Susan Hess Logeais: Filmmaker Tackles Issues Of Aging In Her Second Act

02/10/2012 11:18 am ET Updated Apr 11, 2012

"Not Dead Yet" is Susan Hess Logeias' latest project in her second act as a filmmaker. Hess Logeias wrote, produced, and co-stars in this dramatic comedy about three actresses over forty who can't find roles for women their age. Joining forces to revive their acting careers by making their own film (and starring in it themselves), they unwittingly embark on a more essential quest to find themselves and challenge their roles as mothers, lovers, wives, workers, and friends.

With the recent media focus on Demi Moore's troubles and Madonna's Superbowl halftime performance calling attention to American's deep insecurities about aging, I wanted to interview a post 50 tackling those issues head-on. "Not Dead Yet" was produced by Hot Flash Films PDX, Hess Logeias' company, which is dedicated to "empowering audiences through thought-provoking entertainment and realistic media imagery that celebrates women as they truly are."

When she was still in her teens, Susan Hess Logeais became one of Europe's most successful fashion models. A former ballet dancer with a lithe figure and a fresh-scrubbed, all-American visage, she graced the covers of more than a dozen major women's magazines and strode down runways in Paris, Milan and New York. Later, she turned to acting and co-starred in numerous network television movies and mini-series.

But modeling and acting had a dark side. Logeais was continually plagued by a "deep-seated feeling of not being good enough" that was exacerbated by her experience getting -- and later removing -- breast implants. "I was five years old when I became fascinated with breasts," she writes on her blog. "My favorite technique for studying them was to slip a Playboy magazine into something more acceptable such as Ladies Home Journal, or LIFE, while my mother shopped at Albertson's. I was convinced that this was how all women looked, so imagine my shock when adolescence passed and my breasts still didn't fill an A-cup."

So began a personal journey that would later result in a commitment to challenging social norms and exploring the vagaries of body politics, ageism, advertising, spirituality and socially responsible filmmaking. "If somebody doesn't want to put me in front of the camera, I'll get behind it," she says.

I recently spoke with Hess Logeais about her life behind the camera and her social and creative convictions.

What inspired you to focus your energy on empowering older women through film?

Initially it was the fact that I carry a certain amount of guilt about having had breast implants. There was a period in the eighties where catalogs became the biggest outreach to everyday women around the country. They were being created in New York with a handful of models. The same girls did just about every catalog -- Neiman Marcus, Saks, Bloomingdales, Nordstroms. These were going all over the country in the mid-eighties and the women who were doing the modeling were my girlfriends. So when I got breast implants and began acting, like dominos, one after the other, they all got breast implants, too. Suddenly there was this big message going out there that everyone has the same B-cup breasts.

Whenever there's an ideal body type, you exclude everyone else. I had guilt about that because I felt that I definitely started the ball rolling. It might have been someone else, but I took it personally.

How did you deal with that guilt?

I shut off the TV for 20 years. I didn't watched television at all because I realized how I'd been shaped by media. I felt that if really wanted to know who I was and feel good about myself, with the body that I had, I had to turn it off. I ended up marrying a Frenchman and living in France for about six years. On the second or third date with my husband after meeting him -- this was two weeks after I had my breast implants removed -- I took off my shirt and said: 'This is it. Can you deal with this?' I wasn't horribly disfigured, in a way you could hardly tell, but I still had to show him. I said, 'If you don't like it, there's the door.' And he just looked at me and said, 'Fine. I don' t have a problem with this.'

After six years in France we returned to the U.S. and got our kids involved in a Waldorf school. We just got the media out of our house. No fashion magazines. No television. It was basically about avoiding the media culture. Years later, I started looking around again. I turned on the TV and started looking at magazines and I was horrified. Horrified. It was like, oh my God, what happened? It was worse than anything I had ever seen in our era. I'm 53 now, and when I was really looking at everything it was the early nineties. Since then everything has gotten incredibly sexist and objectified, with an increasingly younger audience. Now women over forty -- forget about it if you're an actress. Look at Demi Moore. It's hard to stave off the pressure to inject your face with things or starve yourself thin or do plastic surgery.

It's a personal choice -- people do what they feel they have to do, but it doesn't work. You are what you are. My reaction to all of this was the desire to make a movie. I thought: What a perfect opportunity to talk about this issue. I had studied advertising enough to know that advertising wants people to feel bad about themselves. Unhappy, insecure people are wonderful consumers. If you show perfected retouched images of women, their self-esteem is lowered. If you show them un-retouched images of women, they feel better about themselves. And I thought, well then, let's make a movie with women in their late forties or early fifties, and let's not light away our age.

Why do you think our culture has such a problem with aging?

I think there are a couple of perspectives. From a marketing perspective, one of the most easily manipulated and vulnerable markets is the youth market -- people between the ages of 14 to 25. That's where Hollywood producers focus their interest because that's the age group that doesn't reflect, that doesn't think, that buys impulsively. They look for brand loyalty, so they skew young. All this comes from advertising. By focusing exclusively on a particular age group, you render the other half or the remainder of the demographic invisible. By making the older demographic invisible, you make it valueless.

There's a bias against women, particularly older women. Every time we take a step forward in our cultural power, they (advertisers) make us smaller, thinner, and younger in media. And it's all really run by a handful of older white men.

Did this hit home when you made "Not Dead Yet"?

Yes. I didn't discover any of this until I made the movie and tried to market it. We had such fabulous reactions when people watched it. Women 70 years old would say, 'I've experienced everything in that movie' and 'Wow, you put words to my experience!' Yet why wasn't this movie embraced by more film festivals? Well, because most of the people who run film festivals and select the films are men. Some men really love it. Other men are uncomfortable with it because it's a feminine perspective. It's looking at the world through a feminine lens. It's not saying that men are bad, but it is saying: Why are we taking this?

Women over 50 need to recognize how much they really know and recognize the value in all the care they've given to their families. They also need to recognize that society should be compensating us for the care we give our families. If caregivers were recognized for the true value they offer society, then women would not be 65 percent of our poorest seniors.

We have to change and reclaim our power. I loved reading recently that our Constitution is based on the Iroquois Nation Confederation. Our Founding Fathers saw what a great job the Indians were doing, but they didn't take into our constitution the fact that the grandmothers ran the tribes. Once they had raised their children and were no longer of child-bearing age, the grandmothers were in charge. They chose the chiefs. They decided whether to go to war. They handled the money. If that were the case in the world today, we would have a very different situation.

What's the one thing you know now that you wish you knew growing up?

Self-acceptance and forgiveness.

What's one rule you feel you can break with impunity now that you're over fifty?

Women in particular are raised to be perfectionists and not to make mistakes. At my age, it's okay to be a fool and make mistakes. I don't care if I embarrass myself.

What goals do you still have?

I want to create stories and bring information to people that wakes them up. Time to wake up.

Susan Hess Logeais: Filmmaker And Activist