'Moi, vielle et jolie' by Sylviane Degunst and 'Young , female , black and French' by Black Current


This post is more than a review of a book and of a documentary, linked by the notion of Frenchness, as will be seen. It is also an opportunity to highlight some of the issues they raise. The views I express are entirely personal, it goes without saying.

Moi, vielle et jolie is Sylviane Degunst's autobiographical account,  available only in French,  of how she began modelling in London around 2014 when she was in her fifties.  As she tells us, she had only recently arrived in London when she was scouted and was offered to be a model because of her silver hair and, I would add, her perceived French chic and her gamine appearance.  She moved back to France in 2019, and continued to model, signing with Agence Silver, one of the best-known French agencies for senior models, which opened its doors to both men and women with silver hair in 2012. 

She also started writing again, her primary job having always been that of journalist, writer, and editor.  Published by Cherche Midi in 2020, the book, a récit (work of fiction, but in this case it is autobiographical) is available from Amazon and several other booksellers - beware though that if you order it from the UK, you will have to pay hefty postage and possibly VAT. I only managed to get hold of Sylviane's book fairly recently, I got a second-hand copy from a UK bookshop.

I crossed paths with Sylviane more than once. We both started modelling late and initially, we shared agencies. The event which she identifies as what launched her modelling career as a silver-haired model was at Selfridges, and I too took part in it.  She then signed with Mrs Robinson Management in London,  a boutique agency for women over the age of 25, and I signed with Grey Models. Recently, I too signed with Mrs Robinson and Agence Silver - models do move around! Who knows, our paths may cross again.

Sylviane Degunst, myself and a group of other models,  including Joanna Chamberlain, at the Selfridges show, 2014

Unlike Sylviane, I did not write a memoir based on my pre and post-menopausal modelling, even though I was tempted to do it.  I wrote instead several articles about it in various publications eg Vestoj and, under my real name in AgeCultureHumanities. Then in my book on contemporary Indonesian fashion (Bloomsbury 2019) I have a chapter in which I recount my experience of modelling in Indonesia for designers Tri Handoko and Ghea Panggabean. I am mentioning this because most models feel they have to tell their story, especially if the circumstances that surround their modelling beginnings are somewhat unusual and I too felt the urge to discuss it.  Recently, I also dipped into Canadian author Tara Moss's account of her modelling and found it most refreshing and engrossing, as she is one of those models who have been doing it forever.

Sylviane's book is comparable to Anne Kraemer's Going Gray, which came out in 2007. The New York editor wrote about ditching the dye and ageing gracefully, in so doing becoming a spokeswoman of the 'going grey' movement, which soon went global. Sylviane talks with humour about her modelling experiences in the UK and reiterates the narrative of successful ageing and 'you can do everything you want at any age'. She also writes movingly about her father and mother, and a different experience of growing old. She ends by saying  that in France she has not been as successful a model as in the UK, perhaps because the French have not yet embraced the notion of beauty in older age.  I am not so sure about the latter.  Had this been the case, Agence Silver (and other comparable French agencies) would have never started. In London, Sylviane embodies le chic.  In France, she has other contenders. 

I agree with Sylviane that London is more open than Paris, in terms of diversity - up to a point. The French have a major issue with race, as the recent riots have demonstrated, highlighting the problem the French have with egalitarianism, despite the egalité of their motto. A young French woman of colour reports in Young, black and French that while she lived in France she never identified as French, though she was born and brought up there. Only now that she is in Britain, she is perceived as French, principally because of her accent.  

Outside France and in the UK,  the stereotype of a white chic French woman (of all ages) is widespread. Watch the beginning of the documentary.  The imagination runs wild when Britons young and old describe their perception of a French woman. The French too have their own stereotypes about les femmes anglaises. Not for nothing, the late Jane Birkin, who had lived in France for well over 50 years and spoke excellent French, cultivated her English accent as part of her mystery. 

 Sylviane talks about her experience of British culture but does not dwell on the British perception of her as a French woman and of the  French chic, which she embodied in British eyes. Young, female, black and French is fun to watch as those stereotypes are heard in all their glory,  reiterated by those interviewed. Why do I insist on stereotypes? Because the world of advertising, which is the world models inhabit, is full of them and works on the basis of stereotypes.  I remember taking part in the short video The problem is not seeing the problem which attempts to address the issue - some people however felt that it did not succeed. The only way to eliminate stereotypes is to talk openly about them.

Somehow, the otherwise drôle book by Sylviane does not do so, preferring to keep its tone light to avoid courting controversy, perhaps? 

Anyway do get hold of the book, it is a lovely read - and it might help you with your French if you need to brush it up. As for the Young female black and French documentary, do please watch it (and subscribe to the channel). It's absolutely brilliant.