'I felt just like an alien -- so I thought I could look like one'
Vogue model, style icon and David Bailey's muse, Penelope Tree was the ultimate Sixties It girl. In a rare interview she tells Louise France about her charity work, the misery behind her privileged upbringing -- and how the Dalai Lama saved her life
Published 24/08/2008 | 00:00
PENELOPE Tree has both a name and a face that are hard to forget. Yet for the best part of the past 35 years she has done her best to stay out of the spotlight.
During a brief, heady period at the end of the Sixties this American-born model encapsulated the style of the times, with eyes as lustrous as they were round, cheekbones on which you could balance a cup and saucer, a kooky, and an ethereal sense of style that both epitomised the mood and was all her own.
When John Lennon was asked to describe her in three words he is said to have replied: 'Hot, hot, hot, smart, smart, smart!' For a while, when David Bailey was her boyfriend and there were front covers for Vogue in her modelling book, she was the It girl in a decade crowded with other so-called It girls with memorable monikers, from Twiggy to Cilla.
Bailey recently credited her with kick-starting the flower-power movement. It's a notion that strikes Penelope Tree as preposterous. She would describe herself as a mother and a writer. She might volunteer the fact that she works for two charities. The last words that would come into her mind are 'model' or 'style icon'.
"Never," she says, sounding aghast. "That period seems completely irrelevant."
She is 58 now. Still striking to look at, standing in her kitchen in west London in chinos and old school trainers, she has a cool, natural poise. At the same time she is the least model-like sort of person one is likely to meet. It becomes apparent that she is self-deprecating, hesitant and unfailingly polite.
"If someone asks me a question it is very difficult not to answer honestly," she says. In an industry based on artifice, her transparency must have made life as a model miserable.
At first it appears as though she has led a gilded sort of existence: the daughter of wealthy parents, brought up in a well-to-do, impeccably connected set in America, spotted aged 17 at one of Truman Capote's infamous black-and-white balls, rung up the following day by the legendary Diana Vreeland at American Vogue. Yet all was not what it seemed. At 21 she had already had a nervous breakdown. "I always felt as though I was falling, falling, falling," she says now. A mysterious skin disease had resulted in scars that scotched any hopes of a top-flight modelling career. Three years later her six-year relationship with David Bailey fell apart.
"I was with this photographer whose great love was female beauty and I no longer fitted the bill in any way," she recalls. "I went from being sought-after to being shunned because nobody could bear to talk about the way I looked."
There is a tendency to look back at the late Sixties and early Seventies as a halcyon time of free love and swirly skirts, bare feet and sexual liberation. Tree remembers it differently.
"I think of the Sixties as being every man for himself," she says. "There wasn't the therapy culture that there is now and there was a huge amount of abuse of alcohol and drugs. But nobody thought it was terribly odd."
Notwithstanding a recent Burberry campaign with Kate Moss, Tree rarely models any longer. The only time she looks at archive images of herself, taken by the likes of Bailey, Richard Avedon and Cecil Beaton, is when her children, 28-year-old Paloma and Michael, 18, are curious. Their mother was known for theatrical lashings of mascara, but if she's wearing any make-up today, it is barely there.
Her long fringe tends to hide those famous eyes. Her time is taken up writing a book of fiction for teenagers and working, free of charge, for two organisations, Lotus Outreach, which works with children in south-east Asia, and the Khyentse Foundation, which promotes Buddhist scholarship.
She rarely does interviews and she is, at least to begin with, ambivalent and nervous. However, she wants to raise the profile of the causes that she's involved in so she's made an exception. Lotus Outreach was founded 12 years ago to help street children in India. The charity has since expanded and now works in different locations, most recently in Thailand and Cambodia where the focus is on sex-trafficked girls. In 2005, Tree visited 25 different projects in the two countries. It was a life-changing trip and one not without its dangers.
She talks vividly about the poverty she encountered, visiting refugee camps where sex trafficking is so common it has almost become accepted, where families are so desperate they will sacrifice one daughter to unscrupulous agents in the mistaken belief that her earnings will look after the rest of the family. In reality parents receive a fraction, if any, of the money that agents promise and if they do see their daughters again they are invariably emotionally and physically scarred.
"I remember a village where, as a sex tourist, you could pick up a five- or six-year-old boy or girl," she says, plainly still affected by what she saw. A staggering 600,000 to a million girls are trafficked each year in the region.
Lotus Outreach's work is deceptively simple: education projects for girls who have been sex-trafficked to teach them new skills.
Tree's motivation appears to be neither opportunistic nor self-serving. She sits in the sunny, peaceful front room of the house where she lives with her second husband, and speaks knowledgeably about the issues. There are pictures of the Dalai Lama on shelves; several Buddhas silently watch over us. She drinks tea from a 'Free Tibet' mug. For some years now she has been a practising Buddhist, which entails daily meditation and study. In the mid-Eighties, at a low point in her personal life, almost undone by anxiety, she found herself in the front row of an event with the Dalai Lama. Along with many others, he briefly shook hands with her at the end. It would turn out to be the beginning of a new phase for Penelope Tree: over the next few years, life began to make more sense.
Her father, Ronald Tree, a wealthy Conservative MP and confidant of Winston Churchill, was 53 when she was born. (Penelope would be 41 and at a party in Sydney when someone casually informed her that he had been gay.) Her mother, Marietta Peabody, was an American socialite who would eventually come to represent America at the United Nations.
At first the family lived in England but Marietta swiftly grew bored with provincial life so when Penelope was a child her father moved the family to New York. Not long afterwards he moved to Barbados. His daughter would see him in the school holidays. "I felt married to him in an odd sort of way and my mother was this rather annoying person who came back every so often to lay down the law. We were probably too close. I certainly felt very protective of him towards her."
Her mother, Tree says, took advantage of her father's wealth. "People used to say, 'God, your mother is one of the most amazingly beautiful people we have ever met, God you are so lucky'. And yes, she accomplished many things and lots of men fell for her," she pauses. "But she was a crap mother, unfortunately"
Marietta, whose own mother in her turn had been undemonstrative and tough, was never around. "I lived in the nursery and my mother had lots of affairs," Penelope says bluntly. She was virtually ignored.
Her childhood sounds lonely but at the same time there were periods when she enjoyed huge freedom. Tree was 13 when the legendary photographer Diane Arbus came across her and photographed her for a feature for Town & Country magazine. Being a photographer's model may have remained a one-off diversion if she hadn't been homed in on by the grande dames at American Vogue. While she'd begun to cultivate her own style -- she'd get furious reactions in the street of New York for her barely-there minis and racoon-tail skirts -- what she hoped to do was go to college to study English literature. A shoot by Richard Avedon changed all that ("She's perfect. Don't touch her," he said). Few arrestingly beautiful teenage girls would have been able to resist the attention and anyway, the sudden change of direction had an upside -- she thought it would be an escape route from her background.
"I put into those photographs all the things that I loved and that great yearning I had at the time to break away and be different from my family. I had a feeling I was going to fall in love with somebody."
Not long afterwards, who should come along but David Bailey. She was 18; Bailey, as she calls him, was 30.
"I fell madly in love. But I was much too young. I didn't know how to be in a relationship. And I was very unsophisticated. He was my first boyfriend really. I was quite backward in lots of ways. I didn't look it but I was."
For a year or so the relationship worked out. They lived together, travelled the world. When they were in London the photographer and his muse were at the epicentre of Sixties society.
"But then the girl thing came up," she says frankly. She was jealous and somehow obsessed with the idea that she should behave like a character in a 19th-century novel.
"What an idiot!" she laughs at herself now, particularly at the notion that she was monogamous while Bailey, presumably, was not. "I don't know where that came from. Certainly not my mother."
Her look at the time was described as part Pippi Longstocking, part Egyptian Jiminy Cricket. She herself played up what she described as her Martian-like appearance by shaving off her eyebrows. None of this does justice to the enigmatic luminosity that she brought to photographs but might indicate just how odd she appeared at a time when most models looked exactly the same. There are fashion observers who now say that she was a pioneer -- she changed the notion of beauty.
Typically, Tree is quick to deflate this kind of praise. "I felt quite fraudulent because I am not a classic beauty," she says, "not now, not then. Like lots of models I felt insecure about the way I looked."
While there were photographers who adored her, there were others who refused to work with her. "They thought I was a freak in some way. I kind of liked that. I felt I was an alien so I didn't see anything wrong with looking like one."
The alien metaphor is an apt one. She was in a strange country, surrounded by predatory women who she thought, probably quite rightly, were after Bailey. Plus she was secretly suffering from anorexia. In her twenties this turned into bulimia that she was not able to surmount until she was in her thirties.
In the Seventies her relationship with Bailey went into freefall, her career was derailed by late-onset acne and she was arrested during a drugs bust for possession of cocaine.
Not long after she moved to Australia with her first husband, Ricky Fataar, a musician with the Beach Boys, and had her daughter, Paloma.
Motherhood has plainly been a source of solace, and a revelation. "I never thought I'd have a child but I am very very glad that I did," she says. "Because of the experiences I'd had with my own mother, I'd never even held a baby before. I was lucky -- I adored my daughter immediately."
She discovered Buddhism in the Eighties at a point when she was surrounded by friends who were dying from Aids and struggling to deal with her own debilitating fear and grief. How has her Buddhist practice helped? "I try to see what the priorities are and not get terribly fussed about things that don't matter. Not be swept away by feelings and emotions, which is my tendency," she replies. "Having said that, I probably will in the next 10 seconds."
She was a researcher on a documentary series in Australia with Richard Neville, the infamous Oz publisher, when she met her second husband, who is a Jungian analyst. Finally, perhaps, someone she can talk to, and who can listen. They've since returned to London and live a quiet life. She is not interested in a ritzy social diary, she says, although Bailey, remarkably, remains a friend (he agreed to do the photoshoot for this interview). "I've learned how to stand up to him. I wish I had then."
For a while back then it looked as if she might be one of the casualties of the Sixties. She is, in fact, one of its more elegant survivors. I wonder what she thinks when she looks at her face in the mirror. "I feel like it has all gone but you might as well live," she replies, and laughs. I think afterwards that it is a very Penelope Tree sort of reply: self-deprecating, and really rather wise.