Publish date:

What's the Big Deal?

Supermodel Elle Macpherson can't understand what it is that others see in her

To be honest, she looks harried. Not striking or statuesque or sexy; not adorable or kittenish or breathtaking; and certainly not the way you're used to seeing her in photographs—smiling naturally and about to burst out of one of those spandex or Lycra numbers that have helped make Elle Macpherson a household name. Nope. Harried, as only a New Yorker can look harried. And why not? Car trouble she had while spending a few days in the Adirondacks has forced her to cancel out on a fashion show for the first time in memory; she's a half hour late for another appointment; and she has spent the last seven hours in highway traffic.

"You want something to drink or eat?" she asks, forcing that familiar toothy smile, when you meet her outside her apartment building. She's in jeans, sunglasses, no makeup. There's a blue duffel slung over her shoulder. "Beer? Juice? Soda? There's nothing in the fridge but venison sausage."

Venison sausage? You tell her no, but then follow in the wake of her long-legged stride as she heads to the corner market and watch as she slaps a $10 bill on the counter for a six-pack of Mexican beer and gets a quarter back in change. No one recognizes her. One more harried New Yorker.

Elle rents a fourth-floor walk-up apartment in Greenwich Village, and now she bounds up the stairs like an athlete, despite the duffel on her back, which weighs a good 40 pounds. "I can always tell if I've partied too hard when I make this climb," she says a little breathlessly. You make a mental note to cut back on your own partying, limited though it has been, for the climb has just about finished you. Fourth-floor walk-ups are the domain of the young and slender.

Upon entering the apartment you pass through a hallway lined with framed magazine covers. All of them have her name on them, but they bear the likenesses of women other than Elle, strange women, exotic women, with eyes that speak only to you. Macpherson's husband, Gilles Bensimon, a French fashion photographer, has taken these photographs for the American edition of the French magazine Elle. The poor man is never rid of the company of beautiful women. Macpherson tells you he's in Paris now, working. "Please go in and have a seat," she says. "I'm going to slip into something more comfortable."

Of course you are, you sigh. There are men who would slay to hear these words from Elle Macpherson. But you are a professional, and you wander into the living room with ice water in your veins. It's decorated in a sort of postpoverty photo-deco style: functional clutter, overfilled bookshelves, the wall a collage of blown-up snapshots and portraits of Elle, Gilles and friends. Mostly Elle. Mostly clothed in something more comfortable. You resist the temptation to swipe a snapshot and, instead, move to the bookcase, where you remove a paperback that is creased like the face of a farmer. It's New York on Twenty-Five Dollars a Day, 1982-83 edition, and it's inscribed from a friend: "To Elle."

"That was my bible," she says, handing you a beer and settling into the corner of the couch, tucking her legs beneath her the way women do. She's wearing her blue silk pajamas. At least you assume they are silk. At the very least, they are shiny. Macpherson takes a deep draft of her beer from the long-necked bottle. You follow suit. She doesn't look as harried as she did. You, on the other hand, feel as if you look more harried. Perhaps, you reason, it was the climb.

Eleanor Gow was born in Sydney in 1965, daughter of Peter Gow, a sound engineer and entrepreneur. Her parents eventually divorced, and when Elle was eight, her mother, Frances, married lawyer Neil Macpherson, and Elle took her stepfather's name. She lived in Sydney until she was 17, was active in sports, particularly aquatic sports—water ballet, sailing, freestyle swimming and backstroke. She did a bit of modeling, but Elle was a good student with very different goals in mind. When she took the Australian equivalent of the College Boards, she tested in the top 5% of her age group. She was accepted at Macquarie University in Sydney and intended to study law.

Neil Macpherson rewarded his stepdaughter for her good grades by giving her a ski trip to Colorado in 1982. She arrived with $2,000 in hand and no plane ticket home, intending to ski for a couple of weeks and maybe travel a bit. On the slopes a modeling-agency representative saw her and invited her to New York for tests. "I thought I'd give it a try, make a bit of money and then go back home," she says. "I wasn't sure about the business of modeling. I thought it was so full of rubbish and, you know, that I was better than that."

With her family's support, Macpherson flew to New York. "My mother's only 17 years older than I," she says, "and her attitude was, Go, see the U.S. She was happy I was breaking out of the middle-class mold."

To her surprise, Macpherson started getting modeling work almost as soon as she arrived in New York. She kept thinking that it was going to end any day. Two weeks went by. A month. She told her parents she'd be home before school started. She told her boyfriend in Sydney to wait. She felt the whole thing was some sort of mix-up, and any morning someone at the agency would hand her a plane ticket home. "I always had a physical-inferiority complex," she says. "I don't see what people see in me. It's still mind-boggling that I am able to fool half the American population into thinking I'm something special."

She found that she liked the work, and enjoyed the travel, the people. She flew back to Australia, gathered her things and moved to New York. She met Bensimon during a shoot in Tahiti in 1984, although it was anything but love at first sight. He was 21 years older, French, a photographer and living with another woman. She's 6 feet tall, he's 5'10". "He was not the Prince Charming that you dream about," she says. "I tried to get rid of him, but he hung around."

They married in 1986, and they now split their time between an apartment in Paris, a house in the French countryside, and New York. "I'm as much Australian as I am French or American," she says. "I try to retain the positive aspects of all three countries. I'm not a women's libber. In France, the man is dominant but with enormous respect for the woman. I love all the privileges and pains that come with being a woman. I love it when my husband stands up when I come into a room. I love to wear makeup, to do my hair. I love clothes. I always wear a dress at night, always, always."

You do not remind her that she's now wearing blue silk pajamas and has not seen a dress all day long. Then again, the night is young. Who knows what lies ahead for Elle? You make a mental note that you have two hours to catch the last shuttle to Boston—to miss this flight would cost you the marital equivalent of your kneecaps—and help yourself to a bit of the thinly sliced venison sausage that has been hand carried from a butcher in France. Macpherson, too, digs in with dignified gusto. A model who approves of beer and red meat. Life with Elle is curiouser and curiouser.

"I try to have a good balance of life," she says. "Not to be too obsessive. If you feel like it, do it. Life should be a bit of this and a bit of that."

The Australian philosophy, all the way. To keep in shape, for example, she goes for 45-minute jogs three to seven days a week, depending on her mood. She swims in the summer, an hour's worth of laps two or three times a week. She skips breakfast, lunches lightly in the U.S., more seriously in Paris, and eats sumptuously in the evening. "I'm not too ambitious," she says. "I don't work nearly as hard as I could. Ambition is fine, but it can also be destructive. Ambition can give you blinders that close the angle of your regard. My goal is to open the angle of my regard every day."

You glance at your watch and realize if you do not get a move on, your personal angle of regard may be severely limited. Time is short. In 2½ hours, you have not even mentioned the word swimsuits.

So you ask her. Swimsuits. Which are your favorite swimsuits?

"I practically don't even have any bathing suits," Macpherson says with a laugh. "I haven't been to a beach in America since I don't know when. It isn't worth it. People who recognize me always think I don't look that good in real life." She shrugs. "That's fine with me. Let them deal with the dreams."

You, too, shrug. You say good night and close the door on another day in the life of a sportswriter. Dreams, you know well, are for dreamers and bachelors. You, like Elle Macpherson, are different. You have a plane to catch.