As the saying goes, You can fool the world but not your sister. Photographer Max Vadukul documents 23 famous siblings, and Lynn Hirschberg explains the dynamics of one of the most intimate—and complicated—relationships.
When I was 8 years old, over the Easter holidays my parents announced they were separating. I was stunned, but I shouldn’t have been—the marriage was a mismatch from the start. Before moving out, my father, who didn’t want the divorce, bashed around our house in a kind of primal rage. After he threw a framed photo of my mother against the wall, shattering the glass, he bellowed my name and summoned me into the den. I was terrified. My father specialized in cruel but startlingly insightful pronouncements that were meant to sear, and judging from his darkness and volatility, I expected to be annihilated. At that age, all I craved was my father’s approval, and he was in no mood for kindness. “I want you to make me a promise,” he said, beckoning me to sit next to him on the couch. “I want you to promise to take care of your sister.”
I have never been more relieved by a request. My sister, Robin, is 18 months younger than I am, and she was, and is, my favorite person. Before the divorce, we were close, but my father’s edict—delivered like a sacred oath to be followed for the rest of days—hit me hard. From then on I have felt that I am, above all else, an older sister.
This is not always easy: My sister, like all interesting people, is very complicated. Whatever the prevailing fashion demands, Robin has always maintained her own style—when everyone wears black, she wears a bright print. I use this superficial example to illustrate her stubbornness; she doesn’t bend to the rule of the crowd or to me. From her birth on, my sister has always been my greatest source of fascination: Where I was on time, she was late; where I would spend on impulse, she liked to save; where I was shy, she was naturally social. Despite these differences, we are, most important, each other’s witness to the defining moments of life. And to me, that’s what it is to be a sister.
In putting together this portfolio, we aimed to capture the intimate nature of sisters. When the Bush twins were living in the White House as America’s First Children, the world watched them grow up. Although physically and temperamentally different—blonde Jenna seemed to be more like her boisterous father, and brunette Barbara reflected the quieter, more bookish sensibilities of her mother—their closeness was always evident. The Bush girls may have grown up in public, but they always had each other; that relationship is more essential than their eight years in the White House.
A crucial trait of sisterliness is both an ability to appreciate and to ground: If you can’t applaud and tell the truth, you are shirking your responsibilities. In the case of Zoë Saldana and her sisters, Mariel and Cisely—as well as for Robyn, Lori, and Blake Lively—sisters provide both a welcoming audience and constructive criticism. That balancing dynamic extends to the closet: It could be argued that a sense of presentation begins with a sister. Certainly in the case of the Traina, Fendi, and Brandolini girls, style is part of their bond.
But it doesn’t end with borrowed shoes or evening gowns. I’m sure that none of these siblings could imagine life alone. My sister and I may spar about subjects large and small, but we always understand each other. At the root of sisterhood is that shared knowledge, that unique love.