PARIS -- It's one of those nostalgic autumn days and the last rays of light from the west are fading fast over the Pei Pyramid as Françoise de Stael and I choose two seats on the terrace of the Café Marly for a late afternoon drink.
"What will it be?" the young waiter asked.
I opted for a Perrier, Françoise for a whisky. She then pulled out a package of cigarettes, Fine 120, and asked me if I'd mind her smoking.
Well, not at all, as a matter of fact. Oh, I suppose I'd fear for her lungs if she were 30. But, pardonnez-moi, I love the idea of a woman having a whisky and cigarette... when she's 80. ( "At my age, it doesn't make any difference," she laughed).
Of course Françoise is first of all, French, so she can get away with things like this with "classe," and secondly, not your usual 80-year-old. A top model who worked for Givenchy and Patou until she was 40, she left the business to follow her husband, and re-started her career at 67.
With her high cheekbones, natural white hair, perfect skin, and light brown eyes, she's got that je ne sais quoi professional models plus that alluring French reserve and restraint (she said she's a model both because she wants to -- and needs to -- before we lightly pass on to other topics.) As we spoke, I realized I had seen her before -- of course. Her face was plastered all over Paris in a series of ads for Hépar mineral water; recently she's modeled for Galliano and Hermès.
Françoise is only one of the senior models in the Boomers and Seniors Department of the Masters agency in Paris, which is headed by Sylvie Febregon, who recruits hundreds of boomer men and women, either professionals or people who've never modeled before in their lives.
On the wall next to her desk in a top floor light-filled 18th century Paris office building on the Rue St. Anne are head shots of the seniors who work for the agency she founded at age 53 when she decided that "getting old wasn't that bad" and there was "a definite need" for older models.
There's no lack of candidates but Sylvie, the epitome of Parisian casual chic who's dressed in boots and jeans, tee shirt, bracelets, and black-rimmed glasses, knows exactly what she wants. "They have to radiate something special," she told me, noting that "sometimes people send me great-looking pictures but I always want to see them in person, and every now and then I see that they don't look as good because they'd touched up the photos."
She doesn't ask her models to get face lifts. "They do it themselves if they want," she commented laconically. She says she has nothing against plastic surgery -- as long as it doesn't show. While we were talking, she picked up the constantly ringing phone. One of the calls was from Lancome checking to be sure that the model she was sending over had NOT had botox or plastic surgery. I wanted to grab the phone and kiss it but restrained myself in time.
I did however ask Françoise if she'd been tempted by face lifts or botox to which she promptly replied: "I'm against it. My wrinkles reflect who I am." And, she admitted, she had good-looking parents and has good genes.
Like many French women, Françoise is a minimalist when it comes to make-up, dress, and even food. Skin care? She puts face cream on her skin -- and that's it. Make-up? "When I go out, I put on just a little." And is she on a constant diet? Not really, she replies. "I eat well at lunch and not much at dinner."
I pressed her to find out her secret for staying slim. "What?" She reflected a moment. "For lunch, generally a starter, meat and vegetables, a piece of cheese, fruit and a glass of Sauvignon. For dinner, a small whiskey and a cracker, a soft-boiled egg and yogurt." Hey, whatever works... Oh, and she loves chocolate. As far as dressing goes: "I have one pair of well-cut slacks made of beautiful material, and an elegant, classic green silk jacket. I love black and always wear a colored scarf." Perfume? Opium for 30 years, Angel for the past 15 years. Et voilà!
At age 63 Eva Colange, is another one of the Master's senior models. The mother of five grown children and one brand new grandson who lives in Tahiti, Eva is a familiar face in France even though hardly anyone knows her name. She's the beautiful older woman smiling at you in the pharmacy as you shop for Avene beauty products for the "mature skin." She's the lady in tennis shorts modeling for EDF (the largest French electricity company).
Recently she hopped on a plane to Malaysia to do a modeling job for Fix-O-Dent, a product for dentures. "Not very glamorous," she admitted, laughing. Like Françoise, Eva was a professional model early on and put herself on hold from 35 to 50 to bring up her five children. Her new career started one day when she accompanied her 16-year-old daughter to a casting -- and they took her instead!
Like Françoise, she says she doesn't do anything special to maintain her beauty. She tried Botox when she was 50 but didn't like because it froze her expression. "I accept my wrinkles," she says. She thinks the way people look at older women in France and the way they look at themselves has changed since her mother's era. "Now we're in jeans. We're cool."
Sylvie Fabregon's next project is a new agency called Silver which will hire former models from all over the world. Other than being a professional model, there's an age requirement: 40 and on up.
It looks like 70 is the new 50 -- and gray is here to stay.
Follow Harriet Welty Rochefort on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joie de vivre