Actor Robyn Malcolm Wants Women Of All Ages Celebrated In Fashion
The well-known New Zealand actor speaks out against ageism in fashion and film as she poses for a new Lonely lingerie campaign
Someone once asked Cher whether she thought she was too old to sing rock 'n' roll. Her response? "You'd better check with Mick Jagger."
Whether in music, television, film or fashion, ageism — particularly when it comes to women — is real. The fashion industry is known to be especially enamoured with the fountain of youth, from runway shows to advertising, and women over a certain age are often forgotten.
Sex may sell but youth is even more profitable — and Robyn Malcolm is over it.
One of our most well-known faces on screen and on stage, 54-year-old Robyn recently swapped acting for modelling for a day to be photographed by Harry Were for local lingerie brand Lonely.
For her, it was a conscious decision to represent an older generation of women that she sees is largely missing from fashion imagery, and as someone who overcame negative body image and eating disorders in her teens she knows how valuable this is.
"Normal looking women over 40 are just entirely left out of the whole fashion scene, and I think that's not only unfairly biased but commercially insane," she says, and it's clear this is a subject she feels very passionate about. "It's a challenging experience for most women to go into a fashion store and just see photograph after photograph of tall, skinny, young women, wearing clothes they're supposedly meant to buy."
It shouldn’t be radical to see an older woman joyfully embracing her body and revelling in her own sensuality, but it's a rare sight indeed in the world of fashion. Lonely is an exception, known to feature women from a diverse range of sizes, ethnicities and ages in its campaigns.
Robyn, most famous for matriarchal roles like Cheryl in TV series Outrageous Fortune, says, "It's absolutely about representation. And also, I bang on about this stuff all the time, so I thought I might as well walk the walk, given the fact that the opportunity appeared. Women in my age group being celebrated in the world of fashion has such a positive impact, and it makes sense commercially doesn't it?"
Asked when she first became aware of the world's obsession with youth, Robyn thinks about it for a few moments. "It's one of those ones we've always known, isn’t it," she says. "I was so conscious of the power you have as a young woman." A noticeable change has happened within the last 10 years with the way in which she's addressed reflecting that currency of youth slipping away. "I think somebody called me 'dear' once in a shop. And I remember thinking — 'eh?!'"
Things are slightly better than they once were. Last year, the Business of Fashion reported a rise in older models and influencers being featured in magazines and high-fashion campaigns, calling it a "Greynnaisance". 2015 was cited as a turning point, with then-80-year-old Joan Didion appearing as the face of Celine, Joni Mitchell fronting Saint Laurent, and 73-year-old Lauren Hutton starring in a Calvin Klein lingerie ad in 2017.
However, it must be noted that the proportion of older women of colour and truly diverse body shapes being included is still very low.
This year at New Zealand Fashion Week, there was a marked uptick in shows featuring silver-haired models, our most well known being 59-year-old Mercy Brewer and 44-year-old Darya Bing, plus newcomers 54-year-old Rewa Harker and 62-year-old Gayleen Hamilton.
The latter two models are represented by Silverfox Mgmt New Zealand, a talent agency started in Australia and owned by Rebecca Swaney here. While other agencies might have one or two models over 30 years old on their books, Silverfox Mgmt exclusively represents men and women over this age.
As an agent, Rebecca is noticing a shift but says sometimes it can be tokenistic. "One thing I find that happens, and there have been a few brands in New Zealand that have done it, they use older models, but it’s because there's that shock, that quirky side to their campaign," she muses. "I want my models to be used because they’re beautiful women — that’s it."
She name checks Lonely as a brand that is featuring older women in an authentic way. "There could have been a time when people thought it was quirky, but that’s gone now. It's just gorgeous women of all ages rocking out in gorgeous underwear."
Another factor in diverse representation is it's bankable. Rachael Crosby, a senior strategist at events, PR and digital agency Darkhorse, is well-versed in this, having researched how advertising tries to relate to affluent women in the luxury sector.
"Affluent women control the most spending power of any other consumer group," she says. "That counts for whether they're single or if they’re in a relationship, which makes them so valuable to marketers." While this is a slightly different market than older women, there is of course some crossover, and Rachael has noticed antiquated thought patterns in advertising that "nothing good happens after you're 40".
"A lot of advertising tries to get that nostalgic feeling to sell things to older women — it's about trying to feel like you did when you were 30," she says. "No one's actually taken the time to say 'What does the [older] modern woman want?' A lot of people feel they're living their best life well into their 50s, but no one's really capturing that confidence of being who you are now, it's always trying to be who you were."
It's obvious when brands try and feature imagery of older women in order to appear inclusive on the surface, she says, but if it's not reflecting the values of that demographic in other ways, it's a band-aid solution for a bigger issue.
Rachael believes the brands that are winning genuinely want change, and not just for the bottom line.
Robyn Malcolm says it might be easy to say women of any age should be able to find value in themselves outside of what society deems to be attractive or desirable, but the fact is a high percentage of women have to battle a permanent sense of wrongness when it comes to fashion. "Anyone should be able to enjoy it fully, and it's so much fun! There are lots of women I know who couldn't give a toss about that stuff, but I also know lots of women who do — I love that stuff."
Interestingly, her profession has had a positive impact on her self-esteem and confidence. While at drama school, Robyn would model for life drawing classes, which helped her see her body in a more artistic and liberated way.
"One of the great upsides of what I do is I get to pretend to be somebody else all the time, and I've been fortunate enough to pretend to be people who were much more confident than I was," says Robyn. "Over the years it proved to me that the power of changing the way in which we view ourselves is bound up entirely with positive re-messaging and practised self-adoration."
Women are always being told how to behave, she says, whether it's what to wear, do or say, and this is solidified by stereotypes that pigeonhole women into specific roles.
There's this idea that when you reach a certain age you should be dignified, elegant and regal, she says. "It's either that, or you’re a funny old granny who isn’t taken seriously anymore. I think the time of the crone is coming."
Recently Robyn made headlines for saying Amazon's remake of The Lord of the Rings should cast a female Gandalf. "We talk about the venerable old man — that's been around for centuries. Whereas the old woman is the granny who's telling you to take your hanky with you."
It's either that, or she's the evil witch, says Robyn. "I think the crone, the wise old woman, should be top of the pile. And I think she should be wearing lingerie."
ROBYN MALCOM ON…
Ageism in the film and television industry:
"I’ve now been in the position three times in the last [few years] where I’ve been put up for a role for a character who’s in her 50s, and a 30-something actress gets cast, and they change the age of the character because people can’t cope quite so much with women my age in central roles so much.
I think that’s changing, and getting better – I think there are some really, great examples, the Frances McDormands of the world. But I know of young actresses told by wardrobe departments they need to lose weight or they need to change the way they look, and of course there are areas of my industry are much worse than others. I guess the more ‘bubblegum’ end of the spectrum is much worse, whereas stuff that’s a bit more gritty and real and solid drama, they’re less concerned about it. But, having said that, they still are!
There’s a hell of a prejudice. And that needs to be looked at really deeply as well, and I hope it will - I mean there seems to be a real feminist swell in my industry at the moment and I hope that impacts on everything, on the ageism, the lookism, the number of women across the board young and old who actually get to work."
Who decided on the typical fashion model aesthetic:
"Well, men did. It’s interesting because I think a lot of it has become intensified in a post-feminist world. The backlash is all part of it – let’s try and disempower women as much as possible by putting up an ideal for them which is completely unattainable. Because most of those models look 12 now, and never look powerful, they always look sort of wan and floppy and bored, and a bit weak. And I’m into every conspiracy theory going when it comes to feminism and sexism, but I just think that’s a direct result of disempowering women. So, the only way I can be attractive to men or women is if I look sort of soft, and a bit starved and a bit miserable usually, and not very powerful at all - definitely not in my own boots and in my own life. I find that so tragic."
The standards for what older women are often told to wear:
"It’s going to take a big kickback and a big push-back from women of my generation and older to go 'actually, sorry but I am going to go out and wear a skirt above my knees and f**k you if you tell me I can’t just because my knees are wrinkly'."
Being naked on screen:
"There was a hilarious one when I was about 46 and I had to sign a nudity clause, and they said 'would you do that?' and I said 'of course I will' If you’re going to put someone my age who looks like me on screen naked, then I totally support you.' And they ended up putting me in lingerie. They couldn’t quite cope! And I was like 'oh, no I’m ready and willing! Away we go!”'Nope.
Eileen Aitkins, a really amazing actress, I remember her saying once: 'particularly in the business of being an actress, I’ve never understood why people are so terrified of being naked on screen. We are in the business of baring the soul, and that’s far more terrifying.' And I’ve always loved that, always."
Living without shame:
"Shame is such a massive word for us isn’t it, and I think being able to have no shame is like a nirvana of such a great place to be. Women get shamed so much in terms of their looks and their age and their size and all the rest of it, so be able to enjoy all this stuff without shame would be just a really beautiful thing, and that’s what I would help. And given that – I know that young women won’t look at me and be like 'woah, I want to look like her' but it might also say to a young woman: you don’t have to be perfect, you really don’t. In fact, lack of perfection I think is where real beauty lies."