This story is part of the CelebrEighty Series written by Judy Katz… People told me that I looked like Ava Gardner, Raquel Welsh, or Gene Tierney in my heyday. At age 14, I was sure I would become an actress. I was the only one from my Crown Heights, Brooklyn public school, P.S. 161, to be accepted into the High School of Performing Arts—the “Fame” school—on W. 46th Street in Manhattan: Jessica Walter—who we just lost, way too soon—and Susan Strasberg were among my classmates.
After two years there, I switched to James Madison H.S., where I got 99% on my English Regent and won the English Medal. I chose writing over acting. But I met many young women—and not so young women—over the years for whom their appearance—their beauty—was a major aspect of their profession. Looking back has gotten me thinking about appearance: How it applies to those in the public eye—and to those of us who lead more private lives.
Celebrated actress Ava Gardner was one of the most spectacular beauties of her time. Ava’s career slowed in her early 40s, but she continued to take on smaller parts into her early 60s. However, at age 64, a stroke left her partially paralyzed on one side of her face. At that point, she did what many other famous actresses have done—she “closed the door.” (Film buffs will recall Marlene Dietrich’s famous line, “I vant to be alone.”) Ava retired from public life, preferring to have people remember her as she was in all her youthful beauty, in films like The Barefoot Contessa, The Night of the Iguana, and Mogambo.
Before she died—in January 1990, at the age of 67—Ava gave one last interview to a journalist from Vanity Fair. In the article, the writer describes how, for that interview, she darkened her living room and set up the lighting so that only her “good side” was visible. Ava shared with her usual directness that while her beauty had opened many doors professionally, her personal life was chaotic, with brief and tumultuous marriages to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra. True happiness seemed to have eluded this stunning woman, and she often expressed distress at the aging process.
For many actresses or society women, the perceived loss of power or presence is because of a sharp focus on changes in their appearance. Many go to great lengths with diets, workouts, and cosmetic surgery, to “hang on” to a more youthful appearance. To try to retain that great gift of beauty because beauty is a gift.
I am not underestimating how wonderful and precious beauty can be. For those thus endowed, my wish is for them to enjoy it while they have it. At the same time, my wish has a second part: that they also recognize that youthful beauty is temporary, while inner beauty—kindness, empathy, wisdom—holds the potential to last a lifetime.
Brigitte Bardot, another former world-renowned beauty, shows no concern for how she looks these days, as she often goes out looking rumpled, unkempt, and with no makeup or cosmetic enhancements. One of the best-known sex symbols of the 1950s and 1960s, after she retired from entertainment in 1973, at only age 39, she became a full-time animal rights activist. In 1986, she created the Brigitte Bardot Foundation for the welfare and protection of animals. She became a vegetarian and raised three million francs to fund the foundation by auctioning off jewelry and personal belongings. She has donated more than $140,000 over two years for a mass sterilization and adoption program for Bucharest’s estimated 300,000 stray dogs. That’s the tip of the iceberg for Bardot, who, at 87, is widely respected for this more substantial “role” as a global advocate for animals.
Being strikingly attractive in one’s younger years is no guarantee of finding lasting love, happiness, or life satisfaction. Think of the handsome, athletically-gifted high school jock. How often does he become the world-changer? Just as often it’s the pale skinny bookish kid—today’s “nerd”—to whom no one gave a second look who becomes the new king in town.
Those crowned Miss Universe win out over many stunning young beauties worldwide. Winning the crown in 2015, Philippine beauty queen Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach opened up about battling mental health problems—which she said her doctors had diagnosed as a general anxiety disorder and overall major clinical depression. She admitted that these conditions led her to self-harming and anorexia during and after her reign.
Wurtzbach has a YouTube channel, including a TED talk on her struggles while fulfilling her duties as Miss Universe. “For the longest time, I never wanted to admit I was sad, out of fear that people would judge me or say that I’m being ungrateful. I was thinking, too, how can someone like me, who looks like they made their dream come true, still be depressed? What people saw after my reign was a Cinderella story and a happy ending. But I was struggling more inside. Maybe from afar, it did look perfect, but the reality was far from it.”
Fortunately, Pia is doing exceptionally well these days. She has been featured in several motion pictures, returning to her earlier acting career. She is a sought-after spokesperson and a human rights advocate and is reported to be in a loving relationship.
Another beauty queen did not have such an excellent happy ending. The Chief Medical Examiner ruled the “fall” of 30-year-old Cheslie Kryst, the former Miss USA, from the top of her Manhattan apartment building a suicide. She had left notes behind. In a touching tribute to her daughter, April Simpkins revealed that Cheslie suffered from chronic depression. Ms. Simpkins said her daughter was living a public and private life. In her personal life, “she was dealing with high-functioning depression which she hid from everyone—including me, her closest confidant—until very shortly before her death. Aside from her title, Kryst was also a sought-after civil rights lawyer and a correspondent for “Extra,” the entertainment news program. In 2019, she won Miss USA victory 2019. With those of Miss America, Miss Teen USA, and Miss Universe, her victory marked the first time Black women held all the major pageant titles in a single year.
Besides my brief relationship with Cary Grant, which I wrote about in my last blog, I have lived an ordinary life. I married three men who were far from rich and famous. In this later stage of my life, I have never considered either retiring or “closing the door.” I revel in creativity, ideas, and friendships and still like what I see in the mirror. It’s not the same face or figure, but it’s who I am now. I want to think I have a long ways to go before I “complete my human experience” and hopefully discover what’s next. Perhaps there’s a place where I can meet up with some of those world-class beauties: Maybe we can talk about people’s reactions to us at our “most beautiful”—and better yet, what experiences were unrelated to how we looked, and nonetheless brought us the most joy.
The loss of anything is never easy, be it money, fame, or the loss of a loved one through death or divorce. Change is inevitable, and mourning those losses is part of being human. But make no mistake: beauty, fame, and riches do not guarantee your happiness. Only one thing does your self-love and, over time, your acceptance of the realities of aging. Perhaps even your embrace of it. I embrace being 81, and I will embrace each passing year. That decision, that determination, and using my openness and “CelebrEighty” stories and eventual interviews to help change our internal and external dialogue around again is my ultimate gift—to you and myself. To be alive, see another day, and use yourself well till the last moment—that is truly beautiful!