Harper's Bazaar
May 1997
Rossellini Raps

By Isabella Rossellini

Isabella Rossellini loves make-believe, fantasy, and fun. Here she writes about her favorite things and creates a self-portrait with make-up, mementos, and mischievous stories

My Style? When someone suggested that I write a book about style, using the beautiful photos I have from my long modeling career, I thought, Let me try - I ought to know something about this, 20 years into modeling. But when I tried to define style - or give tips - I was gripped with guilt and shame. Growing up, the idea was drilled into me that style was to be despised; content was the only thing that counted. My dad, Roberto Rossellini, who is revered as the father of neorealism - the stark, realistic films that came out of Italy after World War II and defined modern cinema - used to complain: "Why do critics endlessly discuss the style of my films? They even give them that silly name, neorealism. The neo- irritates me beyond words. I never start out by deciding what style I'm going to make my films in. First I decide what to say - then I see how."

Comments like this, even 20 years after my dad's death, proved strong enough to block my writing. But let me tell you something even more puzzling: I cannot say with certainty that my father ever said those words. You see, I confuse imagination with reality. I always have. When I was a child, my grandmother used to ask me, "Verita o fantasia?" ("Truth or fantasy?"), to help me distinguish between the two, but she died when I was eight, and I haven't observed the distinction since.

My book, Some of Me, became about all this: lies and truth, style and content, even my private life vis-a-vis my professional life. I cannot separate things; for me, they all mix together. The book isn't, therefore, about style, and it isn't an autobiography, but it is certainly my most personal self-expression, which includes my lying, coloratura, imagination, whatever you want to call what I do. Makeup Nowadays, my family, to be kind and diplomatic, defines what I do with: "Isabella exaggerates." And indeed I do. Exaggeration, in fact, helps me be clear. "Exaggerated" is the makeup in these photos, for example. I can hear you say, "Who would want to go out like this?" But you see, I'm tired of the makeup that sits on my face to hide wrinkles, blemishes, bags under the eyes. It reminds me of a medieval nightmare, a Bosch painting.

And the more time goes by, the more it seems like a hopeless proposition. I'm turning 45. "Wow, you don't look it!" I'm told, which is a compliment, I guess. But whether I do or don't look it now, one day, inevitably, I will - that's the direction I'm heading in.

The makeup that cheers me up is the kind that's there to decorate me, that's a minimal, private expression of flair and allure. I like that. Any expression of fun appeals to me. "You'd sell your mother for a good laugh" - that's another way my family defines me, and it's true: I love fun. The principal quality that makes me fall in love with a man is humor. I asked Dick Page to do my makeup and Serge Normant to do my hair for these photos because I like their decorative and humorous approach. The pictures were taken by Oberto Gili, who also took photos for my book. It was Oberto's idea to create this portrait of me through my objects, wardrobe, and pets (which he envies).

My Wardrobe: When I piled my favorite dresses on my bed, I realized that besides being all black, they have not much in common. Black is a choice dictated by my practical Swedish sense, which I inherited from my mother, Ingrid Bergman. My clothes are black or gray, my shirts and T-shirts are all white, and my shoes are all black. My mother, who did not "exaggerate" the way I do, had a much more colorful wardrobe, but she used to complain, "Where is my shirt that goes with these pants? Oh, it's at the dry cleaner. What can I wear today with these pants?" It's a problem I decided not to have in my life.

My favorite dresses are: 1) A Dolce & Gabbana garter dress, which embodies so many of my feelings. It is postwar Italy, where I grew up; it's my father's neorealistic films; it's Anna Magnani's lusty sex appeal. This dress is my memory of all those things, with an added humor and irreverence that help me to celebrate them without being burdened by their unquestionable greatness. 2) An Issey Miyake dress, which is simply wearable sculpture. It makes my body feel just like a dress stand, my movement just a showcase for the magnificent and unpredictable shapes it takes. Wearing it, I hope, diverts attention from me and my body - which makes me relax. 3) A men's-style tuxedo, by Industria. Why not just always wear men's clothes? This is a question I ask myself daily. 4) An Armani velvet dress - one so simple, so perfect, it makes me feel like announcing: "Fashion, just stop! We've found the answer we were looking for, the perfect form and shape. We can't do any better. Thank you and goodbye." 5) To help catapult me into a daydream, I wear the Mongolian dress I bought in China 20 years ago, or for more exoticism, my dress made of the woven silver ribbon that was in vogue in 19th-century Egypt. 6) One of my grandmother Elettra's dresses hangs in my closet, too, but I never wear it. My grandmother wore only black clothes, allowing herself the occasional frivolity of small white polka dots. She made a vow in her early 30s to give up any color in her wardrobe if my father survived the great flu epidemic, which at the time was killing hundreds of thousands. 7) My Blue Velvet robe hangs in my closet as well. Blue Velvet is my favorite of the films I've made. I kept my wig, too - the one I wore for my character, the tortured Dorothy Vallens - but my cat, Tatto, shat on it, and I had to throw it away.

My Feather Hat Collection: All the objects that decorate my house have meaning for me - except my feather-hat collection. One day I read in National Geographic about a species of bird that had become extinct because its plumage was used to make hats. The same day, I went to a New York antiques show. Walking about, I bumped into a bunch of feather hats perched on a stand. They looked exquisitely eccentric. Fascinated by the coincidence, I bought them all and took them home, committing myself to find out more about their origins. I have yet to identify a single feather; I had underestimated my ignorance - which is vast - so my hats ended up in my bedroom with a single function: to look pretty.

Memories of My Mother: I have a necklace that belonged to my maternal grandmother. When my mother gave it to me, I cried. That was one of the few objects she had from her mother, who passed away when Ingrid was only two. I knew that my mother's present was her way of announcing to me that she was going to die soon.

I don't think the mugs and plates featuring my mother's image from Casablanca can be classed as "in good taste," but sitting on my desk with other objects meaningful to me, they acquire their own allure. On my desk I also keep Mother's drawing of a dog that she did in 1919, at the age of three; my own drawing, a self-portrait with Nando, my dachshund; and a bas-relief by my daughter, Elettra, of Macaroni, her Jack Russell.

My Animals: We all love animals in my family. The calendar of our memory is classified by the different dogs we owned. The Stromboli decade - so called for the French bulldog my parents named after the first film they made together - lasted the length of their marriage, followed by the era of Agrippa, the black Belgian sheepdog who lived in Choisel, the country house outside Paris where my mother lived before she moved to London. Then there was my Nando, who lived to be 19 years old. He accompanied me through childhood and adolescence, and left me at the threshold of adulthood. Before him, Youpi, the Maltese who breast-fed cats until she got her own baby, and a horrible mutt called Bobby, adored by Lars, my mother's third husband.

The pets we have nowadays are Tatto, the cat, Ziggy, a deformed dachshund, and Macaroni. Macaroni killed the parakeet. Even today she persists in stalking it - she sees the ghost of the bird in the empty cage that sits in the dining room with our collection of cels from Disney and Chuck Jones cartoons. (If I were to list my favorite forms of entertainment, circuses and cartoons would share top billing.)

At one time we had Spanky, the pig. I bought it for my nephew Tommaso, who is not allowed to have pets at home because his dad is allergic to animal hairs. One day, after making the children solemnly agree that if we were to go to the animal fair we wouldn't buy any animals, I saw Spanky. MINIATURE PIG FOR SALE - ONLY $60, the sign on his cage announced. I couldn't believe my luck. I thought, Pigs have no hair - it could be the perfect pet for Tommaso! It seemed an opportunity not to be missed. When I handed my money to the farmer, I found out that I had misread the sign - $600, not $60. The farmer had recognized me, and afraid he'd say, "C'mon, with al.I the money you make as a model, what is the difference to you between $60 or $600?" I paid up. That was just the beginning of the bad news. As we were walking to the car, the farmer gave me some free information about pigs. The most alarming fact: They live to be 35 to 40 years old!

When I presented the pig to my sister Ingrid and brother-in-law Richard, they turned him down. A bit dispirited, I took him back home. Eventually Spanky ate, grew, and screwed all the furniture in a rapture of uncontrollable sexuality that I now know characterizes male pigs. He grew to be 300 pounds and was to grow who knows how much more, because he was anything but miniature. When he died of pneumonia during a cold winter in New York, I confess that I was relieved. Still, we couldn't eat pork for a few years.

But then one morning on holiday we were enjoying a marvelous American breakfast: pancakes, eggs, bagels, and bacon. "This is delicious. What is it?" asked Elettra. "Pork," I answered. A silence fell around the table. Then we resumed eating. Time, it is said, heals everything.

Below are photos from this article; click on thumbnails for larger photo.

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