Not just another pretty face

LIFE AFTER 50 Model: Former 'Estee Lauder girl' Karen Graham has returned, and she's acting her age -- though she may not look it.

February 27, 2000|By Joyce Saenz Harris | Joyce Saenz Harris,Dallas Morning News

Karen Graham believed that her days as the "Estee Lauder girl" were long behind her. After all, she was retired from modeling and had spent most of the past decade at her country home in upstate New York, teaching the sport she loves: fly-fishing.

Then, "out of the blue" in the summer of 1998, Lauder senior vice president Robert Luzzi called her up.

"Would you be interested in doing another ad campaign for us?" he asked.

Graham was surprised, pleased and excited. Then she had "this moment of terror," as she puts it.

"Do you know how old I am?" she asked.

Exactly the point: Luzzi did know. That's why he wanted Graham to be the face for Lauder's Resilience Lift Creme, a skin-care product designed for women "in their 40s, 50s and beyond." It was a campaign that the current "Lauder girl," Elizabeth Hurley, wasn't right for -- at 34, she is just too young.

So, at age 54, Karen Graham is back in modeling -- but this time, you can call her the "Estee Lauder woman."

"I felt so relieved that I didn't have to try to look younger, prettier," Graham says. "I could be me. And be happy and confident of it.

"There is beauty at every age. Just because I don't look 22 anymore doesn't mean that I don't look beautiful anymore."

While the years have indeed slipped by, some things about Graham have barely changed since the days when she graced innumerable Lauder print ads shot by Victor Skrebneski.

The Mississippi native and Sorbonne graduate still is a beauty, with the fine features and slender bones that inspired modeling matriarch Eileen Ford to hire her after they met by chance on the stairs at Bonwit Teller.

Her delicate looks so captivated legendary photographer Irving Penn that he insisted Vogue editor Diana Vreeland hire her for a fashion spread despite Graham's relatively small frame. ("I have to really stretch to reach 5-8," she says.) Grace Mirabella, Vreeland's successor, put her on Vogue's cover many times and helped make Graham one of the most recognized faces of the 1970s.

She quit modeling in 1985, when she was 40, to concentrate on rearing her son from a short-lived second marriage. "I had made up my mind, early on in my career, that I was going to retire when I was on top in my profession," she says.

Few people could have guessed what her next profession would be.

She had gotten her first fly rod as a Christmas gift in the early '70s. "My brother gave me that fly rod, and that was the beginning of a lifelong passion for the sport," she says.

In 1991, she moved 100 miles from Manhattan and bought a 17th-century stone cottage in Rosendale, N.Y. There she has four wooded acres of peace and privacy. And yes, a river runs through it.

Thanks to the fact that she had saved much of her earnings as a model, Graham was able to turn her beloved hobby into a career. With her business partner, Bert Darrow, she runs a fly-fishing school that introduces novices to the sport.

Despite countless hours spent standing in a trout stream, her fair skin looks remarkably untanned and clear. Graham gives the credit to Lauder's Futurist foundation and concealer cream (which she uses for daily protection) as well as to decades of conscientiously wearing hats and sunscreen.

When she was modeling full time, "most of my bread-and- butter was beauty work," she says, and she had to protect her complexion in order to be "the Lauder girl" for 15 years.

That scrupulous care has paid off, 30 years later, with a face that can still take the camera's scrutiny with ease. "That's proof positive that environmental aging is preventable," says Graham.

Looking good on the outside is important -- but, she adds, feeling good on the inside is even more essential.

Time has moved on. Her son now is a college junior, and thus not much younger than his mother was when she became a celebrity. But for Graham, these years are joyous: rich with opportunities to travel, to learn, to grow.

"You know, I wouldn't trade all these wrinkles to be 22 again," says Graham. "Or, let's just say, the gray hairs.

"Instead of thinking of what is over, think of what's beginning. It's the beginning of a new freedom. It's time to enjoy life."

Senior events

Senior Network of North Baltimore: Free eyesight screenings and exams for glaucoma and cataracts, 10 a.m.-noon Monday, for seniors 60 and over. Exercise classes are offered 11 a.m.-noon Mondays and Wednesdays. $12 for 12 weeks. Activities at 5828 York Road. Call 410-323-7131 to register.

Catonsville Senior Center: A variety of activities takes place through February at the center, 501 N. Rolling Road. From noon to 4 p.m. Monday and Tuesday: "55-Alive" driving course. From 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday: Community education program. Call 410-887-0900.

Pikesville Senior Center: At 1:30 p.m. Tuesday: Kai Jackson of WJZ-TV will speak. All events at 1301 Reisterstown Road. Also, bicycle rides are offered for seniors on Mondays and Tuesdays throughout the Maryland/ Delaware region, starting at various locations. Call 410-887-1245.

Evergreen classes: The Evergreen Society of Johns Hopkins University offers daytime classes for seniors on Tuesdays and Thursdays in literature, history, politics, music, religion and writing. Spring classes begin March 14. Call 410-309-9531.

Pub Date: 02/27/00

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