Elle Macpherson: The brains behind The Body
Elle Macpherson tells Luke Leitch how she went from supermodel to international business mogul
Elle Macpherson leans thoughtfully forward and reaches for her breasts. She's deploying them to illustrate why Intimates, her extremely successful lingerie brand, has yet to penetrate fashion's most lucrative new frontier.
"China," she says, "hasn't been opened yet because the women have a different body shape; the position of the nipples, the position of the breasts." As she expands this thesis on international nipple distribution, Macpherson's bangled hands hoick and haul hither and thither.
The extremities she is pretending to hoick -- plus the limberly taut, endless undulations of the rest of her -- together add up to a one-in-a-billion genetic golden ticket.
This ticket has been paying rich dividends ever since Macpherson, now 47, started modelling in 1982. That was in Australia, her birthplace, when she speedily landed an advert for a diet cola that demanded she jiggle bikini-clad down a beach, as the outraged girlfriend of an erotically stupefied male onlooker doused the poor sap with iced water.
Within four years, Macpherson had similarly stupefied millions of others, and Time magazine granted her the rightly capitalised title of The Body.
In an imaginative variety of wet-effect T-shirts and barely-there bikinis, she went on to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue -- the American male's equivalent of Vogue's September issue -- on an unprecedented five occasions.
Modelling may have ceased to be Macpherson's main gig, but, when we meet, The Body is still very much in evidence. She is mouth-dryingly beautiful. No wonder she prefers to be interviewed by male journalists: we're easily stupefied.
Yet, by the end of an hour with Macpherson, what is clear is that it's not only her body that's highly evolved. Her brain is pretty hot to trot, too.
And it's the combination of both that has built her businesses and earned her a Basquiat, Hirsts-aplenty, a vintage Aston and Lord knows how much stashed away for her two sons, Flynn, 13, and Cy, seven.
Macpherson insists that the financial revelation that struck in her early-to-mid twenties was her own, unprompted by some agent, or her older first husband, Gilles Bensimon, the photographer and former creative director of French Elle who she married when she was 21 and he was 42.
It came, she says, after "working for Sports Illustrated for so many years, and recognising that working for a business in which I did not have a profit share was not attractive".
She wasn't, she says, "clouded by ego: 'isn't it great that I'm on the cover? Or isn't it great they want me for this television commercial?'" Instead, it was "why am I doing this?"
It was, she adds, "an understanding that to create my future, I needed something more tangible than compliments on the way I looked".
So when Sports Illustrated asked her to be in a book, she would ask them precisely that question -- why? -- until they agreed to give her a royalty or donate a cut to charity.
When she appeared naked in the film Sirens (opposite Hugh Grant, who played an erotically stupefied vicar), she says the press commenced a fevered hunt for nude pictures, pursuing ex-boyfriends and photographers.
Instead of battening down the hatches, recalls Macpherson: "I said, 'OK, you want naked? I'll give you naked -- but on my terms.'"
She phoned the photographer Herb Ritts, who agreed to shoot her in the altogether. The ensuing pictures starred on several pages and the cover of Playboy -- and Macpherson bought her mother a house with the proceeds.
And when a company proposed she put her name to a swimwear line, she riposted that lingerie interested her more (she learnt to love it while living in Paris, and reckoned it could sell all year, not just during the summer).
Elle Macpherson Intimates has now been in business for 21 years, and she calls the head office Down Under every morning at 8.30am, en route from school run to gym, for a spot of rigorous micromanagement.
She is as knowledgeable about her product as any Milan fashion baron, and blinds me with lingerie science and dizzying branding strategy. She is most definitely more than merely the face -- or The Body -- of the brand to which she puts her name.
Macpherson, so far, has been delightfully candid about her knack for standing up to those who want to make a buck out of her name, fame or beauty, then cutting a great deal for herself.
And she has been just as reluctant to discuss details of her personal life, of which she guards fiercely.
Macpherson was one of six earliest-identified victims of Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator who illegally accessed voicemail messages on behalf of News Of The World.
This is not something she has ever before publicly discussed. So when I ask her -- particularly given her privacy -is-precious policy -- just why she has remained so utterly silent and seemingly unvengeful, it's more in hope than expectation. Surprisingly, she replies.
"I believe I've made the right choice," she says. "And I made that choice years ago, because I did not want to perpetuate stories. I did not want to be involved, I did not enter into the discussions whatsoever."
This, she adds, was "absolutely" her immediate instinct, and she had no moment of rage upon discovering Mulcaire's intrusion. "I made a decision not to become embroiled. Contrary to any suggestions, I categorically deny receiving any compensation whatsoever."
Although, she adds, "I don't think I was aware of the magnitude at the time."
And she hits me with the same megawatt Macpherson smile that has stupefied so many before me.