Marie Helvin didn’t set out to make a point about ageism in the fashion industry when she agreed to be the face of luxury lingerie brand Bluebella’s Valentine’s Day campaign, but the 71-year-old model has become something of a rule breaker throughout her career.
An icon of the ‘70s and ‘80s style scene, 12-time Vogue cover star and ex-wife of renowned photographer David Bailey, Marie has spent the past year battling breast cancer and recovering from a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. But, as these photos prove, she’s back with a bang.
‘Bluebella waited a year for me [to recover from surgery], which is incredible. So that for a start was just so exciting and made me feel so incredible,’ Marie tells Women’s Health.
‘I do the job because it is my job. That's what I do, I'm a model! Although having said that, I'm very happy that in a small sense I am proving a point. I’m saying that you can be any age – you can be my age, which is a forgotten age for a great many women – and you can wear lingerie, you can feel sensual and sexual.’
And Bluebella’s latest collection of bras, briefs, suspenders, chemises and bodysuits certainly achieves that. Featuring lace embroidery, sheer panels and cut-outs in a typically romantic colour palette of pink and red with classic black accents, it’s the definition of sexy, luxury lingerie.
‘Some of the lingerie was so scanty!’ Marie exclaims, at one point during our chat. That didn’t put her off, though. Despite being in her seventies, and having undergone major, body-changing surgery, Marie approached this lingerie shoot like she would any other photoshoot.
‘I feel very comfortable in my skin,’ Marie tells us. ‘My surgeon did an unbelievable job [with the reconstruction]. He's just an artist. I had it done on the NHS at Guy's hospital.’
Her medical treatment did force her to change her exercise regime, though. Describing herself as a ‘gym bunny’, Marie’s pre-surgery routine rivalled that of a top athlete – in the gym for an hour and a half four times a week, weightlifting and using lots of machines. Post-surgery however, she’s had to modify her workout, toning it down to 30-40 minute sessions and sticking to floor exercises using hand weights.
‘At 71, I'm thinking, ‘Oh my God, do I really need a six pack? I mean, the fact that I have a six pack is just a happenstance from the training that I do.’ Not that toned down then, but Marie is adamant her current routine is easily doable.
‘I don't do anything that is extreme. I don't do anything that any woman, anywhere, couldn't do. Whereas prior to the breast cancer, I would say it would be difficult for most women [my age] to have followed my routine because it was very strenuous.’
Marie has a similar, dedicated approach to her diet. Aside from giving up sugar a week before the Bluebella photoshoot, her usual morning consists of decaf coffee (more milk than coffee), a boiled egg and a list of supplements as long as your arm. While some of her tablets are specifically to treat her breast cancer and a thyroid issue, she also takes a hair supplement, hyaluronic acid tablet and cod liver oil.
Post-breakfast, it’s time for her daily juice. Carrot, celery, apple, tangerine, a knob of ginger and turmeric all blended together in her juicer, taken with yet more supplements – this time vitamins B, C and D, plus magnesium. Marie has also had to add a Cloris menopause patch into her wellness routine. Despite originally going through the menopause over 10 years ago, a side effect of her breast cancer drug is symptoms that mimic those of the menopause, from hot flashes to insomnia.
Come night time, you guessed it, it’s time for more supplements. Another hair and hyaluronic acid tablet, a Dr. Vegan supplement that targets the skin and a couple of CBD drops. ‘I also go once a month to Harvey Nichols to the Revive clinic and I have a D12 shot. I've been doing this for the last year and it not only gives me more energy, I think it helps as I haven’t eaten red meat in over 50 years,’ Marie concludes.
She’s quick to add she wouldn’t recommend this to an average woman in her 70s, admitting both the cancer and her job are reasons for her adopting this lifestyle. ‘I'm coming into my 70s feeling the best I can and I want to look the best I can, too. I'm very committed because this is also my livelihood. My job depends a great deal on how I look.’
More than just vanity, Marie is trying to change society’s pre-conceived notions of what it means to be an older woman. ‘[People’s] idea of a woman in her 60s, 70s, or 80s is Mrs. Santa Claus. They expect us to have white hair – not even grey hair, white hair. That’s the image.’
Which brings us to the other reason she wanted to get involved in the Bluebella campaign, now more than ever. ‘After the surgery, you have to wear a sort-of sports bra. They’re huge! So cumbersome and so ugly, it looks like you're wearing armour. I just hated them. Then, when you can stop wearing those, you have to find a bra without wire which is really difficult.’
Finally, a year post-surgery, Marie can wear pretty much any underwear she wants, and she’s reaching for the drawer with the good stuff. ‘I have a drawer with the M&S everyday stuff and I have a drawer with the good stuff. I don’t wear it every single day but right now all I want is to wear beautiful lingerie because I wasn't able to wear it for so long.’
Even if that means wearing it under her clothes just to go to an oncology appointment. ‘It's not exciting to go to a cancer hospital, and I know wearing the most beautiful lingerie makes me feel good and will make me feel a bit better.’
It’s an attitude she applies to her everyday life. ‘Sometimes if I'm having a bad day, I know this sounds so ridiculous, but if I put on some red lipstick, somehow I feel a little bit better. We women should take advantage, we have all of these things at our fingertips. Unlike men – when they feel like crap, they feel like crap,’ she laughs.
Ultimately, that’s the secret to how Marie looks and feels so good at 71. Not just investing in yourself and your own wellbeing, but doing it for yourself. ‘I'm not doing it for anybody else because I live alone and I'm single, I don't have a boyfriend. What's important to me is doing all I can to empower myself as much as I can.
‘And again, it's only me, so it's up to me,’ she continues. ‘I've got nobody else who is going to do it for me, so I've got to do it for me.’
With no plans to retire soon – ‘work has never been better, I’d love to have more of it!” Marie announces – and such an inspirational and positive mindset, we’re expecting to see Marie fronting lingerie campaigns well into her 80s. Mrs. Claus could never…
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