From childhood famine to bad relationships: the truth about Audrey Hepburn

Ella Alexander
·7-min read
Photo credit: Donaldson Collection
Photo credit: Donaldson Collection

From Harper's BAZAAR

Audrey Hepburn is one of those rare people who is as famous as she is universally adored. To dislike her is to dislike baby animals, free food or finishing work on a Friday. But for all the canvas prints bearing her image on café walls and in student rooms, very few people know about the woman behind the peerlessly elegant wardrobe and famed films.

British film director Helena Coan and the producers behind critically acclaimed documentary McQueen have sought to delve deeper to find out more about Hepburn, who was blighted by tragedy and personal problems throughout her life. In Audrey, we meet a complicated, insecure and troubled woman who, ironically for someone so popular, struggled to find love.

“Audrey had depth – she suffered a lot in her life, and she turned that into something beautiful,” says Coan. “To me, that’s a wonderful and comforting story, especially at the moment – to show that trauma does not define you. You can turn it into something powerful and beautiful; Audrey is proof. For me, she’s a prime example of a woman who has been reduced to a two-dimensional portrait. Audrey was smart - she spoke five different languages. Everyone knows her face, but no one knows who she is.”

Here, director Coan shares the biggest surprises she learnt about one of the greatest icons of the 21st century:

She had abandonment issues and struggled to find love

“Audrey’s parents split up when she was six and her father left the family. His departure had a huge impact on her particularly in terms of relationships with men. Both her marriages were very difficult. Her first husband, Mel Ferrer, was a strong, controlling man who could be quite difficult. In some ways he was quite similar to her father in that he was a commanding figure. Her second marriage with Andrea Dotti was particularly hard. He cheated on her many times – as her granddaughter tells us in this film, he was pictured with hundreds of different women during their marriage. Her father leaving hugely affected her sense of self-worth – she said that it left her insecure for life.

Towards the end of her life, she started to accept herself more, especially after she had children. That’s when she met Robert Wolder, who was loving and faithful to her. They were together for 13 years until she died, and, although they never married, Audrey definitely saw them as husband and wife."

Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives
Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Mediapunch/Shutterstock
Photo credit: Mediapunch/Shutterstock

Her slight frame was a result of childhood malnutrition

“Audrey spent World War II in the Netherlands under Nazi occupation, where food supplies ran out. This childhood malnutrition stunted her growth and changed her frame forever. It was ultimately the reason that she couldn’t pursue her dream of becoming a prima ballerina, which is what she wanted to do initially. She was so malnourished that she didn’t have the strength. It was important for me to tell audiences that Audrey was so skinny because she starved. If you look at pictures of her before the war, she looked totally different. Her body is not something you should aspire to have; she ended up that way because she didn’t have a choice – as a result of tragedy. As far as I understand, Audrey had a heathy relationship with food. She loved chocolate and spaghetti and, in later life, would have a whiskey before bed.”

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

She hated the way she looked

“Audrey says in the film that she wishes she could change everything about herself. She wished she was blonde and that she had a fuller figure. She is seen as often the most beautiful woman that ever lived, so that she found it difficult to find self-love was a real surprise to me. She was also very insecure about her acting abilities – she didn’t think she was a good actress. She’d beg for re-shots. She’d get very nervous and smoked a lot. On camera, she was a perfect figure but behind the scenes there was a different story.”

Photo credit: Terry O’Neill, Iconic Images courtesy of Maddox Gallery
Photo credit: Terry O’Neill, Iconic Images courtesy of Maddox Gallery

She was more than a muse; she was a designer

“I was surprised to find that Audrey drew her own designs; she sketched her own clothes and then she’d annotate them and make notes. I would imagine she’d share them with Givenchy. She was so active in her wardrobe choices. She wasn’t just dressed by Givenchy; she was his collaborator. It was two artists working together to create the most pioneering clothes of all time. She worked very closely with him in making the little black dress we see in Breakfast At Tiffany’s; she understood how the dress would be seen by the camera, what needed to be there and what didn’t. There is a misconception that she was just his muse, but she worked with him.”

Photo credit: Keystone Features - Getty Images
Photo credit: Keystone Features - Getty Images

She was one of the first celebrities to use their platform to do charity work

“Audrey was revolutionary in the way she was the first major Hollywood star to do charity work on that scale; many famous women have followed in her footsteps who have been hugely influenced by her. The humanitarian work for UNICEF was very important to Audrey; she herself had been saved by UNICEF from famine after World War II – she really understood what it was like to be a malnourished child. She didn’t let any of her trauma destroy her, whether the war, her father leaving her or dealing with cheating husbands; she instead went out into the field in Somalia and gave back to people rather than letting it ruin her. She ignored her cancer symptoms because she wanted to go out fighting for those kids.”

Photo credit: Derek Hudson
Photo credit: Derek Hudson

She changed Hollywood ideals of beauty

“She changed the idea that you had to busty and blonde to be beautiful; she proved that you could be skinny with dark eyes and still be gorgeous. Hollywood still has a long way to go in terms of diversity, but Audrey made an important step in terms of helping people understand that women could look different.”

She was angry at the world

“One of my favourite things that she says in the film is that ‘I am filled with rage at ourselves.’ She was angry at the state of the world. She was furious at children starving for no other reason than bad, corrupt governments. Because she grew up in the war, starved and nearly died as a child because of Hitler, dictators and bad ruling, to see the same thing happening again – for children to still be going hungry – made her furious. We show her as sad, vulnerable, regretful and angry. She’s not just this beautiful perfect pixie woman, she’s complex.”

Photo credit: Archive Photos
Photo credit: Archive Photos

If she was still alive, she would have been an activist

“If she knew about Mexican children being separated from their parents at the US border, she’d have been on the frontline, she’d have been doing press would have travelled to the White House to try and change what was happening. Her focus was always children and the education of children; she believed that education is key to changing things fundamentally. All you’ve got to do is look at the picture of Audrey with Trump in 1992 and it says it all. She’s been in my mind so much throughout lockdown because she’d have been so devastated by what’s happened this year and the way it’s been mishandled. If she knew Trump was the president, she would be flabbergasted.”

Audrey is available on DVD and digital download from 30 November.

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