Portraying celebs in the best light
Testino awarded honorary OBE for photography
“I cannot beelieeeeeve eeeet,” Mario Testino beams. The renowned photographer has just been awarded an honorary Order of the British Empire for his services to “photography and charity” — and he is thrilled.
No phlegmatic Anglo-Saxon but a hot-blooded Latin born in Peru, he is erupting with jubilation in the Notting Hill cafe where we meet.
Customers look up from their lattes, recognize Testino and smile indulgently: after all, he is now almost as celebrated as the stars, models and royal people he snaps. “It’s wonderful!” he says. “Like being in love with somebody for years who kept you at bay but then suddenly one day tells you, ‘I love you, too.’ ”
It is a love affair that began when he arrived in London in the late ’70s.
“I came here in my 20s and I started my career here. I was in awe of the British: they were more sophisticated, intellectual, humorous. I tried to emulate them. With the years, I realized I couldn’t be English, but the English did allow me to be me.
“If I could, I’d live here all the time,” he says. But I can’t, because there’s not enough work — it’s in America, Italy, France. I have to go where I work. When people ask me where do you live, I always say, ‘in British Airways.’ ”
What a turnaround for the youth who was taunted on the streets of his native Lima by boys chanting “faggot.” “I was a dandy in a country where everyone wore the same drab, uniform clothes.”
The young Testino decided not to follow his father into business, as his parents had wished. “When I told them I was thinking of becoming a photographer they were shocked: it was not what they called a serious career.”
But he stood his ground, took up a camera, then moved to England to ply his new trade and attend “very wild parties.” His gamble paid off. The big magazines, such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, were soon signing him up, followed by fashion houses Burberry, Gucci, and Dolce & Gabbana.
“Mario is a genius!” Domenico Dolce enthuses. “We love working with him,” Stefano Gabbana agrees. “His images are at once sophisticated and accessible to all.”
Testino laps up the praise as I repeat it, and is about to tuck into his toast when he pushes away the plate. “I shouldn’t really. I was at a party last night with Hugh Grant, and a friend patted me on the stomach and said, ‘Cosy,’ and then looked at Hugh with eyes of desire. How does Hugh do it? He looks exactly the same as when he was in Four Weddings and a Funeral.”
I assure Testino that he, too, looks good. At 59, his soft features and round face lend him the amiable appearance of Paddington Bear, that other much-cherished Peruvian import. Testino wants to be liked, too: “Friends tease me I can’t be alone. I say I don’t want to be alone. I adore people.”
And so, he “adores” Gwyneth Paltrow, Gisele Bündchen and Sir Elton John, and has warm words for Anna Wintour, the haughty editrix of American Vogue: “When you work for an editor, you have to not think about your ego. She has to shine and the magazine has to shine. Anna is par-ti-cu-lar.”
Testino’s friendship is like Photoshop, presenting everyone in the best light. No wonder celebrities couldn’t get enough. By the 1990s, he was known by one name — “Testino” — just like Avedon, Snowdon, Newton.
Then came Diana, Princess of Wales.
In 1997, Christie’s put up for auction 79 of the Princess’s gowns. Meredith EtheringtonSmith, who helped organize the event, decided she should be photographed in Vogue and Vanity Fair. But who would photograph the world’s most famous woman? Lord Snowdon, with his royal connections, seemed a natural for Vogue. “Meredith then suggested Diana collaborate with someone new for Vanity Fair — and suggested me,” remembers Testino. “I knew from the start that this shoot was different. It would make us.”
He was right. Testino portrayed an arresting beauty who exuded sex appeal — but also, it seemed, an intense longing for love. The photographs caused a sensation.
When Kensington Palace asked him to put on a show of Diana photographs in 2008, he invited the princes. “I approached them without knowing them because I felt that they had to give me their blessing for an enterprise like this. I myself am so close to my mum, I felt I couldn’t do anything about their mother without their approval. They came to view the rooms with Kate (Middleton) and Chelsy (Davy, Prince Harry’s former girlfriend).”
Like their mother, the princes proved “natural and unpretentious.” He found Prince Harry “so like Prince Charles: they act alike, they have the same sense of humour, the same confidence.” The Duke of Cambridge “is more like his mother, there’s a kindness and a gentleness there that instantly wins you over.”
He was, Testino felt, completely “in love with Kate. I knew they would stay together.” And in 2010 the Duke turned to Testino for the official photograph to mark their engagement.
“I waited a long time, an hour or two, to make that picture perfect. But I wasn’t totally satisfied. Then, when I’d finished the shoot, they were about to leave and they suddenly hugged in front of a radiator. I took my camera and that was the picture that ran everywhere — it was spontaneous emotion … you could see they were completely in love.”
His life-enhancing, sensual photographs drew 170,000 visitors to his 2002 retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery, more than to any other exhibition in the gallery’s history. And if his passion is married to a temper that has been known to have fashionistas running scared, Testino can point to the millions he has raised for good causes, from Save the Children to AIDS charities.
When he donated a sitting at a charity ball in 2008, it went for $2.27 million. More recently, he set up Mates, a charity to promote young Peruvian artists.
“I want to show the talent of young people. You get elevated to a place because you have a role to do: help others.”
Mario Testino’s fashion and celebrity photography — which includes subjects such as Princess Diana, Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow — has earned him an OBE.
Editor-in-chief of American Vogue Anna Wintour, right, arrives with Mario Testino at a recent Burberry show in London.