'I grew up in Shanghai—my father was from Macau, and my mother was from Hong Kong. During the Japanese occupation, we fled Shanghai on what could have been the last boat out. We moved all over—Buenos Aires, Spain—until I was about 20, when I ran away to Rome with a bullfighter, Luis Miguel Dominguín. He was the most famous bullfighter in the world and gorgeous beyond compare. While in Italy, I was asked to do bit roles in a lot of movies— Madame Butterfly, Casanova—non-talking parts, of course. My boyfriend eventually got swept up by Ava Gardner. What was I supposed to say? She was my heroine, but I was too young to know what was going on. They were players, all those people. Frank Sinatra was in there and Howard Hughes, and I had no idea what a mess everything was! I wouldn’t go back to that point in my life for anything.
Things got worse before they got better, and one day, I ran into a friend who invited me to come stay with her in Paris. I did, and at a cocktail party, I got asked to model for Balenciaga. I didn’t even know what a model was—I had never looked at a fashion magazine in my life. I went to Balenciaga, but he was out of town, so they sent me to Givenchy instead. At Givenchy, they thought I was filling-in for a sick girl, so they grabbed me, put me in clothes, and threw me into the room where they were showing the collection. I barely knew anything about walking like a model, so I just copied the girl in front of me. At the end of the show, gorgeous Givenchy comes up to me and says, ‘Would you like to be in the cabine?’—that’s what they called the group of models who worked for the house. That’s how it all started.
I worked with Givenchy for three years, and eventually became the highest paid model in Europe as a walker, not a press model. In Europe, you were either a photographic/press model or a runway model, and the runway models made more money than the press models. I was asked to come to America to do a show, and I thought, ‘Well, why not?’ The day I arrived, I was sent to Diana Vreeland. She took one look at me and started saying, ‘Exquisite! Charming! Charming!’ Mind you, she was walking sideways around me, and I was thinking ‘ What is this woman doing?’ I was just standing there like an idiot. She put me in a show that night at the Waldorf Astoria. It was crazy, there were people yelling and 35 girls standing around naked waiting to be dressed. It was nothing like Paris! [Laughs]
Diana opened a show with me the next morning simply because I was the only girl who wasn’t white. I was totally exhausted, standing on a 20-foot ladder in Givenchy bat-wing hot pink pajamas! I was so nervous, I was essentially goose-stepping in the clothes. And that’s when Dick [Richard Avedon] saw me. The next day I went to his studio, and the rest is history. I’ve had such a crazy life. It was all fantastic luck.
I worked for Avedon exclusively for three years, and then he got me a job as Harper’s Bazaar’s Senior Fashion Editor. I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ I couldn’t type; I could barely even draw. But I got a call from Nancy [White, the editor at the time] offering me the job, and I did it for 11 years! Eventually I became the Fashion Director. It’s funny, because originally, Harper’s Bazaar wasn’t even going to publish the pictures Dick took of me. It was 1958, and the publishers were saying, ‘We can’t put this girl in the magazine. Everyone in the South will quit subscriptions and no one will want to advertise with us!’ But they were published in February 1959, because—and I only found this out 20 years later—Dick had threatened to quit [his contract] if they didn’t use them! The photos sent such a shockwave and sent me on quite a shockwave. I became a name, immediately. Dick had so much clout.
As a style editor, I knew when I saw something good and I knew when I saw something bad, but I never felt like I had an intrinsic sense of style. Growing up, I didn’t even know what fashion was. I always wore the same thing. And, even at Bazaar, I was always in pants. Nobody saw my legs for 30 years. [Laughs] Nancy White had white gloves and a white hat, and I was this crazy thing running around the office in pants. I’m a very practical person.
I’m the same way with skincare, I guess. I’ve heard so much bullshit over the years about beauty. I’ve never had a facelift, and I’ve never spent money on all of the creams and everything else. It’s also because I’m impatient—if a cream is going to take seven days to show results, I’ve already forgotten about it. How do I know it’s working? [Laughs] I use Pond’s Cold Cream to take off my makeup because it’s what my mother used, and it’s not too greasy.
I did my own makeup all the time in Europe, because there wasn’t anyone else to do it. You carried your own shoes, your own wigs, and your own makeup. I got to know my face very well. Of course, now I only put on makeup when I go out to see friends. I don’t need makeup. Even if I do, who cares? I haven’t bought makeup in probably 10 years, but my favorite brands are Chanel and Nars. I love Chanel packaging, and Nars is beautifully designed with wonderful colors and quality.
When I put it on, I focus on my eyes and mouth. I always put a thin line over my top lashes to open my eyes up a little bit. I look more Chinese if I do that without eyeshadow, but if I want to look more European, I’ll add eyeshadow and mascara. And I used to think my mouth was too big when I was a kid, but now it’s one of my favorite features. I always highlight it with cherry-red lipstick.
But after my evening bath is when I feel the best. I take a hot jacuzzi bath with Rite Aid Bubble Bath every night. It’s the best product, and it lasts about six months—plus you don’t even have to wash out the tub after. When I get out, I pull myself together and look in the mirror and say, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ It’s when I feel the most beautiful.
I have a home spa where I do my own nails and pedicures. And I dye my own hair—of course I do! I use Clairol Nice 'N Easy Permanent Hair Color in Natural Black, and it costs $2.50 every time because I don’t use the whole bottle, I divide it into fours. I have no idea what my natural hair color is. When I was 14, I had a white streak that kept getting bigger and bigger, so I’ve been dyeing it for 70 years!
I move all the time but I never exercise, and I’ve never dieted. I can’t even touch my toes! But I love to dance and entertain. I also make myself go to bed every afternoon at about 4 or 4:30 p.m. I’ll go lie down and hopefully I’ll fall asleep, but if I don’t I’ll watch some silly television. And then I’ll get up and do something, like work on my autobiography or paint.
I like doing things myself. My first 16 years of life were spent in Shanghai learning how to cook, sew, knit, and crochet. I was sewing my own clothes by the time I was 11. I was cooking for a family by the time I was 14. It has given me the sense of ‘OK, What can I do?’ I’ve always had that. I brought up my two kids without a cent from anybody. I worked! And it was fabulous work. No one has ever paid my bills, and I liked it that way because it meant I was in charge and I made the decisions. The one thing I don’t do myself is drive. Listen, I bought a brand new car for myself after my divorce, and an hour later I rammed it through a picket fence. I haven’t done it since. [Laughs]'
—as told to ITG
China Machado photographed by Emily Weiss in North Haven, NY on November 21, 2013.