Interview: Dame Helen Mirren

Sonia Haria

Dame Helen Mirren is the very essence of 'worth it'. She tells Reader's Digest why that message is just as important today as everand how she wants to rebrand 'beauty'

Say the words 'I'm worth it' out loud and I defy you not to flick your hair over one shoulder, lift your chin up a fraction and give an imaginary camera your most promising smile. Because as beauty taglines go, L'Oréal Paris's is the most famous of them allrising above mere slogan to be part of our everyday lexicon. This year marks its 50th year of championing and celebrating a woman's worth - and it's for this anniversary that I'm granted a rare interview with one of the brand's ambassadors, Dame Helen Mirren.

Speaking to me from her US home in Lake Tahoe, on the border of California and Nevada, where she lives with her film director husband Taylor Hackford, Helen's mind isn't far from her British roots. 'There's a major lockdown in England, I hear? I talk to my sister frequently and my friends in London. It's extraordinary.'

The 75-year-old Oscar-winner tells me about her life over the past year. 'My husband and I have been married for 30-something years, you know, a very long time. But in all that time because of the nature of both of our work we've always been looking at suitcases, at packing. The suitcases are always on the floor ready to be packed or unpacked. We have literally never spent this amount of time together,' she laughs.

As I come to learn over our conversation, Helen sees the positives in most situations. '[The year] could have been disastrous but has actually been fantastic,' she says. 'It's been really great to just sort of have what most people have. You know, normal, regular, repetitive lives, but comfortable lives. So it's been a wonderful way for the two of us to bond, in a weird way. I think it's been a very bonding experience.'

"My husband and I have been married for 30-something years, and we have literally never spent this amount of time together"

Helen Mirren promoting L'Oreal

From the silver linings of a very strange 2021 so far, we move on to talking about the moment, in 1971, when a 23-year-old copywriter in Manhattan, Ilon Specht, put pen to paper and wrote the tagline 'I'm worth it' for a L'Oréal Preference hair colour advertisement. Twenty years later, Specht told The New Yorker how frustrated she had been with the way women were objectified in the ads of the time. 'My feeling was that I'm not writing another ad about looking good for men,' she said. 'I sat down and did it, in five minutes. It was very personal. I can recite to you the whole commercial, because I was so angry when I wrote it.'

It resonated immediately, particularly at such a pivotal time for the women's rights movement. 'It's hard to describe what the 1970s were like for women,' Helen explains today, and I can practically hear her shaking her head over the phone. 'The 1970s were a terrible time for women. It was the worst time. We came out of the feminist revolution of the '60s and suddenly it all went away. Women were really objectified, I felt, more than before. Objectified and not given opportunities. I'm actually really cross I had to live through the '70s as an adult. I wish I had been, like, five or something,' she laughs. 'So what a stroke of genius and inspired moment for this young girl to write a line that was so simple and gave you a sense of identity. As if to say, "I'm a woman, I'm me, and I'm a strong voice in this room and this world." It was borne out of anger and resentment and crossness with all the men. To me, it incorporates the concept of absolute equality.'

"I'm actually really cross I had to live through the '70s as an adult. I wish I had been five or something"

Did she ever have moments of having to prove her worth? 'Sometimes,' she says. 'Sometimes I had to stand my ground in my career. I was always a little bit bolshy and a bit annoying, I'm sure, as a younger woman. But I was so lucky in my upbringing: my parents absolutely felt that women as much as men could go anywhere they wanted and do whatever they wanted.'

She does recall one moment, however, when she was a girl. 'My mum was once ironing a shirt, and said, "Come here, I'd better teach you how to iron a shirt." And I said, "No, Mum, I don't want to learn how to iron a shirt, I'm not interested." She replied, "Well, believe me one day you'll find yourself ironing shirts." And at the time I remember thinking, "I will never iron a man's shirt. Why should I?" But don't get me wrong, my parents were always encouraging us and opening our minds to what was possible, rather than just, "You'll get married and have kids". For an awful lot of women in my generation, that's how they were brought up.'

Helen Mirren in Prime SuspectMirren in Prime Suspect 

She tells me how being cast as DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect in 1991 was 'for women everywhere', despite many at the time thinking a show with a female lead wouldn't work. 'The success of Prime Suspect was a step in the right direction, partly due to the fact that although women in other professions had been making real progress, they had to pay a price for it. They had to put up with an enormous amount of prejudice and antagonism towards them in the '90s - and they had to shut up and put up with it. They couldn't speak about it because if you did you would immediately become a "whiner" and it weakened you, so they had to stay incredibly strong. But Prime Suspect explained to the world what women were up against.'

It certainly struck a chord, and Helen went on to win three TV Baftas for the role. In 2014 she received the Bafta fellowship for lifetime achievement. She says how 'upsetting' it is to see the effects of the pandemic on London's theatre industry. 'It's the live performers, the ballet dancers, the singers - all of that world that is such a wonderful part of London has been so devastated. But it will come back with a vengeance I believe. People will be so ready for it.'

Helen Mirren at the 2014 Bafta AwardsMirren with Jeremy Irons and the Duke of Cambridge at the 2014 Bafta Awards

L'Oréal Paris had quite the coup in signing Heleneven if she does take exception to the term 'beauty'. 'It immediately takes 90 per cent of us out of the picture,' she says, and there's that head-shake I can hear again. 'Because only a small percentage of us are what you would call "beautiful", it's just a "thing over there for those people". There are great athletes and great artists, we can be all kinds of other things and we don't just have to be beautiful. And that's fine. It's great that humanity has such variety. To me, the word "beauty" is always pushing you towards being more "beautiful", but that's not what it's about. Your worth is not about beauty at all, it's about having agency.'

"Your worth is not about beauty at all, it's about having agency"

I ask Helen what she'd prefer to call it. 'I like the word "swagger",' she laughs. 'I want to go to the swagger department in Boots,' and then, calling out an imaginary request in said chemist: '"Excuse me, where can I find a little bit of swagger for today?" Let's call it the swagger industry, not the beauty industry.'

So what are her go-tos to get 'swagger'? 'I have to say, I love make-up,' she tells me passionately. 'I can spend hours putting make-up on, I love all of that stuff.' She's a fan of budget beauty finds, 'not the high-end stuff. I still get terribly excited when I try new drugstore make-up like finding a new eyebrow pencil. I get so excited when I get home and can't wait to open it!' As for her current go-to product, she loves castor oil. 'This is no bulls-t, I have it in my hand right now,' she tells me. 'It is brilliant. You just need a tiny amount which is great for your hair. I'm too lazy to colour my hair, so I just use a good shampoo but now and again I'll dye it pink if I feel like it.'

I ask for her final piece of beauty advice. 'Don't smoke. If it did to the outside of your body what it was doing to the inside, you would stop instantly, no matter how addicted you were. The trouble is, smoking gives you swagger!' she adds. 'Ha! But that's really not a good swagger eventually.'

The refreshing exception to the rule when it comes to 'beauty' brand ambassadors, Helen nonetheless embodies exactly what that original tagline was about. 'The message behind our legendary slogan is women's empowerment,' says Delphine Viguier-Hovasse, global brand president of L'Oréal Paris, and the first woman at its head. 'For the past five decades, we have empowered every woman through our beauty products.'

'The progress of women has moved on immeasurably over the past 50 years,' says Helen, 'but in the last year, so much has fallen on women's shoulders such as homeschooling, as well as cooking and cleaning. It is better than it was, but unfortunately women are still bearing the brunt, that's how it still shakes down. So I suspect we'll still need to say "We're worth it" for another 50 years to come.'

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