SPOTLIGHT: PENELOPE TREE
"I look back at his pictures of me and think that person knew more than I do now. It wasn't about looking desirable or pretty, [David] said he liked the inward-looking face. I put into those photographs all the things that I loved and that great yearning I had at the time to break away and be different from my family."
Penelope Tree. Swinging London. David Bailey and the Dalai Lama. She was a self identified poor little rich girl and the Kate Moss prototype before there was a Kate Moss. Penelope Tree certainly had a face that was hard to forget-cheekbones that could cut glass and saucer eyes trimmed in a thicket of lashes made even longer with 60's style drawn on liquid liner and a heavy dose of falsies.
As was characteristic for models of the time, Penelope was born to an illustrious family of privilege and high social rank. Her father was a confidant of Winston Churchill and a wealthy Conservative MP. Years later at a cocktail party, Penelope would find out that her father had in actuality been gay. Her mother Marietta, on the other hand, was an American socialite all too keen to enjoy the trappings of great wealth and political standing that her husband enjoyed. Marietta also enjoyed several dalliances with powerful and influential men, most notably Adlai Stevenson. For all of her beauty and charm as a political hostess, Penelope remembers Marietta as "a crap mother, unfortunately. We had a very tough time relating to each other and although I can genuinely say without any bullshit that I have inherited her strength, I do often wonder what it would have been like to have a loving mother... Or even a mother."
This sense of abandonment would fuel Penelope's later quest to find both self acceptance and a type of unconditional romantic literary love. Both hard tasks during the full force narcissistic joie de vivre of the 60's modeling world. Penelope's first brush with fame came at the rather young age of 13, when she was spotted by Diane Arbus and featured in a pictorial in Town and Country Magazine. Her next big break being photographed was for Richard Avedon at 17, where Diana Vreeland famously proclaimed her "perfect as is. Don't touch a thing." Not a bad start to business. The pictures ran and a new model in the mould of legends like Twiggy and Veruschka was born. Thru it all, however, Penelope never thought herself particularly pretty-still suffering from the insecurity stemming from emotional family strain and a look which, while striking, was also lacking in convention. Despite developing anorexia and religiously maintaining a weight just above 100 pounds at 5'8, Penelope embraced her otherness in some ways. "I felt I was an alien", she says "so I didn't see anything wrong with looking like one."
Part of Penelope's allure in fact was her somewhat strange visage and eccentric, yet ethereal sense of fashion. So of the zeitgeist was she that when John Lennon was asked to describe her in three words he is said to have replied: 'Hot, hot, hot, smart, smart, smart!' I'm not sure if those are three words but I'll give Lennon a pass on this one. Needless to say, young Ms. Tree was catching the eye of all the swinging set-not the least of which David Bailey, who was to become her boyfriend for years to come.
Penelope claims she clung to Bailey much as would a displaced child, with Bailey alternately playing the role of fictional romantic hero and mother stand in. It's a strange thing to my modern and nostalgic ears that living in the thick of such halcyon pop lore was "completely irrelevant" to Penelope. "I think of the Sixties as being every man for himself...and there was a huge amount of abuse of alcohol and drugs. But nobody thought it was terribly odd. It was perfectly fine to be tripping down the King's Road. It was acceptable to behave quite strangely and talk as if you came out of a Beckett play." Now, nothing sounds terribly wrong with all of this to me per se. In fact, I might be quite impressed that people knew Beckett let along impersonated character quirks. However, 6 years after she hit the scene, she fell out of it entirely.
Suddenly and mysteriously, Penelope's face became ravaged with acne and unrecognizably swollen due to a mysterious skin condition. Bailey terminated their love affair abruptly thereafter. She says, "I was with this photographer whose great love was female beauty and I no longer fitted the bill in any way...I went from being sought-after to being shunned because nobody could bear to talk about the way I looked." If it weren't so tragic, it would be poetic. Penelope's looks were so altered that when arrested on drug charges, police refused to even believe she had ever been a model.
Traveling on the remnants of her modeling days, Penelope spent years living in brief periods of solace punctuated by long bouts of plaguing depression. After some time living in California and Australia, addled with self doubt, reclusive Penelope began to attach herself to a world less elusive and fragile. She became a devout Buddhist and married a Jungian psychologist (fitting). She rarely grants interviews and only reluctantly was photographed by Burberry and Barneys in order to raise awareness for the charitable foundations she works for, the Lotus outreach working with women and children in Southeast Asia (most recently on sex trafficking issues) and the Khyentse Foundation for Buddhist scholarship.
She is candid, honest and forthright. All traits which belie her former status as icon in a famously flimsy time dictated by whimsy and eccentric artifice. All traits which also make her more recent endeavors seem an appropriate fit. When asked now what she thinks about her looks, she candidly replies with total transparency that "I feel like it has all gone but you might as well live." No one can say that she hasn't done just that.
Inspired by "A Rare Interview with Penelope Tree: The Ultimate 60's It Girl", www.guardian.co.uk