The American Apparel model who stunned the fashion industry by posing in sexy lingerie at age 62 has a message for everyone, young or old: stop worrying about your age, treat your body well, and enjoy it for as long as you can.
Jacky O’Shaughnessy, whose first paid modeling job made headlines around the world last month, says she had “no reservations at all” about posing for the youth-oriented fashion brand. In fact, she says, “this has purpose.”
“The fear of aging needs to be put in its place, and one way to do that is to visually embrace the process,” O’Shaughnessy said in an interview.
“It’s very freeing to say this is my body, this is what it is, it’s not perfect, I’ve got the odd bulge like anyone else, but it doesn’t matter. I think it’s time to enjoy your body.”
The pictures raised a lot of eyebrows, attracted plenty of compliments about O’Shaughnessy’s toned physique and triggered a worldwide discussion about aging, beauty and the conventions of fashion marketing. More important than the flattering comments, though, was the campaign’s impact on other people, she said.
“I’ve been very, very inspired by the responses, not just by women, but by young men too,” she said. “I have the suspicion this is freeing for everyone. The fear that’s behind a lot of the prejudices we see in fashion doesn’t feel good for anyone.”
Most of the images now circulating online were actually shot a year and a half ago and generated some buzz when American Apparel introduced O’Shaughnessy’s first fashion campaign in July, 2012.
But when AA posted a previously unpublished photo (above) on its Facebook page two weeks ago, showing O’Shaughnessy sitting on the floor in a lacey lavender bandeau and rose briefs to promote the company’s spring underwear collection, with the caption “Sexy has no expiration date”, it quickly became a viral sensation.
According to AA’s creative director and photographer Marsha Brady, the images earned “easily hundreds of thousands” of social media comments, internet posts and email responses, along with countless media mentions in mainstream news outlets from every corner of the planet (although in some socially conservative countries, parts of O’Shaughnessy’s body were censored with black bars or other filters).
“We were really surprised at how many people responded,” Brady told Lingerie Talk. “There was so much sharing of the story, so much reblogging. Not just in America, but all over the world.”
In the photos — which are completely unretouched — the 6-foot-tall O’Shaughnessy appears radiant, relaxed and naturally elegant, her long white hair providing a stark contrast to the brightly colored (and distinctively youthful) underwear she’s modeling.
Some commenters described it as publicity stunt intended only to shock viewers, but American Apparel says it was an intentional effort to get customers thinking and talking about how older women become invisible and ignored in fashion media and society at large.
“I had been wanting to do some photographs of an older woman and was trying to figure how to do it,” Brady said. “I’m a woman and I’m getting older but when I look at all the magazines it seems like just when a woman turns 45 she might as well go to the moon. She just disappears.
“Women of all ages wear underwear, but you wouldn’t know it.”
The fashion world’s exclusion of older female models is especially noticeable in the lingerie industry, which favors sleek, slender young bodies to sell its wares to women of all ages. Although a handful of lingerie brands have recently begun using models in their 40s, that appears to be the upper end of career opportunities for lingerie models. A year ago, the UK brand Agent Provocateur made a bold statement about older women by using a 60-year-old former cover girl in a much-publicized fashion show, but that’s the exception to the rule. More typical was the announcement last month by German supermodel Heidi Klum — 22 years younger than Jacky O’Shaughnessy! — that she was retiring from modeling lingerie on fashion runways.
Though some might see an incongruity in hiring an older model to sell sexy undies, AA’s Brady said the campaign was a natural fit for the company’s corporate ethos.
“American Apparel clothes are for everybody and ultimately that’s what our messaging is about. It’s about being free and comfortable,” she said. “In that sense, it’s just like every group of photos we’ve ever taken.”
“We saw Jacky as a person who is very comfortable, very much as ease with themselves. Someone who could remind us that, no matter how old we are, we’ll always be us.”
The story of how Jacky O earned her unexpected celebrity is already the stuff of advertising legend in New York.
The former legal secretary and one-time stage and television actress (she did guest spots on Night Court and Growing Pains, among others), O’Shaughnessy took a few years off after her mother and one of her sisters died in 2000.
In early 2012 she decided to pursue new directions and sold her L.A. house and moved back to Manhattan with an idea of returning to acting.
“I was thinking of checking out ‘mature’ modeling too,” she said. “I had visions of being in L.L. Bean, in a nice Oxford shirt.
“It also occurred to me that maybe I should start doing more situps. Then I thought, ‘Why bother? Who’s going to shoot me a bathing suit?'”
A week after arriving in New York, O’Shaughnessy was sitting on a step in Greenwich Village when AA’s Brady walked past and noticed her.
“I found her striking looking, but the first time I saw her I kept on walking,” Brady said. “Then, a couple of weeks later, I saw her again, and that’s when we began to talk.”
That serendipitous second encounter happened at French Roast on 6th Avenue, where the pair introduced themselves and “hung out for several hours,” Brady said, “talking about female imagery and the lack of realistic role models for women.”
American Apparel has drawn its share of criticism over the years, usually because of ad campaigns that feature very young-looking models in sexually provocative outfits and poses. But the L.A.-based brand also isn’t afraid to veer into socially conscious marketing intended to provoke discussion, promote awareness and — with recent campaigns using plus-size models and the company’s first transgender model — shake up the fashion world status quo.
“No other brand is as complex as American Apparel,” Brady said. “We don’t do typical campaigns. I think we really have an obligation to ourselves to be more egalitarian, more fair in how we show people.
“We’ve had older models in our ads before, women and men in their 40s and 50s, from almost every decade … but Jacky was different. We didn’t want someone who was trained to create an illusion; we are always looking for something more honest and direct.”
Since that first meeting, O’Shaughnessy has modeled swimwear, clothing, hosiery exercise wear and more for AA, and was featured in an issue of the The Gentlewoman magazine. She recently returned from another shoot at AA’s L.A. headquarters and has other assignments upcoming, she said.
O’Shaughnessy has a healthy lifestyle — “I was a health nut before it became popular; I was steaming my vegetables back in the 70s!” — but says her regimen isn’t unusual or beyond the reach of most people her age.
“I’m thrilled there’s so many women who’ve said ‘I hope I can look that way when I’m that age’, and you know what — you can,” she said. “If you eat well, exercise, and pay attention to your own body and your own happiness, you’ll be a lot better off.”
Like many people, O’Shaughnessy said she had a fear of aging when she was young.
“When I was 12, 13, 14 I had a fear of getting old. I thought that when I got to 25 I would no longer be attractive to, or attracted by, men. That was my horizon. But as I kept getting older, it kept shifting.”
When she saw actress Simone Signouret in the 1965 film Ship of Fools, it opened her eyes.
“I thought she was the sexiest woman I’d ever seen. And she was 44 — which was old then.”
It helped that her mother taught her that “you don’t have to fall apart as you get older,” she added.
“I never felt we were doomed to decline,” she said. “I always felt that the way we age is much more in our control than we were given to believe.”
Fashion magazines and advertising campaigns are partly responsible for prejudices about aging, she believes.
“Now that I’m older, I don’t see my face or my body there (in magazines). There’s a real sense of exclusion.
“It’s time everybody was included. I hope this (AA campaign) is just the beginning, because it’s sorely needed.”
Despite the many admiring comments she’s received, O’Shaughnessy says she has dealt with a variety of health and body-image issues during her life. Her weight has fluctuated between 185 and 120 pounds and she has struggled with fatigue.
She doesn’t offer any prescription for healthy aging, other than to stay positive and “never give up”.
“As they get older, people are too quick to say ‘Oh, forget it’,” she said. “But it’s a quick downhill slide from there.
“It all boils down to our relationship with ourselves, to loving yourself and believing you can improve any situation.”
Too many older adults, she noted, “when they look in the mirror they don’t see themselves clearly. Their vision is skewed. I hope this (campaign) will help them see themselves in a more loving way and a more joyous way, rather than just seeing the flaws.”
As for American Apparel‘s youthful target market, the message she hopes they take away from the unorthodox campaign is “the freedom to not worry about the aging process, and the belief that life does not get more restrictive as you get older.”
Or, as AA’s Brady says: “Relax, you will always be you.”