At 43, Isabella Rossellini was sacked as the face of Lancme. Now, 20 years on, shes been rehired. She talks movies, her mother, Ingrid Bergman, and her rollercoaster life
In 1996, when Isabella Rossellini was about to turn 44, she was sacked. After 14 years as the face and spokesperson of Lancme cosmetics, she was told in no uncertain terms that she was past it. Beauty advertising was about the dream, executives told her, not the harsh reality, and women dreamed about being young; the actors face would soon become an unwelcome reminder of the ageing process. And so, despite Rossellinis insistence that eternal youth was neither her dream nor that of any woman she knew (she says she told Lancme that the new dream was to be independent, to be powerful, to assert yourself ), she was replaced, rather humiliatingly, by the very similar-looking Juliette Binoche dark hair, pale skin, full lips, high cheekbones only 12 years her junior. Heartbroken at the prospect of losing her job, her main source of income and a second family of colleagues, the mother of two asked a senior executive what she was supposed to do next. He said, Rossellini recalls, I am not your wet nurse.
It was pretty rough, no doubt, it was hard, she says now, as we sit in a grand, flower-filled room at the scene of the crime, Lancmes HQ in Paris, where, at 64, Isabella Rossellini is all smiles and once again the star attraction. My daughter was 10 and my son was one, and I was a single mum. I cried and was depressed, and I worried financially. As a fortysomething single mother of two myself, I tell her I can well imagine. What Im struggling to understand is how, when Lancme called her just eight months ago to ask her to return to the fold, Rossellini didnt suggest they shove their mascara up their derriere and twist it.
She is unfathomably magnanimous. There was that feeling, when a friend asked why I was going back, she concedes. I said, Because Im flattered, Im very touched, I miss them. Its very personal, but I dont know whether Im being forgiving. Rossellini says the company from which she was ejected is now very different. When I was here 20 years ago, the secretaries were women and the bosses were men. The industry was one of men creating products on the understanding that makeup was for seduction, she says. But I put makeup on even if I go out with my sister there is a pleasure in the gesture. I was not understood.
Significantly, the brands CEO is now a woman, Franoise Lehmann, and it was she who made the recent call. Having launched campaigns fronted by Penlope Cruz and Lupita Nyongo, she felt it was high time Lancme celebrated older age, too. As Rossellini explains, Last year, Lancme turned 80, and we were thinking, what was life like for women 80 years ago? They couldnt vote or own their own apartment its incredible. We wanted to reflect the emancipation of women that has been so strong in our century.