These days, the word “influencer” gets bandied around a lot, a catch-all term for anyone trying to get noticed on social media. But if you want to see a real influencer, take one look at Helen Mirren, who at 77 has more fashion- and beauty-industry clout than most young Insta stars could ever dream of. Sitting across from me via a screen – Helen is in Cannes, I’m in London – wearing a slim-cut, round-neck green dress with her hair slicked back in a modern ponytail, she looks every inch an idol. The actor has the sort of presence and confidence that is alluring in anyone, whether 17 or 70.
Yet she is a charmingly un-grandiose interviewee, making relaxed chit-chat. Her well-trained eye zones immediately in on my cheesecloth blouse: she squints and asks if it’s vintage (it is). She talks about the “very hot” weather in Cannes, and asks whether it’s sunny in London as if we’re old friends.
We’re speaking the day before a red-carpet appearance. Helen tells me she’ll be wearing a sparkly Jenny Packham gown and no, she hasn’t thought about how she’ll wear her hair or make-up yet. (As it turned out, she had hair extensions put in to create an XXL half-ponytail.)
Helen is as chic as she is charming. Her irreverent style and “so what?” attitude to beauty are so appealing in this cookie-cutter world. A regular on the red carpet and the awards circuit, her fashion choices get braver and bolder every year, making her a frequent feature on best-dressed lists, too.
Whether she’s in a pretty floral dress toughened up with Russell & Bromley biker boots, as seen on The Graham Norton Show earlier this year, the waist-cinching sugary-pink Dolce & Gabbana dress she wore to collect her Lifetime Achievement prize at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, or the bright-yellow frock she sported at Cannes last year, her approach is never timid. And Helen, an ambassador for L’Oréal Paris (that’s her, below, walking in their 2019 show), is also up for adventure when it comes to beauty, trying pink hair, “bad-ass” eye make-up and everything in between .
So who better to discuss her past red-carpet looks than Helen herself? With some pictures to hand, she talks me through some of the more interesting from recent years, and the seven lessons in beauty and style that make her an inspiration to women of all ages.
Being bad-ass can be a lot of fun
In striking eye make-up at the L’Oréal Paris runway show in 2021.
“I’m very free with my make-up; I get to work with amazing make-up artists, so I just let them do whatever inspires them. For this L’Oréal Paris show, the make-up artist Val Garland just said , ‘I feel like doing something really, really extreme.’ The reaction from people to the thick, heavy eyeliner was a mixture of amazement and a tinge of horror, which is a good reaction as far as I’m concerned. I thought it was so fun! And of course I had an amazing outfit on, so the whole thing worked. The whole look was very bad-ass.”
Trust your instincts – and take your skincare down to your neck
In a blue velvet Elie Saab gown at Cannes, 2018.
“When it comes to the outfit I choose for an event, I’m really quick. I work with either a stylist or a fashion designer and see what they’ve got and what they can lend me. And I can see what will work immediately; I won’t fuss around. With this blue gown at Cannes, I had decided I’d had enough of frills and sequins and I didn’t want to sparkle that year. I just wanted something sculptured and tailored, and I loved the slightly medieval feel of the dress. It was low-cut, so my make-up artist took my make-up down to my neck. I always take my skincare right down to my décolletage, even though I don’t tend to go so low-cut any more.”
It’s all about balance
In a silky yellow Dolce & Gabbana dress at Cannes, 2021.
“Sometimes the dress you wear says it all. You put it on and that’s it, enough said. That’s why with this Dolce & Gabbana gown, I wore my hair up in
a relaxed bun to balance out the impact of the dress. It was so bright, and if you have one extreme, you need to make sure you don’t go too extreme elsewhere. What I loved about this dress was how it floated and the way the silk moved when there was just a little bit of wind. I also love dresses that float.”
Feel comfortable, look better
On the red carpet in Jenny Packham at Cannes, 2022.
“For this year’s Cannes Film Festival, I chose a Jenny Packham dress. She’s
a wonderful British designer whose dresses I’ve worn a few times. I don’t know how she does it, but she creates these incredible sparkly things and they’re always really comfortable to wear. I’ve learnt over the years that to find something comfortable is almost the most important thing. If it’s not the most glamorous item in the world, you can do fancy hair or wear beautiful jewellery. But comfort is terribly important because then you’ll actually look like you’re enjoying yourself. It makes a big difference for me.”
Hair accessories add a “wow” factor
In pink headband at the 2022 Screen Actors Guild Awards.
“I’ve only recently discovered headbands, and have worn a few on
the red carpet. I always worried they looked a bit ‘Sloane Ranger’ so had
a resistance to them, but now I think they add a lot to an outfit. I also love
a scarf tied around my hair, or a turban … and I used to like hats. In 1995, I went to the Oscars the first time I was nominated and wore a hat – I don’t know what possessed me! I thought it was like going to an English wedding, or even Royal Ascot. I’ve never worn one on the red carpet since.”
Don’t try to emulate anyone else
At the 2011 Golden Globes.
“I don’t have the easiest shape to deal with. I’m not tall or slim, I’m curvy and short, so only certain things look good and some very edgy things just don’t work. And that’s fine. There are people whose style I love but wouldn’t necessarily try to emulate because everyone’s different. I love Helena Bonham Carter’s fashion sense, and how Kristen Stewart dresses. Tilda Swinton and Cate Blanchett have great style, too. They’re all women who really push the boat out – and that’s something I admire.”
Hair and make-up are temporary, so take risks
With pink hair at Cannes, 2019.
“I love being creative with my hair and make-up, because nothing is permanent. A few years ago, I had this gorgeous pink and gold Elie Saab dress. I thought, ‘Ooh, maybe I’ll do my hair the same colour .’ It was completely my idea: hair can be an accessory, too. The pink was wash-in, wash-out. At 6pm I was my natural colour, by 7pm I was pink and by 11 the next morning I was my colour again. Why not?”
Telegraph Magazine (UK).
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