Money For Women
May-June 2001
Isabella Rossellini Talking Money

Isabella Rossellini is--quite literally--on the go. Up since the crack of dawn, she got her kids off to school and herself together before hustling from her apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan across town to fill in as co-host of Live with Regis. Less than 30 minutes after the show is over, she has retraced her steps. Sitting down breathlessly at a table in an Italian patisserie, she smiles at the waiter and says, "Cappuccino, please. And one of those panini with the mozzarella and tomato. I didn't have time for breakfast."

Rossellini's whirlwind tour to launch her new perfume, Manifesto, has been under way since the fall. But she's not complaining. In fact, she's both charming and disarming as she discusses what she learned about money from her parents, director Roberto Rossellini and actress Ingrid Bergman, and the role it has played in her life. It's a surprisingly large one. Rossellini may not be motivated by money, but she certainly respects it--most of all for the unexpected choices it has allowed her to make.

Q. What sort of role do you recall money playing in your life early on?

A. My parents were completely artistic. They didn't care about money. They didn't admire people who had it--which was actually a good thing because neither of them ever made much. Oh, certainly, they were celebrities. But my father made films that were greatly appreciated for their artistic qualities; he was the opposite of a commercial director. And my mother, who was only in Hollywood for nine years, operated under the old studio system. David Selznick made more money for renting or leasing her out than she made herself.

As a child, the only financial decisions I recall making were whether to buy chewing gum or ice cream with my allowance. But I learned as an adult that my parents were wrong: Money was much more important than my parents told me.

Q. In what way?

A. Having it. I love the idea that I have money. To be financially independent is to me a great pleasure. But just to work to make money? That's not interesting to me, even though I make more money than I ever thought I would through my career.

Q. Let's talk about that career. I know you hopped around early on, before landing in modeling. How did you support yourself?

A. Early on I worked as a translator for journalists working for Italian television. Then I became a location scout. Then I started doing my own interviews. And then I spent four years doing a comedy show with Roberto Benigni. By the time the show ended, he was on his way to becoming a big star in Italy. I was lost. I had loved working on that show since the tone of it was very light, but I didn't like the seriousness of most journalism. I had been approached about modeling for years, but I had always heard that as a career it wasn't something you could count on. Journalism could be. But it turned out to be the opposite for me.

Q. Did the money come immediately?

A. No, there are two fees for models. Advertising fees are very high and make you rich. But the fees for covers don't. If you do a Vogue cover today you make, I don't know, $200. When I started, it was $50, which wasn't much, but I didn't do it for the money. I did it because I loved spending time with the photographers I worked with--Richard Avedon, Bruce Weber and another, who has since passed away, named Bill King. They were so charming, interesting, stimulating. And working with them created opportunities.

Q. Right. In 1982, Lancome signed you to a lucrative deal, paying you $2 million over five years.

A. It was groundbreaking. Even Twiggy or Verushka or Jean Shrimpton never made the sort of money that a Cindy Crawford or a Naomi Campbell does today. Fashion started turning into more of a business, with models becoming stars, and all the girls started to get rich.

Q. You had a hard time with earning that much money, though, didn't you? I know that in your book, Some of Me, you wrote dialogues with your late parents in which you justified earning such huge sums of money from something as frivolous as the beauty business.

A. Yes, my family--my aunts, cousins, brothers, sisters--they couldn't get over those big modeling fees. I felt the same way. Whenever you went on a modeling assignment, you had to have the person who hired you sign a voucher at the end of the day in order to get paid. So my agent would send me out on a day's work for $15,000 and tell me to bring back the signed voucher. But as the day went by, because it sounded like so much money to me, I started to doubt it. And by the end of the day, my head would start saying, 'If I write $15,000, they are going to think I'm crazy.' So instead I'd say, 'I forgot the voucher.' And I'd call my agent and tell him to take care of it.

Q. Were you careful with the money because you weren't sure how long your modeling career would last?

A. Very. I bought an apartment and I invested the rest. But because I don't come from a family that understands money, that wasn't easy. So I took the money I had left after buying my apartment, and I divided it into three piles. I gave each pile to a different money manager and said, 'Let's see who does the best.' And to the person who did best--and who was also able to explain to me how he did it, without belittling me by saying, 'Oh, you lucky, stupid thing'--I gave the rest of the money. [That person, New York City money manager William Jones, is still with her today.]

Q. Then right after your 40th birthday, Lancome didn't renew your contract. Did you panic?

A. I didn't panic that much. I had invested. But I thought about it. My kids were young. They had many more years of school left--and I love the private school they attend in Manhattan, though it's expensive. So I wanted them to be able to stay in school. But beyond that, I'm always ready to scale down. My friends say, 'Why do you take the bus?' I say, 'I'm training for the day I'm poor.' Usually I fly first class, but once in a while I fly coach because I want to remember the experience.

Q. But you did feel the need to keep working, right? You began a whole new life with your own cosmetics company.

A. I wanted to continue working in this industry. I discovered it. I fell in love with it. It makes me laugh to say, 'Should my lips be pink or brown today?' It's like a game. The reason I started Manifesto was to perpetuate my presence. I have a minimum take, but how much I make depends mostly on sales, because I'm earning a percentage. And, of course, I hope to do well, not just for me but for the company. If someone invests in your business, you feel a responsibility to make it back with a profit.

Q. Industry analysts have estimated that Manifesto will bring in $35 million in its first 12 months and become one of Lancaster's biggest brands. Are you on track?

A. It's a little early to tell, but everything looks promising. [She looks around.] I have to touch something wood. In Europe from October to December we were the fourth best- selling perfume, and we just launched in the United States. Some launches fall flat and then it's impossible to get them going. I hope we do well. But to make endless money for me, frankly that's not the most important thing.

Q. Have you ever worried about having enough? You've been divorced twice. How about then?

A. No. I never had alimony. I didn't want it. If you are after money, then live below your means.

Q. Is that the financial lesson you would like to teach your two kids?

A. I want them to know that they should have money in order to be independent. It's very hard to make that happen, though, so I put some aside to get them started. If they want to do the game of accumulating, they're welcome to it, but they're on their own. For years, I went to my accountant and I said, 'Tell me how much is rich so that I'll know when I hit that number.' I asked that question for 10 years until I understood that it's a very personal question. But I made more than my number, and so now I'm comfortable.

Q. Do you live frugally? Or do you take risks with money?

A. You take risks with your money when you want to make more of it. I don't live that way. I ask myself each year, what do I want to do? I want to keep my apartment, my kids in their school, our house in the country. I want to take the kids on a holiday to Europe. Then I go to my money manager and my accountant and my lawyer and I say, 'Do I have enough?' If I don't, I work a little harder. And if there's anything left over, I give it away.

Q. To whom?

A. I don't like to talk too much about it. In Europe, people don't use the work they do for charity to self-promote. In America, a lot of people do. But basically, I love working for charities where I know I can have an impact. I love working in the little village where I have my house in the country [in Bellport, N.Y.]. I can talk to the mayor, to the trustees. If I do something, say, for the public library, I can see it; it's tangible. It's not the same to do something for the New York Public Library. I'm also involved in environmental causes, and one of my kids [Roberto, 7] is adopted, so I'm active in child welfare organizations as well.

Q. Aren't you afraid that if you give it all away, 10 years from now you'll regret it?

A. My accountant says the same thing. But I don't want to accumulate money. Then I die and there's all this money left--for what? Gandhi used to say, "There is enough for everyone's need. There's not enough for everyone's greed." That thought swims in my brain. I'm afraid of greed. My needs are luxurious, but I don't want to be rich rich. I don't want to be so different from others. I want to be part of this world. So I have a pension. I have trusts for my kids. And the rest, I give it away. I like it like this.

- Jean Sherman Chatzky
Below are photos from this article; click on thumbnail for larger photo.

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