How My 85-Year-Old Mom Rebooted Her Modeling Career


“Does your mother have an agent?” the creative director asked.

Eileen Ford died two years ago. “Um. Not at the moment.”

“What about travel to Paris? Is she up for it?”

I was waiting in line for chopped salads. Ninety seconds prior, I saw the overseas number and answered my cell phone. Now I was talking to a woman from my past about pitching my mother and me in a global ad campaign.

A photo essay I wrote for Vox was going viral. It was about my mom, Patsy Shally, a former world-famous fashion model. 

From 1948 through 1960, my mother was the apex of commercial beauty – young, thin and exquisite. Discovered at 13, she was a top model for Eileen Ford, on the cover of practically everything. She went for screen tests with Rock Hudson and one-on-one interviews with legendary Hollywood producer Melvyn Leroy.

Mom and I recreated her most famous Vogue, Glamour, and McCall’s covers. The piece I wrote was about beauty and aging.

A particular series of photographs was drawing the most attention: our twist on my mother’s 1956 Irving Penn Vogue cover.

It is July 1956. Mom is the fresh bloom, the ingénue and prize in marriage. Today, on the brink of turning 50, I am the November rose, the last of summer. At 85, Mom is still gorgeous. She is the petals pressed in a diary.

It is July 1956. Mom is the fresh bloom, the ingénue and prize in marriage. Today, on the brink of turning 50, I am the November rose, the last of summer. At 85, Mom is still gorgeous. She is the petals pressed in a diary.

“The elderly shouldn’t be invisible,” Mom said. “We matter.”

It was clear from our photo shoot Mom, at 85, still “had it.”

The project hit home. We were picked up in the Daily Mail and ran in their network worldwide. We were being tweeted by Racked, by Newsweek and by the producer of Rizzoli and Isles.

People were contacting me from all nooks and crannies of my life, including Sam, a long-past acquaintance, and the current creative director for an international ad agency. She said our story resonated. The brand was thrilled. We could be big.

“I think she can probably travel,” I answered. Mom has her frail moments. But we were talking Paris.

“I’ll need whatever additional photos you have. Also traffic and social shares.”

Over the last few weeks, Mom and I had received hundreds of comments from people who said our project touched them.

Here’s what I found most surprising:

·       People called us “fearless.”

·       People said they cried.

·       Men said the essay touched them.

·       Someone suggested my mother might be the next Mrs. Donald Trump.

Mom and I had joined a great zeitgeist-y army of age-barrier-busting beauty warriors.  There was Elon Musk’s mother, 68, now elbowing out Botox blondes for ad campaigns. And Vogue putting a 100-year-old on its cover for their 100th anniversary.

“It's important that all women and consumers are featured on the runway and in advertorials. Women of all ages wear clothes- why should they be left out?” said fashion designer Carrie Hammer, famous for her recent fall 2015 show called, “Role Models Not Runway Models.”

“Your recreations of your mother’s covers are a powerful message of love, courage and understanding,” said Nyna Giles, author of the upcoming book The Bridesmaid’s Daughter.

Giles was one of the most amazing out-of-the-woodwork surfacers. Her mother, Carolyn Scott, modeled with mine. Giles book recounts her mother’s career, including Barbizon roomie Grace Kelly. It will be published by St. Martin’s Press next year.

It’s important, Giles said, even at this late date, to give our mothers their names back. “They were the first super models. Today they would have been household names. But back then, only the photographers were credited.”

A modeling job in 2016 would be quite a capper to Mom’s career. What a terrific irony: My mom, who defined the mainstream ideal of youth and beauty, was challenging that very ideal in her 9th decade.

The next few weeks were ferociously busy. Sam’s team prepared the pitch and she contacted me daily for additional information—copies of comments, web stats, requests for more photographs. Dad, 88, got their passports renewed.

Mom was calm. She knew the gig, literally, despite the 56-year gap between this and her last job. She only asked, “Did they say how many days would we be working?” There would, after all, be shopping to do.

Then, a week ago, Sam said the brand in question was favoring an alternate concept her agency had pitched.

I was disappointed. Mom shrugged: That’s life in super model fast lane. Sam salved the blow by saying I would be shocked and “so proud” once I knew who actually got the job. “You won’t believe who you were up against and almost made it!”

Who could it be? I conducting a quick survey of Mom’s and my new fans—asking them to guess who won out over us.

“Lord, I hope it’s not Kim Kardashian and Caitlyn Jenner!” Howled one. That might rattle even professional Mom’s sang froid.

Here are the guesses. The leading candidates for Mom’s and my nemeses:

·       Gwyneth Paltrow & Blythe Danner

·       Goldie Hawn and Kate Hudson

·       Isabella Rossellini and Elettra Rossellini Wiedemann

·       Ellen & Betty DeGeneres

·       Madonna & Lourdes Leon

·       Jerry Hall & Georgia May Jagger

·       Iman & Lexi Bowie

·       Jada Pinkett Smith and Willow Smith

·       Twiggy and Carly Lawson

·       Zoe Kravitz and Lisa Bonet

·       Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt

I’m keeping watch on Ad Age to see if someone gets it right.

In the meantime, we are receiving other interesting nibbles. And Mom could really use an agent.

Anna Murray is CEO of emedia, llc., a technology consulting company, and a writer. Her essays have appeared in Vox, The Daily Mail, Soundings Review, Piker Press, Adanna, and The Guardian Witness. Her recently completed new novel is represented by David Black Agency. It features a once-famous model and her look-alike daughter. Her non-fiction title, The Complete Software Project Manager, was published in January 2016 by John Wiley & Sons. One reviewer commented, “This is a technical book that reads like a novel.”