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Last Updated: Friday, 7 April 2006, 14:07 GMT 15:07 UK
Audrey Hepburn: Why the fuss?
By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's
She's again topped a 'most beautiful' poll. Yet many fans weren't even born when she started making movies. What's the enduring appeal of the original waif?

Audrey Hepburn. Lovely, wasn't she? And her old-school glamour has beaten off modern day pin-ups - she's been voted the most beautiful woman of all time in a poll for New Woman magazine. But why is she so popular, among film fans and fashionistas alike?

Today the Hepburn look has been around so long - and is so imitated - that it's easy to forget that when she starred in 1953's Roman Holiday, she broke the mould of Hollywood leading lady in one deft swoop.

With her elfin features, and tall and slender to near-androgyny, Hepburn arrived at a time when to be a star meant curves, curves and more curves - "Jell-O on springs," as Marilyn Monroe's character in Some Like it Hot was memorably described.

That movie's director, Billy Wilder, was also in thrall to the willowy Hepburn, Monroe's polar opposite: "After so many drive-in waitresses becoming movie stars, there has been this real drought, when along come class; somebody who actually went to school, can spell, maybe even plays the piano."

The photographer Leo Fuchs, himself a Hollywood legend who spent 20 years shooting on-set photos of film icons of the 50s and 60s, says she was a true original.

"Audrey was a singular person, there ain't many like her. 'Beautiful woman' is very difficult to explain, but she certainly was beautiful. She was very enticing at all times. She was a talented actress, and very personable," he told BBC News Magazine from his home in France.

Effortless grace

Born in Brussels in 1929, Audrey Kathleen Hepburn-Ruston was the daughter of John Victor Hepburn-Ruston and Ella van Heemstra, a baroness. "She is one of us," the Queen Mother is said to have told daughter Elizabeth after meeting her.

Once a dancer...
Educated at boarding school in England in the 1930s, she spent World War II at the Arnhem Conservatory in the Netherlands.

She then went on to study dance, hoping to follow in the footsteps of Margot Fonteyn. But at 5ft 7in, she was deemed too tall to be a prima ballerina (although she would be dwarfed by her successor as America's sweetheart, Julia Roberts, who says she is "too tall to be a girl" at 5ft 9in). Yet she never lost the poise and graceful movements of a dancer.

By the age of 19, Hepburn was a chorus girl on the West End stage, and in 1951 she moved into film, playing roles such as "cigarette girl" and "hotel receptionist".

She was not to remain a bit player for long. Spotted by the French writer Colette, she was cast in the title role of Gigi on Broadway, a star turn which landed her the lead in 1954's Roman Holiday. Her sparkling performance as a reluctant princess who falls for a commoner earned her an Oscar for Best Actress, her first of five such nominations.

The definitive Hepburn role came in 1961 - good-time girl Holly Golightly in the Truman Capote scripted confection, Breakfast at Tiffany's. Her line "how do I look?" was later sampled by the DJ Dimitri From Paris; Une Very Stylish Fille soundtracked many a mid-1990s fashion show.

My Fair Lady followed in 1964, in which the actress underwent the reverse transformation to Eliza Doolittle, from posh to not. By the late 60s, she had moved into darker, less glamorous fare, playing a blind woman in the thriller Wait Until Dark.

I've known Unicef a long time, ever since they came to the aid of children like myself, famished victims of the German occupation
Audrey Hepburn
After that her film work rate slowed; her last role was as an angel in Steven Spielberg's Always in 1989. She died four years later of colon cancer, aged 63.

But Hepburn was far from idle, devoting her energies to humanitarian work. She became a Unicef goodwill ambassador in 1988. For she had first-hand experience of deprivation growing up in occupied Holland - her naturally slender frame was said to be the result of childhood malnutrition (although biographers also recount her anorexic tendencies).

"I've known Unicef a long time, ever since the Second World War when they came to the aid of thousands of children like myself, famished victims of five years of German occupation in Holland. We were reduced to near total poverty as is the developing world today," she said.

The waif

For the photographer Cecil Beaton, her look and her spirit embodied her times. "It took the rubble of Belgium, an English accent, and an American success to launch the striking personality that best exemplifies our new zeitgeist."

Clockwise from top left: Gwyneth, Kate, Natalie, Winona
Hepburn's look lives on
And the proof lay in her many imitators: "The woods are full of emaciated young ladies with rat-nibbled hair and moon-pale faces," he wrote.

And they still are.

"My look is attainable," she told the interviewer Barbara Walters in 1989. "Women can look like Audrey Hepburn by flipping out their hair, buying the large glasses and the little sleeveless dresses."

And then there are the flat ballet shoes, the nipped-in waist, the trench coat, the classic handbags with chain handles. Kate Moss has long taken note, and all are key looks on the High Street this year.

Fashion experts say her longevity as a style icon is because once she found what suited her - clean lines, simple yet bold accessories, minimalist palette - she stuck with it for life.

Broad appeal

Among the designers she worked with was Oliver Goldsmith, the British eyewear guru who also designed Michael Caine's iconic specs.

Hepburn - photo from Oliver Goldsmith
Iconic eyewear was key to her look
"She was quite clear on what she liked and what she didn't," says his granddaughter Claire Goldsmith, managing director of the company and a Hepburn fan. "Her look is timeless because it's simple; fuss goes out of fashion."

After a dormant two decades, the brand is now benefiting from the Hepburn effect, releasing replicas of its vintage designs alongside new models.

Ms Goldsmith's enthusiasm for Hepburn is based in part on her grandfather's recollections, but largely on repeated viewings of her films.

"She didn't have arrogance; the most beautiful people are the ones who don't know it. She also had this wonderful humour about her, she didn't mind laughing at herself. That got her fantastic movie roles and people fell in love with the characters she played."

Can her appeal be distilled to just one characteristic? Goldsmith's answer is perhaps predictable for someone in her trade. "It's those eyes, those big, brown, warm eyes. Women relate to her because she was unthreatening, and for men she had that innocence."

But her charm went beyond the purely physical. Those who met her agree that for that moment she treated them as if they were the only person in the world - a rare gift, and one shared by that master of charisma, Bill Clinton.

For Audrey Hepburn was a woman not to be sexy, but to fall in love with.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Not only timelessly beautiful and elegant, but unaffected with a natural diffidence. Someone who actually did some real charity work, selflessly, and whilst very ill themselves. Quite possibly the nicest person who ever lived.
John Edwards, Scarborough, England

I have loved Audrey since I was five (I'm now 20 and at university). I also wish to work for Unicef someday, and she inspired me to do so. However, I worry about those girls (like me awhile back) who try to starve themselves to look like her. She was naturally very skinny, yet most aren't healthy at that weight. Beware of the pressures to look as "lovely" and "unthreatening" as Audrey (5 ft 7in and 107lb).
Victoria, Albany, NY, US

Certainly she knew how to laugh at herself, but she knew to keep her private life private and, by treating everyone she met with respect and courtesy, ensured that she in turn was given respect. In an age where actresses seem willing to do anything to get on screen and turn up at the opening of an envelope, Audrey's dignity is sadly missed.
Susan Grossey, Cambridge, England

I think the reason AH remains an icon even to this day is because despite decades of supposed advances in gender equality, women are still valued for their appearance, and are still preferably demure and classy rather than challenging and forthright. She exemplifies the fact that women might be able to do whatever they like, but they must still look great and smile prettily while doing it.
Fi, Birmingham

It's wonderful to have someone like Audrey to admire as a 23-year-old woman - classic, beautiful and gracious. It's nice to see her face after being bombarded by naked, skinny, big-boobed bodies. And we wonder why we have body issues...
Amanda, New Braunfels, US

She was chosen not only for her physical beauty but her inner beauty. Her work with Unicef was not a show for photographers but genuine. She was an elegant, gracious person according to all who knew or wrote about her. These "stars" today with their artificial lips, breasts and bums should take a long look in the mirror and then at a photo of Ms Hepburn to see what a true lady and superb actress looks like.
Jeanne, Philadelphia US

What's the hype? Not amazing to look at, and could not act her way out of a paper bag. I was once coerced into watching several of her movies over a weekend by an ex-girlfriend. Hence the ex. Now, Katherine Hepburn, there's a true beauty, with true talent.
Joe4, Boise, ID US

I recently watched Breakfast at Tiffany's, a film made well before I was born and so I can honestly say it was truly bizarre - "the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." But AH was quite cute.
Craig, Edinburgh

I feel sorely disappointed. I was expecting a nice long diatribe against the most over-rated person ever. She was no great looker and had the most irritating on-screen manner of any performer I have ever seen. Her films may be classics, but quite frankly, I can't face watching any of them.
Nicola, London, UK

You're talking about the woman I love.
Stephen G Anderson, Oswestry UK

Nicola, you should learn to be gracious - something Audrey had done. Anyone regardless of whether they admired Audrey or not will say that she did have a star quality. Even if they didn't like her films, they will say that that they admired her charity work especially for Unicef.
Rupali Shah, London, UK

She was always stunning, and lacked something 99.99% of today's women lack. A completely unforced light-up-the-sky SMILE.
Peter Keen, Chichester, England

I once had the pleasure of escorting Miss Hepburn to her suite at Claridge's, when I worked on the front desk there in the early 1990s. She was utterly charming and extremely graceful. I've never forgotten meeting her, even though it was for a very brief time.
Richard, Bangkok

Ms Hepburn was, and still is, class. Thank goodness for women like her in the world to show the rest of us how to do it... and do it well.
Jan Cordani, Maryland USA

Audrey Hepburn had STYLE. She ALWAYS looked good, whatever she did. In Roman Holiday she was stunningly beautiful and when she had her hair cut she looked more beautiful. She was unique.
Denise Wilden, Maidenhead, UK

Audrey Hepburn was what Keira Knightley just might turn into.
Kip, Norwich UK

Oh Kip - maybe it's something in the water in Norwich. She's what Keira Knightley WISHES she just might turn into.

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