Penelope Tree looks back: ‘I like to live a life that doesn’t depend on image or possessions’


Born in New York in 1949, model Penelope Tree is the daughter of Conservative MP Ronald Tree and American socialite Marietta Peabody. At 16, Tree was scouted at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. Her collaborations with the photographer David Bailey throughout the 1960s cemented her as one of the style icons of the decade. After the end of her relationship with Bailey, Tree moved to LA and then Sydney, where she married and raised her two children. She now lives in Sussex. Still modelling, she also works for the charity Lotus Outreach. Her first novel, Piece of My Heart, is out now.

This was my first sitting with David Bailey. I was 17 and working as a reader for the publisher Rupert Hart-Davis, who gave me two hours off for the shoot. The clothes were fantastic, but meeting Bailey felt seminal.

Before then, I’d done some modelling work with Richard Avedon in New York. That was calm and easy, so I expected this to be the same. It was not. As soon as I walked into the room I felt electrically connected to Bailey, this incredible mix of emotions – fear and attraction. He had a great sense of humour, so I was laughing a lot, but I also felt he hated me. Bailey evokes that kind of response. You can see it in my posture – I look a little defensive.

Before Bailey I didn’t know if I’d keep modelling. I was really into my job as a reader, and people told me I didn’t belong as a model. I’d go to castings at big corporate companies and they’d laugh at how I looked. I was a bit miserable, standing in front of a group of strangers who made comments about me, as if I were an object. But that’s just the business.

After this shoot, however, the die was set. The thing was, Bailey was married [to Catherine Deneuve] and an affair was a really big deal back then, so I tried to switch off my feelings. He and I went for lunch at La Trattoria Terrazza in Soho with a mutual friend, and it was very awkward to have all that energy between us witnessed by a third person. We never spoke about it. About three months later, Bailey appeared in New York. He had come to see me. I had a sense that something would happen, as one often does.

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Oddly enough, I don’t think we worked all that well together. At the beginning it was good. After his marriage ended, we lived in Primrose Hill in London for five years. He let me do what I wanted in terms of modelling. But familiarity breeds contempt. We were fighting quite a lot. I never felt like his muse. He had a lot of muses and didn’t ever make me feel as if I was the only one.

London in 1967 was so exciting. Creativity in the air, so many artists and musicians making wonderful things and I was going out a lot. But I was a teenager and vulnerable. Very insecure and introverted. Still, when my career took off it felt great to get the attention. I didn’t have a lot of it from my parents – as soon as I was born, I was given to a nanny. It was the milieu of the time: my mother was ambitious and my father spent most of his time in the West Indies. To do something that caught their attention was very satisfying, even if quite a lot of it was negative attention.

I became independent at an early age. By seven, I was going to school by myself and hanging around New York with friends at weekends. We went down to Greenwich Village and I was in a guitar group and sang. I was rebellious too, towards my mother. I admired her, but to have this virtual stranger come and tell me what to do wasn’t on. She was furious about my career; she cared about school. I think there was a little jealousy there too, which I picked up on and which made it much worse for her.

In 1974 I lost my career [Tree developed late-onset acne, and was arrested for possession of cocaine]. My relationship with Bailey ended. Everything that I held dear disappeared. I was in love with Bailey, but it was more than love – he was the centre of my gravity and I had to work hard to get it back. I sank into a depression, which I had done at 14. I couldn’t even think about being with anybody else, and he was in a new relationship with Marie Helvin. She was on the cover of Vogue, so passing a newsagent was agony. I had a problem with jealousy and needed to create my own self-worth.

To get through it, I read and did psychotherapy, but mostly I danced. It was the time of Pan’s People and Arlene Phillips was teaching the classes. I was the worst. Really clumsy. I think I am probably dyspraxic. Whenever I see Arlene now, I tell her how important her classes were to me and she always looks blank. She doesn’t want to acknowledge how embarrassing I was, but I loved it nonetheless.

Motherhood was also a moment of change for me. I had never held a child before I had my daughter. Babies frightened me and I was scared all the way through pregnancy. Then this being emerged, and I felt the most extraordinary rush of love that has never changed, only becoming stronger with time. I wasn’t a very good mother – I had no idea what I was doing as I didn’t have a mother who told me how to do it. But having a natural birth gave me a confidence about my body that I’d never felt before. I felt strong. For about two years of breastfeeding, I was absolutely fine and then the bulimia I’d had until I was 36 came back.

When I was younger, I was obsessed with appearance. But not any more. Partly that is because of Buddhism. In my 40s, I was living in Australia where a lot of Buddhist lamas were coming through and I was fortunate enough to meet His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.

Working in a profession centred around appearances, I always felt there must be something else. I never could find out what that was until I encountered Buddhism. Now I don’t look in the mirror a lot. I don’t see the point. Life moves fast. It’s not going to end in the way some hope, which is eternal life. There is no point in striving to look younger. I live in the country and I like being alone, in nature. I like not feeling like I’m missing out. I like to live a life that doesn’t depend on image or material possessions or anyone else, other than myself.