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.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

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.

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