China Machado, a model, muse and editor who was one of the first women to break high fashion’s color barrier, has died at 86.
Machado spent decades working closely with legendary photographer Richard Avedon, who called her “probably the most beautiful woman in the world,” according to New York Magazine.
Avedon’s striking photos of Machado appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in the late ’50s. According to reports, the magazine initially balked at Machado’s race, but Avedon vowed to cut ties with Harper’s if it didn’t run the photos.
The images were published — one of the first times, if not the very first time, a woman of color was featured in a major fashion magazine.
But those groundbreaking images were just part of a long, storied and influential fashion career.
Machado, who was of Chinese and Portuguese descent, was born in Shanghai on Dec. 25, 1929, as Noelie Machado. (Machado modeled in a campaign called “Born in 1928,” but multiple sources identify her birth year as 1929.)
Her family fled to Argentina after World War II. Machado became a Pan Am air hostess and lived with her brother in Lima, Peru, according to a Telegraph profile.
At 19, she met Luis Miguel Dominguín, who was the most famous bullfighter in the world at the time — Ernest Hemingway’s The Dangerous Summer is about Dominguín and his brother. By all accounts, he was immediately smitten.
Machado ran off with the dashing bullfighter, scandalizing her family and kicking off two extraordinary years of travel and adventure — partying with Errol Flynn and Pablo Picasso.
But then Dominguín left Machado — for Ava Gardner, who was still married to Frank Sinatra at the time.
“I was with him the night they met — at a party in Madrid,” Machado told the Telegraph. “Can you imagine, the most beautiful woman in the world coming in and going after your guy? I had no chance.”
Machado was a beauty herself, of course, but she said repeatedly in interviews that she didn’t see it that way. Beauty, in the 1950s, was white:
“I never thought I was good-looking in any way, shape or form, because Vivian Leigh and Lana Turner and Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth I thought were beautiful,” she said in a video for Cole Haan’s Born in 1928 campaign. “I didn’t look like them, so I thought I can’t be good-looking, right?”
After Dominguín broke her heart, Machado entered the world of high fashion — and became, for future generations, the nonwhite beauty icon she’d never had for herself.
She moved to Paris and modeled for Givenchy, Balenciaga and Dior, according to W Magazine. (She also had an affair with movie star William Holden, and met and married her first husband, French actor Martin LaSalle.)
Vogue noted that she was one of the first prominent nonwhite models on European runways, opening the doors for generations to follow.
Nodding to her exceptional status as an Asian woman on European runways, Machado changed her name as her modeling career kicked off, as W Magazine writes:
“Somewhere along the line Noelie Machado decided that her very Catholic, born–on–Christmas Day name did little to enhance her unusual look and her burgeoning career on the haute circuit. In South America she had heard the Indian girls referred to derogatorily as chinitas. She decided to turn the slur into a moniker that pulsed with exotica. China (pronounced CHEE-na) Machado was born.”
New York Magazine interviewed her in 2011, and Machado said she was the highest-paid freelance runway model in Europe back in her prime.
Her runway success was followed by her magazine fame. In New York, Machado met Avedon; for a few years, she was photographed exclusively by him. Later, she was shot by Andy Warhol, Bruce Weber and Geoffrey Holder, New York Magazine reports.
After appearing in the pages of the glossies, Machado switched to the other side — becoming a fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar.
“She went on to produce fashion TV shows, design costumes for films, and crisis-manage as fashion director of Lear’s, a magazine for women over 35,” New York Magazine wrote.
She ran a gallery in the Hamptons, married her second husband, made a fortune in real estate. And she continued to model occasionally over the years, signing a contract with IMG at age 81.
As of this fall, Machado was still working — promoting her new line of wool and faux-fur jackets and stoles called Cheena.
Profiles of Machado in her 80s invariably comment on her vitality, energy and enduring beauty.
“I’ve never dieted, never exercised, I eat like a pig, and I drink — mainly vodka,” the supermodel told the Telegraph at age 82. “I still smoke, too.”
“I think it’s crucial to be happy. I always tell everybody I know, ‘Listen, if you don’t like your job, quit!’ I know this is insane, but you’re not going to be good at it if you don’t like it,” she said.
“In my life, the most important thing is to stay happy.”
And she had some advice for young women, specifically, that she shared with New York Magazine:
“Do not in any way underestimate yourself,” she said. “Don’t take any kind of crap.”