Remembering China Machado

Remembering China Machado

Today, two months after her passing, V’s editor-at-large remembers the legendary, boundary-breaking model and muse.

Today, two months after her passing, V’s editor-at-large remembers the legendary, boundary-breaking model and muse.

Photography: Glen Luchford

Styling: Beat Bolliger

Text: Derek Blasberg

A few years ago, I tried to call China Machado at her home on Long Island and grew panicked when I couldn’t get an answer on her landline. It rang and rang, and I kept calling back. I was worried. Finally, breathless and panting, there was China on the other end of the line. The reason she couldn’t hear the phone: she was dancing and blaring her music, lost in her own fabulous world of movement and style.

The world lost China, pronounced “CHEE-na,” on December 18, 2016, at the age of 86, and a glittering light in the fashion world for the past six decades was extinguished. Some models are scouted as girls, work professionally until they become young women, and then retreat from the industry and move back into the real world. Not China. She was Richard’s Avedon’s muse, then his fashion director. In 1959, she became the first non-Caucasian to appear on the cover of a major American fashion magazine when she posed for Harper’s Bazaar. Two years after, she was the first to appear nude in their pages, and later became an editor. She also starred in the now infamous 
“Battle of Versailles” fashion show in 1973. She opened the door for generations of models of color, and she did it by doing what she did best: breathing life into fabulous clothes and turning fashion photography into art.

Avedon said she was “probably the most beautiful woman in the world,” and by making her his muse he was largely responsible for her stellar career. “He was the first person who photographed me,” China told me in an old interview. “He saw me with Diana Vreeland the day after I arrived in New York.” It was 1958, and it was during their first shoot that he snapped the iconic picture of China posed with a cigarette dangling from her fingertips, which appeared on Bazaar’s February issue the following year. “I didn’t know what to do when I came into the studio. I had never had a makeup 
person or a hairdresser—and he even had a manicurist. He kept saying, ‘Show the bones! Show those golden bones!’” Two decades later, China discovered those pictures caused a furor at Bazaar. Her ethnicity ruffled feathers and made the publisher fear they would lose subscribers. Ultimately, Avedon, whose contract was up for renewal, said if the pictures didn’t run he’d quit shooting for the magazine. “I had no idea that there were racial issues. I didn’t think of myself as any race, to tell you the truth.”

China’s life story was as inspiring as her pictures. She was born to a Portuguese-by-way-of-Macau father and a Chinese mother in Shanghai. They were a well-off family—she spoke French among friends, Portuguese with her parents, and Chinese to the staff—until the Japanese invaded in 1937. China (then Noelie Dasouza) and her family escaped by boat. Following World War II, they tried to immigrate to America but were turned away from New York City. So, instead, they moved to Argentina, then Peru, and finally Spain, where, when she was only 19, she began an affair with Luis Miguel Dominguín, the most famous bullfighter in the world and the inspiration for Ernest Hemingway’s nonfiction book The Dangerous Summer. Because the affair scandalized her family, she ran off with Dominguín to Rome. Two years later—when he left her for Ava Gardner—she landed in Paris. There, she went with a girlfriend to a cocktail party and the directress of Balenciaga asked China if she wanted to be a model. “I didn’t know what to say. I had no idea about fashion. I was just a girl from Shanghai,” China told me, laughing. “But, 
I thought, Why not?”

She quickly sashayed from house model to being the highest paid face in Paris. Her career continued in New York, both as a model and later as one of the city’s preeminent fashion editors. The legendary, futuristic, hot-pink helmet that Jean Shrimpton wore on the infamous April 1965 cover of Harper’s Bazaar? 
China designed it. She also worked with Avedon on stars like Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor. “Every shot that Dick did from 1962 to 1972, I did it with him,” she told me. They remained close friends and collaborators until he died in 2004. “I always loved the way Dick talked about my bones. Because, for me, that’s where style resides. It’s in my bones.”

Credits:

Makeup Lisa Houghton (Streeters) Hair Kevin Ryan for Rsession Tools (Art + Commerce) Lighting technician Jack Webb Manicure Alicia Torello (The Wall Group) Digital technician Aron Norman Photo assistant Lance Cheshire Stylist assistants Delphine Danhier and Karen Wisdom Location Splashlight Soho Retouching House Studios

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