Penelope Tree: An Exclusive Interview With The Style Icon Model
Penelope Tree book

An Exclusive Interview With Style Icon And Model Penelope Tree

Tipped to be one of this summer’s hottest reads, iconic model Penelope Tree opens up about modelling during the 1960s, her approach to ageing and her new book …

Her enormous eyes with lashings of mascara, barely-there-brows, long fringe and individual style beguiled photographers, including Richard Avedon and David Bailey, who turned her into their muse. In fact, Penelope Tree was 13 when she was first photographed by Diane Arbus for a feature in Town & Country magazine, and later was just shy of 17-years-old when she became the It girl of the so-called Swinging Sixties. When John Lennon was asked to describe her in three words, he is said to have replied: “Hot, hot, hot, smart, smart, smart!” David Bailey, with whom she had a relationship, credited her with starting the flower-power movement. To Kate Moss she is a goddess. Yet for the best part of 50 years, bar the occasional modelling job (notably for Burberry), Tree has remained out of the limelight, preferring to concentrate on her charity Lotus Outreach, founded to help street children in India.

Now 74, she has written her first novel, Piece Of My Heart, an exploration of what it takes to make it in the fashion industry, the late onset acne that finished her career, and coming to terms with beauty in her 70s. It’s peopled with celebrities including The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Catherine Deneuve, Andy Warhol, The Kray Twins, Diana Vreeland, Truman Capote and Cecil Beaton.

In this interview she talks to THE GLOSS about work, home and her current state of mind.


Diana Vreeland and Richard Avedon had the most impact on my career, because they championed me right from the beginning when most other people in the industry thought I looked like a freak! When I was starting out I would regularly have lunches and dinners with Mrs Vreeland. She was the best company in the world. We had similar relationships with our mothers, so that was helpful, and she treated me like an equal and inspired me with her humour and imaginative proclamations. She was incredibly positive and I never heard her say a bad word about anyone – which was quite remarkable in fashion at the time.

I’ve worked with so many different photographers. I like almost every photograph I did with Avedon; as an artist he was very engaged and dynamic. He made you feel seen and empowered. My favourite is probably the photograph that Clive Arrowsmith took of me. It’s a headshot with my hair styled like a tree with a bird’s nest in it. I had a lot of fun working with him, he’s funny and never stops talking. I also love the photo that Bailey took of me which I used for the cover of Piece of My Heart.

I was invited to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel New York in 1966. It was a great spectacle, though not exactly a hooley. Cecil Beaton was the only person at the party who asked me to dance. He didn’t say a word when he walked over to me, then led me to the dance floor. It was so kind of him as it was an adult event really, and I was the youngest person there. I remember Candice Bergen was wearing big bunny ears, Mia Farrow was welded to Frank Sinatra’s side and Lauren Bacall danced the night away with Jerome Robbins. There was a gaggle of European aristocrats in couture and serious jewellery as well as huge feather headdresses. I witnessed the writer Norman Mailer having a serious fight with McGeorge Bundy [US National Security advisor] over US foreign policy in Vietnam, they nearly came to blows which of course was thrilling. The Texan detective who tracked down the Clutter family killers in Capote’s book In Cold Blood was there with his family; the men all wore Stetsons, and the women were in plain day dresses so they really stood out amongst all the diamonds and feathers.

My advice for young models: Enjoy the experience – the travel and the people that you meet – but don’t get too attached, as the fashion industry can be brutal. Keep thinking about what else you want to do with your life and make sure you have lots of other interests that will sustain your spirit in the long run.

My Buddhist teacher, Khyentse Norbu founded Lotus Outreach 30 years ago. He wanted to do something to help girls living in poverty in India and Cambodia who were most at risk of being trafficked into the sex industry. In Cambodia we partnered with the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Centre who helped us to identify girls from the most economically challenged families and we supply those girls with a uniform, shoes, school books, extra tuition, bikes, rice support for their families, everything needed so they can complete primary and secondary school. Many of those girls have now graduated from university, have great jobs, and have completely transformed the fortunes of their families. We also have programmes in Brazil and Guatemala and Chicago’s South Side.


My beauty essentials: I love Charlotte Tilbury products, especially the tinted moisturiser and Magic Cream. I’ve used Kiehls Crème de Corps for the last 40 years; I used it on my stomach when I was pregnant and I never got stretch marks. It’s heavy duty but sinks in. When it comes to scent, I like Frederic Malle’s Carnal Flower and Le Labo’s Vetiver.

When it comes to fashion, I love Bella Freud. Everything she does is beautifully cut and fits well. I also wear a lot of Zara, including a kilt I bought seven years ago that I still wear all the time, and their basic jackets and trousers are so well tailored. Steve Meisel created a collaboration with Zara last year and he gave me some of the pieces which I love. When it comes to couture, the recent John Galliano collection for Maison Margiela is next level.

I don’t have much archive fashion from the Sixties, as I moved house and countries so many times, but I do have a beautifully embroidered Romanian shirt. It’s in gauzy white cotton, with beautiful blue embroidery and I still wear it.


Home is a flat with lovely views across the countryside to the South Downs in Sussex. I love living in the English countryside and being close to nature. I’m very lucky to have deer, longhorn cattle and wild Exmoor ponies on my doorstep. When I was writing Piece of My Heart, if I needed to clear my head, I would go on long walks on the Downs, or on the rewilded Knepp estate.

I don’t have an interiors style per se; my focus is always on creating cosy, colourful, comfortable and calming spaces. I’ve collected Australian art over the years, carpets from Turkey and Tibet, and other objects from my travels, which somehow work together.

I have fantasies about living in Tuscany or somewhere warm, by the sea, like a Greek island or the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. I find the winters in England quite bleak, but who doesn’t? Fundamentally I’m very happy living where I do.

My idea of the perfect weekend is having time and space at home to read, write, walk, and do my practice [Buddhism]. I especially love weekends when my grown children are staying [Mhani O’Hara and Paloma O’Hara]. In the evening I might go out for dinner or watch a movie with friends. My favourite restaurant is The Knepp Wilding Kitchen near Dial Post, West Sussex. They grow their own organic vegetables to serve in the restaurant, and all the meat is grass-fed, free range and organic.

When it comes to reading, I usually have a few different books on the go. At the moment I’m reading Widow Basquiat: A Memoir by Jennifer Clement, Hot Milk by Deborah Levy and Duveen: The Story of the Most Spectacular Art Dealer of All Time by SN Behrman. A recent favourite was Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason – very funny, poignant and well written.

My current state of mind: While I can’t say I enjoy looking in the mirror, it’s a relief not to be obsessed with how I look, like I was in my 20s. What ageing has given me is a strong desire to make the most out of the life I have now, and to see beyond forms and appearances, one of the themes in Piece of My Heart.

About my book: Piece of My Heart is a novel about the trouble with appearances. Born into a world of great privilege, my protagonist Ari becomes a top model in the 1960s and the lover of a well-known photographer. Several years later, extreme circumstances compel her to look for a life that doesn’t depend on wealth, image or the man she loves.

Piece of My Heart by Penelope Tree is published by Moonflower Books and is released on May 23.


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