Don’t Look Back

What happens when a woman who once commanded attention walks down the street and nary a man turns his head? Nina Griscom faces the mirror and manages to smile.

Beauty » Don’t Look Back

Don’t Look Back

Don’t Look Back

What happens when a woman who once commanded attention walks down the street and nary a man turns his head? Nina Griscom faces the mirror and manages to smile.

Growing up in New York in the ’60s, I was a lanky mousy-blonde student at the all-girls Chapin School and later Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut. I had three interests: boys, boys, and sports (I played volleyball, lacrosse, and tennis). It wasn’t until I was around 14 that I became aware that I was pretty. It was the stares on the street, the approving glances from friends’ fathers that, while not exactly sketchy, indicated a form of appreciation. Men thought I was attractive, and I was uncomfortable with it—very uncomfortable.

It might be surprising, then, that when I turned 15 I set my sights on becoming a model. I should emphasize that I did not think of myself as a great beauty; nobody had ever told me, “You’re so fabulous; you photograph like a dream.” It was financial independence I was after; I wanted to make my own money and have a career, and I saw modeling as my ticket to success.

Griscom with her husband, Leonel Piraino, illustrated by Jean-Philippe Delhomme.

The fact that I was drawn to an industry that trades on appearances probably seems ironic. A year earlier I had been squirming under the notion of the male gaze; suddenly I wanted to leverage that attention into a lifestyle. But if I learned anything from the many lunches I had as a teenager with my family at the 21 Club, then a center of prestige and influence, it’s that in life you need to have either power, looks, or money. Well, at that tender age, power and money didn’t seem within my reach. But I understood from the outset that looks could get you a seat at the table of life. I wanted one of those seats, and I went after it with perseverance and focus.

I signed with Eileen Ford. Whenever she seemed less than enthusiastic about my chances, I would nab the day’s go-see list, cold-call the photographers, and get the jobs myself. By the time I was 22, I was one of the agency’s top earners, booking ads for Revlon, Maybelline, Clairol, and Saks Fifth Avenue and racking up covers for French Elle, Italian Vogue, and Town & Country. There was even one month when I walked by a newsstand and saw myself staring back from six different publications. (Okay, one of them was a knitting magazine.)

Needless to say, my relationship with my appearance was a complicated one. On the one hand, I was empowered by my ability to parlay my blonde hair and blue eyes into a successful career. I felt like I was using my business savvy, not just my girl-next-door looks. As the makeup artist Stan Place once told me on a shoot, “You know, Nina, I admire you. You’re really not that beautiful, but you’re smart enough to convince everyone that you are.” I thought, Finally, someone who gets it!

Griscom in Cosmopolitan, 1977.

Outside the studio, however, it was a different story. On the street, the whistles, lip smacking, and cat calls directed at me from the hard hats on their lunch breaks were a given. There, it didn’t seem to matter if I had a scrap of makeup on or my hair was a mess or I was dressed like a slob—I felt like a piece of meat, and it pissed me off. I would hiss invectives barely under my breath and wanted to take a baseball bat to their heads.

There was one exception. I was in Milan, and a bricklayer, distracted from his work and gawking at me, fell about five feet off his perch, into the street. Something about the incident was so charmingly innocent, I couldn’t help but giggle. The rest of them could go to hell.

Of course, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t some perks to such notice. You slid by the gatekeeper at the club; you got the table at the restaurant that was being held for someone else. It happened all the time. You’d walk in the door and say, “I’m really sorry, but I don’t have a reservation. We’re two, is that okay?” You’d smile big. And it was okay. The worst of the abuses was having an Air France flight wait for me on the runway. I was 18. Yes, I was a spoiled brat who loved the attention from the people I deemed acceptable—but not from the ones I didn’t. Yet as we all know, that’s not how it works.

It did dawn on me that at some point, the currency off which I was making my living would diminish. I remember sitting in a cab on Park Avenue and 57th Street at a red light. I was 30, and I thought, Oh, my God, this is all going to be over really soon. But don’t worry, because in 2000—and I was actually calculating that in the year 2000 I would be in my 40s—no matter how god-awful I look, by then they’ll have some magic elixir.

Now it’s 2013, and there is still no such fountain of youth. When the contracts did in fact dry up, I cried and cried, because what was I going to do with my life now? I was accustomed to the routine and had finally come to appreciate a career that for so many years I had discounted as frivolous.

The modeling world places a much higher premium on youth than the real world does, and what I eventually had come to recognize as the everyday equivalent of those contracts—the double takes and whistles on the streets—didn’t start to disappear until I was in my late 40s. Ironically, what had once bothered me so much now provided a peculiar sort of comfort. As my friend Kirat Bhinder Young, once a runway model and muse to Yves Saint Laurent, puts it, “It happens gradually, so one has time for a soft landing.”

From left: Cover of French Elle, 1974; a Saks Fifth Avenue ad featuring Jerry Hall, Lisa Taylor, and Griscom, circa 1977.

Another friend, the artist Immi Storrs, confided to me that more than age itself, it was the lack of men straining their trapezius muscles to get a better view of her that hit her the hardest. “My 40th and 50th birthdays weren’t such a big deal to me,” she said. “What was really upsetting and clear evidence of entering a new stage of my life was when men stopped looking at me altogether.”

Around the time I started grappling with a loss of epidermal elasticity, I did find other means of professional fulfillment, first with a career in TV, including cohosting the Food Network’s Dining Around and HBO’s Entertainment News, and later as a proprietor of two home decor boutiques. Then, an unlikely salve walked into my life: a charming, handsome, much younger man.

As lovely and immediate as our attraction was, it was not without obstacles. I was incredibly self-conscious about the two-decade age difference. At one point I even told him, “Look, we’re having a fabulous time, but there’s going to come a moment when we will need to part ways and for you to be with someone closer to your age.” He thought I was ridiculous. The years between us had never been a big deal for him.

Ten years later, we are still together and happily married. And while I can go on my merry way down the street without much notice, he gets checked out all the time. I get a kick out of that.

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