Judy Bailey talks to mature model Mercy Brewer
She’s worked in Europe with top supermodels and is now in demand with Kiwi fashionistas. Judy Bailey meets the model shining the light on middle age.
Her life story reads like a fairytale. Raised as the illegitimate child of a young factory worker on the bleak council estates of west Scotland, she rose to become a sought-after international model and muse to one of London’s haute couture icons.
Mercy Brewer stalked the catwalks of
Europe in the 1980s with modelling royalty – Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Helena Christensen, Claudia Schiffer. Now, at 56, she is once again the model du jour, her tall, elegant figure and striking, naturally grey hair a hit with the fashion glitterati in New Zealand, where she models for Zambesi, Liz Mitchell, Lela Jacobs, Willa and Mae and on the catwalk at New Zealand Fashion Week. Mercy is a beacon for middle-aged women.
We meet at a little café in the Auckland suburb of Greenhithe, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. Striding purposefully towards me with the easy assurance of a professional model, she has an understated elegance, her hair escaping from beneath a black beret perched jauntily on her head, and wearing black drawstring pants and a black merino crew-neck jersey. There is no other adornment. She smiles warmly and extends a perfectly manicured hand. Her nails are a striking iridescent dark green, quirky – a perfect reflection of her personality.
Born in Paisley, Scotland, at the start of the Swinging 60s, Mercy tells me, matter of factly, that she’s illegitimate. She never knew her footballer father. Her stepsister tracked him down, only to discover he had passed away. His family, it seemed, didn’t want to have anything to do with his love child. Mercy’s big blue eyes are full of the hurt of that still raw rejection.
“It was such a disgrace to have an illegitimate child in those days. You were pretty much automatically put up for adoption. My mum really fought to keep me. She’s a hell of a girl,” she tells me. “It was hushed up. My mum and I lived with my grandparents until I was 10 and then Mum moved away to live with my stepdad, leaving me with my grandparents. Other kids were cruel, she recalls. They’d say, “Your mum doesn’t love you, she went away and left you.”
Mercy remembers her mum, Margaret, being entranced by old Hollywood. “She had all the film albums. We would pore over them for hours. She loved the glamour. We would dress up and dance together.” They were, and still are, close.
When it came time to choose a career, Mercy told the careers adviser she wanted to work in theatre or fashion design. But she was roundly put in her place and told to “get real” – that those careers were a million to one shot for someone “like her” and that she would be better suited to nursing, primary teaching or hairdressing. She chose hairdressing because it was the most creative. “It would have broken my heart to have followed my mum into the car factory.” In fact, she would be the first person in her family not to work in a factory.
Hairdressing turned out to be a good move. Mercy scored a job on an ocean liner and spent years travelling the world before she ended up in London. She was going through a punk phase at the time and lived in a squat. She had been working for the high-profile avant garde hairdresser Irvine Rusk and his wife Rita and it was they who suggested she try modelling. She knocked on doors until one day one of them opened. All those years of dressing up with her mum paid off, as she took to the catwalk like the proverbial duck to water.
“I got paid for dressing up,” she says with delight. “I was dressed in fabulous gowns that people who would have spat on me in the street couldn’t afford,” she says, grinning wickedly.
“Mum initially worried herself sick about me. I think she thought I was going to end up [half naked] on page three. I was always brought up to be very modest, to wear my jerseys up to here” (she holds her jumper up under her nose) “just in case!” she says with a laugh.
She tells me about her first catwalk show in Milan. “I was sitting there like a stunned mullet, in amongst model royalty. Naomi (Campbell) was there looking rough as guts after a big night out, and Eva Herzigova was sitting across the catwalk from me. She smiled at me and gave me a little
I was dressed in fabulous gowns that people who would have spat on me in the street couldn’t afford.
wave. Contrary to what people think, it’s a warm business. When they get to that level (supermodel territory) there is less insecurity and people are more inclined to welcome you into the family.”
Mercy is the antithesis of the sulky model. “Why are shows these days so bloody glum?” she wonders aloud. “The fashion du jour is to be expressionless.” She’s quick to add they are under instruction, paid to fit in with a vision.
Mercy has a great sense of humour; self-deprecating, she’s also a good mimic. She tells me about her casting as one of Hardy Amies’ models. (Hardy Amies was one of the last great couture houses in London and was at one time known for dressing the Queen.)
“Hardy’s partner Ken would do the castings. They would pin the fabric around me, trying out various shapes, and then he said to me, ‘Now can you walk like this?’” Mercy leaps up from the table to demonstrate and bends forward, slightly hunched over with one arm out in front of her, hand drooped ever so slightly… “He said, ‘This is how most of our customers walk.’ He mimicked the British aristocracy mercilessly.”
They loved Mercy at Hardy Amies. So much so that she became his muse. What does that mean? “I think it just means that a designer has to fall in love with you,” Mercy explains simply. Her ‘look’ fitted his vision perfectly. She tells me John
Moore, one of the designers at Hardy Amies, once said to her, “You’ve got a rough as guts accent and a biker jacket, but put on a gown and you’re a countess… just don’t open your mouth.” Something she finds highly amusing!
It was in London that she met her husband, Martin Brewer. She had answered an ad for a vocalist in an art/Goth/techno band. She got the job and says, in her light Scottish lilt, that she did “a wee bit of wailing… I certainly wasn’t rockin’ out Celine Dion.” Martin was the keyboard player. They’ve been together ever since.
They have two daughters, Morgana, 26, and Tabitha, 14. The family came to New Zealand 14 years ago, when David wanted an adventure. They’ve never looked back.
“I love New Zealand design. I’m like a pig in swill,” Mercy grins. “It beats to its own drum… there is so much genius and balls here… I love it.”
When menopause kicked in five years ago, it was a wake-up call for Mercy. After a lifetime of eating pretty much whatever she wanted she now has to be more careful. “We have a chocolate drawer in our house,” she leans forward conspiratorially, “but now, suddenly it shows. These days if I have a pie, I’m likely to peel the pastry away and just eat the meat.”
When Mercy began modelling, the standard size was 10 to 12. Now it’s 6 to 8. “Many of them are naturally slender,” she tells me, “but if you have to struggle to be a certain size, maybe you need to get a different job. I haven’t given up my life to get back on the catwalk,” she tells me. “People accept me warts and all. I’m blessed with height. I’m a chain smoker but I’ve pretty much given up the drink.”
Her skin is not the skin of a smoker. It glows and is remarkably wrinkle-free… although she would disagree. It is, I decide, the product of the Scottish climate, not the harsh Antipodean sun. As for the grey hair – was it a conscious decision?
“One morning I looked in the mirror and saw my roots and I hated that they gave the game away, so I borrowed my husband’s clippers and clipped my hair down to a stubble.” (Perhaps channelling her inner punk). She’s now growing it out and is comfortable with her look. “Suddenly it seems I’m a wee bit funky.” She grins. “I think it’s the hair colour that gets me the work.” She’s quick to tell me, though, that her younger daughter disapproves of the grey and calls her ‘Hagrid’. Nothing like daughters to keep you humble!
And Mercy’s secret to good dressing? Underwear!
“Make your silhouette flawless,” she says. “Don’t try and make yourself smaller. A bulge will always pop out somewhere. There’s nothing worse than lumps hanging out of your bra.
Mercy is honoured to be one of a select group of models to have had a mannequin sculpted from her figure. The Adel Rootstein mannequin was made at the same time as ones featuring the bodies of Twiggy, Naomi Campbell and Yasmin Le Bon. People collect them and dress them – mainly Americans it would seem. “It’s been a highlight for me,” she says, smiling. “You’re immortal then, aren’t you?”
Mercy’s life has been anything but dull – rather, it’s been challenging, unpredictable, rewarding. “When I look back, I think it’s easy to be selfrighteous and idealistic before life has happened to you. I think you should never make judgements until you’re experienced in life. It’s human nature to judge, but we all find ourselves on the floor sometimes – you just have to pull yourself up.
“You’re dealt a hand of cards – it’s how you play them.”
Mercy will be walking the catwalk at New Zealand Fashion week, August 22 to 28. www.nzfashionweek.co.nz
I love New Zealand design. I’m like a pig in swill. There is so much genius and balls here.
Opposite page: Mercy as she appeared in the fashion feature in our May 2016 issue.
Mercy in the make-up room at New Zealand Fashion Week 2015, where she opened the show for Lela Jacobs.