China Machado: Avedon’s Muse Talks Modeling at 83

China Machado's Cole Haan campaign.
China Machado’s Cole Haan campaign. Photo: Cole Haan

China Machado plops down on the sofa and begins rummaging through her purse. “I’m just looking for my bracelets,” she explains. “Aha!” She pulls out a fistful of bangles and stacks them on her wrist, which is still as smooth-skinned as the day Richard Avedon took that famous picture of her, forefinger and cigarette aloft, five decades ago. They rattle as she accepts a bottled water from a nearby publicist. “The way they treat us is fantastic!” she says, throwing her hands up. “I feel like a queen!”

Now 83 years old, Machado has just wrapped a shoot for Cole Haan’s latest campaign, titled “Born in 1928,” in honor of the company’s 85th anniversary (shown above). And while Machado is modest about her lengthy career (“I’m not a model anymore, for Chrissakes”), she is represented by IMG and has booked numerous jobs since her 80th birthday, including a spread in W magazine and a Barneys ad. “I retired. But people keep calling, and I liked this campaign. And apparently I’m in great company!” The images, which also feature author Maya Angelou, astronaut Jim Lovell, and photographer Elliott Erwitt, will circulate nationwide the first week of September.

A lifelong muse of Avedon’s, Machado is best known as the first non-Caucasian model to be featured in a leading fashion magazine (the February 1959 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, which was then edited by Diana Vreeland). Her humble beginnings make her life story sound even more like a fairy tale: Born to multiracial parents in Shanghai, her family lost their home and money when the Japanese invaded in 1937. They fled to the U.S. by boat, but were turned away in New York owing to immigration quotas, and wound up in Buenos Aires, then Lima. She was working as a stewardess when she was swept away at age 19 by the famous Spanish bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín, who took her to Europe and eventually left her for Ava Gardner.

Although Avedon’s portraits of Machado are her most widely known legacy, she spent many years as one of Givenchy’s in-house models in Paris, where cameras weren’t even allowed. “I modeled for six, seven years before I was ever photographed, because at that time runway models were different from photographic models,” she says. “You know, I’m a dinosaur.”

But she clearly knows her way around a fashion set. “It’s like bicycle riding, you never forget. Boom, you go into it again.” She has an advantage over models these days, though, because her education was far more extensive. “When I modeled, we had to know the clothes. We had to know how to move. These poor girls just come in and they’re thrown in the closet and walk out. When I was in Givenchy, the clothes were made on the models, and we were really proud of the clothes we wore, so we showed them in a different way.”

Machado also spent decades on the other side of the camera, helping Avedon on shoots and later working as the fashion director of Harper’s Bazaar for eleven years. Now she lives in Sag Harbor with her husband, retired furniture importer Riccardo Rosa, but life is hardly quiet. “I’m painting, I’m fixing furniture, I’m writing an autobiography, and I haven’t stopped being photographed or interviewed for the past two years,” she said, an incredulous look on her face. “Every two weeks or so, it’s ‘Oh, I gotta go to New York to be photographed.’ So that breaks up my day. And then weekends we have lots of friends over, and we’re always cooking.”

How does she maintain her energy? “Oh, I’m old and tired!” she exclaims, waving her arms as if to prove the opposite. “I make myself lie down every afternoon, otherwise I’ll be too exhausted by the nighttime. If I can’t nap I’ll watch a little bit of TV and just relax for two or three hours.”

And of course, the magic question — how is that her skin is still glowing, her limbs slender, and her cloud of black hair (colored at home with box dye) so thick and voluminous? “People have been asking me this all my life, and I don’t want to sound like I’m lying, but I really don’t do anything,” she says, shrugging. “I’ve been in this business for so long, and I saw all the beauty products and all the bullshit they talk about — like, ‘This will go into your skin and dust and dirt will come out’ — I mean, how is that possible? I take off my makeup with Ponds cold cream and then I wash myself with gentle soap and water and that’s it.” She still smokes, and drinks “a little.”

It’s time for her to go —  a car is waiting, and her nap hour beckons — but she has one more piece of wisdom: “You can’t worry about aging because that’s the worst thing,” she says. “If you start, then you just keep finding more things you don’t like, and then you’re finished. There are a lot of things I could have done to my face but it would never stop.” And with a rattle of bracelets, she’s out the door.

Related: “I Didn’t Think of Myself As Good-Looking at All”

China Machado: Avedon’s Muse on Modeling at 83