China Machado Looks Back on a Groundbreaking, Glamorous Life and Career

The legendary model and Avedon muse still has it. During an afternoon at her Sag Harbor home, she looked back at her friendships, her fights, her successes and her romances.

Photo by Getty Images.

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.)

Still, Machado remains very much a product of her past. Until now she has hesitated to discuss the juicier details for fear of exploitation. And colorful they are—so much so that as late as last December, she waffled on whether her book should focus more on the exotic family history or on her own quite scintillating exploits that started with that luncheon in Lima. (The first draft, she e-mails later, “starts in Shanghai with some references to my mother’s family and ends here in my house in Sag Harbor.”)

“He was brilliant; he was funny, handsome,” Machado recalls of Dominguín. “[I was] swept away. Of course, he swept away 10 million women, also. But it wasn’t a one-night stand. It lasted quite a long time.”

The relationship exposed her to the world of the bullfight, of which she had known nothing. “It had all the romance, the mystery, pageantry, which at this time I didn’t know.” And a cast of characters to match, worthy of a Hemingway novel. But then, Hemingway observed Dominguín’s bullfighting family relentlessly, and would soon chronicle his fierce rivalry with his brother-in-law, Antonio Ordóñez, in a Life magazine series, later published as The Dangerous Summer.

Part of the matador’s inner circle was his brother, who was also his best friend and became something of a companion-protector to Machado. Though married with children, “he was wonderful to me,” she says. “He kept me company, brought me places when Miguel couldn’t.” And there was “the little dwarf,” who “was like his jester. He was a bullfighting aficionado, and he worked in the national museum in Madrid. But whenever there was a big group, he traveled with us.”

Travel was constant, and along the way the couple spent time with a who’s who of the cultural elite of the day, many whose photos grace the walls of Machado’s den. She found Picasso “charming, flirtatious, old.” But not so Errol Flynn, whom she met at a lunch on his boat. If the vessel was glossy, she saw its owner as more slippery still. On board were his 17-year-old girlfriend and the girl’s mother. Flynn was “a punk,” Machado says, and the girl, “what you call in London a scrubber.” A visit to another boat afforded an introduction to its owner, Revlon founder Charles Revson, “a typical businessman—charming.” (Incidentally, much later she would, for 17 years, style the Revlon commercials shot by Avedon.) Machado met producers, actors, artists. “All these people. I was just there. What can I tell you?” she muses. “It wasn’t that I was running around dancing with them.” Which was for the better, as Dominguín was, “you know,”—Machado nods her head—“very jealous.”

And peripatetic. “I don’t know where we didn’t go in this year and a half, almost two years,” she says. “And he would come and go, and disappear and come again. It was a nightmare and a wonder at the same time. I was in a dream. Famous people around all the time—parties, traveling, going to the country­—I mean, it never stopped.”

But it did. Machado was well aware of Dominguín’s reputation; she saw daily the way women fell all over him. “Telephone calls, letters. You’d go to a party, and they’d completely surround you and practically push you out of the way.”

Yet he apparently stayed relatively faithful, until a chance meeting with a woman as famous to those in the know for her voracious sexual appetite as she was to the larger public for her screen-queen credentials. At the time Ava Gardner was still married—on paper, at least—to Frank Sinatra. The matador and his girlfriend met the actress at a party, and Gardner made an immediate play. “She would go to bed with a waiter! Completely on a whim,” Machado says. “Can you imagine the most beautiful woman in the world coming in and going after your guy like this?” Machado grabs the air with her hands. “Not easy. It was a nightmare. I was a kid; these people were world champions.”

China Machado wears Alexander McQueen’s silk satin dress, to order, 212.645.1597. Tony Duquette earrings; Nicholas Varney bracelet.

Though she ultimately lost Dominguín to Gardner, whatever bitterness lingered paled next to the upside of his influence. “It was so intense, an opening of a life that I [would not have] had,” Machado says. “I mean, I would still be in South America.” And, she says, after the paparazzi had made a huge fuss over her at the Cannes Film Festival, “he said to me, ‘You know, Paris is going to make you a star.’”

He was right. Machado moved to the City of Light, where, as at the Lima country club, kismet struck again. A friend named Olga—“a tall Chilean girl, completely insane,” who modeled for Jacques Fath—offered a place to stay. The two went to a cocktail party where a woman who worked for Cristóbal Balenciaga asked if Machado was interested in modeling. Flattered but noncommittal, she left the city soon thereafter to summer in Saint-Tropez. Back in Paris in September, she followed up at the house of Balenciaga, only to learn that Monsieur Balenciaga had returned to Spain, but word was that Hubert de Givenchy had an opening for a model. She walked in for an interview, and was mistaken for a “replacement model” for a sick girl. “They grabbed me,” Machado says. “A girl put me in clothes and threw me out onto the runway. When I finished that show, Givenchy said, ‘Would you like to join the company?’ That’s how I started modeling.”

Somewhere along the line Noelie Machado decided that her very Catholic, born–on–Christmas Day name did little to enhance her unusual look and her burgeoning career on the haute circuit. In South America she had heard the Indian girls referred to derogatorily as chinitas. She decided to turn the slur into a moniker that pulsed with exotica. China (pronounced CHEE-na) Machado was born.

In those days couture houses had cabines, gloriously glam sororities of genetically blessed young women, all swan necks and high attitude, who worked exclusively for each house. The models spent endless time together and became close; the couturier took on a mythic aura. Machado calls Givenchy “marvelous, the most aristocratic. [He was] fantastically classy. You could be naked in front of him, and you wouldn’t feel anything [awkward].” And he tolerated none of today’s bad-girl model shenanigans. “[There was] silence in that house,” Machado recalls. “No talking.”

Machado stayed at Givenchy for two and a half years, inciting the couturier’s pique when she dared to freelance, which paid more. Upon leaving the house, she modeled for Christian Dior and the Italian couturiers in Rome, Florence and Milan. For a department store in Germany, she took a gig with the title “ambassadress of elegance.” And despite initially missing the boat, she eventually clocked some runway time for Balenciaga. “There was no one like him,” she says. “He had the most mischievous little face, the most incredible piercing eyes. Everybody was, like, in reverence, practically bowing when he came in. But he had a lot of fun.” She still cherishes the time when, after his show in Madrid, he stunned her with the offer to “go and choose a dress you want.” To this day she regrets her mundane selection: a black number. “I could have gotten a wonderful coat! I didn’t want to get one of the grand dresses—where the hell was I going to go?”

Plenty of places, it turned out. Machado continued to enjoy a jetset lifestyle. While men were surely drawn to her beauty and charm, she stresses that it was her self-reliance that made her especially attractive. “After Miguel, I decided that I was never going to be dependent upon a man again,” she says. Now love would be on her terms, approached with the attitude that in her life, the door would always be open—and closed—at her discretion. That resolve proved effective. “I broke up every romance,” she notes, “with the exception of Miguel. I’ve never not lived with a man. Not even two weeks,” she adds in matter-of-fact fashion. “I’ve had great luck with men.”

Just as Olga had provided entrée to the world of modeling, she also introduced Machado to actor Martin LaSalle, the man who would become her first husband. Together initially for five years, they married in 1957, after a yearlong break—for her fling with a Hollywood superstar. Through Oleg Cassini, for whom she had traveled to New York to work, Machado met Hollywood agent Charles Feldman. “Very big, attractive guy, big womanizer,” she says. One with a big, impressive client list. Just days after meeting Feldman, Machado was out at a nightclub and saw the agent sitting at a table with William Holden. “Charles comes over to the table, and says, ‘Listen, why don’t you come over to our table and have a drink? At least come for five minutes.’ So he introduces me to Bill Holden, and that was it.” The two dated for almost a year. “He was a wonderful man, but no one who I could have anything in common with,” she says. “I’m not an outdoor girl. I can barely swim. I don’t ride a horse.”

Nor is she a drinker. Holden, on the other hand, traveled with a metal suitcase fitted “with foam shapes for bottles, a bottle of vodka, a bottle of scotch and, um, Black Daniel’s?” (Jack Daniel’s, she’s corrected.) “And then we would go to the hotel—‘Room service, please bring up two bottles.’ I mean, he gets up in the morning! Barely brushes his teeth!” Yet, she adds, “I never saw him drunk. I saw him a little drunk, but not really.” She then contradicts herself with a recollection of being on the set of The Horse Soldiers, directed by John Ford and starring Holden and John Wayne. “They were all so drunk, they could hardly get on the set. They drank all the time! Every night after the shoot. I don’t know how they got to finish.”

Holden, separated from his wife at the time, was much older than Machado, and as the father of two sons, he didn’t want any more children. (She says he’d had a vasectomy.) In due course she went back to LaSalle, and stayed married to him until 1965.

An actor and the son of a diplomat, LaSalle, too, traveled with a high-octane crowd, which included Porfirio Rubirosa. Once the notorious playboy welcomed the couple into his circle, every night was a party. “He would go to a place, and he’d get the whole band around the table,” Machado recalls of the merriment. “Everybody sang, and everybody drank until three o’clock in the morning, and then we’d go to [a restaurant] opposite the George V [hotel] that was open 24 hours, for breakfast. I don’t even know how I lived through all those years.”

Heady times, but eventually Machado and LaSalle settled in New York. In short order she met Diana Vreeland, and through Vreeland, Avedon. He booked Machado immediately for a Harper’s Bazaar shoot. It would be 20 years before she learned that he had had to dig in his heels when the publisher objected to Machado’s multiracial glamour. In the end, the threat of losing Avedon proved too strong, and the story ran in the February 1959 issue. “That was a big step forward in terms of opening up the image of what a woman could be, of who could be fashionable and how fashion was going to relate to people other than its usual Caucasian base,” says Carol Squiers, curator of New York’s International Center of Photography and cocurator of the “Avedon Fashion 1944–2000” exhibit, held there last summer.

But Machado was not just fashion’s first breakout nonwhite model—she was a spectacular model, period. Squiers describes the famous Avedon picture of her staring into the camera, flicking cigarette ash. “She’s this sort of soigné, devil-may-care woman who’s all fixed up and very proper, but she also has this slight attitude, like: You don’t like it? Tough. He created a really wonderful body of work with her.”

The photographs continue to resonate today. Famed makeup artist François Nars recently published Nars 15X15, a book celebrating the 15th anniversary of his company, Nars cosmetics. In it are photographs he took of 15 current personalities, each an homage to an iconic image. The book’s most outrageous moment depicts Marc Jacobs in heavy makeup and dark nail polish, after an Avedon picture of Machado. “She had this incredible way that mixed elegance with nonchalance,” Nars explains. “Maybe it’s the sophistication of that era that will never happen again. That type of model, that type of photographer­—there’s an incredible perfection. It doesn’t come close to those days, what we’re doing today in fashion.”

With Avedon’s perfect eye turned on Machado’s remarkable beauty, the pictures were exquisite. Yet she took it all in stride. To her, modeling was merely a job, and if the camera flash loved her, it bounced off a rock-solid glass ceiling. “I would never become a big, big model in the commercial sense because I was such a type; you couldn’t use me in everything,” she says. “Dick gave me the impression that nothing more would happen to me as a model.” So when Harper’s Bazaar editor in chief Nancy White called—literally interrupting a fashion shoot—to offer Machado a fashion editor’s post, she took the job.

During this time she had two daughters, Blanche and Emmanuelle, but her marriage to LaSalle ended when she fell in love with a friend of his, a New York–based writer for Paris Match. “It was just awful,” she recalls. “I was such a bitch. But we had already grown [apart].” Her endless hours clocked with Avedon had strained the marriage severely. “He was so close to me, one of the most influential men in my life, without being a lover,” she says. “I never went to bed with Dick. But I was with him every day for about eight years, looking at the pictures or working with him or meeting with him or traveling with him or going to Paris with him.”

When not with Avedon, Machado was getting to know U.S. designers and forming opinions about their work. Having been educated in fashion at the haute couture in Paris, she often found American fashion wanting: “I wouldn’t say [that it wasn’t] legitimate. I just thought it didn’t have enough quality. Geoffrey Beene definitely did. I didn’t think Bill Blass’s clothes fit very well. They were a little stiff.” She knew little about Calvin Klein (“He was in the lower echelon,” which was not her market) but observed enough to conclude that with his pea jackets, “he was copying Yves Saint Laurent.” Ralph Lauren was “bringing us ties for men’s wear. So I wasn’t paying too much attention to him.”

As for bright spots, although Giorgio Sant’Angelo didn’t know how to drape a dress, Machado says, he was “a genius, the best accessory man I ever met in my life.” Rudi Gernreich might not have been “the greatest designer in the world, but he did what was now. I loved his mind.” And she “loved Oscar [de la Renta]. I love Oscar. Not only charming, but he makes a woman look beautiful.”

When speaking of Halston, she does not qualify his talents, citing his superior eye, great taste and distinctive look. She became friendly with him, and they socialized on occasion, even if his gay posse “wasn’t my thing at all. He started this cult kind of thing; he was one of the first. He had an entourage wherever he went. And Sant’Angelo began to do that too. And then [Gianni] Versace and everybody else started doing it.”

At the time Machado arrived in New York, legendary Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow was retiring, “kicking and screaming.” The top spot on the masthead stayed in the family, going to Snow’s niece, White. “She was a great lady,” Machado maintains, but “completely overshadowed by Diana Vreeland and her aunt…. One of the reasons [Vreeland] left was that she wanted to be editor in chief.” Despite having been passed over, Vreeland supported Machado’s shift to an editor’s position. “She sent me flowers,” Machado says. “She said, ‘I had 27 years at Bazaar, wonderful years, and I hope that you have them too.’”

As Machado was getting established at Harper’s Bazaar, another editor, Grace Mirabella, was on the rise in a similar position at Vogue. A 1967 feature on the two editors in Women’s Wear Daily, W’s sister publication, offers a window onto their very different personalities and styles: Machado, open and free-talking; Mirabella, far more guarded. For example, each was asked what the other’s magazine stood for. Machado noted Vogue’s “jazziness. It has a piquancy—a little like a big dinner with thousands of different plates.” About Harper’s Bazaar, Mirabella’s was a nonresponse: “I’d prefer not to answer.” And when queried about the perfect hypothetical magazine launch, Machado suggested “a weekly. It might not have the glossiness of Vogue or the quality of Bazaar, but it would have the beat of what is happening in the world.” Mirabella, on the other hand, liked Vogue “so much the way it is, I can’t think of another publication that I’d like to do.”

“I thought she was great,” Machado says of Mirabella. “She was smart; she knew her business. Obviously, she thought she was going to be the head of the magazine.” Perhaps because of that, “she was very political. She was always afraid of what she might say that might go wrong. I didn’t give a damn.”

Machado adored the creative side of being a fashion editor, particularly working with Avedon, who, she says, made every subject feel at ease and “like the most beautiful person in the world.” Two memorable portrait sittings: Elizabeth Taylor’s and Judy Garland’s. Machado was thrilled at the prospect of working with Taylor yet fretted over how to dress her. When Taylor showed up, her conversation—“What a mouth: “Everything was ‘What the f— is it,’ ‘Get this c—sucker…’”—was startling in contrast to her dowdy appearance, Machado says. “She had this big head, this big chest and two little legs that came out at the bottom—she looked like a robin. [But] put her in front of a camera, make her up, and suddenly there was magic.” To do her part in creating that magic, Machado placed the actress in a feathered Halston headdress. Garland, whom Machado had met through Kay Thompson (author of the Eloise books, and Liza Minnelli’s godmother), also had a nonmodel body type—tiny, “with tits that hung down to her knees. I almost died. She had nice legs. I think we put a black sweater on her and leggings or something, so she could cross her legs or something.”

It was Thompson who provided Machado the invitation to one of the most memorable parties of her life. The two had met, with Thompson’s “taking a fancy” to Machado, she says. One day Thompson called to inquire about possible venues for a party that she wanted to throw for Noël Coward, and Machado suggested Avedon’s studio on Broadway, at 53rd Street. The guest list included Garland, Lena Horne, Lenny Hayden, Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier, Tammy Grimes, Christopher Plummer and Roddy McDowall. Thompson installed two grand pianos in the space, facing each other. “Kay played the piano, and Lenny Hayden played the piano. Lena Horne gets up and sings,” Machado says, delighting in the memory. “Judy Garland gets up and sings. Richard Burton and Laurence Olivier begin to recite Shakespeare. In my life I have never been to a party like that again. I’m sorry I didn’t write down everybody’s name. I was in such awe.”

While Machado loved socializing on her own terms, she did not take to the increasing expectation at Harper’s Bazaar that she should be “going out with all of Seventh Avenue.” With her contract expiring and her interests veering more toward television and film, she left the magazine and went on to a myriad of endeavors. She produced fashion TV shows, including one for NBC called The Wonderful World of Pizzazz, as well as runway shows around the country, and worked as a costume designer for several films.

In 1988 she was lured back to magazines by Frances Lear, who, flush with millions from her divorce from TV producer Norman Lear, wanted a project of her own. Though Machado initially had zero interest in returning to editorial, she thought Lear’s concept of a namesake publication for “the woman who wasn’t born yesterday” was a terrific idea and, after much courting, took the job. The magazine faced enough challenges—for one, convincing photographers to shoot women over 55 (Lear’s original entry point for models)—without having to deal with an impossible boss. But unfortunately, Lear quickly gained the reputation of being, as Machado puts it, “the craziest woman in the world.” It would come out later that Lear had long suffered from manic depression.

“She started insulting people. She’d love the pictures one day, and the next she’d say, ‘S—, s—, s—!’” Machado recalls, shaking her head. “We had 17 art directors in five years. She would hire an art director, fire him the next day, pay for the whole contract.” Photographer Art Kane worked for the magazine, and Lear pushed Machado to convince him to sign on as art director: “She gave him an enormous contract. And one day he came in and he said, ‘I don’t give a s— about you. And you’re a horrible woman.’ It was like, pffttt! He quit after two weeks. It was absolutely crazy.” Though the magazine was a debacle from the start, Lear managed to keep it going for six years. With a contract and a stake in the business, Machado outlasted most staffers, finally leaving several months before it folded, in 1994.

By then she had turned to buying real estate, primarily on Long Island, eventually moving there full-time. In 1991 she opened Country Bazaar, a gourmet shop in Water Mill that featured a far-flung assortment of gastronomic delights as well as gift and tabletop items, like the lazy Susan on her table now as she serves lunch. She designed a line of the spinners in glass­— “very thin so they don’t wobble”­—and had them produced in Mexico. “The most practical thing in the world,” she notes. “Especially with Chinese food, when you have 10 dishes.” She later converted the store to a gallery, which she ran for two years. And she continued to entertain, meeting her current husband, Riccardo Rosa, when he arrived with a friend at a party she gave. “He came through the door and never left,” Machado says. That was 32 years ago. The pair marked their 25th anniversary with a big party, and married in 2003. Why? Because her grandsons, Malcolm and Monty, thought that at Machado’s and Rosa’s ages, the word “boyfriend” was a hoot. “I said, ‘That’s enough. Now [say] your grandfather.’”

Just another practical solution of the type Machado has orchestrated her whole life. “I think it’s survival,” she says. “That’s the way I am with men, with everything. I’m going to survive.”

China Machado

China Machado wears Alexander McQueen’s silk satin dress, to order, 212.645.1597. Tony Duquette earrings; Nicholas Varney bracelet.

Photographer: Bruce Weber Styled: Camilla Nickerson
Photographer: Bruce Weber Styled: Camilla Nickerson
Photographer: Bruce Weber Styled: Camilla Nickerson

Moschino’s embellished silk jacket, at select Saks Fifth Avenue stores, 800.347.9177;; Tao’s cotton lace blouse and cotton pants, at Comme des Garçons, New York.

Photographer: Bruce Weber Styled: Camilla Nickerson

Yves Saint Laurent’s cotton crepe dress, at select Yves Saint Laurent boutiques, Tony Duquette earrings and necklace.

Photographer: Bruce Weber Styled: Camilla Nickerson

A trio of Machado’s favorite paintings, artists unknown.

Photographer: Bruce Weber Styled: Camilla Nickerson

Dolce & Gabbana’s silk jacket and silk chiffon blouse, at select Dolce & Gabbana boutiques, Philip Treacy London Couture Collection hat; Eloise Corr Danch paper flowers; Verdura earrings; Tony Duquette necklace.

Photographer: Bruce Weber Styled: Camilla Nickerson

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