W magazine
May 2001
Manifesto Destiny
Isabella Rossellini wants to take the tyranny out of the quest to look good.

Isabella Rossellini's Manifesto fragrance has just launched in the United States, and she happily reports that, in its first two weeks, it was Bloomingdale's number-one seller. After four months in Europe, it remains strongly in the top five, with its Asia launch upcoming. Meanwhile, Rossellini's thoughts are on to her next creative project: a skin-care line, set to debut late next year.

Rossellini knows what she doesn't want: With the Manifesto line, which debuted in 1999, she sought to fight what she views as a kind of beauty terrorism the one-age, one-race, one-weight marketing focus that she thinks is ingrained in the beauty culture. Skin care presents a different spin on the issue: Much of it emphasizes anti-aging, and Rossellini thinks it's just fine to be 50, thank you very much. (She hits that milestone next year.)

"The big problem is the anti-aging cream," she says. "I am going to talk to the lab people and dermatologists. I want to know what those creams really do. If they say, 'We call it anti-aging, but what it really does is moisturize your skin,' than I say just call it a moisturizer. I don't want the marketing to portray a philosophy I don't share."

Some might say with looks like Rossellini's, embracing an "everyone is beautiful" theory isn't so daring. Sitting at a tiny café table, Rossellini, as fresh-scrubbed as an ingenue, appears to have few lines and nothing to lift. But don't tell her that.

"I am aging, and that is considered against the standard of beauty," she states clinically. "There is nothing I can do about it. I would like to come across as pleasant and attractive, and how do I do that? Plastic surgery? Is that the only solution to this?" (Rossellini says she fears going under the knife.) So far, the aging process hasn't bothered her, though. "It hasn't hit me so hard that I can't look at myself in the mirror," she says.

One subject that particularly irks Rossellini is Everywoman's insecurity on the matter of weight. Rossellini wasn't reed-thin even at the peak of her modeling days, and, she says, "I can't take myself as an example. But I know that all of my friends feel fat even though they are not fat. What is it in the culture that makes them feel fat? I talk to my daughter, who is 17, and she is always dieting. I say to her, 'Deep down, using all those brains you have, you have to know that you are not fat. You are okay.' We still believe you are never young enough, you are never thin enough, you are never white enough. Those are the things I find horrible; those are the things I find appalling."

Rossellini decided to develop a beauty company with Lancaster not only to fight such stereotyping with "humor and tenderness" in marketing ("Some hipness comes with aggression," she says. "We try not to have that in Manifesto.") but also because she just knew too much. After 14 years as the face of Lancome, she refused to simply toss out a huge trove of practical knowledge about the industry.

"Actors work a lot," she says. "They produce, they develop material for themselves, they might direct. But when it comes to modeling, it seemed to me that it just stopped there. Nobody capitalized on the culture they had acquired. Once you are old, you have to think of something else to do. I stopped my work with Lancome. Obviously I was upset because I worked with them for 14 years. It was a big financial loss. What do you do next? It seemed logical that I would capitalize on what I had learned. I always wonder about Linda Evangelista. This is a person who is sort of a scholar of fashion. I haven't spoken to her in years, but I'm sure she is pretty lost, saying 'What am I going to do next?'"

Rossellini has kept up her acting career too. Recently she performed in Italian in the title role of Andre Gide's Persephone in Naples. Rossellini jumped at the chance to work with the director, Jean-Paul Scarpitta, and was drawn to Gide's feminist telling of the Greek myth. "Instead of making Persephone a passive victim caught between her mother and her husband, she decides," Rossellini says. "In the third act of the poem, Persephone takes charge. She says that once you have been suffering, you can't turn around. You have to include it in your life. You can't ignore it anymore. This poem is about women's maturity."

Rossellini's daughter, Elettra-Ingrid Wiedemann, by her former husband, Jonathan Wiedemann, will soon reach a milestone of her own when she goes to college in the fall, here in the East. "It's good for me because, especially in the beginning, she may want me to visit and help her," says Rossellini, who lives with her children in New York. "At first, she wanted to go to California or Colorado, and I was concerned."

Right now, Elettra is mulling a career in fashion or advertising, with no thought of becoming a third-generation actress. "It may come up later, or it might be too heavy a burden. It's hard," Rossellini says. "I am a 'daughter of', and she is a 'daughter of' and a 'granddaughter of', so she has a double burden."

Rossellini knows well the power of a mother's shadow, and that an actor's life can seem threatening to a child. In her 1997 autobiography, Some of Me, she wrote that it pained her when her mother, Ingrid Bergman, was asked what mattered most to her, and she answered her work. "I feel with my mother, there were two lives," she says now. "One was our intimate family life, and one was our public life. The public life was the one that had a lot of pressure, because my mother was a great actress. There was always that. But in the reality of the family, that didn't exist."

Isabella named her son, whom she adopted as a single mother in 1994, after her father, the director Roberto Rossellini. (She notes that retrospectives of her father's work will be running in Paris this spring and in New York next year.) Originally she had decided with her sisters that the name Roberto was all wrong. But when the phone call came to say that the baby had been born in Texas, she was at Bravo taping an introduction to three of her father's restored films. "He was born while I was talking about my dad," she remembers thinking. "That means I have to call him Roberto."

Still, the realist in Rossellini all but dismisses the name's albatross potential. "Memories fade," she says. "I think if you do a survey and ask a lot of young people about Ingrid Brgman, that image with the hat [from Casablanca] will come up. But with my father.Nobody up to now has said to my son, 'Your grandfather was Roberto Rossellini.' Which is good for him. For my father, of course, there is a sad side to it. It's just time going on."

-- Bridget Foley
Below are photos from this article; click on thumbnail for larger photo.

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