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The Loves of Lauren Hutton

Lauren Hutton, from Lunch Bunny to Supermodel Actress Turned Talk Show Host
Nancy Wolfson
From the Print Edition:
Matt Dillon, Spring 96

They have never met, but five minutes into their first encounter he calls her an "odd duck." He is Tony Randall, one of TV's "Odd Couple." She is model, actress and talk show host Lauren Hutton. "You're still 14," Randall declares. "You haven't changed much since then. It's all new to you. You've kept your innocence--that's why you don't have any lines in your face." Hutton has just introduced Randall as the guest on her talk show, "Lauren Hutton And..." He has reacted the way many people do upon meeting her for the first time, struck by her relentless curiosity and, naturally, by her beauty. With one of the longest, most lucrative careers in modeling under her belt, Hutton, at 52, has just ventured into television, as a talk show host, producer and prime-time actress.

On a clear October afternoon, after filming three shows and 10 promos (the show is shot on film, not videotape, and edited before it is aired), Hutton descends a mountain of stairs from her fourth floor offices in New York's Soho. Dressed in a haphazardly buttoned rose-colored cashmere cardigan, cream crepe shirt and charcoal gray trousers with topstitched brown loafers, she could be a schoolgirl. This low-key getup might look like a uniform on anyone else, but Hutton makes it her own, letting the long shirttails hang out over her pants, forgetting the socks. Two Indonesian baskets are slung over her shoulder, and she carries a large plastic bottle of spring water. She's headed for the CNBC studios in New Jersey where she will appear as a guest on "The Charles Grodin Show."

Talk shows are old hat for Hutton. She's been a guest on many of them, from Letterman to Charlie Rose. But now she's on her way to Teaneck to plug her own recent entry into the late-night game. She steers her conversation with Grodin to Africa. "My idea of a good time is a party with a bunch of pygmies out in the bush," she says. Grodin presses for a definition of pygmies. "I don't know where your nipple is, but they come up to my nipple," she says, smiling. "And they serve 'white lightning,' a drink made with alcohol and other things. They ration it--the younger you are, the less you get. The oldest women can drink as much as they want," she reports with satisfaction.

Hutton was intrigued with another pygmy delicacy--termites. Goading Grodin with "I bit a lot more bugs than bit me," she recalls eating live termites with the pygmies: "They're tasty, like Brazil nuts. I did it out of respect for my pygmy friends." Grodin dares to ask, "What else have you eaten that's living?" Without missing a beat, Hutton fires back, "This is a family show, isn't it?"

On her own show, Hutton does a lot of the talking, a half-hour conversation with "philosophers--from bus drivers to gene splicers." The conversation often leads to one of Hutton's favorite topics: the battle of the sexes. "Figuring out the difference between men and women is a lifelong passion of mine," Hutton tells Deborah Tannen, the author of Talking From 9 To 5: Women & Men in the Workplace: Language, Sex & Power, one of her first guests on the show. Tannen and Hutton agree that the battle between the sexes is more heated than ever. But Hutton has noted something else: "When you travel--I mean serious travel--you see you can communicate with every woman on the planet, regardless of culture."

Hutton started smoking cigars as a way of communicating. "I smoked my first cigar sitting with some tribal women somewhere. I think it was in the Himalayas, but I don't really remember. There were so many times I would sit on the side of a mountain smoking with these women in brightly colored garb." It was quite a contrast to her life as a New York model, one she defines as "a world of blue smoke and mirrors."

Sampling smokes gave Hutton a taste of the local culture. "In the Ituri Forest in Zaire, the pygmy women roll their own funny-shaped little cigars made from rough leaf tobacco, which they get by trading at the edge of the forest. Those cigars'll take your head off!

"Everyone all over the world loves tobacco," she adds. "It's the one substance that is liked by Easterner and Westerner alike." Smoking made her privy to cultural rituals. "I was a Martian. Since I was so different from them, they couldn't classify me. So I didn't have the kind of restrictions that tribal people often have among themselves. I could hang out with men and women. I had a lot of freedom. Maybe a woman is not as dangerous as a man in their minds," Hutton speculates.

"I smoked some fine cheroots in Turkey with my Turkish girlfriends. We'd go from port to port on these broad-butted boats and we'd sit around smoking and eating Turkish delight [a jellylike confection often dusted with sugar]. It's deadly. The Turks eat more honey and use more silk than any people on the planet."

Wherever you smoke cigars, Hutton notes, they give you the chance to stop, sit down and assess what you've been doing and where you are going. "It's like an agreement you make with yourself to take the time to relax and smoke a cigar," she reflects. "Smoking cigars makes you feel worldly. And getting them gives you someplace to go."

Going places has long been a Hutton pastime. During a 15-year period, she worked as a model for half of each year and spent the rest of the year traveling. The Ford agency, which represented her for nearly 30 years (she's now represented by IMG), was the only one of New York City's top five modeling agencies to accept the 20-year-old Hutton in 1964, when she was agency-shopping shortly after arriving in the city. Eileen Ford, the grande dame of cover girls in those years, warned Hutton that if she left town for more than two weeks, everyone would forget her.

Hutton didn't listen. Nor did she heed Ford's advice to fill that space between her teeth with something more permanent than the mortician's wax she had begun carrying around. "She's always been a rebel. Lauren dances to a different drummer," Ford says today of one of her first supermodels. Ford remembers the first time she met Hutton: "There has always been a way Lauren walks into a room. When she enters, you know you're looking at a star. I immediately knew she wasn't ever going to miss. Tooth or no tooth." Against all odds, the gap-toothed model graced a record 28 Vogue covers, and during one 10-year period earned more than any other model on earth.

"I lasted so long because I always had a very strong [private] life, that was in fact much stronger than my modeling life, and I spent as much time at it," Hutton reasons. That was due in part to the influence of Bob Williamson, the man with whom she shared a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village for several years. They met at a New York hot spot called Duke's Cube in 1964. He was a downtown dilettante who played the market. Older and shorter with Coke-bottle glasses, he was better-read than Hutton and became her Pygmalion. She jokingly refers to him as "Bob God," saying, "He was like a walking library--his knowledge was encyclopedic."

Williamson determined what Hutton should wear, with whom she should work and how she should spend her money. This is hard to imagine some 30 years later, with her current reputation for being independent, willful and single. Williamson led her to faraway places she'd never heard of such as Morocco, Uganda and Tanzania, and Hutton claims he saved her life five times. They trekked in the Himalayas and the Andes and lived with tribal cultures three times. The two split up years ago but keep in touch.

When Hutton hosted Isabella Rossellini on her talk show, they discussed what makes a man attractive. Rossellini attributed her passion for great directors to their thoughts: "They wake up in the morning and ask, 'Why are we here? Is there a God or not? What is moral and what is not?' It's this incredible morality or spiritual search that makes me fall in love." Hutton was quick to agree.

One man in Hutton's life who tried to impart to her his search for meaning was her father, even though she never met him. Lawrence Hutton, who grew up in Mississippi next door to William Faulkner (the writer was his scout master), was stationed in England during the Second World War when Mary Laurence Hutton was born on Nov. 17, 1943, in Charleston, South Carolina. After the war, Lawrence's wife, Minnie, moved to Miami and divorced him. He died in 1955, at 36, while working as a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

"Never meeting my father was the most painful thing in my life," Hutton admits. "I look just like him and I'm named for him, but all I have are these two books of his letters and drawings from the war. The day of my birth he wrote and told me about our ancestors, what he thought was important in the world, what books I should read and what he wanted for me. He was a very, very hip young man of 24 when he wrote to me."

Lauren's mother was a Southern belle schoolmate of Barbara Bush's at Ashley Hall in Charleston. After moving to Miami, she and Mary Laurence lived with Minnie's sister and brother-in-law, Gaga and Eddy. When Mary Laurence was six, Minnie married an ex-oil wildcatter named Jack Hall, moved to Tampa and had three more daughters, whom Lauren virtually raised.

In a recent article in Forbes, Hutton wrote, "Mother was lethally beautiful. She had real platinum-blond hair worn like Veronica Lake's, a long pageboy over one sapphire blue eye.... Mother looked like a princess from the big Grimms fairytales book." Lauren was not your typical girl. She liked to roughouse with the boys in the swamp, climb trees and raise worms. Her childhood was tough in other ways, and at times the family was "fantastically poor," Hutton recalls. "I was molded by the hard times--the adversity I was faced with," Hutton says, when asked what distinguished her.

On her show, she recounted to the comic Susie Essman how she handled a gang of girls who came to beat her up when she was 11. "They were waiting for me outside my house. Waiting to pounce, and I knew it. So I came, cracked a joke and they laughed. Then, fortunately, a rattlesnake went by, and I caught it. I became a hero."

Mary Laurence was voted "Best Eyes" in her high school senior class. She attended the University of Southern Florida for a year, changed her name and then came to New York in 1962, making ends meet by working as a Lunch Bunny at the Playboy Club. After three months there she decided to travel across the country, stopping in New Orleans to visit friends. Deciding to stay in the Big Easy, Hutton took art classes at Sophie Newcombe College (then Tulane's sister school) by day and moonlighted as a waitress at Al Hirt's jazz club on Bourbon Street. After a year in New Orleans, she went on to Mississippi to "hunt Huttons." In 1964 she returned to what she calls the hottest frying pan on the planet: New York.

In 1966, the 22-year-old Hutton bushwhacked her way into Vogue's New York offices. Diana Vreeland, its legendary editor, sent her over to photographer Richard Avedon. Unconvinced by her offbeat looks, he asked her what more she had to offer. "I can jump," Hutton hustled. This triggered a new genre of fashion photography.

"The fashion magazines showed the new kind of woman who was emerging in the '60s," says author and iconoclastic feminist Camille Paglia, a friend of Hutton's. "Women were in motion. And Lauren illustrated that, literally. Actually, her whole career is an excellent example of this new kind of independent woman." Hutton's wit and will are revealed in her "mischievous, kind of Tom Sawyer smile." Paglia observes. "She creates this mental space around her, and she sweeps everyone around her into her orbit."

Hutton's acting career began in 1968 with Paper Lion, the first of some 30 big- and small-screen movies. "I didn't give acting enough time, and as a result my work as an actress was very uneven," she admits. ("I modeled my way through acting, and you acted your way through modeling," Hutton told her friend Isabella Rossellini.) Of all her movies, "I'm only proud of about six of them, including American Gigolo. Since I had come from a Vogue cover, I always got rich, 'good girl' parts," Hutton says. "That's the last thing that I am." Last year she was again cast as an overbearing socialite in the CBS television series "Central Park West."

In 1973, Hutton landed the first major cosmetics contract with Revlon, known for a lip and nail shade called Fire and Ice. From 1973 to 1983, Hutton represented Revlon's top-of-the-line Ultima II brand. Sometimes she filled the gap between her teeth, other times she exposed it. Although rumored to have had an affair with Charles Revson, Revlon's founder, she says their relationship was strictly professional and, in fact, they only met about five times. The first time was in 1973, at the contract signing. When offered a crumpet with her tea, she took it, forgetting about the false tooth she'd affected for the occasion. She bit into the crumpet and lost her tooth, but not her cool, as Andrew Tobias recounts in his 1976 book, Fire and Ice. Hutton announced to Revson, "You'll have to forgive me, but my tooth is stuck in a wad of crumpet here and we'll have to do something about it because it cost 50 dollars and I'm not going to lose it."

She gained Revson's respect, and her image helped win his company a 65 percent increase in business. Her first contract, a watershed at the time, amounted to $250,000 a year for 20 days' work. Twenty years later, in 1993, she signed another Revlon deal as spokeswoman for Results, a collection of corrective moisturizing treatments. This one, up for renewal this year, is said to have made it into the million-dollar-plus range. And it demands less of Hutton's time.

These days she pours much of her energy into her talk show, but still wears many hats. Susan Grant, president of Turner Program Services, a subsidiary of Turner Broadcasting and the syndicator of "Lauren Hutton And...," points to Hutton's wide range. "Lauren established that she was flexible enough to be a model, businessperson, actress and world traveler," Grant notes. "And the fact that she was able to take a model's career from a three- to 10-year span to a 30-year business is most important. It is her savvy and longevity that sparked our excitement in her as a host."

Hutton's 1989 comeback as a 45-year-old model forced our youth-driven culture to make a U-turn. She was in Yugoslavia doing a movie when Eileen Ford's husband, Jerry, called to tell her that the fashion photographer Steven Meisel wanted her for a Barneys New York ad campaign he was shooting. She accepted the relatively low-paying job and became a pioneer in reviving the image and allure of women over 40.

At about the same time, Hutton had a midlife crisis. A four-year relationship with Malcolm McLaren, the producer and manager of the rock group Sex Pistols, was ending. She'd also broken her leg in a freak accident and spent six months in bed.

She went to see a Jungian therapist to confront her pain. "That's what grows you up," Hutton confides. "You face what didn't work out...those childhood problems you keep putting off. First you're in your 20s and you're just a kid. Then you say, 'Yea, well I'm 30, but I'm just 30, and I've barely left being a kid.' And then suddenly you're 40. And that's when it gets disturbing. And if, by 45, you haven't faced it, you're in trouble. Which is what happened to me. I think it probably takes your whole life to look at all those things. I'm still working on them," she continues. "But I was a bit of a thug before. When I got into trouble with people I would resort to violence. And now I rely on words."

She and her present beau, Luca Babini, have a lot to say. He is the Lu, and Lauren the la, of Lula Productions, the 50-50 partnership they formed as part of the Turner deal. An Italian fashion photographer and filmmaker, the 41-year-old Babini is the director, set designer and post-production supervisor of "Lauren Hutton And..." "We met on a set about five years ago," he recalls. "I was coming out of a divorce, and she became like a sister to me. Then I fell in love with her. And I loved her feet, which say so much about a person.

"Lauren is incredibly popular because people feel that she's not a faraway star in another universe, but that she is accessible and down to earth. She has very clear opinions about things, and she supports them," Babini says of his constant companion, whom he first encountered as an image from afar. She is now encamped in an adjacent office.

The most conspicuous fixture in her office is a large, rectangular brass-framed mirror. Late one autumn day, Hutton is sitting on top of her small dressing table removing her makeup, her thick bare feet resting on the seat of a chair. A wide couch with big, fake leopard fur pillows faces a table piled with paper, books and pink telephone message slips. Hutton is getting set to leave for a job in the Bahamas, where she will model for a Florida department store, one of many still interested clients.

Hutton ponders a bigger picture. "As a model or actress, you're constantly being looked at by other people. After a while, addicted to admiration, I couldn't see out anymore. I could only see people seeing me," she says. Her challenge as a television talk show host is exactly the opposite. "This is me looking out at someone else. My aim is to show my guest in a way that makes them feel safe and comfortable and recognized, in the best sense."

Aside from being Hutton's first full-time job, her talk show has effected a breakthrough: "I feel like I'm molting all kinds of layers right now, like a crab," she says. "I can see myself changing...in light years. Most people don't do that at 52. And I'm extraordinarily grateful for it."

She uses the word "extraordinary" often. "My face is always changing because I am constantly feeding myself," she says, alluding to the perpetual flux of new forces in her life. Today, she has a 41-year-old boyfriend and a tête-à-tête TV show on the burning issues of the day. This is a new kind of adventure, far from the jungle where she used to smoke those funny little cigars. It's an adventure she's savoring.

"I've moved to a 41 ring size, " she says of the Dominican H. Upmanns she now smokes. "They burn slower."

Nancy Wolfson is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.

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