My favourite part of the film Four Weddings and a Funeral is when Andie MacDowell’s character catalogues all her lovers, one by one, with a short description of each. Hugh Grant’s character listens with an air of bemusement, followed by awe, then dismay. Finally, he runs his fingers through his hair and sighs. “I don’t know what the f*** I’ve been doing with my time,” he says.
Reading Marie Helvin’s memoir, I began to get the same feeling. David Bailey, Eric Clapton, Peter Gabriel, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty: she seems to have met just about anybody you have ever heard of in the 1970s and 1980s, and gone to bed with them. Her first sexual stirring, aged 10, was on Marlon Brando’s knee.
Helvin was one of the first supermodels. After an idyllic childhood in Hawaii, where she walked to school barefoot and skived off lessons to ride the surf, she was approached by a model scout on a visit to Japan. The product of an American father and Japanese mother, Helvin hit the big time in London with Bailey. After brief resistance (she didn’t want to become “just another name on his infamously long list of conquests”), she married him when she was 19, “an adoring child bride”.
For a model, marrying the hottest photographer in Europe is hitting the jackpot. Helvin acknowledges this by telling us she needed Bailey. But rather startlingly, she adds: “If I can be bold enough to say it, he needed me.”
Bailey is the highlight of the book, and practically all the best lines are his, along with much of the humour (which is otherwise scarce). He is fantastically unPC and deliciously wicked. When the film Shampoo comes out, he declares: “Thank God all the assholes are going to want to be hairdressers now, not photographers.” He sleeps around constantly. “Of course he slept around,” Helvin writes. “He was David Bailey.” But if Helvin ever tries to discuss her emotions with him, he snaps: “ Please don’t be one of those awful American women who is constantly whining, ‘We need to talk about our feelings!’ ”
In fact, if Bailey had been involved in editing this book, it might have been a better one. Instinct tells me he would have cut lines such as: “Something deep within me felt that being with Eric wasn’t going to bring me nearer to enlightenment.” The Eric is, of course, Eric Clapton. Who did you expect: Eric Morecambe?
But Bailey doesn’t get it all his own way. There is one rather amusing moment when Helvin, having had her own fling with the “gorgeous, dark” Tom Selleck, tells us how her sleep-talking habit gets her into trouble back home with Bailey. “I was roused in the middle of the night by Bailey growling, ‘Who’s Tom, Marie? Who’s this f***ing Tom character you keep talking about?’ I played for time by pretending to yawn. ‘Oh, you know,’ I said, before giving an alibi that even now astounds me with its cheek: ‘Tom Thumb.’ ”
Nobody in Helvin’s book is remotely normal or unglamorous. She lives in a rarefied world inhabited by Sting and Trudie, Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall (her best friend), Mark Shand, Salman Rushdie and the improbably named Carmen Dell’Orifice. At times, the name-dropping can get a bit tiresome. Even in adversity (she lost money on the stock markets after 9/11 and had to move to Chelsea, poor love), she ends up house-sitting for Rushdie, where she tells us she “devoured his library”. Sounds rather indigestible.
When she writes about her childhood and her family, particularly the death of her younger sister, Helvin is interesting, almost likeable. However, the publisher knows that this won’t sell books. So if the life and (many) loves of a top model are what interest you, then you will like The Autobiography. You can sit back and be transported into a world where everyone is irresistible, especially Marie.