A muse to Avedon and Givenchy, China Machado partied with Warhol and Picasso, lost out in love to Ava Gardner, and would have celebrated her 88th birthday on Christmas Day. She was the first non-white model to appear on the front cover of Harper’s Bazaar magazine in 1959.
But she passed away last Sunday, after suffering a cardiac arrest at her home in Connecticut.
“I knew I was considered kind of exotic, if you want to use that word, in Europe, but it wasn’t any kind of a slur. So when I came here I didn’t know that“, she told New York magazine in an October 2016 interview.
Born Noelie de Souza Machado on Christmas Day 1929, in Shanghai her firebrand personality matched the outsized events of her life. The daughter of a Chinese mother and Portuguese father, Machado spent her childhood in Shanghai but fled the country with her parents in 1946 after the Japanese occupation.
Machado’s exquisite, exotic face made her the first non-white cover girl in the West. But beyond the couture houses and catwalks where she was fêted 50 years ago, she also eloped with Luis Miguel Dominguin, the famous bullfighter (who left her for Ava Gardner); enjoyed an affair with the Hollywood actor William Holden; partied in Paris with Picasso and in New York with Andy Warhol; travelled the world with Avedon, first as a model, then as a fashion editor; launched clothing lines; produced television, and raised two daughters, largely as a single mother.
“I’ve never dieted, never exercised, I eat like a pig, and I drink – mainly vodka. I still smoke, too“, she stated in a Telegraph interview, back in 2013.
As one of the first nonwhite models to gain prominence on the runway of Europe, Machado opened doors for the generations of women of color who followed. Her refined good looks quickly made her an in-demand face, but it wasn’t until she joined forces with photography legend Richard Avedon that her career became iconic.
“China Machado was one of the first great pioneers in the firmament of haute couture,” André Leon Talley, the former Vogue editor at large and the fashion and style director of i.am+, the tech firm founded by Will.i.am, wrote in an email. He added that she “made of her ethnicity something powerful. Internationally, she paved the way for diversity and other races, as well as paving the way for the rise of the black model in print and on the runway.”
Stefano Tonchi, the editor of W, said: “She was the first to put in front of the audience the idea of the otherness, bringing out memories of different cultures and fragments of other imagery. She always did it with irony, without posing, modeling or vogueing. Somehow she showed it all while dancing.”
Yes. Her legacy extends far beyond the pictures she created, and the poses she struck, to make us rethink our assumptions about what is considered beautiful, and why.