PASSED/FAILED: Jean Shrimpton

Interview Jonathan Sale
Wednesday 27 August 1997 23:02

Jean Shrimpton, now 54, was for more than 10 years Britain's leading model. Her mini-skirted figure decorated magazine covers, the film, `Privilege', and once, to the consternation of Australian race-goers, the enclosure at the Melbourne Cup. Unlike her fellow icon, the photographer David Bailey, she turned her back on the cameras and now, as Jean Cox, she runs The Abbey Hotel, Penzance, with her husband, Michael.

First appearance? I was born in Buckinghamshire in 1942. It was war-time and there was an awful uneasy feeling; children pick up on that. There were tanks going past and, as we were near Bomber Command, the buses were always full of servicemen. At just five I went to St Bernard's Convent in High Wycombe. I was terrified of going to school. The bus stop was just outside my house and I kept running back to ask my mother, "Are you quite sure you'll be there?" - that is, to pick me up from school.

Model pupil? I was too nervous to go to the lavatory, and would usually bring home a wet parcel for my mother. Nuns are quite daunting and make you feel very guilty. With my wish to please, I learnt quite a lot - but really I was just relieved to get home to my pony, Ricky.

Second appearance? We moved house when I was about eight and I went as a day girl to St Bernard's Convent in Slough; I don't think it was connected to the High Wycombe school. They taught us very well. I think homework's mad and have not leaned on my son about it; but we did a lot of it. I was always in the top five because I was anxious to please, but I hated studying and I don't think my imagination was fired.

Superior figures? About half the teachers were nuns. It's quite strange for children to see these black figures and their flapping crucifixes. All those starving Christ figures on the Cross - and then I become a model at a time when everyone was very skinny. At the time I wasn't very interested in fashion. I'm not gregarious and I'm not very girly; I have a more masculine slant of mind.

Charity begins at school? We used to give money for babies in Africa. When you had saved half a crown [12 and a half pence], which was quite a lot of money then, you were allowed to name an African baby. Talk about politically incorrect! It wasn't racist but it was terribly condescending and naive.

True to type? I got eight O-levels and the school wanted me to go to university, but during my riding I had discovered boys, and wanted to go to London. I left school and went to a secretarial course near Marble Arch in Central London for a year. I wasn't too bad at shorthand but I was so bad at typing. A lot of nights I stayed behind trying to get my speed up: what was it, 70 words per minute? I had two weeks of work experience in a typing pool in Oxford Street; it was pretty farcical.

Model student? I got picked up at the polo in Windsor Great Park by a dirty old man who suggested modelling. Then a film director called Cy Enfield stopped me when I was taking lunch in Hyde Park; he wanted me for a film but his producer didn't. He told me I should be a model, so I went on a Lucie Clayton course which lasted about a month. It's a short course, because there's not much to learn - just how not to have a brainn

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