Vogue - November 2007
it was spring 1977 and I was standing towards the back of CBGB's, Manhattan's music dive of the day, when I first saw the phenomenon that was/is Debbie Harry. I'd fallen for her a few weeks previously when I first heard her insinuating, seductive "Look Good in Blue", on the first Blondie album, and was lucky enough to see her perform live soon afterwards. Encased in a skin-tight dress, with a heart-shaped face and a similarly heart-shaped mouth, she, in one perfectly formed package, encapsulated bravado, sex, beauty and trouble: the glamorous poster-girl of punk.
When Vogue's Bay Garnett delivered the pictures of Sophie Dahl for this issue, we were all astounded by how uncannily like Harry she looked. How, we wondered, could we not have noticed the similarity sooner? I had known that Debbie was to be the inspiration for the shoot in order to reflect the current Eighties/punk nostalgia that's around in fashion now, but none of us had expected quite the degree of verisimilitude that Bay and photographer Regan Cameron created.
When you look at the pictures of Sophie in this story (page 208), it's easy to forget that she once appeared to have sole ownership of the "model with curves" label. As a very young model, she suffered intense scrutiny of her body shape and appearance, which didn't conform to the norm that we had come to expect from models. The critiques of Sophie were public, but of course the worst everyday perpetrators are women eyeing each other, and themselves, in an endless commentary on their weight.
What is your favourite Blondie song?
Pages 207, 208, 209, 210, 211, 212, 213, 214, 215, 216, 217
Fashion loves a rebel - a pioneering, individualistic spirit who blows the lid on stylistic convention. To wit, we re-imagine British author, model and beauty Sophie Dahl as punk siren Debbie Harry, whose taste for leopard print and neon has influenced numerous designers.
With her white-blonde hair, peerless cheekbones and svelte figure, Sophie Dahl effortlessly channels the glamour of punk songstress Debbie Harry. David Jenkins meets the model-turned-author as she prepares to start a new chapter in her life.
Photographed by Regan Cameron
Sophie Dahl is sitting in an almost-empty restaurant on the Golborne Road, laughing. She's got a rich range of laughs: the brisk chuckle, the filthy cackle and, most often and most winningly, the war-whoop of mirth. A trilby hat she lifted from a friend in New Orleans is on the table; beside it is a Diet Coke. Yet another Marlboro Light is in her hand. Her huge, huge eyes are bright and knowing. "Yes," she says, "I'm going to end up as a jolly contessa. I don't think I wear melancholy very well. I can manage self-pity for a bit, but I'm too happy, fundamentally."
Fundamentally, perhaps. But of late, things have been tricky. Sophie broke up with her long-term boyfriend Dan Baker earlier this year (she's now walking out with Jamie Cullum) and the rupture called her way of life into question: "Dan's great but... He is what he is." And what he is is American, and part of that whole Upper East Side thing. "And I'm homesick. Simple as that. I'm a real English girl. There's an irreverence here, and an ease, and a humour, and a getting it. I'm probably romanticising like crazy because I've been away so long [Dahl's been based in Manhattan for eight years], but New York is so regimented, particularly in that slightly WASPy way. I can do it, but part of me yearns for..."
She gestures around her. Across the road some benign-looking Moroccan men sip mint tea and nod at passers-by. A few doors down is Olivia Morris's shop ("I love Olivia Morris"). Nearby is the Portobello Hotel ("Love the Portobello; it's got that hapless quality about it"). So what does she yearn for? A more bohemian way of life?
"Yes! My hippy youth! A big garden in the country, and I'll wear eccentric hats. And the WI - I might have to join the WI. Give them my jam. Have cake sales. But I don't think I'll ever be a horsey kind of woman." Indeed not: Sophie has raw memories of being sent to pony club and being given a hard time by a horse called Rolo. "And I said, 'I don't want to go back! I hate riding!' And my mother made me go back - so English."
And you would have thought, so unlikely. Sophie's mother, Tessa, was famously erratic, dragging her daughter from continent to continent, ashram to ashram, school to school, all the while at the centre of a whirligig of lovers, drugs, chaos and chic. ("I love rules," says the now 20-year-old Sophie, unsurprisingly. "Boundaries. Order.") And it's this fruitful lode that forms the background to Sophie's first novel, the beautifully written Playing with the Grown-ups (Bloomsbury, £8.50). In it, Kitty (whose grandfather is Scandinavian, like Sophie's own grandfather, Roald Dahl) is raised by an erratic mother who hauls her from continent to continent, ashram to ashram, who introduces her, aged 15, to Andy Warhol, and who snorts coke with Kitty in the Old Compton Street apartment of two young men whom both mother and daughter fancy.
Sophie is quick, though, to emphasise that much of the book is fiction. When I say, "In the book, you've made your father almost...", her immediate reply - "Kitt's father" - is as swift and as sharp as a slash with a Stanley knife. And there is plenty that's fictional: her father is the actor Julian Holloway, not a mysterious (and wealthy) married man. And Kitty is borderline anorexic, whereas "I didn't really give that much thought to my body as an early adolescent. All that stuff came hand in hand with modelling."
Dahl knows, though, that it's the portrait of her mother that will be pored over. "She was very touching about the book. She called me and said, 'I love the book and I love the way you write.' And she and my father... It's always the most difficult thing to show your parents that you want their approval. And..." She catches her breath, squares her shoulders. "And it was close to the bone, close to home. And I don't harbour any... I truly, truly don't. I have such a sense of humour about it now - I'm not saying I always did."
Of course the 18-year-old Sophie was, famously, sitting on the pavement, in tears after a row with her mother, when Isabella Blow stepped out of a taxi and declared her one of the most ravishing creatures she'd ever seen. That was a different Dahl to the one sitting opposite me. Then she was large and luscious - an embodiment of the Anita Ekberg school of Rubenesque allure. Now, she's svelte and angular, a sleeker, warier person than she was - one who easily morphs into the Debbie Harry figure she's been photographed as earlier in the day. Her white jeans are from Topshop ("stolen from the shoot!"), the shoes Marc Jacobs, the bag Dolce & Gabbana. ("And in it are another pair of jeans stolen from the shoot!") The dark blue jumper is borrowed from the friend she's staying with nearby. She hopes to become predominantly a writer - "I find it deeply satisfying. So long as there's someone willing to read, and to buy" - and as well as the novel, she writes for of Men's Vogue. "I'm the chick at Men's Vogue! I just finished a piece on, y'know, the iconic thing of a woman wearing a man's shirt." For now, though, it's modelling that pays the milk bills, and it was Blow who brought that about.
"During that week [of Blow's death], I just thought so much about the last 10 years, and it was like a chapter closing; she had such a profound effect on my life. And it was so strange: when we were in the church and they brought in the coffin, the hat that was on top of the coffin - the galleon hat - that was the hat she'd worn the day I met her. And so there was something achingly poetic about the fact that she came into my life in the same way she sailed away. But it's just a bugger that you always think, 'I wish that person could have known.' Because the outpouring of love and feeling that existed in that church was a very genuine thing - and I just think she felt so unloved. So unhappy."
Which, fundamentally, Dahl of course isn't. She's droll and quick and smart and naughty: "Do you want to come upstairs?" the stylist Bay Garnett asks at the shoot as she and Sophie go to look at clothes for the next set-up. "See me naked?" chips in Dahl. "Oooh, there's no holding you back now!" Or she'll smile, vampishly, and say, "And, of course, there's no need to talk about Mick Jagger, is there?" (On being told that her mother claimed that Sophie controlled that particular liaison, she merely rolls her eyes and says, "Plee-ase.") Or, she'll declare her passion for "decaying grandeur: that could explain a lot" - perhaps the nearest she'll get to really discussing Jagger. Or, she'll expound on what she calls her "Good Granny's Guide to Glamour" (key ingredient: never, ever go to bed with your make-up on). Or, she'll muse on the possibility of going to live in Mexico for a bit and "get tremendously fat. I love the food." Indeed, she loves food so much, it's the subject of her next book: "It's a memoir about food. I am," she says, almost ululating with merriment, "quite fond of food."
Which reminds her: it's time to return to her friend's flat and get in some takeaway Thai. All in all, she thinks, life's "all right. Yes, it's all right". Then she grins, wickedly. There's just one thing: "I'm sort of keen for an adventure."