oncologist, who is seeing her through until she can stop taking the tamoxifen.
‘If I won the lottery, which I occasionally play, I’d be out of here like a shot,’ she says. And her libido? ‘I must admit these days it comes and goes,’ she says. ‘I feel I have a lot more physical healing to do. But I believe you can still feel and think sexy even if you aren’t having sex.’
As I leave, I find myself hoping that Helvin makes it back to Hawaii. I have an image in my mind of her in her happy place, eating mangoes with the skin on (delicious, she says), running around barefoot, being able to crack sea urchins with her heels. That’s where, at this stage in her life, she belongs.
Bluebella’s Valentine’s campaign with Marie Helvin is available at bluebella.com.
Picture director: Ester Malloy.
Fashion director: Sophie Dearden.
Styling Assistant: Jessica Carroll.
Hair: Alex Szabo AT Carol Hayes using Hair Rituel by Sisley.
Make-up: Sarah Reygate At Carol Hayes using Lisa EldriDge.