This Thursday, May 4, Audrey Hepburn would have celebrated her 88th birthday and I cannot think of any other woman that would be more fit to be The Woman Alchemist for May.
Again, I know she was not a woman in business or an entrepreneur, true; she was, however, a woman of substance and style and, in today's world of Kim Kardashians & reality TV stars ,I cannot think about a better role model (and quite frankly I'm a bit obsessed with her and the Breakfast at Tiffany movie thing).
Hepburn had a magical screen presence, she was and still is a fashion trend-setter, always displaying impeccable good taste and manners, and a tireless campaigner for children's rights. She is best-known for her film roles in Breakfast at Tiffany's, My Fair Lady, Roman Holiday and Charade - waif-like, glamorous, combining charm, effervescence and grace.
Hepburn was born in Brussels to a Dutch mother and an English father, and later attended boarding school in England. Her father left the family when she was only six years old, probably one the most traumatic event of her life, as she often quoted, which left her with a perennial need for that paternal affection and stability.
When War II was starting Hepburn and her mother moved to Holland which was unfortunate as, shortly after they arrived, the Nazis invaded. Winter of 1944-1945 was a very difficult year in Holland and thousands of people suffered starvation including Hepburn who was left severely malnourished with acute anaemia and respiratory problems.
She carried a sense of duty and gratitude for having survived all her life.
Her experience during childhood and the war contributed to a maturity way beyond her years but simultaneously left her in a state of arrested development: wartime poverty and hunger remained always a present memory and she always felt the need to work harder. “She didn’t go to work to become a celebrity,” her son Luca Dotti once said “She went to work to earn money. And that was the spirit she kept all her life.”
She began appearing on the London stage from 1948, then gradually small parts in films and, in 1951, the lead role in Gigi on Broadway . The next project though is what catapulted her into Hollywood and our consciousness: Roman Holiday
(1953) for which she won her only Oscar.
This film started her particular look, the flat-chested/gamine , winged eyebrows that made her stand out which then progressed with Sabrina
(1954) where her collaboration with the designer Hubert de Givenchy commenced (perhaps the beginning of the modern world of celebrities collars ); they became close friends, both sharing the same work and life ethic. Breakfast at Tiffany's
(1961) is what finally cemented her iconic status .
Truman Capote, the author of the novella the movie is based on, wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the leading role, he
thought Monroe was more suited to a sexy and utterly neurotic Holly Golightly, his character.
Paramount wanted Hepburn over Monroe,and this clinched it.
Hepburn's performance was effervescent (less controversial that an actual rendition of the novella would have been and more optimistic and perhaps better suited to the morale pulse of the era): it is however the iconic image of Holly herself – the little black dress, black gloves, the multiple strands of pearls, a tiara and a foot-long cigarette holder that has long since transcended the film: you may never have seen Breakfast at Tiffany's (shame on you) but you have certainly seen pictures of Audrey Hepburn in THAT outfit.
The fact that she didn't act more frequently in later life might have had something to do with the material she was offered or perhaps it was a choice , nevertheless it was a shame since she was a strong actor with both a capacity for comedy but also for serious drama (I loved her performance in The Nun's Story
(1959), Wait Until Dark
(1967)and Robin and Marian
(1976) with Sean Connery).
Her life call though and what gave her the most satisfaction came in 1988 when Hepburn was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for Unicef
: she worked hard for it, constantly informing herself as she understood the power and positive effect her name and presence would have. According to her son Luca Dotti "her humanitarian awards were displayed proudly in the sitting room whilst her Oscar for Roman Holiday was wedged on a shelf in his playroom'.
It was after a Unicef trip to Somalia that Hepburn was diagnosed with cancer and died peacefully surrounded by her family in January 1993 - the Audrey Hepburn Children’s Fund
continues her legacy.
I strongly believe that she provided and still does a great role model for women. Hepburn never really believed she was beautiful carrying those insecurities that we as women suffer from time to time, but nevertheless developed her own unique look .
Audrey knew exactly how she wanted to look or what worked best for her, she knew her visage and body, her best and worse points and inspired women to dress for themselves : her look was both sophisticated and attainable, European elegance with American easiness. She was an original who changed the way women dressed and viewed themselves, like Coco Chanel ( another one of my heroes and The Woman Alchemist for January) ; she broadened the idea of beauty, of being less blatantly sexy, more wordily and truly modern, a role model for women that was not a reflection of men fantasies , a truly empowering message.
This is more important than ever in a overly and blatantly sexualised world where young women look up to an idealised and photo-shopped reality
that is presented on the TV screens and social media.
So in a world of Kim Kardashians, Be Courageous, Do You, Be an Audrey.