THE BODY AT 52
ELLE MACPHERSON'S TRANSITION TO ENTREPRENEUR IS COMPLETE WITH THE LAUNCH OF A NEW BUSINESS VENTURE. BY JORDAN BAKER
Elle Macpherson opens up about balancing motherhood, marriage and her new business venture.
Everyone wants to be Elle Macpherson, but few would want to be her teenage sons. Macpherson is, by her own admission, an, err, “detailed” mother. She might do school drop-offs in her Porsche and turn more than a few heads at parent-teacher night, but she has firm expectations – especially of 18-year-old Flynn, and is not above some harassment to ensure he meets them.
“I wouldn’t say ‘nag’,” she says, although the term does resurface several times during our conversation. “Let’s say I remind him – repeatedly at times – about anything from having breakfast, picking his clothes up off the floor, has he sent his thank-you notes, has he set an exam schedule with study times, is he eating properly, has he been to the gym, how much water has he drunk during the day…
“Nothing gets swept under the carpet, which can be irritating for them, I’m sure. But you’ve got to do the job. Most of what I say to them is, ‘Listen. I’m not here to be popular, I’m here to guide you.’”
Macpherson, 52, might still be one of the world’s most glamorous women, but she spends much of her time in the prosaic realm of parenting. Her two sons, Flynn (born Arpad Flynn) and 13-year-old Aurelius Cy (known simply as Cy), are in different stages of that tricky teenage-boy phase, plus she has three stepchildren with her husband, Miami property developer Jeffrey Soffer. She could be forgiven for spending any precious spare time lying on a yacht – she is a multimillionaire, married to a billionaire – but that’s not her style. She has a feverish work ethic. Instead of relaxing, she’s throwing herself into an idea that has been whistling at her for years: an Elle Macpherson lingerie line that actually belongs to her.
As a supermodel, Macpherson was among the best in the world. But the woman famed as “The Body” also has a brain, and that brain has long had a fascination for business. At 52, our Elle seems to have all but transitioned from famed model to entrepreneur.
MACPHERSON DESCENDS ON her publicist’s Sydney office like a cyclone. Even her beauty is eclipsed by her energy. There are decisions to be made, and she makes them like she’s firing a gun – quickly, and with cool certainty.
The TV interview needs to be shot there. The press release must mention these words. She’ll have a cup of tea, please, with one sugar and milk on the side. Upon entering the room where Stellar is waiting, she blows out the scented candle, then walks over to a rack of lingerie and turns it around. “Facing that way, you only got the back of the cups,” she explains.
Macpherson is a famously hard worker. Within six months of meeting her first husband, French fashion photographer Gilles Bensimon, she was fluent in his native tongue. Jule Campbell, who spent 32 years as Sport Illustrated’s swimsuit editor, once told Vanity Fair that Macpherson was like a “sponge”. While other models were preening, the Aussie would practise poses before a shoot. “She was a very, very good learner,” said Campbell.
It’s clear she’s just as focused when it comes to her new lingerie brand. In setting up Elle Macpherson Body, the model was involved in every design decision. She pored over budgets and patterns, liaised with retailers and spent long Miami nights on the phone to her business partner, Simon de Winter, who’s based in Melbourne. “Her work ethic is unbelievable,” he says.
The seeds for this new venture were sown more than 25 years ago, when Macpherson was at the height of her modelling career. Even then, as a 20-something living in cash-soaked New York, she wanted to be more than just a pretty face for hire. Her inspiration was John Newcombe, the champion tennis player whose winking face she remembered appearing on a range of merchandise when she was a teenager. If sports people could license their image, she reasoned, models could too.
So in 1990, when New Zealand underwear manufacturer Bendon came calling, Macpherson refused an upfront fee and instead launched a lingerie collection in partnership with the company, Elle Macpherson Intimates. While the deal meant she wouldn’t own the business, she had influence over the product designs and, significantly, would receive a percentage of the profits. It was a bold plan, especially since it meant she would have to break ties with her wealthy modelling client Victoria’s Secret.
“Sports people had done it, but… at the time I formed my first licence, I was the only person I knew [who’d done the same],” she says. “I went from having a solid income to an undisclosed royalty fee at the end of the year. I had to be quite strategic and long-term in my vision, and it served me very well.”
The partnership was stunningly successful. Over more than two decades,
her line was a massive seller worldwide. It emboldened Macpherson to try new ventures, including fitness videos and swimsuit calendars and, in 2014, she launched a health company, Welleco.
Yet two years ago, Macpherson and Bendon parted abruptly, and Bendon announced that German model Heidi Klum would take over the Intimates line. Neither revealed why, and there were rumours of a feud between the two models, which both deny.
Macpherson refuses to be drawn on Bendon, but what she will say is that, over the years, “I re-signed, I re-signed and, finally, one day I just decided that I can’t; I want to do business differently. Having had the experience of co-owning a business, with Welleco, and understanding the immense satisfaction and fulfilment [that comes with that]… I realised that if I was going to enter the market again, I felt really compelled to do it as a co-owner.”
When news of the Bendon split reached Melbourne retailer de Winter, who owns the Kayser and Fine Lines lingerie brands, he had a brainwave. Within weeks he was knocking at the door of Macpherson’s mansion in Miami. That morning, over breakfast on her veranda, Elle Macpherson Body was born.
Back in the Sydney office, some 18 months later, Macpherson lifts her jumper to flash her black, lacy bra. Generations of red-blooded young men have dreamed about such a moment, but this is no striptease; she is deep in discussion about the fashion rules of lingerie – namely, whether one can wear bras that peek through clothes. (One can, she insists, as she pulls up her beige Céline jumper.)
The designs on the samples rack in the corner are unusual colours – teals, gingers, browns and bright yellows – and have flourishes in places you wouldn’t expect. “I turn my back when I get undressed,” she says. “So I thought, why don’t you make the back beautiful and the cut of the bum gorgeous?”
Macpherson wants the range to be an antidote to the Victoria’s Secret kind of sexy, which she says is “one-note” and, unlike her collection, isn’t “strong-sexy, simple-sexy,
“MOST OF WHAT I SAY TO [MY SONS] IS ‘LISTEN, I’M NOT HERE TO BE POPULAR, I’M HERE TO GUIDE YOU’”
or offbeat, show-my-personality-sexy”. She oversaw the design not only of the lingerie, but also of the swing tags, coathangers and logo. She admits it has been hard work, and there have been many calls between Miami and Melbourne that have gone into the early hours of the morning.
“If she wants to do something, she buys into it totally,” says de Winter. “Elle is very committed, especially in the design and marketing side of the business. She pushes the designer to the limit to get the best product, but when you show the product to the retailers, the reaction has been fantastic.”
Macpherson is so passionate about her new business that she calls me at home after our hour-long chat to discuss it further. “The exciting thing is creating a business from scratch,” she says, as my dinner bubbles dangerously on the stove. “Deciding on a brand name, getting a team together, working on the logo, the in-store feel, the branding…”
She is overseeing the marketing imagery, too, which is being photographed by her ex-husband, Bensimon. “Gilles is my friend and mentor; we have been through so much,” says Macpherson. “He was responsible for a lot of the unusual imagery, such as the  Elle cover with zinc on my nose. I’m finally in a position where I own my own business, where I can ask him to photograph a girl that I choose… it’s a wonderful circle of life.”
MACPHERSON IS ALSO reaching a milestone in her personal life: her baby is flying the coop. Flynn, the eldest of her two boys with former long-term partner, London financier Arpad “Arki” Busson, is starting business school in Boston. Photos posted on her Instagram account show a young, male version of his glamorous mother, with thick brown hair and the same wide, dazzling smile.
“I will miss him, because I love his company; he’s a beautiful spirit,” she says. “Sometimes I think, ‘Gosh, I’ve done so much for him. How will he be able to cope?’ But I think it’s the best possible thing for him, because he will really need to take greater degrees of responsibility for his own life without me nagging him.”
Macpherson takes her role in shaping her sons’ characters very seriously. She is conscious that she does much of the parenting on her own – while their Uk-based father is active in their lives, they haven’t lived together as a family for more than 10 years, and haven’t resided in the same city since Macpherson and the boys moved to Miami in 2014.
She is trying to teach Flynn and Cy to be good men. To deflect difficult times with humour, not anger. To follow their words with actions. To be wellmannered. And to be grateful, which she teaches by encouraging them to write thank-you notes. “There’s a discipline of appreciation. When people have gone out of their way for you, to actually take time to stop and recognise it,” she says.
When the boys were younger, she hired antipodean “mannies”, partly to foster their connection with her homeland and partly to provide them with strong male role models.
“When you have a nine-year-old or a 10-year-old, he doesn’t want to be kicking a ball around with his mum,” she says. “I want them to have the stuff they can learn from watching other guys. They’ve got someone there to remind them, ‘Mate, you were really rude when you spoke to that person. It’s not OK, it’s not cool...’ It’s that kind of stuff that I feel is really important.
“[Plus] it’s better coming from him, otherwise I’m a real nag-athon.”
Macpherson enjoys parenting, even though she admits some phases are harder than others. “[Flynn and I] are closer now that he’s got into college, because a lot of our relationship was about school. Any parent will know that’s just an uncomfortable position to be in, where you’re on them – especially boys – making sure they have done what they’re supposed to do.
“[Parenting] is a wonderful experience, though, because there are so many different phases.”
Then there’s the added pressures of being a global family, with Flynn in Boston and Cy at school in Miami, while Soffer’s two daughters are at boarding school in New York and his son, a gifted athlete, at school in Aspen.
With a Brady Bunch- style blended family scattered across North America and business interests all over the world, Macpherson and Soffer need to juggle competing demands on their time.
“We have a deep respect for each other’s profound commitment to parenting, so we would both probably say that the children come first,” she says. “And that means, at times, that we are separated because of where the kids are, and it takes quite a mature person to allow each other to do what we need to do in our families’ lives.”
They have opposite approaches to parenting. She won’t say what the differences are – one assumes his approach might be towards the relaxed end of the spectrum – but admits, “It helps us find a middle ground, where we could be extreme either way… through observation, because I don’t believe in telling him how to raise his kids.”
IN THE LEAD-UP to Macpherson’s Stellar shoot at One&only Hayman Island, her representatives said there were to be no swimsuits and requested she be dressed in loose clothing. It was understandable; nothing would be more damaging to the seemingly ageless Body brand than unfiltered glimpses of batwings or a thickening waist.
Yet when she bounced onto the set, Macpherson happily stripped down to a bodysuit and jumped in the pool. Clearly, those stipulations had not come from her. Other than a few jokes about her “bad” knees, this is a woman completely comfortable in her skin.
You’d think that, at 52, being known as The Body would feel like a burden. But Macpherson has come to a truce with her advancing years. “As I have matured, particularly at this point in my life, I have had to cash in on vanity for [self]-acceptance, for gentleness, and understanding for myself,” she says. “Because if I was still trying to pin myself to a timeline – which is always moving away at 30 or 40, or wherever I thought I might have been at my peak – then I’m always going to be dissatisfied, and that’s not who I am today.
“I don’t think, ‘I am The Body, I have to be The Body...’ It’s a brand, and I am my ethos. Elle Macpherson Body – what a gift.”
“I’M FINALLY IN A POSITION WHERE I OWN MY OWN BUSINESS, WHERE I CAN ASK TO PHOTOGRAPH A GIRL THAT I CHOOSE… IT’S A WONDERFUL CIRCLE OF LIFE”