At age 19, China Machado ran away with the most famous bullfighter in the world. What followed that impulsive decision was a charmed life of mystique and chic: She modeled for the great couture houses of Paris and then made fashion history as the first non-Caucasian face to grace a major American magazine. Those photos were taken by Richard Avedon, and marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Machado later became an editor, a television producer and a costume designer, and she remains as gorgeous as ever. Bruce Weber and Company spent a recent winter afternoon with the icon at her Sag Harbor home, along with her husband, daughter, grandsons and friends.
"I'm coming to get you."
Uttered decades ago over the telephone, those words redirected the future of the girl then known as Noelie Dasouza Machado. “This man changed my life,” says China Machado, the woman who the girl became.
The magnetic voice belonged to Luis Miguel Dominguín, the most famous bullfighter in the world, yet unknown to the hypercurious young woman.
Then 19, Machado, the beautiful daughter of a Portuguese father and a Chinese mother, was staying with her brother in Lima, Peru. Machado’s family had settled in Argentina after fleeing what had been Shanghai’s tony French concession in the aftermath of World War II. It was both a privileged and a put-upon upbringing. Girls did everything in Shanghai, Machado recalls of the endless household chores inflicted by her stepmother (Machado’s mother had died when China was a child), so Machado loosened the tight familial hold by taking a job as a Pan Am stewardess. (Her brother, too, worked for the airline.) No doubt sensing the restlessness of this gorgeous young creature—patrician brow, endless cheekbones—the suave, lady-killing Dominguín captivated her when they met briefly at a country club where she’d gone for lunch. She was leaving, he, entering; he bumped into a tree, perhaps purposely, and they both laughed. A friend explained to Machado who he was.
The fateful follow-up phone call sealed the enchantment, and three days after, she departed with him for Mexico, leaving behind a scandalized family from whom she would long be estranged, and ahead of her a life of unimaginable glamour.
Nearly six decades later, Machado’s cultural imprint is far more than that of international girlfriend; she became a cultural icon to the fashion obsessed, the first non-Caucasian model to appear in a major American publication. She later expanded her CV, first as an editor at Harper’s Bazaar, and then as a television producer, film costumer, sweater designer, retailer and gallery owner.
A visitor to Machado’s waterfront home in Sag Harbor may be invited to watch one of the countless DVDs already compiled (the process continues) from mountains of photographs, film reels and videos of her family, her loves, her various careers. But the chicly eccentric Fifties house, its walls covered in Asian-inspired murals, is no Sunset Boulevard. A vibrant woman, Machado keeps in constant motion. She painted the living room murals shortly after the death of the other great mentor in her life—though not, she stresses, a lover—Richard Avedon. “I had to get it out,” she says. She makes most of her own clothes—her aunts in Shanghai taught her how to sew; she learned the finer points of construction merely by paying attention while part of Givenchy’s cabine in the Fifties—as well as all the curtains, slipcovers and even bedding for the house. Yet she attributes that high-craft, high-quality quotient to something other than creativity: “I’m practical. I see something, and I do it.” She entertains at home for groups both big and small, doing all the cooking herself. She gardens. She travels—most recently to India in January. She just sent off the first draft of her autobiography, I Was Always Running After the Laughter, to her agent. She is an attentive wife, mother and grandmother. And despite her protestations that the word ever applied, she still looks gorgeous, the remarkable Eurasian features—which made her both a sensation and a curiosity when she first marked history in front of Avedon’s lens—perfectly intact well into her 70s. (Forthrightness has its limits; she draws the line at confirming her age.)