Violeta Sanchez sits on a wooden bench behind the lit scrim. “She’s texting someone,” says the stylist. “I’ll introduce you when she’s done.” A few minutes of silent observation is a small grace when you’re meeting a muse to Helmut Newton and Yves Saint Laurent. Angled cheekbones and her famous “big nose” bend over the phone screen, unruly brown curls spilling over her shoulders and face.
When Violeta rises to meet me, voice warm, slender hand outstretched, I am struck by her teenage-slim body, visible through her sheer red dress, and her slight stature. From all the photos I’d studied, I’d assumed she was of standard supermodel height; such are the advantages of having “no tits, no hips and very big shoulders,” as she tells me later. Proportions like these read tall on the runway and in photographs. They’re also catnip to fashion designers, photographers and directors, a generation of whom fell in love with Violeta over three decades ago. The fashion world is still enamoured today. Muses, those ineffable deities who inspire fantastic art, are born and not made.
The legend goes that Violeta was performing in a play, and had a men’s tuxedo custom-made for the premiere. At the dinner reception after, she caught the eye of Newton and Saint Laurent. That meeting led to Violeta the actress becoming Violeta the model and muse. She was cherry-picked for the next Yves Saint Laurent couture campaign, as shot by Newton, and went on to fire the imaginations of Thierry Mugler, Jean Paul Gaultier, choreographer Guy de Cointet, and Alber Elbaz.
Violeta carries her experience with a down-to-earth professionalism and humour that has her asking what flash the photographer plans to use for an outside shot in subzero Paris temperatures (in that sheer dress!), and blithely removing her makeup with cotton pads during our interview. She moves with an ease and kindness that belies everything you think you know about women who are celebrated for their beauty. Midway through our conversation, Violeta asked if I needed more hot water for my tea then got up and boiled it herself. A muse, but not a diva.
You are an actress, a model and muse. Which do you identify with most?
Muse is what I feel most comfortable with. I need to be confident that the person who asks me to work with them really likes me. Whether it’s a director, a designer or a photo-grapher, I need to be a muse more than anything else, because then my professionalism is there to accomplish what I need to accomplish. If I’m not a muse – and not amused – I don’t feel totally comfortable and I’m much less inspired.
Was this something you’ve always felt, since the beginning of your career, this pull to be a muse?
Yes, because I was always a little bit freaky. I don’t have a classical sort of physique, so when people like me, they like me for “unclassical” reasons. So it was always this type of energy or synergy that happened.
You were in a play, Succès by Rafael López-Sánchez, which is where Helmut Newton and Yves Saint Laurent both saw you for the first time. Do you feel this sort of serendipity has always happened in your career and life?
It has, it really has. This is also how I met Olivier Saillard, the director of Palais Galliera [the fashion museum for the city of Paris], with whom I’ve been working for a bit more than ten years. He has been extremely important in the development of my life and career. It’s like an infinity circle: I keep meeting the same people again and start working with them again. People used to see me somewhere and say, “Oh, you are Violeta Sanchez, the model.” And one day I thought, some day, someone is going to come up to me and say, “Oh, you look like Violeta Sanchez.” And then I would know I’m the shadow of myself and I should stop!
Then, a little over ten years ago, I was at a contemporary art event, and this guy comes up to me and says: “I’ve been watching you for an hour, and I summoned the courage to come and tell you that you look exactly like a model I adore, Violeta Sanchez.” I thought, oh, shit, this is it, it’s happened – and it was Olivier. A couple of months later, he called and asked if I could act something, read something. Well, it’s actually my first profession, so yes, I can read or act something. And this is how we started working together. We’ve done a few performances every year, like Models Never Talk, where we models didn’t wear the clothes, but described them and our modelling days.
Did you always know you wanted to be in fashion?
No, no, no, never, I never wanted to be a model. I’m not actually interested in fashion. I’m interested in clothes. The reason Helmut Newton noticed me was because it was the first time I was earning any money [from the play] and, with that money, I went to have a tuxedo made at a men’s tailor. At the time, you could buy them at Yves Saint Laurent, but I didn’t know and I would never have been able to afford it. I walked into that tailor shop, and the guy said, “Madame, I only do gentlemen.” Then he took a look at me and said, “If you really want to, I can try.” Because I had no hips, no tits, and very big shoulders. To this day I own that tux, and I still wear it. It’s an incredibly good tux.
That night, everyone thought it was cute and funny, and they sat me next to Helmut. I had no idea who he was and, you know, he was charmed. I was very, very young and quite fun and we really enjoyed each other’s company. Then he proposed that I pose for him.
He said: “I am a photographer, would you pose for me?” I said, yeah, sure. “But it’s naked, would you pose naked?” I said, oh, yeah, naked is not a problem. Back then, I made a little money posing in the art schools. That’s how Helmut and I started, and then we did the Yves Saint Laurent couture campaign together.
I read somewhere that you think models of your generation had a lot more fun than the models today. There is a lot of pressure for every model to be building a brand, to try to become like you – a muse with a very long career.
When I do a show now, it’s a totally different atmosphere. There’s much more stress and pressure than we used to have. The focus is to very quickly become a brand, to become something the industry can make money out of in many different ways. Today, when you are optioned for a booking, one of the things they ask is how many followers you have. I don’t even have Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. My agency says: “Violeta probably has many more people who know her face and who she is…” But probably not in the public they’re trying to touch.
For us, it was just a big party all the time, except when we were working. Backstage, it was joking and having as much fun as possible, being extremely happy to meet each other again. Since our careers lasted longer, there were friendships that really developed. But I’m making the same money for the badly paid shows today as I did in the badly paid shows back then.
What do you think is the secret to your longevity, in terms of your career?
I became a model and was extremely happy to be one. It was a really fun life that I enjoyed very much. I met interesting people and travelled to interesting places and made money, which was also a comfortable thing. But I had another life. Modelling was not secondary, because I enjoyed it and I did it seriously, but my in-between time was extremely busy with other things. I kept on acting, doing movies and theatre. It gave me a bit more depth in that I had more stories to tell on the runway or in front of a photographer. I had a bit more range, let’s say, and also I was not fashionable. I was this weird, smaller, skinnier, big-nosed girl who didn’t fit any of the trends of physiques. So I was neither in nor out. I also developed really strong bonds with really strong designers that, no matter what, worked with me year after year. So I had these sort of credentials that lasted – with Saint Laurent, Mugler, Moschino, Gaultier, Valentino, and the photographers, of course. As long as I did those, there were always 20 others wanting me, too.
This idea where you’re not trendy, but you’re timeless has to do, I think, with an inner life you have. How do you sustain that inner life?
That’s a good question – I wish I knew how to answer it. Sometimes there’s a sort of alchemy that happens, and I guess there is this mild form of eccentricity. When I need to pose or walk on a runway, I do get animated by some unexplainable or irrational sort of inspiration. I was always a movie buff, completely obsessed with cinema, and still am. I read a lot, and so all those fictions and stories are with me – some of that material must come back out at some point.
How do you approach ageing?
Ah, very uncomfortably, like most people. I am not serene with it. It’s like the seven stages of grief. First there’s anger, denial… I know I’ve crossed denial and depression. There might still be anger. “Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” as Bette Davis used to say. Fortunately, the industry has been pretty kind. They have the knowledge that I am older, but still “wearable”, so they’ve been kind. And, if you take care of yourself properly it’s possible to age beautifully today. It just involves eating good things, exercising a little bit, keeping my eyes open, and some technological improvement – not surgery but the odd collagen.
Do you think there’s a different appreciation of older women in Europe, as opposed to America or Asia? And do you think that’s rooted in a feminism that exists here and not there?
It is, definitely. I would say in northern Europe, if a woman is beautiful, she’s beautiful, and if she’s talented, she’s fine. There will always come a point where she’ll lose her spot [to someone younger], but it’s the same for men in TV and media.
You don’t think it’s different? Like everyone saying George Clooney gets better with age?
Same with Meryl Streep, but it’s true there aren’t as many Meryls as there are Georges. It’s terrible that George Clooney can kiss a girl 20 years younger than him, and it’s going to be so glamorous and sexy and normal. If Meryl Streep does the same thing, then the whole film is about it – that she has a younger lover and so on. That’s the real problem.
How do you see beauty, feminism and multiculturalism evolving? Every time Fashion Month comes around, people cluck about diversity, but where are we today?
That hasn’t evolved. In fact, it’s devolved. When I worked, there were Asian and dark-skinned girls, all the shades of skin in every show. In a normal show – but not with all the designers – at least 30 per cent of the girls were not white. And in the 70 per cent of white girls, you had Swedish, American, Italian, Spanish, French, etc. Now you feel [they use models of colour] only for commercial reasons. It’s very cynical.
What’s your favourite fashion memory and what’s the worst?
Definitely my strongest fashion memories are shooting with Helmut Newton. He and I had a common obsession with cinema, so we spoke movie language all the time. I always say what makes his pictures so enthralling is that you wonder what’s going on around them. Before, after, behind… you want to know the rest of the story. With Saint Laurent, it’s the same, because his inspirations were so deep.
It’s bad when you walk for a terribly bad designer and you’ve got to wear three or four very ugly outfits, but you’ll only be suffering for five minutes. The worst is working for a bad photographer. That is really painful because it lasts for hours, and there’s no connection. You try your best, and you can always hear him click at the wrong time. It’s horrible, because you know the pictures are going to be bad. It’s extremely irritating to always hear him click at the wrong time.
You had a big fear of rejection when you were young. Do you still feel that, or have you moved past it now?
I haven’t moved past it. A little bit, but not much. I was fortunate to really love what I was given the chance to do: acting and modelling. It’s very funny, I have a fear of rejection when it comes to suggesting projects for myself. I have ideas for shows, for exhibitions, for small fashion-related businesses, but I don’t feel strong enough. I’m not sure I’d have the stamina or the determination or the self-confidence to handle a refusal. To do something that could be rejected [would be] very uncomfortable. Not terrifying – just uncomfortable. And since I can afford not to put myself in danger, I stay in my comfort zone. On the other hand, I have never been bothered by people rejecting me. If someone snubs me or they think my nose is too big, I am totally immune to that. I had very small and regular features when I was a child, and my nose grew with puberty, which is, of course, the most vulnerable moment. I was flat-chested, I was very skinny, I was frizzy when straight was fashionable – and I had this big, long, weird nose.
I’m looking at your nose and it does not look big to me.
The fashion is always a small, upturned, American nose. It was quite miserable between 13 and 16 years old, when people made fun of me. But then, at 16, boys starting being interested, and I realised I could attract their attention – with this nose, this flat chest, this frizzy hair. I remember, at some point, I did some shows in Spain [where Violeta’s family are from] and was introduced to a member of the royal family, maybe the queen, and it was on the cover of People magazine. I went to visit my old spinster aunt, who has a boxer version of this nose, and she said, “So, you’re on the cover of magazines with the queen – you must have done really well.” I said, “Yeah, pretty well. It was just a small interview.” And she said, “Now maybe you have enough money to fix your nose!”
Photography Benjamin Vnuk (Jed Root), Styling Tereza Ortiz (LundLund), Model Violeta Sanchez (Viva Paris), Hair Alessandro Rebecchi (Artlist), Make up Karin Westerlund (Jed Root) using MAC cosmetics, Photography assistants Niklas Bergstrand and Martin Jerome, Styling assistant Marine Dévé.