For 14 years, beginning in the early ’80s, Isabella Rossellini represented beauty’s ideal. As the face of Lancôme, she sold everything from the brand’s iconic Trésor perfume to anti-aging cream. It was a lucrative contract that made her the highest-paid model in the world at the time. Then, in 1995, months shy of her 43rd birthday, Rossellini was unceremoniously dropped by the beauty brand. “ ‘You cannot represent the dream,’ ” Rossellini remembers being told. “ ‘So we have to go to a younger person.’ ” The decision made headlines. “When they let me go, there was a real protest from their clients, the women buying the [anti-aging] cream,” she says. “They were offended.” As a story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch put it crassly: “Isabella Rossellini sold Lancôme cosmetics by the carload. But after she turned 43 in June, the company dumped her like dried-up mascara.”
When I reach Rossellini one afternoon in March, she projects an immediate warmth. Despite the distance between us—she in her airy home in Bellport, Long Island, I in my Chicago apartment—her presence is enveloping, assured. She wears beige from head to toe, an iteration of her monochromatic uniform, her lips a contrasting flush of mauve. Musing on her history with Lancôme now, Rossellini speaks with measured understanding. “Lancôme reflects society. The old generation of executives then, the way they rationalized it, to me they said, ‘Women dream to be young, and advertisement is about the dream.’ ” The brand brought Rossellini back in 2016, when she was 63, a move she credits to the company’s female global brand president, Françoise Lehmann, who persuaded her to come back on board. “Isabella embodies the idea of an accomplished beauty,” Lehmann said at the time of the announcement.
Now 68, Rossellini has lived a rich life that models a different kind of dream—one in which women can imagine their lives dynamically, courageously, beyond the confines of what society considers beautiful. The daughter of film royalty—Hollywood star Ingrid Bergman and Italian neorealist auteur Roberto Rossellini—she has displayed an astonishing range of creativity throughout her career as a model, actor, and filmmaker. Thanks to the financial independence secured through her fruitful association with Lancôme (some reports put her original contract at $2 million a year), as well as the influence of her father’s perspective on art, Rossellini pursued more experimental and daring projects. She is perhaps best known for her role in David Lynch’s unnerving 1986 film, Blue Velvet. Her later collaborations with avant-garde filmmaker Guy Maddin granted her more radical space to explore her artistic sensibilities. Maddin’s 2005 short film My Dad Is 100 Years Old allowed her to play a number of cinematic legends, including her own mother. In her short film series Green Porno, which debuted on Sundance Channel in 2008, Rossellini enacts the mating rituals of various animals she dresses up as. It has the effect of a gonzo biology class guided by curiosity and a sense of play. She still acts, mentioning an upcoming trip to Europe for a small part. She has also been cast as Simca Beck, one of Julia Child’s collaborators, in the HBO Max series Julia, which is set to resume filming later this spring. Death Becomes Her, Robert Zemeckis’s archly malevolent 1992 comedic extravaganza, was a departure from her art-house fare. She fought to win the role of Lisle Von Rhuman, a witchy socialite whose life hinges on maintaining and celebrating her own beauty. Zemeckis told her that the studio was looking at people with bigger names for the role, but Rossellini felt uniquely prepared to play a seductress proffering an elixir for eternal youth. “I knew exactly how to play it because it plays on the stereotype of women wanting to be eternally young,” she says. “So I could do that, create that kind of sorceress.” In the film, Rossellini is a study in ornate gorgeousness: topless save for the strands of jewels draped across her chest, a wrap skirt knotted at her hip to reveal a generous slit up to the thigh, a swipe of crimson lipstick. “I remember once talking to Jane Fonda,” Rossellini recalls, “and she talked about how we women are born having to interpret an ideal of beauty that isn’t created by women; rather it is an impersonation of woman.”
Rossellini is touching on the ways in which gender becomes a performance and women are forced into replicating an acceptable image of womanhood. “The stupidity of reporting about beauty has been reflective of the misogyny of how women should be stupid,” she says, implicating magazines like this one. “ ‘Oh, what lipstick do you use? What shade? Oh, my God …’ And that … that voice.” Rossellini is referring to the voice we often hear in our own heads, limiting our understanding of our own beauty and what beauty can be. “You know that became the commercial voice, but we can talk about beauty in larger terms than just the seduction, and in terms of elegance.” She speaks with a gentle directness that is admirable, her throaty voice echoing her mother’s cadence and her father’s accent. When asked about how motherhood changed her relationship to her body, she’s blunt: “I have to say that I don’t constantly look at myself like an object. Your question really is a question that assumes a woman constantly criticizes the way she’s looking.”
One of Rossellini’s great pleasures right now is tending to her 28-acre Bellport farm. Dubbed Mama Farm, the name refers to the mostly female farmworkers and mostly female animals they take care of (chickens, sheep, pigs, and turkeys, but no roosters because “they make too much noise; they fight”). At 55, Rossellini went back to school, to study animal behavior and conservation at Hunter College, earning her master’s degree in the process. “I like animals and I like nature, so I always said that instead of having a swimming pool and a tennis court, I would start a farm,” she says. “I didn’t realize the impact that it had in my community. So now the farm is much more of a community project. It’s incredible how it changes the life of a neighborhood to have a farm.” During Covid, the farm allowed her to feel connected to her community and her family. Her daughter, Elettra Wiedemann, is the executive director of Mama Farm and lives there with her three-year-old son, Ronin; Rossellini’s son, Roberto, a model, stayed there for the beginning of Covid and visits often. “[The farm] was a gift,” she says. “I’m not saying that it is simple … my biggest quest now is how to make it financially viable so that it doesn’t depend on my work as an actress.”
Which makes one think, Why hasn’t Rossellini’s career flourished more, given her talent and name? “I would have loved to have a huge Hollywood career, but I became an actress when it was closed up,” she says, referring to the industry’s treatment of foreigners and anyone with a significant accent. “And the fact that I was also experimental because of my dad.” Rossellini’s career approach is more intuitive. “I would work with David Lynch, I would work with Guy Maddin. I just did things that came my way that I was interested in,” she says. “Maybe another, more traditional American actor would say, ‘Oh, I don’t know if it fits in my career plan,’ but I didn’t have ever in mind developing an image.” Rossellini talks casually about the men who once occupied her romantic life, like directors Lynch and ex-husband Martin Scorsese, in a way that speaks to her generous spirit, the dynamics of her upbringing due to her own parents’ divorce, and how time softens what was once complicated.
These days, Rossellini gets up exceedingly early, at 5:30 a.m. She works on the farm. Spends time with her family. If anything, these aspects of life become richer when freed from the constraints that are typically placed on women in their youth. During quarantine, several times a week she and her friends have a film club where they gather over Zoom to discuss the work of a director they’ve been watching (they’ve done Fellini, Visconti, and Billy Wilder). “It’s nice to see friends,” she says. When her son was little, she made a decision to put off seeking another romantic relationship until both her children were in school. “It became 20 years,” she says. “I didn’t have a man for 20 years. And do I regret it? No,” Rossellini says about her decision to focus on her family above all else.
Rossellini’s relationships with men don’t contextualize her understanding of beauty either as an ideal or an experience. “I want to be elegant, but I don’t want to seduce anybody,” she says. “I don’t want to take anybody to my bed.” To Rossellini, beauty can’t sustain itself when our understanding of it is graded by how others look at us, desire us, want to be us. It needs to be deeper than that—something we define for ourselves. “I always say that, to me, beauty is an expression of elegance,” she says. “And elegance is the expression of a thought.” But last year, a brief pandemic romance took her by surprise. “I didn’t expect that at 68 you can have a fling,” she says. “I have to say it was very pleasant and very surprising because at 68, after 20 years, you say it’s not going to happen. So it was delightful, but I’m back [to] being single, and happy to be single again. The fling never evolved to be more than just a fling, which was very pleasant.” Rossellini is honest about what the relationship provided her. “It wasn’t that he defined my beauty in any way, but it was companionship. And that I miss.” With a joking reverence, she echoes a line from her mother’s famed classic Casablanca. “We were caught in the time of Covid, in those early months, in my house, and now he went back to the West Coast, where he lives. And so I always quote Casablanca. You know the line is, ‘We’ll always have Paris.’ I always say to this man, ‘We’ll always have Covid.’ ”
Makeup: Fulvia Farolfi; Manicure: Rachel Shim
This article originally appears in the May 2021 issue of Harper's BAZAAR, available on newsstands now.