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China Machado: The woman signed as a model at 81

By Mairi Mackay, CNN
October 24, 2011 -- Updated 1039 GMT (1839 HKT)
China Machado started her modeling career in Paris back in 1954. China Machado started her modeling career in Paris back in 1954.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 81-year-old grandmother signs to agency that also represents supermodels including Gisele
  • Recent work includes shoots for New York Magazine, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar
  • Once a muse of photographer Richard Avedon, Machado hadn't modeled for 20 years

(CNN) -- At 81, China Machado is probably the world's oldest signed model.

Just last month, the grandmother of two inked a contract with IMG models, the agency that represents Amazons such as Gisele, Kate Moss and Lily Cole.

Already this year, Shanghai-born Machado has bagged the front cover of New York Magazine. "Can you imagine?" she laughs over the phone from New York. "You know, I never dreamt this in my whole life!"

She also features in luxury store Barney's Fall ad campaign, styled by former Vogue Paris editor-in-chief Carine Roitfeld, alongside the likes of Naomi Campbell and Crystal Renn.

In the past few weeks, she shot a fashion spread for Vogue -- "Italian ... or Spanish Vogue, I can't remember" -- with photographer Bruce Weber, which will feature in the coming months.

"(It's) of me -- with all these 20-year-olds he always photographs," she says. Not that she's phased -- breaking the mould is nothing new for Machado.

Machado had started modelling in Paris in 1954 for Givenchy and Balenciaga and claims to have been the highest paid catwalk model of her time.

Her big break came in 1958. Oleg Cassini, who would later become known for designing First Lady Jackie Kennedy's state wardrobe in the 1960s, spotted Machado in Paris and offered her a contract to come to New York to model one of his collections.

The rest is history. "The day I arrived I met Diana Vreeland (legendary fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar and Vogue) and she introduced me to (Richard) Avedon," remembers Machado.

She became Avedon's muse, working with him exclusively for three years -- and in 1959, Machado was the first non-Caucasian model to feature on the cover of a fashion magazine, gracing the front of Harper's Bazaar in an image shot by legendary photographer Richard Avedon.

It was the cover that almost wasn't, although Machado didn't know that at the time.

Race and fashion: Still an issue?

Years later, Avedon told her that the magazine's publisher at the time, Robert F. MacLeod said to him, "Listen, we can't publish these pictures. The girl is not white."

Avedon was due to renew his contract with the magazine, and said he wouldn't sign unless they published his photographs of Machado.

She says: "(Avedon) had sort of blackmailed them into putting these pictures into the magazine."

Machado says she probably reached the height of her fame as a model in 1960. "I had, you know, tons of write-ups on me as being the most famous model ever, on the runway.

"Every advert that came out (featuring Machado), it would say stupidly 'The Great China' on it. I felt like ... a circus!"

Machado says that her childhood in China -- when she was 16, she and members of her family fled Shanghai during WWII -- had made her "such a practical person" and she found modelling "frivolous."

So Machado moved behind the camera. She took over as fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar in the early 60s when Diana Vreeland left. "They took me as an offbeat character," she recalls, but she stayed for 11 years, mainly working with Avedon.

In the late 1980s, she was instrumental in the launch of Lear's Magazine -- "a magazine for women over 45," she says -- at a time when magazines didn't talk to that readership.

"We were way ahead of our time," says Machado. "We were 21 years ago." The magazine won awards and built a readership, but folded after six years, the victim of an unclear vision, according to the New York Times.

Machado's current new beginning started a couple of years ago when her daughter brought the then creative director of U.S. fashion magazine, Dennis Freedman over for dinner.

"After dinner he said to me, 'I'm going to do 20 pages on you.' And I thought, 'This guy is nuts! I haven't been photographed in 20 years.

"And since then, every month, I'm in some magazine. It's crazy," she said.

How a small-town girl became China's first supermodel

Ivan Bart, head of IMG Models, who has overseen Machado joining the agency, says that despite her age her appeal is obvious.

"First of all, she's legendary," he says, adding that she's "this amazing woman who has given so much to the fashion industry ... and also, oh, by the way, she happens to be in her 80s.

"How inspirational is that for any woman of any age?"

Among other things, he'd love to put her on the runway -- where she started over half a century ago.

"Oh my god, how funny, how funny, how funny!" she chuckles. "Well, I'm a great dancer so I'm sure I'm not so worried about going on a runway."

But, always practical, Machado says she'd like, perhaps to be a spokesperson of some kind. She is, she claims, one of the few people who know the history of fashion, perhaps because she's lived it.

"We're signing up for something that might be a little unusual," she says, "for someone who might be interested in seeing that a woman can be active until this age and, you know, not look so bad without plastic surgery."

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