Veruschka was the world’s first supermodel, a playmate of Hollywood stars and a pioneer in the art of body painting. Then she dropped out. George Gurley tracks her down in New York.
One night in April, stars were streaming into the Time Warner Centre in New York to celebrate Time magazine’s “100 most influential people” issue.
Cordoned-off gawkers were shrieking at the arrivals and the paparazzi were howling. After Barbara Walters made her way down the red carpet, a tall, lithe woman appeared.
She was wearing a cap that seemed to have been made out of a faded T-shirt, black sunglasses, a hot-pink jacket, highly flammable-looking white trousers and colourful sneakers.
The paparazzi had no idea they were in the presence of the first supermodel, the fashion legend whom Vogue magazine once billed as “one of the wonders of the world”.
Here was the one-time bombshell who appeared as herself in Michelangelo Antonioni‘s 1966 movie Blow Up in what has been voted the sexiest scene in cinema history.
Going unrecognised didn’t bother Veruschka, who’s a bit of a recluse these days. “Fame, I mean, it’s like a bubble, in a way,” she says in her deep, husky voice. “It’s like something glittery and it goes and it can be forgotten fast.”
I have to admit that when I first met Veruschka (in a Manhattan cafe a few days before the party) I wasn’t exactly blown away. I’d heard of beautiful women dressing down but this was overdoing it. She was wearing a frayed headband around a cloth head-wrap, a silvery chain-mail-like top, washed-out camouflage trousers and orange sneakers.
I wondered if before me was a tragic casualty of a bygone era – a homeless hippie chick. Though she looked handsome and well-preserved for 65, she also brought to mind a male transsexual. Her slender, unusually toned figure was impressive. But then she removed her sunglasses, revealing exotic, faraway blue eyes, flawless bone structure, perfect alignment of features and a cool, confident demeanour.
In her day Veruschka was one of the top earners in the business, but times are tough for her now. For the past 10 years she has been living in Brooklyn, in a house she shares with two close friends and eight cats. Every afternoon she rides her bike for half-an-hour so she can feed a colony of stray felines living in an area known as Dumbo (Down under the Manhattan bridge overpass).
She thinks New York is “a little bit in a depression now” so she’s moving to Berlin where she can get a villa for what she’s paying in rent here.
“I’m European and it’s time again to be there,” she says, adding that she might not stay long. “I have to see. My father was executed there” – more later – “so it’s not a happy city to me.
“I am like a nomad. I’ve always lived everywhere and don’t consider any place my home.”
Veruschka’s broken English and odd, elliptical turns of phrase can be confusing. While she can be highly articulate and deeply insightful, not everything she says always makes sense; sometimes you’re left wondering if she’s doing it on purpose to maintain an air of mystery.
“At the moment it’s not so good for me,” she says. “But things I’m working on will again bring money.”
She mentions an upcoming documentary about her life, directed by Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol‘s old collaborator, and exhibitions of her art. We flip through a book of photographs published in 1998 with Veruschka in a variety of costumes and personas. In most of the shots, she passes for 30.
Veruschka (nee Countess Vera von Lehndorff) grew up in East Prussia in a 100-room house on an enormous estate that had been in her family for centuries. Her father, Count Heinrich von Lehndorff, was a wealthy landowner and German army reserve officer who became a key member of the German resistance after witnessing Jewish children being beaten and killed. Hitler’s headquarters at Wolf’s Lair was a few kilometres from the von Lehndorff estate, and his diplomat Joachim von Ribbentrop, ignorant of Vera’s father’s sympathies, took over half of the Lehndorff castle and lived alongside the family; little Vera was filmed playing with von Ribbentrop for propaganda purposes.
After a plot to blow up Hitler, hatched by disillusioned German officers, including von Lehndorff, failed in July 1944, the authorities showed up to arrest Veruschka’s father. He escaped, only to give himself up after seeing a machinegun pointed at his wife’s head. On the way to Berlin in an armoured car, he escaped again to the forest for four days; again worried about the safety of his family, he turned himself in.
Veruschka’s mother and her three sisters spent the next five months in camps. That September, Count Heinrich wrote a last letter to his family before he was hanged by piano wire from a meat hook.
By the end of the war her family was homeless. Vera, who attended 13 schools, tells me she spent a lot of time alone in the woods hiding among the trees and wishing to become one. “I was living a totally underwater life after the war. We were under shock about what had happened to us.”
At 14 she was a gawky 185 centimetres. Children called her Stork and she thought she was ugly, and her body badly proportioned and “horrible”. She escaped into art, studying in Hamburg, then Florence. By that time she was no ugly duckling. At 20, photographer Ugo Mulas discovered her on the street and soon she was modelling full-time.
Tall models were still unfashionable in Paris but there Vera met Eileen Ford, founder of the prestigious Ford model agency, who told her they liked them statuesque in America; she advised her to eat hard-boiled eggs to stay slim. In 1961 she moved to New York but nothing happened. She went to see Eileen Ford, but she didn’t remember meeting her. So she returned to the Munich countryside and decided to create a mysterious persona to help her stand out. Vera became Veruschka. As if her family history wasn’t memorable enough in itself, she created a fictional, mysterious past, telling people she was from Russia; from then on no one who met her forgot Veruschka. She found another modelling agency and returned to New York with her new identity.
In 1964, Diana Vreeland, the editor of American Vogue, pinned a photograph of the beguiling 23-year-old to a wall and declared, “Veruschka, you’re going to hear from me”. After a few shoots, Vreeland encouraged her to come up with her own ideas. Taking her up on the offer, Veruschka posed in Japan’s snow country wearing a lynx coat and standing next to a sumo wrestler. In 1966 she did her first shoot wearing nothing but body paint, and it became a lifelong artistic pursuit. Most of the time she did her own make-up, hair and styling.
“The most successful ones were done like that, because I was in charge of it,” she says. “With the photographer we created the whole thing on the spot. We cut up the clothes even, if it looked better.”
She teamed with Salvador Dali and photographer Peter Beard, who took her to Kenya. There, in an attempt to “go native”, she painted herself with black shoe polish to resemble surreal plants and animals; it took weeks to remove.
Veruschka made the cover of Vogue 11 times. Vreeland’s only complaint was that she sometimes looked past the camera and looked a little sad. “Don’t have that future look, be now and be happy,” she’d say.
“And I couldn’t agree with her on that,” Veruschka says. “That was a little bit of a conflict. My success has been because I was my own boss.
I saw it like a stage where you perform.”
In Blow Up her name was misspelt in the credits and she was only on screen for five minutes but that was all it took to make her internationally famous. What begins as a seemingly routine fashion shoot between Veruschka and a photographer (based on David Bailey and played by David Hemmings) culminates with the photographer straddling her, still snapping away and cheering her on.
Even though both actors remained clothed, Premiere magazine recently named it the sexiest scene in film history.
“I don’t think that is so great, that scene,” she tells me. “It became a big thing and honestly it’s a mystery for me why. I never understood why I got so famous with that film.”
There were passionate affairs but she liked them brief. She never married or had children. Male models and beautiful men did nothing for her. “I rather like people who have some kind of character, something strange. I very often like men who are much smaller than me.”
Suitors included Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty.
In 1974 Veruschka fell into a heavy depression and began drifting away from fashion. She saw a psychiatrist who helped her dig into her painful past, having her read aloud that final letter her father had written. She spent time in Germany with her mother, wrote in her diary and photographed herself daily, and did a lot of body painting.
Around that time there were rumours that her looks had been damaged after a car crash, which she denies. She says the 2 centimetre-long scar on her right jaw is the result of an accident in Greece when she slipped on a rock.
She bade farewell to the fashion world in 1975, after artistic disagreements with Vreeland’s successor at Vogue, Grace Mirabella, who wanted her to change her image so average female readers could relate to her.
Although she’d made as much as $10,000 a day at the height of her modelling career, she had no savings.
In 1985 Veruschka infiltrated the New York art world, putting on a body-painting show in Tribeca. She worked with the photographer Holger Trulzsch, a former lover she first collaborated with in the early 1970s. They conceptualised Veruschka’s time in fashion by painting outfits on her naked body and transforming her into wild animals and archetypes such as film stars, dandies, gangsters and dirty old men. (She tells me she’s often mistaken for a man, that in France they often say, ‘Oui, monsieur.’)
In the past three decades Veruschka has returned to the fashion world occasionally, including a trip to Australia in 2000 as a guest model at the Melbourne Fashion Festival.
The Time party was beginning to fill up and Veruschka began getting more attention than she did upon arrival. After an hour Veruschka had had enough and headed to the lifts.
I asked her what she thought of the party. “It was a little less crazy than it was than the 1960s,” she said.
“Everyone was more crazily dressed then, and more energy in the room, I think. Now it’s calmed down; people are more bourgeois.”