beauty interview

Helen Mirren on Swagger, Skin Care, and Starting Something New

Helen Mirren at the 74th Festival de Cannes. Photo: Dominique Charriau/WireImage

Helen Mirren is a spokesperson for L’Oreal Paris, but the key to her beauty routine is something that can’t be bottled, jarred, or added to a cart. It’s simply swagger, and she brings it with her everywhere she goes (see: showing up to the strictest red carpet with pink hair, casually taking a shot of tequila at the Oscars, and twirling a walking stick like this on a Parisian runway).

Naturally, she brought it with her for her glorious return to the Cannes Film Festival, where the Dame rolled up in a pair of green Caruima low tops, rocked big headbands, and helped celebrate the launch of L’Oreal Paris’s Lights on Women Award, a new prize honoring one rising female filmmaker in partnership with the Short Films competition. Kate Winslet, fellow L’Oréal Paris spokesperson and the award’s first juror, picked the inaugural winner: Berlin-based director Aleksandra Odić, who took home the honors for her 22-minute film, Frida. 

The Cut caught up with Mirren while she was in Cannes to talk embroidery, eyelashes, and why you should consider pursuing swagger, too.

What feels “worth it” to you now?
Travel is always worth it. Travel is always a good thing. Learning a language is worth it. I tried to learn Italian in my COVID lockdown. Every day, I would do an Italian lesson, and my Italian is not bad — it was improving rapidly when I was doing my lessons — and then of course, I stopped doing them, because I can never keep anything up for long. But that was definitely worth it. Maintain your friends, keep in touch with them. I’m very bad at that, because I kind of forget; I go off somewhere else, so keep in touch with your friends, that’s always worth it. And also, scour the sales [laughs].

Gender equality in Hollywood is a very topical conversation; how do you feel the industry is addressing it? What did you think when you learned about L’Oréal Paris’s new Lights on Women award?
Well, I was thrilled to hear about the award because there are two things that are important: opportunity and role models. As I’ve gotten older in life, I’ve come to understand that opportunity is everything, which I didn’t understand at the beginning. Without opportunity, you can do nothing, and with opportunity, you can do anything, no matter who you are. It’s all about opportunity, really, and then, recognition.

What’s great about this award is it affords recognition. So often, I think what women do is ignored; it’s not recognized. I look at the embroidery, for example. You go into the museum and you see these incredible pieces of embroidery. I don’t know about you, but I collect old linens because I find hand-embroidered and hand-crocheted old linens such beautiful works of art, and they’re ignored. Nobody looks at them, no one says, “Look what this woman did. This is beautiful. This is extraordinary.” Recognition of work is very important, and for far too long, I think what women do has been undervalued, underestimated, and unrecognized. For L’Oréal to make this award is very important. I’m sure a point will come — and I applaud that moment — when the women say, “You know what? Let’s just let it be for anyone, because we don’t want to be put in a category of just women anymore.” But for now, I think it’s very, very important.

What do you think about the term “anti-aging”?
I’m very against the word “anti-aging,” because we age. It happened. I’m really sorry, but you know what? It happens, and there’s no way out. It’s a part of the human condition. So to talk about “anti-aging” is like saying “anti-human,” “anti-real,” “anti-wisdom,” “anti-experience,” and so on, you know? But you can put on your best possible face. It doesn’t mean you have to go, “Oh, my God, it’s all over for me!” because it’s not all over for you; on the contrary, in a way. With each era, it’s the start of something new, so I absolutely believe in beauty products for all ages, and all skin types, but I don’t like the word “anti-aging.” I think it’s demeaning, actually. L’Oréal doesn’t use the term and I appreciate it.

Do you think vanity is a vice?
Yes, too much vanity is a vice. But I think vanity is often confused with people taking good care of themselves; that’s not vanity. It’s not vain to wash your hair and then brush dry it and put products into it, or to put makeup on. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone vain, actually. I think people can get obsessed with their own looks in this world of social media, but I suspect that really mostly comes from a sense of insecurity more than self-love. It’s self-criticism that leads people into sort of self-obsession about what they look like. It’s kind of the opposite of vanity, maybe … Or maybe some people are vain [laughs]. I don’t think I’ve really, honestly, met a vain person.

What is your nighttime routine like?
Oh, I just clean my face. I didn’t used to, when I was young. I’d just go to bed with all my makeup on [laughs], and wake up in the morning with mascara all around. It was the era of false eyelashes, which we’ve gone back to interestingly enough, but now of course they’re permanently stuck on. In those days you had to stick them on. I had a friend, actually, who was so paranoid about seeing being seen without her eyelashes, that she would go to bed, switch the light off, then peel her eyelashes off in the dark and then stick them on the bed headboard, so that in the morning, she could move around, find them, stick them back on in the dark, and go to the loo quickly to adjust them, so she would never be seen without her false eyelashes. I was never like that, I have to say [laughs], but just out of laziness, I’d go to bed with all my makeup on. In my mid-20s I realized leaving mascara on your sheets is not a good idea. Now, I religiously clean my face and take my makeup off, and that’s it really. Put a bit of moisturizer on and you’re done and dusted, basically.

What does being a spokesperson mean to you?
It means a lot to me. To have been invited at my age to be a spokesperson for L’Oréal is fantastic. It’s a recognition of the fact that women over the age of, let’s say 50, are still really interested in looking the best they can. Most women I know love cleansers, moisturizers, tonics, and all the wonderful, incredible array of products that you can get nowadays, that you could never get when I was younger. We love that stuff. We love the bottles they come in, we love the packaging, we love the smell, we love the look of it on our bathroom shelves and things. And your love of that doesn’t disappear suddenly when you’re 50. But you know that wearing moisturizer’s not going to make you look 20. It’s not gonna happen. But it can make you look like a great 50-year-old.

What role does beauty play in your life?
I’ve been saying this to other journalists: I don’t like the word “beauty.” Because there are beautiful people on this planet, undoubtedly — men and women and every gender in between. And then there are the rest of us, and we are not beautiful like they are. We’re just not. That’s their talent. We are musicians, we are artists, we are mathematicians, we are doctors, we are lawyers, we are lots of different things … Sometimes we’re beautiful lawyers [laughs]. Amal Clooney, for example, a beautiful lawyer. But mostly, we’re not. But we make the best of ourselves, and I much prefer the word swagger. We give ourselves swagger, and that’s as good as beauty anytime. This confidence, wit, accessibility, openness — that’s what comes with swagger, and you know it when you see it, don’t you? In the street, you go, “Oh, that person’s got swagger,” you know? They’re not beautiful, but they got swagger, so I like the word swagger.

Helen Mirren Has Swagger and She Wants That For You Too