I loved that expression because it perfectly sums up the position that most actors find themselves in at some time or other – sometimes a job ticks the financial box, sometimes the prestige one; and sometimes a role comes along that just personally resonates and excites the imagination.
Earlier this year I was sent a script of a new play by James Phillips about designer Alexander McQueen and asked if I would like to play the part of his friend and mentor Isabella Blow. The producers weren’t sure if I knew much about her; would I like some background material sent over? No need! I knew a lot about style icon Issie Blow – she was one of those figures who had hovered over fashion and media (in her outlandish outfits, Philip Treacy hats and blood-red lipstick) for most of my formative years, and she had always fascinated me. Here was an opportunity to immerse myself in a character and find a way of becoming her.
The wonderful Stephen Wight had been cast as Lee “Alexander” McQueen and after a brutal haircut proved to look the image of the man he was playing. I on the other hand, with my long mane of blond thick hair and statuesque curvy figure, didn’t come close to resembling tiny Isabella, with her large pale blue eyes, dark cropped bob and self-described “combine harvester teeth”.
Stephen and I had a long coffee–break chat on the first day of rehearsal, about the enormous responsibility we both felt about honouring these two British style legends and preserving their memory. We were acutely aware that both “Lee” and “Issie” (to their friends, although Issie NEVER called Lee by his first name, only Alexander, because “it made him sound… more”) had passed over as a result of shock suicides. Issie in 2007 when, after a number of flawed attempts, she finally did take her own life in a slow and painful manner, drinking an enormous dose of weed killer. Lee, already suffering from depression, took Issie’s death incredibly hard. He was inconsolable. The further loss of his beloved mother to cancer shortly after plunged him into despair. He hung himself with his own belt the night before his mother’s funeral, three years after Issie’s passing. The fashion and art worlds were rocked to the core.
Each of them left a huge footprint on the world. Lee by the sheer breadth, scope, and brilliance of his designs, tailoring and runway “art” shows. Issie through her style, vivacity, ability to discover and promote talent, and sheer presence.
But how did I go about approaching playing this woman, much loved and much remembered. As an actor I am acutely aware that I am not an impressionist. I knew my job was not to make people leave the theatre marvelling at what a brilliant facsimile copy of the woman I had managed to achieve on stage. I felt that my job was to find the essence of the woman, a certain truth; a version of Isabella Blow necessarily filtered through my own interpretation, but a truthful interpretation none the less.
There is surprisingly very little film footage of Issie out there on the web, so much of my research was through reading everything I could get my hands on and listening to what other people had to say about her. Weirdly, people whom I had been friends with for years turned out to have known Issie well. One of the mums at my daughter’s school, whom I adored as a fabulous Yummy Mummy, turned out to have been a major part of Lee and Issie’s world and had spent many weekends at Isabella’s marital country estate, Hilles. Another friend had been at college with Lee, and early on in his career, as a wannabe young designer, had briefly felt the laser of Issie’s piqued interest when she invited him in for a coffee at her office at Vogue. Many people told me about her laughter, her need to be centre stage, her passion for anyone and anything she believed in. And her warmth. One friend told me that when she was a young journalist, and effectively an ignored tea girl at Tatler, it was only Isabella who would come up every morning and ask her how she was. Kindness was her watchword. A very established designer sat with me in the bar after a performance, once the play was up and running, and told me how Issie had come up to him at a club one day and said, “Well, you’re the most interesting person in the room, tell me all about yourself and how I can help you.”
Born Isabella Delves Broughton, she was the eldest child of Major Sir Evelyn Delves Broughton, a military officer, and his second wife, Helen. Issie knew what it was to belong to Britain’s highest echelons, yet be part of a family with scandal behind it and no money in front of it. She also had the life-changing childhood trauma of being the only other person present when her toddler brother drowned in the family pond. Tragedy and fear of poverty dogged Issie her whole life. With no financial assistance, she made her own way through charisma and force of will. In the 1980s, she became Anna Wintour’s right-hand woman at Vogue, New York. Whilst chaotic at keeping budgets and paperwork in check (a flaw that would impact negatively in the years to come), she was stylishly flamboyant and well-connected, with an enviable eye for upcoming talent. She became part of Warhol’s entourage for a while and close to the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Issie had buckets of charm. She would lose high-profile job after high-profile job (Tatler, Sunday Times Style, Vogue UK) through sheer erraticism. But without her there would be fewer great British fashion icons. She championed Philip Treacy before he had even graduated, asking him to design her wedding headwear; she sat on the floor at Alexander’s graduation show and bombarded the young student with calls at his mother’s house, until he finally gave in and met her. She promptly bought every single piece in his first collection, in instalments over two years. She glimpsed a young Sophie Dahl crying on the steps outside her house one wet afternoon and persuaded her to become a model. She instigated the careers of Julien Macdonald, Stella Tennant and many more. She was style and drama personified. “I cannot even speak to someone who does not wear lipstick,” she would declare. “I feel naked without a hat”.
I fell in love with Issie. Who gave so much and yet often felt so let down and betrayed by her “discoveries”. She enabled them to have a career and to monetise their creativity. Yet she was unable to monetise her own particular skill. She was able to build up those she loved but was unable to build up herself.
What I discovered through playing Issie every night in my black bob, fabulous hats and blood-red lipstick was a woman who loved life, who loved people, who loved fashion and all who sailed in her, yet was bitterly disappointed that by the age of 48 it didn’t seem to love her back. Her love for her Alexander remained with her until her dying day despite the complications and disspointments that friendship also brought.
In the play, Issie returns as a ghost and we found (the writer, director and I), that in this fictional version, she had come to terms with herself and her sadnesses. She was at peace, and it was a little like an anti-Marley’s ghost had come to visit her Alexander, to show him that perhaps, whilst his death was inevitability, he must choose to live life and live every day to the full. She certainly did.