Daphne Selfe on the secret to modelling at 95: ‘Nivea, broccoli and the odd glass of champagne’

The fashion star is now living in a care home but is still on the books of Models 1 – and is as effervescent as ever

Daphne Selfe: ‘I love wearing people’s clothes. It’s wonderful’
Daphne Selfe: ‘I love wearing people’s clothes. It’s wonderful’ Credit: Andrew Crowley for The Telegraph

Daphne Selfe may not be a star of stage or screen, but she is certainly a star in the fashion world. She’s appeared within the pages of Vogue, modelled for Dolce & Gabbana and has been photographed by David Bailey, Mario Testino and Nick Knight. She’s fleetingly popped up in a number of Bond films. Oh, and at 95, she also happens to be the world’s oldest supermodel (as ordained by The Guinness Book of Records). 

But this year has marked a change in step for this unretiring powerhouse – a move (or should that be sashay?) into a care home. Fittingly, though, the home is as showbizzy as she is, and arriving at it feels like entering a bygone era. The oak-panelled walls are festooned with signed photos of Bruce Forsyth, Terry Wogan, Ronnie Corbett, June Whitfield and myriad other titans of the light entertainment world, while men and women in smart white uniforms and face masks wheel tea trolleys groaning with delicious-looking pastries – made by a chef, I am later told, who used to work at Claridges. If Carlsberg did care homes, they would probably be like Brinsworth House. 

Set in three acres of land on the outskirts of Twickenham, the home’s strict admissions criteria would give Eton a run for its money. Funded by the Royal Variety Charity (whose annual fundraising ‘Performance’ takes place at the Royal Albert Hall on November 30), it serves the entertainment industry – but in an egalitarian way that welcomes those who worked behind the scenes as well as big names. Past residents include Dame Thora Hird, Sir Norman Wisdom and Mike Yarwood. Not for nothing is it nicknamed the “Old Pro’s Paradise”: even its 40 rooms are each named after a star. 

As I’m ushered down a corridor lined with photographs of the late Queen Elizabeth II to Selfe’s room – ‘The Val Doonican Room’ – the door swings open to reveal a woman whose ethereal beauty has only improved with age. She’s surely Brinsworth’s most glamorous resident, given that she’s the only one still signed to a leading modelling agency (Models 1), and has chauffeur-driven cars sent to pick her up and whisk her away for shoots (her most recent was for the fashion label Nine Zero).

Today, Selfe is wearing a slim-fitting leopard-print dress and drop earrings, her hair fastened in a neat chignon. She even contrives to make her black nylon pop socks look chic. “My dress is by Zara,” she smiles, after we have shaken hands (she has a firm handshake). “I’ve had it for a couple of years, bought when leopard was all the rage. I have a leopard-print skirt somewhere, too, as well as a scarf.” Does she have any other favourite high street stores? “I quite like Marks & Spencer, although I’m more interested in market stalls, and independent boutiques that sell unusual things.”

Selfe is surely Brinsworth’s most glamorous resident, still modelling at 95 Credit: Andrew Crowley

Selfe’s elder daughter, Rose, a dress designer and artist, is on hand. Settling down to talk in her comfortably furnished room over tea and biscuits (think Bourbons and custard creams), it’s soon clear that Selfe’s life in front of the camera was preordained, given that she was first talent-spotted at the tender age of four. 

“A film director my mother knew wanted to take me off to America and make me the British Shirley Temple,” Selfe recalls. “I don’t know what would have happened, but my mother wouldn’t let me. She didn’t like the idea, and quite right, too.” Her mother, Irene Garraway, an acclaimed opera singer, sounds formidable. “She was very strict, but very gifted. She was a great beauty, painted by all sorts of fabulous people in her time. So I had a lot to live up to.”

With her fine-boned beauty and tall, willowy frame, it’s unsurprising that Selfe, an only child who was born in London’s Muswell Hill and moved to Caversham, near Reading, as a child, was first scouted as a model in 1949, when she was 20. “I was running around working with horses, and one job didn’t turn out very well,” she recalls. “Mummy said ‘well you can’t just sit there – you’ve got to earn some money.’ So I went to work in Heal’s in Reading, as a shop assistant. There was a modelling competition for the cover of the Reading Review [an arts-focused local magazine], and a few of us went to meet the photographer. I was the one who got chosen. Being on the cover of that magazine started it all off.” 

Selfe on the catwalk at the Fifty Plus Fashion Week at Cafe Royal in London, launched by JD Williams Credit: Alamy

The job eventually led to catwalk work. “In those days, you went to a [modelling] school to be a model, so I did three weeks training at an agency, which was very good, as it taught me how to walk, how to wear clothes and how to take your coat off on the catwalk. Which is very difficult,” she winks. She says she never felt nervous. “Not really, because I enjoy doing it. I love wearing people’s clothes. It’s wonderful.”

Wonderful as it was, this being the 1940s, an era when modelling was low-status, badly paid and not the done thing for a wife or mother, she stopped modelling shortly after she married her husband, Jim, whom she met one evening at a local theatre. After serving in the RAF during World War II, he became a stage lighting director and manager, working at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in London’s West End, and eventually going on to work on a number of light entertainment shows including Beat The Clock and The Generation Game. “He was a very nice young man, and we just took a fancy to each other,” she smiles. They married in 1954. “I didn’t think I’d do anything [modelling] any more,” she says. “I had three children – that was enough.” 

But fate had other plans. At an age when most people would have sunk gratefully into the fleece-lined bower of retirement, Selfe was talent-spotted all over again. In 1998, a scout for London-based label Red or Dead asked her to model for them, and she didn’t hesitate. “I was 70 by this time, but I thought ‘yes, OK – why not?’ And that was the best part of my career, funnily enough. I went all over the world – America, Australia, China, Japan – and wore all sorts of wonderful clothes. I’ve never done haute couture because at 5ft 7in I’m not tall enough, but I’ve done a lot of other things, and been everywhere and met everybody.”

Selfe with The Telegraph’s head of fashion, Lisa Armstrong, at the Stella Live event in 2019 Credit: Christopher Pledger for The Telegraph

Indeed she has: she even appeared in the video for Paul McCartney’s 2013 song, Queenie Eye, alongside Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp and Kate Moss. Aged 83, she memorably donned the Jean Paul Gaultier-designed corset that Madonna wore in her Blonde Ambition tour, raising her profile further. Aged 91, she published a memoir, The Way We Wore. 

One of her favourite designers was the late Vivienne Westwood. “I wore one of her dresses at an event at the V&A, and met her there. I remember that the dress didn’t have a petticoat, and was very difficult to walk in, because it kept twisting around my legs.” In general, she’s not a fan of uncomfortable clothes. “I don’t do high heels much. Certainly not now. Although I wore them when I had to.” She believes that comfort starts with the feet. “Painful feet, painful face,” she laughs, wiggling her own feet, which are clad in flat black Mary Jane pumps.

She’s also a great believer in a vest. “I always have a vest and long johns on for an outdoor shoot.” She even wears one to Ascot, a favourite event for a woman who was a horse-mad teen. “If you go to Ascot, it is very cold and windy. We used to go every year. I always made my own clothes, just as my mother made all mine. But of course if you wear something to Ascot, you could also wear it to Henley Regatta. Those were our two social occasions every year.”

A keen dressmaker, she recalls making a peach dress and matching jacket. “The fabric was cheap – we used to get it from the local market. I remember re-wearing it when I was an extra in a Bond film, with Roger Moore and Grace Jones. All the other extras were frozen to death – but I had my vest on.”

Despite the many wonderful clothes she has amassed as a model (the London designer Roksanda is one of her favourite labels), she’s not hugely acquisitive, and says she has always had a thrifty attitude towards clothes. “I usually use a black leather handbag for everyday. I don’t spend a lot on them. I tend to wear what I’ve got. I’m a wartime person, so I tend to be quite careful with clothes and things, as well as food.” She observes that the current obsession with sustainability chimes with her own long-held values of making do and mending. “I’ve always done that. I’m not a throwaway person.” She says she still has her going away outfit in her wardrobe, an embroidered white cotton suit. “I don’t wear the skirt any more, because it’s very short. But the jacket part is still very good.”

She’d look fabulous in a short skirt. I ask her what her secret is. “I don’t know,” she says simply. “I suppose I’ve always eaten properly, behaved myself and done exercise. I used to ride horses and dance, although I didn’t start dancing until rather late, so I was never going to be a big success at that. But I managed.” She also still manages to exercise. “I’ve got my weights, and my floor bicycle. I do my cycling on the bed, which stretches my legs. I’ve always exercised, although I was inspired recently by that lady in New York who is 98, and has her own private gym.” Does she mean the model Iris Apfel? “Yes! She’s amazing.”

Selfe in 1951, two years after she began modelling Credit: MATTHEW POWER

Her beauty routine has always been simple. “I don’t wear much make-up now, but if I do wear make-up, I always take it off at night.” Skincare? “Good old Nivea.” Like all the savviest supermodels, her favourite beauty hack is to drink plenty of water. “And one should always eat plenty of vegetables. I like broccoli, but I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite. At home, we used to grow all our own.” 

She has never been a dieter, and has always eaten what she likes. “More or less, anyway. I always eat all the normal foods. Being brought up in the war, you couldn’t eat too much anyway, and I think that stays with you. As I’ve always taken a lot of exercise, I haven’t really needed to worry about being fat.” She has never been a big drinker, but will allow herself the odd glass. “I like a glass of Champagne. Only occasionally, if it’s somebody’s birthday. Or my birthday.” 

She says she loves being out in nature. “I always have. I can’t walk every day now, but I used to. I’ve always had dogs and horses, meaning I’ve always had to go out. We had a terrier, then a pekinese, then labradors, which are sort of all-purpose dogs.” She also had some more unusual pets. “We had a pet fox at one point, called Vicky. And a rook called Johnny. He fell out of his nest, so we picked him up and looked after him until he flew away. He used to sit on my shoulder while I was gardening. His claws were very painful.” To complete the menagerie, she also had pet squirrels, Ping and Pong. “They would run all over the house, jump on your head and do all sorts of funny things.”

Her husband, Jim, was an animal lover, too, and the couple raised their three children (Mark, born in 1955, Claire, born in 1959 and Rose, born in 1960) in bucolic bliss in Hertfordshire. Jim died in 1997. “We had 40 or so years together,” she smiles. ”Jim was a very kind person, and interested in the same things as I was.”

Selfe's portfolio from the early 1960's Credit: MATTHEW POWER

Selfe moved to Brinsworth House in February, prompted largely by her deteriorating sight. “I can’t see very well, and I’m 95 and not quite the same as I was. I had a sort of eclipse, you might say. It’s as comfortable as a care home could be,” she smiles. “But of course it’s not a home.” 

The other residents clearly love her. Peter Hinton, operations manager of the Royal Variety Charity, tells me that Selfe quickly settled in and made friends, with whom she shares stories from her colourful career. She, in the meantime, loves all the entertainment. “Twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, we get some gorgeous person to come and sing or dance. And some gorgeous man comes and plays a piano on Sunday afternoon.” Does she sing along? “Oh, yes. Everybody wants to sing along.” Indeed they do: thanks to its strong links with the Royal Variety Charity, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret have both entertained Brinsworth residents over the years. 

Selfe is a huge admirer of the late Queen. “She was a horse lover, for a start,” she laughs. “She didn’t moan or groan. She kept going as long as she could, and she always looked very fine.”  She will soon have an encounter with the royal family herself: on Thursday, Selfe is set to meet the Prince and Princess of Wales at the Royal Variety Performance in London’s Albert Hall, as an ambassador for Brinsworth, the main beneficiary of the event, which has been fundraising for the Royal Variety charity for more than 100 years. “I think they’re starting off really well,” she says of William and Kate. “It’s a difficult job, with lots of responsibility. Kate is very good.” She seems unfazed about meeting them. “They’re just normal people, like you or me.”

Perhaps they could chat about mental health, it being a topic close to the Princess of Wales’ heart. Selfe takes care of her own by keeping in touch with her three children and four grandchildren, as well as other friends both within and outside her care home, which has an open policy on visitors. “I’m a great one for socialising, and getting my friends together, even if it’s only for a coffee. And I do like to have a party.” She urges anyone feeling lonely to “phone up [friends], write, go and see them, invite them over.”

After an hour of talking, Selfe is flagging less than many subjects half her age. Before we part ways, I ask her how we could all live a more vibrant life. “Everybody should remember they’ve got the potential to take up something again, or start to do something different,” she says. “It’s never too late. People can do all sorts of things.” She is certainly living proof of that.

The Royal Variety Performance will be held at the Royal Albert Hall on November 30. It airs on December 17 at 8pm on ITV1, STV and ITVX.