My unlikely meeting with a former Vogue model

Selfies with a supermodel

Left, right: Ivy Nicholson in Paris around 1960. Center: Nicholson with Sophia Lee (Center photo: Sophia Lee. Others: Kenneth Heilbron)

About a year ago, I received an early morning phone call from Regina, a chaplain who had been ministering to the homeless in Los Angeles for more than 20 years.

“Sophia, I found someone you should meet, and you won’t believe who,” she said. “She’s a supermodel!”

That morning, Regina had woken up at her church in Venice, a beachside neighborhood in LA, to find someone curled up on a tiny grassy spot next to the church’s back door. That wasn’t an uncommon sight for Regina—people know of her and her husband’s homeless ministry and thus show up at their doorstep asking for all sorts of help—so Regina stepped out to invite the person in for coffee. Turns out, it was a woman Regina had helped house years ago, a former supermodel named Ivy Nicholson.

Back in the 1950s, Ivy was one of the most beautiful models of her time, with her dark arched eyebrows, pixie nose, and Mona Lisa pursed lips. Born to a humble working-class Irish family in Queens, New York, Ivy has been modeling since she was 16, and through a combination of luck, natural talents, and forceful personality, she had a successful run in her brief modeling career.

“Do you know who I am? Look me up,” she would tell any stranger she met, and you’ll see her youthful face pouting on the covers of Vogue and Elle, plus several pictures in which she poses with the famous Italian fashion designer Emilio Pucci. When she hit her 30s, her modeling days faded away with her youth, but she landed minor acting roles in Andy Warhol’s films as one of his “Warhol superstars,” a band of eccentric personalities that Warhol used as his muses in return for making them “superstars”—at least for a few minutes, according to his famous quote: “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.”

Ivy’s 15 minutes passed, and her fame wilted beneath the bloom of countless younger stars. In the meantime, she married a French count, divorced him, then married a director half her age, followed by another divorce. She has four children, three sons and one daughter. She experienced bouts of illness and homelessness and living in subsidized housing. And now, on the day I met her, she was homeless again.

When I showed up at Regina’s church, the two ladies were sitting in the church kitchen, drinking cups of Folgers coffee with powdered creamer. Ivy was regaling Regina with tales of her past—how the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí drew a nude portrait of her in reddish-brown charcoal, how Russian-French artist Marc Chagall painted portraits inspired by her, how she traveled all around the world doing high-fashion shoots. And for the rest of the afternoon, all she talked about was the past. One of the first things she said to me was, “Do you know who I am? Look me up!”

Though homeless, Ivy still paid attention to her looks. That day her eyes were lined with kohl, her lips painted pink, her cheeks brushed with rosy powder, her earlobes drooping with heavy dangly earrings, her nails sparkly with glitter, and her chest adorned with two pendant necklaces. She wore a long patterned dress, an orange denim jacket, and strappy sandals, though each article was slightly frayed.

I had looked up earlier pictures of Ivy, and when I met her in person, I recognized the same half-moon eyes and high cheekbones. But those exquisite features were buried under drooping skin, crow’s feet wrinkles, and wispy bleached hair. The once-gorgeous young woman was now an 84-year-old homeless woman, but she still acted as if in the heyday of her 20s, giggling and fixing her hair in her compact mirror. She barely talked about her kids and grandchildren, but bragged how easy it was for her to gain VIP seats at fancy-schmancy bars and hard-to-reserve restaurants.

When Ivy borrowed my cell phone to call one of her sons for help, she spent the first 10 minutes giggling about how good she looked: “I’m 84 but I look like I’m 48!”

Perhaps some people would admire her self-confidence. Under today’s messages of “Love yourself” and “You’re perfect the way you are,” Ivy would be the supermodel of self-confidence and self-love.

But I felt rather sad for the poor woman: She seemed to me to be basing so much of her self-worth and value on her physical appearance and past experiences. I also felt convicted, because as embarrassed as I am to admit it, I also base too much of my own worth and self-confidence in how I look and what I’ve accomplished. A single remark from my mother about how old and tired I look would spiral me into agony about the wrinkles around my eyes. A meeting with someone smarter and more accomplished than I makes me question whether everything I’ve done so far is good enough—or rather, whether it is impressive enough to others. Is this really what I want to boast about 50 years from today?

Later, Ivy suggested we take photos together. Before we did, she reapplied her lipstick, puffed her hair, and then spent about 20 minutes trying to teach me how to pout like a model.

“Go like this,” she said, parting her lips slightly and plumping out her bottom lip. I tried to arrange my lips like hers, but ended up looking like a startled goldfish.

“No, no, like this,” Ivy said impatiently, oh-so-naturally positioning her lips into a subtle, seductive pout. She even added a tilt to her head.

I tried again, but no matter how hard I tried to pout, I just looked like I needed to run to the bathroom.

After several tries, Ivy gave up on me and focused on herself, arching her face into all sorts of supermodel-like angles. Once a model, always a model—and whatever photogenic talent Ivy has, I certainly don’t have it. And I think I am fine with that.

It’s been a long time since I last saw Ivy. She called me once looking for Regina’s number, borrowing a local nightclub’s telephone to do so. It was hard to hear her above the blaring music and chatter of the club, but I did manage to hear her croon about how the club owner had granted her VIP seating. The last time I saw Ivy was while I was volunteering among the homeless in Venice. I saw her, still dressed fashionably, line up for the hot burritos we were passing out. I went over to say hi, and she instantly remembered me, then offered to let me interview her if I took her out for lunch at an expensive, five-dollar-sign café. When I told her I couldn’t afford such a fancy lunch, she said she’d settle for a glass of good wine or cocktail instead. I told her she could call me anytime, but haven’t heard from or seen her since.

I hope Ivy is well. I hope she has found housing and the care she needs. And I really hope wherever she is, she has found true joy and purpose in her life.