Great Conversations: Lauren Hutton

I interviewed model/actress Lauren Hutton in late 2007 at her home in Venice, CA. Hutton greeted me wearing a gingham workshirt, battered jeans and no make-up, hair pulled back. She was and is one of the most beautiful humans I've ever had the pleasure of laying eyes on. A sharp mind and tough core resided within, which I quickly found out as our conversation flowed and the hours passed. As she bid me good-night, she handed me a manila envelope. I opened it when I arrived home. Inside, the recent issue of Big Magazine that was done as a tribute to her remarkable career. That magazine, and her inscription, remains one of my most treasured mementos.


Lauren Hutton was the face of American fashion in the 1960s and '70s. Having appeared on every major magazine cover multiple times (a record 27 times on the venerable Vogue), everyone in America knew the stunning beauty with the gap-toothed smile who seemed to represent every tomboy next door who blossomed into a swan when she went to her first prom.

Mary Laurence Hutton was born in Charleston, South Carolina November 17, 1943. Raised by her mother and stepfather (she never knew her natural father, who died in his mid-30s) in the Deep South, Mary was indeed a tomboy who explored the swamp behind her house with the regularity of a Mark Twain character. After attending Tulane University, she went to New York City, soon landing a job as a cocktail waitress at Manhattan's legendary Playboy Club. Since there were already several Mary's on the staff, Mary Laurence (her father's surname) rechristened herself "Lauren," both as a tribute to her dad, and inspired by Lauren Bacall. After being discovered by the legendary Eileen Ford, Lauren's modeling career was launched, becoming (arguably) America's first supermodel, which was cemented when she negotiated an exclusive cosmetics deal with Revlon in the 1970s, becoming America's first fashion model to step into the formerly male-dominated entrepreneurial ring.

Lauren Hutton made her screen debut in 1968's Paper Lion, co-starring with Alan Alda, following it with memorable turns in Karel Reisz's The Gambler, the Burt Reynolds hit Gator (1976), and the classic '80s touchstone film American Gigolo, eventually appearing in more than 55 television programs and feature films. She hosted 150 episodes of her own talk show, Lauren Hutton and...between 1995-96, and launched her own successful cosmetics line, marketed over the internet, at She raised some eyebrows when, in 2005, at age 62, she appeared in a special issue of Big Magazine that offered up a career retrospective, topped off by a series of nudes shot by photographer Mario Sorrenti that still set men's hearts aflutter world-wide.

Still an international icon of fitness, beauty and aging gracefully, Lauren Hutton returns to the small screen this month on FX's hit Nip/Tuck, as Fiona McNeil, a Hollywood publicist that Machiavelli, himself would have been honored to have escorted to the royal ball. The radiant Ms. Hutton, a Venice local, sat down with us in her garden recently to discuss her remarkable life.

Your role in Nip/Tuck is a real hoot. I love how this new season is basically a satire on the show itself.

Lauren Hutton: Yeah, it's been great fun. It's all this guy Ryan Murphy, the show's creator. I didn't even have an agent. He went out and found me, because I really haven't done any acting in ten years. I started this cosmetics business six years ago that's taken up all of my time. Also, six years ago I nearly got killed on a motorcycle and was in hospitals recovering for about six months.

Were you in a coma?

It was a funny kind of coma, a subconscious coma, thanks to Dennis Hopper, who insisted I wear full leathers and to Jeremy Irons, who had just traded helmets with me, one with a visor on it, before the crash happened. Otherwise I'd have been in a real coma, blind, or more likely killed instantly. It was on a 100-mile ride celebrating the planned Guggenheim motorcycle exhibit. And it was me, Jeremy, Dennis, Laurence Fishburne, and a bunch of billionaire motorcycle enthusiasts. I was going too fast, hit some rocks, flew up 25 feet, jumped off and pushed (myself away from the bike) and headed back so that I wasn't hitting pavement, I was hitting land. It was a mountainous part of Nevada called The Valley of Fire. Then I skidded across that red, rocky ground for 170 feet. But that visor saved by life, because those rocks probably would have torn out my eyes and maybe even part of my frontal lobe. So I'll always be grateful to Jeremy Irons for insisting that I change helmets moments earlier!

Did that incident change your perspective?

It made me believe quite strongly in ancestor worship and angels. (laughs)

Did you see anything while you were in that state?

I was talking in my subconscious for about two and a half weeks, and all my friends knew it. Fourteen friends came to see me while I was in that state, and some stayed for weeks. Half of them had never been to Vegas, where I was hospitalized. A lot were artists and people who would never go to Vegas. But I was very moved to find that I had this really close family of friends.

You're obviously very resilient. You've been open about the fact that your childhood was not pleasant: you never knew your father, who died very young, and your stepfather was apparently not a nice man.
I'm sure it's all made me who I am, though. If you live through it, you get a very high-tensile burning point.

Your dad was a pilot?

Yeah, he did barnstorming-type things, tricks with planes, that sort of thing, and he was in WW II, but according to my mother, he busted out of officer training school up in Sacramento, while she was pregnant with me. He wanted to belong to the U.S. Army Air Corps because William Faulkner was his next door neighbor growing up, and his Scout leader, and was a big influence on dad. Faulkner wrote about my grandfather, who I also didn't get to meet, whose name was C.L. Hutton, in a book called Intruder in the Dust.

How did your father pass away?

They said it was a heart attack, and he was either 34 or 36. But when they say "heart attack," in the Deep South, you never really know. His father went down from a heart attack when he was around 45 or 46. I was twelve when dad died. As my granny said "Darling, it was one of the many war tragedies." Divorce was a whole new idea, and my mother had divorced him, and her new husband didn't want her to have had another man, so they changed my last name to my stepfather's, which was Hall, even though he never formally adopted me.

And he wasn't such a nice man, apparently?

No, not entirely true. He was a smart man, and a woods boy from Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas. He taught me how to catch a rattlesnake with my bare hands and fish, among other things. I was a delicate little southern girl afraid of the dark. He wanted my mother to himself, and me out of the house as much as possible, so he taught me things not to be afraid of, all of which were in my backyard, so I'd go out and explore it. Like I say, there were five things besides my stepfather that lived in our backyard in that swamp which could have killed me: four different kinds of poisonous snakes, 300 pound alligators. (laughs) I learned to be afraid of none of them.

But that was always such a strong part of your appeal: you were like the tomboy who evolved into this gorgeous, other-worldly beauty. And there's not a man alive who doesn't find that irresistible, much more so than a girly-girl.

Really? I never knew that. That's good to know. I will say that growing up with hunter-gatherers was a rarified thing because that way of life really doesn't exist anymore here. It still exists in Africa.

You became the world's first "supermodel" in the '60s, appearing on the cover of Vogue a record 27 times. How have you seen the business change since then?

It's changed phenomenally, although I've only modeled a handful of times in recent years. It changed hugely with the Revlon contract I signed. During the '70s I kept reading about athletes like Catfish Hunter getting a million dollars, and I yelled over to my old man, who was reading his Wall Street Journal, 'How can I get a contract like that?' He said "Cosmetics companies. They've got tons of money. Refuse to do any make-up ads unless you've got a contract." So I called Eileen Ford and she said "You do five or six cosmetics ads a year--more than anybody!" So I signed an exclusive contract with Revlon. Before that, a good model would make $300 a day, or $60 an hour. A serious working model would book six hours a day. And overnight, that was over, and the salaries for everyone jumped to $1500 a day, and then every generation, which in modeling is about five years, coned that number up, until we're at the point where we are today. I did Revlon for ten years, then did American Gigolo, and really fell in love with acting.

You did some good movies prior to Gigolo, including one of the '70s best films, The Gambler, which had a trifecta of talent: directed by Karel Reisz, written by James Toback, and starring James Caan, who was fresh off The Godfather.

It was the first time I was in Vegas, and we were there for months. I don't remember any studio shooting, just shooting in Vegas. Most everybody, almost all men, would work all day, and gamble all night, or vice-versa, and I of course, didn't gamble until the last day we were there. It was lonely, and extremely interesting. They didn't keep the lights on all night in Vegas in those days, but they turned them on for us for an extra couple hours, where Jimmy and I had this emotional scene where I had to cry, and we only had an hour or so to do it, before they'd have to turn the lights off! No pressure, right? (laughs) Karel was an impeccable gentleman, and a great director, and the best director I'd worked with at that point, and just extraordinarily kind and careful. James Caan was just really funny. I'd never met anyone like him before. He was always taking off his shirt, showing off his lats, saying things like "Bet you've never seen anything like this back in...wherever." It was funny because he'd grown up in Sunnyside, which was a very tough part of Queens, and I met his dad on the set one day. I think Jimmy may have been a little frightened of his dad! (laughs) He was in the meat packing business. They brought a chair out for his dad to sit down when he visited the set one day. He was probably in his 60s then. His dad was so big, and not from fat, that the chair just collapsed instantly! (laughs) But Jimmy was great, introduced me to all sorts of people, like Joe Di Maggio, who I never would have met, otherwise.

Not long after that you did Gator, which marked Burt Reynolds' directing debut. What was that like?

Great fun. Burt is one of the best directors I've ever had, without question. One of the greatest things he ever did in that movie was, he tricked me. There was a part of the script, at the end, where I was supposed to laugh and cry simultaneously. I had no clue how I was going to do that. So you remember the big scene at the end where we're in love, but we part ways, and he goes home and I go off to New York to become a big anchorwoman. So we kiss at my porch, and I'm crying and he walks out of frame. And as soon as he gets behind the camera, he goes into this Groucho Marx walk and grins back at me, and I just scream with laughter! So that was very clever. He's a very good man. I haven't seen him in a long time. A very good actor, and a spectacular director.

I have a cousin who's in his late teens, and he asked me what the '80s were like. I told him to watch American Gigolo.

Yeah, it was all about money and excess and Paul Schrader really captured that. Although my experience during that decade was a bit different. I spent a lot of the '80s living in a loft in New York, and painting. I figured I was rich enough to do what I wanted and I painted almost full-time. I hung out with people like Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Andy Warhol used to cook on his roof for me. He was an exquisite cook, just unbelievable. So I had this amazing group of friends, and I watched their children being born and raised and it was very real and very bohemian, in many ways. But the other part of my life in the '80s was making movie, after movie, after movie. I usually stayed in Beverly Hills when I was in town, and I had this other rich, sort of "limo" life that I lived. It was sort of a nice balance for me.

When you were making the film did you all know it was something special, or was it just another job?

No, everyone knew it was great, that it was ahead of its time. Paul had been trying to get it made for ten years. He's a genius idea man, and a genius producer. He was one of the first people to use popular music the way he did in that film, with Blondie. Originally, John Travolta had the lead role. He was fresh off of Saturday Night Fever and Grease, which together had made a quarter of a billion dollars. There were entire rooms in Paramount stuffed with his fan mail. What happened was, two weeks before we were to start, John's mother died. He was just a 24 year-old kid. He was in real agony, and we became very close friends. Then his dad had a heart attack. So John asked for a two week extension so he could pull himself together emotionally, and also lose some of the weight he'd put on during this time. And they wouldn't give him an extension. Everyone was going to sue him. It was just a mess. So what John had to do to get out of it, was give Paramount a deal where they chose his movies, and he had no say. And prior to that, John had what no other actor in town had, which was final cut. Plus, John was very romantic. If John had played the role, it would have been much more romantic and you would have seen the gigolo kiss. With Richard, you never really see the gigolo kissing. You see everything leading up to it. You see his expertise in dressing, more than his expertise at romance.

But I liked the fact that the character of Julian Kaye was a bit removed and completely narcissistic. It was his narcissism that blinded him to the conspiracy around him.

All true, but you would have had a populist hit if there had been more romance in the film. As it was, it wasn't a hit when it came out, but became a classic in retrospect on cable and home video. So we ended up being lucky, because Richard is such a wonderful actor, and he became a star because of that role, deservedly. We stayed great friends. He's a very grounded, very spiritual guy. His wife, Carey Lowell, is a terrific gal, too. Richard was the only person who ever took my advice, and traveled. He went off and saw the world. It's harder for stars to do it now, but back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s before the proliferation of media, you could be famous in the U.S. and travel abroad and still be anonymous. Anonymity is important if you want to feel human.

In the mid-80s you had a tough blow when your long-time companion Bob Williamson was discovered to have gone through nearly $13 million of your money.

Bob was my everything. I am who I am as much because of Bob as because of my genetics. He also enabled me. We were together 27 years. So much of it was amazing and magical, but I also allowed myself to be infantilized by him, and that incident forced me to quit being an infant, and to grow up. I think he had what they now call Asperger's Syndrome, which is a mild form of autism that seems to affect highly-functioning people. He was absolutely brilliant. But I learned that when it comes to money, no matter how much you love someone, trust someone, keep at least half of everything you make, and invest it.

Is this part of the reason you started the cosmetics line?

When I did Gigolo I was nearly 40. And in the modeling world if you're over 30, you're nearly invisible. Being over 30 as an actor isn't much better, and I just wasn't getting the sort of parts I wanted to play anymore, with a couple exceptions, like Once Bitten, which was the first starring role for Jim Carrey. So even acting wasn't that fun anymore for me anymore. I told my agent not to send me any script for a movie that I wouldn't go see. Then (photographer) Steven Meisel asked for me for a shoot he was doing. He took the shots, and I looked horrible. It wasn't his fault. He's one of the best photographers in the world. It was the make-up. Make-up was designed for girls, not for women of a certain age. When you tried to apply it to women of a certain age as if they were girls, they look like freakish tarts, which I did. When you age, your skin loses collagen and water, making it dryer and more transparent. Plus I had put on nearly twenty pounds, after a lifetime of always being thin, no matter what I ate--great for filling out the wrinkles, though! (laughs) Plus, everything had moved. The shadows that I'd concealed with make-up when I was younger had shifted. Like when the skin at the bridge of your nose becomes thin, the cartilage underneath shows through, which makes your eyes look closer together.

And you spent years researching and traveling the world, looking for the right ingredients to make the compounds you were looking for, right?

Yeah, the whole process took about 13 years, from conception to when I launched. I like to call the line "idiot-proof" color-coordination, because it utilizes four basic skin tones: pink, yellow, olive and brown. And I say "idiot-proof" because this idiot could figure it out!

I know that you're an active environmentalist, as well.

I heard Al Gore speak before he won the Nobel, at a party for Oceana. I'm a diver, and oceans are dying all over the world. Since I began traveling in the early '60s, I've watched everything change globally from small to massively overdeveloped. We've become an animal run amuck. What we really need to look at is religions, and how they're driving us to extinction. I think we're in danger of becoming Easter Island, of just vanishing the way those people did, and leaving these huge totems behind for future generations to ponder. We're at such a critical time and I think the human race is at a very fine line in terms of whether we're going to make it or not. The apathy is what's really scary.

All one has to do nowadays to get an idea of the "common man's voice" is go onto any message board on the Internet, and they all sound like George W. Bush! Don't you think that's part of the reason he got elected: the world's been taken over by C-students.

Yeah, C-student sound bytes, that's what we're bombarded with 24/7.

Doesn't it seem to you that when you began traveling the world 40 years ago, we were a smarter country?

Sure. Two reasons: one, our world population has more than doubled. We were three billion in '64, we became six billion in '89, and they've been saying since'89 we're six billion, although I recently read in The New York Times that we're at six and a half. And meanwhile there's been no die-off whatsoever, and second we continue to breed like crazy. I go to Africa every year, usually the east, and when you see what's happening there, it's like a microcosm of what's in store for the rest of the planet if we don't start taking notice. I go there to study tribes and animals, so it puts a lot in perspective.

What draws you to it?

I don't know. It's just been that way all my life. Maybe it started watching all those Tarzan serials when I was a kid. (laughs) One of the reasons I went to Africa was, when I was going to college, I was in school all day, and then I'd cocktail waitress all night. By the third year, I was tired! I also realized I was learning much more on Bourbon Street than I was in school, and I wanted to be an artist, and I knew that in order to be an artist, I had to see the world. So I heard about these tramp steamers where you pay $165 for a ticket, and go to Africa. I didn't know at that point that Tangiers was North Africa! (laughs) I very naively thought that I'd dock, catch a bus out to the bush and see lions and tigers and bears. But that's where the love affair with the continent started, and it never ended.

If women ran things, would they be different?

That's a good question. Women and men have very different brains, so yes, I think they would be different. Would they be better? That's the question.

What's the answer?

(Shrugs her shoulders, shows off her world-famous smile).