eruschka was no ordinary ’60s model; a German countess, she could be anything from Greta Garbo to a leopard in a tree. Now, at 66, she is still an inspiration.
Announcing herself (“Here I am”) at the studio of the David Bailey-esque photographer (played by David Hemmings) barefoot and in a black mini-dress, she proceeded to seduce the photographer’s lens by writhing on the floor like a wildcat, while he sat astride her, snapping furiously.“She moves like nobody on earth,” Hemmings sighed afterwards.
In real life her photo shoots were no less extraordinary; US Vogue editor Diana Vreeland would give Veruschka carte blanche to conceive fashion stories with her then lover, the Italian photographer Franco Rubartelli.
The leotard-clad Veruschka and Rubartelli would jump on a plane together, taking all the clothes, body paint and photographic equipment they needed to the middle of a desert, or to some snowy wasteland against which Veruschka would throw her lean body into contorted shapes. They once traveled to the Bahamian island Eleuthera on Christmas Day to take photographs by moonlight.
Veruschka von Lehndorff pale, heavily lined face and broad features remain impassive as she draws on a cigarette. Her ensemble is on the outer reaches of eccentricity; over her taut body she wears something resembling a black body stocking, a floor-length orange cardigan and a raggedy orange tie-dyed scarf.
However, von Lehndorff’s career as a model has had unusually little to do with clothes. As she said to Nova magazine in 1968, “I hate the whole kind of chic look – Dior, St Laurent. They might look very nice, but I don’t feel them.” And her attitude hasn’t changed. “I’m not especially inspired by fashion,” she says slowly in her contralto, Germanic voice, before giving the rail of Celine outfits a polite but cursory survey. For von Lehndorff, modeling was all about transforming herself. “I was always being different types of women. I copied Ursula Andress, Brigitte Bardot, Greta Garbo. Then I got bored so I painted myself as an animal,” she says in a deadpan way. “One day I ended up as a stone. I was depressed and went out on to my terrace in Rome. I wanted to disappear, to be like the stones of the terrace. I painted myself lying down in the mirror, and copied the stones on to my face.”
But at the beginning of her career, changing was a necessity, not an artistic, endeavor. She had first traveled to New York in 1961 as plain old Vera, but failed to secure a single booking. After retreating to Milan for a spell, she returned to take Manhattan under her new name, Veruschka.
“I dressed all in black and went to see all the top photographers, like Irving Penn, and said, ‘I am Veruschka who comes from the border between Russia, Germany and Poland. I’d like to see what you can do with my face.’ ”
It worked; constantly booked, Veruschka gained almost mythical status. When Life magazine profiled “the most sought-after model in the world”, they magnified her 1.8-metre frame to an alien 1.9 metres. Her extraordinary physique, complete with outsize hands and feet, even spawned industry rumors that she had once been a man.
Von Lehndorff’s background is as intriguing as the Veruschka creature she invented. Of noble birth, her full title (which she never uses) is the Countess Vera Gottliebe Anna von Lehndorff. Her father was a Prussian count who was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944 and hanged that year, when Vera was three. Her mother was arrested, and Vera and her sisters spent the rest of the war in Gestapo camps. They were reunited with their mother after the war, but the family was destitute, and ostracized by other Germans for their father’s treachery. She ended up studying textile design in Florence, where a fashion designer first asked her to model.
Von Lehndorff stopped modelling in the early ’70s when the newly appointed editor-in-chief at Vogue, Grace Mirabella, advised her to cut her hair so readers could identify with her (“I hate that idea”). She then sought to become “an artist who had modeled for a few years”. Collaborating with the artist Holger Tradilzsch, she was photographed in 1971 and 1972 as a series of characters, clad only in body paint.
Although she has made the odd foray back into modeling (for example, to launch a menswear collection for Karl Lagerfeld in 1995), von Lehndorff lives the life of an artist in a rundown area of Brooklyn, with her lover Micha Waschke, a musician who doubles as her assistant. She has exhibited a steady stream of work, from photos of herself covered in ash to a short film, Buddha Bum (1998), in which she plays a series of homeless people and Buddha.
The fashion world fosters an ongoing fascination with her ’60s persona, the make-up brand MAC sells a lipstick called Veruschka, and there are still boutiques named after her, yet she is detached from any hype. Asked if she misses the glamour of modeling, she looks down her wide, flat nose unselfconsciously: “No. I have my own drama and glamour anyhow. As long as I am here, it is not gone.”
“Oh, I think she’s more glamorous than she ever looked in her pictures,” designer Michael Kors chips in, which is plainly untrue. But in fashion, where myths can hold more sway than reality, Veruschka will always be an extraordinary beauty.