“I have to show you something!” Mercedes von Thun-Hohenstein says excitedly. She pulls out the latest Cosmopolitan and opens it at page 106. A picture of legs with stiletto pom-poms are upside down and a man is in the middle of them staring at the camera. “It’s just my legs and, well, my hands but… [We both laugh]. “It’s an article about younger men liking older women.”
Von Thun-Hohenstein only started modelling at 56 – although from her demeanour you wouldn’t think it. She’s animated, gives me two air cheek kisses – how European, but she does speak four languages – and her bright, fluffy yellow coat (and I look it up online) from Topshop certainly draws the eye. She reminds me of my mum and probably of yours, too; kind, caring and doesn’t take any crap.
“I am going to be 60 in two weeks,” she tells me. How exciting. “No,” [We both laugh]. “I see a lot of women reach an age, from 40 onward, and they become lonely, they have had kids who’ve now left home. For me, older modelling came because of that.” Von Thun-Hohenstein came to London at 18 and wanted to be a ballerina. She says she was too old already, so instead has worked as a barre teacher all of her life. There is something comforting about her, she keeps calling me “Maddy, sweetie”, and it’s clear – despite the 37-year age gap – we have a lot in common. We both like fashion and neither of us can cross roads very well. “My husband doesn’t know how I’ve managed this long,” she says as we hop between moving cars on Bedford Street, in west London.
Most people begin modelling in their teens; von Thun-Hohenstein tells me how she entered the industry. “My hairdresser said, ‘You are spending so much money on your hair, why don’t you just let it go white.’” She does what I assume was her reaction at the time, throwing her head back and saying “Aaahhh.” She explains that she let her hair go white and then, after a friend suggested modelling and she booked an appointment with an agency, things just, “went from there”. I wonder what her daughter, Thais, who at 21 is only a year younger than me, thinks. “Oh my God! My daughter does everything for me on my Instagram.” Really? “Yeah. I am the edgy, rock’n’roll one and she is more feminine.” Aw. “She puts everything together. My family are very supportive and not stuffy.”
Historically, the fashion industry has favoured white, young, models, since 2010, British Vogue has only featured (out of a possible 96) six non-white solo women on the cover. We discussed diversity. “I am so happy to see the new Vogue editor’s cover girl [Adwoa Adobe] and she’s not white! Sometimes, I think we haven’t moved on at all though, there is still so much prejudice – especially in fashion.” What does von Thun-Hohenstein think women can learn about themselves from seeing older models? “I want to show women of my age group, not yours… that we aren’t invisible, that you can be healthy at 60 – have sex appeal, whatever that means.”
She tells me about some of her shoots. One was at a luxury retirement home. “It was very glamorous, for older people with a lot of money and there were dalmatians.” Enough said. Von Thun-Hohenstein looks at me and asks, “Have you ever done the Harry Potter tour?” Yes… “So you get these holographic cards, with all of the characters on them and a chocolate, I’m one of the witches.” I tell von Thun-Hohenstein she should go to the tour and get one. She says, “I should, shouldn’t I? Problem is… if you buy them you might not get me.”
Von Thun-Hohenstein replicated Sharon Stone’s nearly-naked shoot on the Harper’s Bazaar’s cover two years ago. “Everyone was, like, ‘No-one looks like that at 57.’ I was asked to copy this. Next thing I know, massive centrefold in a newspaper and the online article has thousands of comments.” Oh, no. “From all over the world. It was interesting to see the US and Australians, like, ‘You go girls, you are fabulous’. People from the UK, Manchester, London were…” Reserved? “If you were in the Middle East you would be stoned to death. I mean we weren’t photo tou…” Photoshopped? “Yeah, but she obviously was. I want to see less of that.”
And the future for von Thun-Hohenstein? “I would like to build up a platform for the older model and do more editorial work and catwalks. I’d like to see more real older women in beauty campaigns too.” I ask von Thun-Hohenstein what she is doing for the day; she tells me she’s going to the cinema to watch “an Agatha Christie re-make?” Murder on the Orient Express? “Yes, it’s not supposed to be very good, I’m just going to see the costumes.” And with that, we hug, head to cross the road and I’m left asking, what will fashion’s agenda be for older models in the future, and, how can I be more like Mercedes von Thun-Hohenstein?
Words, Maddy White @itsmaddywhite