Vogue model, style icon and David Bailey's muse, Penelope Tree was
the ultimate Sixties It girl. In a rare interview she tells Louise
France about her charity work, the misery behind her privileged
upbringing - and how the Dalai Lama saved her life
Sunday August 3 2008
Penelope Tree has both a name and a face that are hard to forget. Yet
for the best part of the past 35 years she has done her damnedest to
stay out of the spotlight. During a brief, heady period at the end of
the Sixties this American-born model encapsulated the style of the
times. Eyes as lustrous as they were round, cheekbones on which you
could balance a cup and saucer, a kooky, ethereal sense of style that
both epitomised the mood and was all her own. When John Lennon was
asked to describe her in three words he is said to have replied:
'Hot, hot, hot, smart, smart, smart!' For a while, when David Bailey
was her boyfriend and there were front covers for Vogue in her
modelling book, she was the It girl in a decade crowded with other
so-called It girls with memorable monikers, from Twiggy to Cilla.
Bailey recently credited her with kick-starting the flower-power
movement. It's a notion that strikes Penelope Tree as preposterous.
She would describe herself as a mother and a writer. She might
volunteer the fact that she works for two charities. The last words
that would come into her mind are 'model' or 'style icon'.
'Never,' she says, sounding aghast. 'Never. That period seems
completely irrelevant. It wouldn't even occur to me to mention it.'
She is 58 now. Still striking to look at, standing in her kitchen in
west London in chinos and old school trainers, she has a cool,
natural poise. At the same time she is the least model-like sort of
person one is likely to meet. It becomes apparent that she is
self-deprecating, hesitant, contemplative, unfailingly polite, more
comfortable asking a question than answering one - though at the same
time matter-of-factly candid.
'If someone asks me a question it is very difficult not to answer
honestly,' she says. In an industry based on artifice, she has a
transparency about her that is appealing but must have made life as a
At first it appears as though she has led a gilded sort of existence:
the daughter of wealthy parents, brought up in a well-to-do,
impeccably connected set in America, spotted aged 17 at one of Truman
Capote's infamous black-and-white balls, rung up the following day by
the legendary Diana Vreeland at American Vogue. Yet all was not what
it seemed. At 21 she had already had a nervous breakdown. 'I always
felt as though I was falling, falling, falling,' she says now. A
mysterious skin disease had resulted in scars that scotched any hopes
of a top-flight modelling career. Three years later her six-year
relationship with David Bailey fell apart.
'I was with this photographer whose great love was female beauty and
I no longer fitted the bill in any way,' she recalls. 'I went from
being sought-after to being shunned because nobody could bear to talk
about the way I looked.' There is a tendency to look back at the late
Sixties and early Seventies as a halcyon time of free love and swirly
skirts, bare feet and sexual liberation. Tree remembers it
differently. 'I think of the Sixties as being every man for himself,'
she says. 'There wasn't the therapy culture that there is now and
there was a huge amount of abuse of alcohol and drugs. But nobody
thought it was terribly odd. It was perfectly fine to be tripping
down the King's Road. It was acceptable to behave quite strangely and
talk as if you came out of a Beckett play.'
Notwithstanding a recent Burberry campaign with Kate Moss, Tree
rarely models any longer. The only time she looks at archive images
of herself, taken by the likes of Bailey, Richard Avedon and Cecil
Beaton, is when her children, 28-year-old Paloma and Michael, 18, are
curious. Their mother was known for theatrical lashings of mascara,
but if she's wearing any make-up when we meet, it is barely there.
Her long fringe tends to hide those famous eyes. Her time is taken up
writing a book of fiction for teenagers and working, free of charge,
for two organisations, Lotus Outreach, which works with children in
south east Asia, and the Khyentse Foundation, which promotes Buddhist
She rarely does interviews and she is, at least to begin with,
ambivalent and nervous. However, she wants to raise the profile of
the causes that she's involved in so she's made an exception. Lotus
Outreach was founded 12 years ago in California by her Buddhist
teacher to help street children in India. At first it was 'a very
small Band-Aid organisation', she says. 'Two mobile vans equipped
with medical supplies, food, clothes, a doctor, a nurse and a
teacher. Every day the kids would get to know where the van would be.'
The charity has since expanded and now works in different locations,
most recently in Thailand and Cambodia where the focus is on
sex-trafficked girls. In 2005, Tree visited 25 different projects in
the two countries. It was a life-changing trip and one not without
'It was one of the most devastating experiences,' she says. 'In
Cambodia you realise very soon that this is a country that has been
completely raped and people are still living in fear.' She talks
vividly about the poverty she encountered, visiting refugee camps
where sex trafficking is so common it has almost become accepted,
where families are so desperate they will sacrifice one daughter to
unscrupulous agents in the mistaken belief that her earnings will
look after the rest of the family. In reality parents receive a
fraction, if any, of the money that agents promise and if they do see
their daughters again they are invariably emotionally and physically
scarred. Many disappear forever and of the few who do eventually
return home it is because they're HIV-positive and of no more use to
'I remember a village where, as a sex tourist, you could pick up a
five- or six-year-old boy or girl. Camps where agents would offer
families $80 for one of their daughters and then sell her on for
$500,' she says, plainly still affected by what she saw. A staggering
600,000 to a million girls are trafficked each year in the region.
Lotus Outreach's work is deceptively simple: education projects for
girls who have been sex-trafficked to teach them new skills; radio
spots to alert families to the perils of trafficking; vans that tour
villages warning young girls of the dangers. One scheme is to buy
bicycles for girls in remote areas to encourage them to go to school.
It's not that they don't want to walk the eight miles to get to their
nearest classroom; the problem is that they risk being raped on the way.
Tree's motivation appears to be neither opportunistic nor
self-serving. She sits in the sunny, peaceful front room of the house
where she lives with her second husband, and speaks knowledgeably
about the issues. There are pictures of the Dalai Lama on shelves;
several Buddhas silently watch over us. She drinks tea from a 'Free
Tibet' mug. For some years now she has been a practising Buddhist,
which entails daily meditation and study. In the mid-Eighties, at a
low point in her personal life, almost undone by anxiety, she found
herself in the front row of an event with the Dalai Lama. Along with
many others, he briefly shook hands with her at the end. It would
turn out to be the beginning of a new phase for Penelope Tree: over
the next few years, life began to make a little more sense.
There may have been a few carefree interludes until that point, but
for the most part she had been buffeted from one period of depression
to the next. Her childhood sounds like something out of a
particularly bleak Henry James novel. 'It was poor little rich girl,
it really was. It was a funny way to grow up - but the visuals were
good,' she says, keen to play it down but at the same time inherently
unable to dissemble.
Her father, Ronald Tree, a wealthy Conservative MP and confidant of
Winston Churchill, was 53 when she was born. (Penelope would be 41
and at a party in Sydney when someone casually informed her that he
had been gay.) Her mother, Marietta Peabody, was an American
socialite who would eventually come to represent America at the
United Nations. As a young woman Marietta famously predicted for
herself a life of 'parties, people and politics'.
At first the family lived in England but Marietta swiftly grew bored
with provincial life so when Penelope was a child her father moved
the entire house - 'Brick by brick?' 'No,' she replies, with a
twinkle, 'servant by servant: the butler, the maid, the cook and the
chauffeur' - to New York. Not long afterwards he, in turn, moved to
Barbados. His daughter would see him in the school holidays. She
describes her father as a 'renaissance man'. In Barbados he
established the National Trust and the botanical gardens and wrote
books. 'I felt married to him in an odd sort of way. I was married to
him and my mother was this rather annoying person who came back every
so often to lay down the law. We were probably too close. I certainly
felt very protective of him towards her.'
Her mother, Tree says, took advantage of her father's wealth. 'People
used to say, "God, your mother is one of the most amazingly beautiful
people we have ever met, God you are so lucky". And yes, she
accomplished many things and lots of men fell for her,' she pauses.
'But she was a crap mother, unfortunately. We had a very tough time
relating to each other and although I can genuinely say without any
bullshit that I have inherited her strength, I do often wonder what
it would have been like to have a loving mother... Or even a mother.'
Marietta, whose own mother in her turn had been undemonstrative and
tough, was never around. 'I lived in the nursery and my mother had
lots of affairs,' Penelope says bluntly. She was virtually ignored.
It was a buttoned-up household; nothing was talked about. Or if it
was, as she grew older, it swiftly escalated into an argument.
Marietta had a long relationship with Adlai Stevenson, the 1952
Democrat presidential candidate. When he died suddenly, her mother
beside him, Penelope, 15, realised that Marietta was devastated but
she felt protective towards her father. 'I felt angry with her for
obviously caring for another man so much. It was all very confusing,'
Her childhood sounds lonely but at the same time there were periods
when she enjoyed huge freedom. Aged seven she already knew how to get
around New York on her own. In her early teens, before her parents
found out and sent her to a strict boarding school, which she hated,
she would forge their signatures and sneak out to folk festivals. 'I
knew all about Bob Dylan, I was in love with Joan Baez. I was tuned
into that world.'
Tree was 13 when the legendary photographer Diane Arbus came across
her - she cannot recall how - and photographed her for a feature for
Town & Country magazine. She groans. 'It was torture, the whole
thing. Now I know why everyone in her pictures looks like they do -
because they have had to spend three hours with Diane Arbus staring
at them.' It was a broiling August day, she was dressed top-to-toe in
riding gear and told to lie down in a field. 'Now I know what she was
trying to get: spoilt rich kid looking absolutely desperate in her
own native habitat,' she says. When her father saw the images he was
hopping mad and forbade them to be used.
Being a photographer's model may have remained a one-off diversion if
she hadn't been homed in on by the grande dames at American Vogue.
While she'd begun to cultivate her own style - she'd get furious
reactions in the street of New York for her barely-there minis and
racoon-tail skirts - what she hoped to do was go to college to study
English literature. A shoot by Richard Avedon changed all that
('She's perfect. Don't touch her,' he said). Few arrestingly
beautiful teenage girls would have been able to resist the attention
and anyway, the sudden change of direction had an upside - she
thought it would be an escape route from her background.
'I look back at his pictures of me and think that person knew more
than I do now. It wasn't about looking desirable or pretty, he liked
the inward-looking face. I put into those photographs all the things
that I loved and that great yearning I had at the time to break away
and be different from my family. I had a feeling I was going to fall
in love with somebody and that was very exciting.'
Not long afterwards, who should come along but David Bailey, a boy
from the East End, brought up largely by his single mother, who had
tried his hand at being a carpet salesman and window dresser before
turning to photography. The story goes that Tree did a shoot for
British Vogue and the editor, Beatrix Miller, informed the British
photographer that he was on no account to go near the ethereal,
strange-looking girl from New York. Not least because he was married
already to Catherine Deneuve. Deneuve, however, had already sensed
trouble. She reportedly told her husband when she saw his pictures:
'You're going to run off with that girl.'
'I didn't see him for almost a year afterwards,' recalls Tree. 'But
there were sparks between us and I thought about him all the time.
And then he turned up in New York ... and that was kind of it.' She
was 18; Bailey, as she calls him, was 30.
'I fell madly in love. Bailey kind of fitted the bill for me. I
thought that he could save me from my parents and from the upbringing
I had had.'
Because he came from a different background to you? 'No, it wasn't
that he was working class - I really loved him as a person,' she
replies. 'Often you look back at people you were infatuated with and
realise you fell in love with a thing, not a person. I don't feel
that about him. But I was much too young. I didn't know how to be in
a relationship. And I was very unsophisticated. He was my first
boyfriend really. I was quite backward in lots of ways. I didn't look
it but I was.'
For a year or so the relationship worked out. They lived together,
travelled the world. When they were in London the photographer and
his muse were at the epicentre of Sixties society.
'But then the girl thing came up,' she says frankly. 'I kind of clung
to him like a koala to a eucalyptus tree. Even though I think he
quite liked it in a way, inevitably it became claustrophobic. It was
like being on the shore and watching somebody drift away.' She was
jealous and somehow obsessed with the idea that she should behave
like a character in a 19th-century novel.
'What an idiot!' she laughs at herself now, particularly at the
notion that she was monogamous while Bailey, presumably, was not. 'I
had this Jane Austen view that once you have found your man, that is
it. I don't know where that came from. Certainly not my mother.'
Her look at the time was described as part Pippi Longstocking, part
Egyptian Jiminy Cricket. She herself played up what she described as
her Martian-like appearance by shaving off her eyebrows. None of this
does justice to the enigmatic luminosity that she brought to
photographs but might indicate just how odd she appeared at a time
when most models looked exactly the same. There are fashion observers
who now say that she was a pioneer - she changed the notion of beauty
and, like Kate Moss for this generation, brought her own sense of
style to the party that other people copied.
Typically, Tree is quick to deflate this kind of praise. 'I felt
quite fraudulent because I am not a classic beauty,' she says, 'not
now, not then. Like lots of models I felt insecure about the way I
looked. We know too well that it's a lot to do with disguise and how
you put yourself together.' She describes slogging around agencies
with her book as like 'being a piece of meat. They would discuss your
body as though you were not there. But I was a model and that is what you do.'
While there were photographers who adored her, there were others who
refused to work with her. 'They thought I was a freak in some way. I
kind of liked that. I felt I was an alien so I didn't see anything
wrong with looking like one.'
The alien metaphor is an apt one. She was in a strange country,
surrounded by predatory women who she thought, probably quite
rightly, were after Bailey. Plus she was secretly suffering from
anorexia. She'd started not eating as far back as boarding school and
was in the habit of weighing herself every day. 'I was absolutely
controlled about it. I never went beyond a certain point because I
didn't want to end up in hospital.' She deliberately never dipped
below 100 pounds. 'Skinny for my height,' she says. 'But not
Her son has told her that she is lauded as a role model on some
pro-anorexia websites, which horrifies her. The idea that her boyish
hips and narrow shoulders and flinty cheekbones helped her to get
work strikes her now as deeply ironic, and scary. 'Anorexia is about
not accepting who you are as a woman. It's an illness about
ambivalence,' she says. The anorexia would turn into bulimia in her
twenties: 'Talk about ambivalence: stuff yourself full of food and
throw it up because you cannot bear having it inside' - and she was
not able to surmount it until she was in her early thirties. It's an
illness she still reflects on a great deal in a bid to understand it:
she has written an introduction to a self-help book for parents of anorexics.
Just when it must have felt as if everything was going wrong, not
least the relationship with Bailey, which was in freefall, and her
career, which had been derailed by severe late-onset acne that left
her face swollen, it got worse. She was arrested during a drugs bust
for possession of cocaine. Scarred and looking rough, she bore no
resemblance to the kind of woman who might find herself on the front
cover of Vogue. The police, holding her in custody for the night,
refused to believe that she was either a famous model or the daughter
of wealthy parents who could easily afford bail. 'In a way, I was
stripped of my identity completely,' she says.
Not long afterwards, Bailey went off with somebody else for the last
time. 'I twigged and I left.' It was 1974.
For Tree, that intoxicating and yet nightmarish era was over almost
as quickly as it had begun. For a while she travelled around the
world 'on the dregs of the money I made modelling'. A period living
in Los Angeles followed and then she moved to Australia with her
first husband Ricky Fataar, a musician with the Beach Boys, and had
her daughter, Paloma.
Motherhood has plainly been a source of solace, and a revelation. 'I
never thought I would have a child but I am very very glad that I
did,' she says. 'Because of the experiences I had had with my own
mother, I had never even held a baby before. I was lucky - I adored
my daughter immediately. It was a big thing for me. My mother had a
hard time with her mother. My grandmother with my great-grandmother.
It goes back four generations and I have broken that. '
For years she explored all kinds of spiritual paths, from ashrams in
India ('We won't go into those,' she says firmly) to transcendental
meditation to yoga. She discovered Buddhism in the Eighties at a
point when she was surrounded by friends who were dying from Aids and
struggling to deal with her own debilitating fear and grief.
The woman I meet seems sanguine but this peace of mind, if that is
what it is, has been hard fought for. 'In reality no sooner is one
old issue understood then another one arises,' she says, 'and
hopefully not four at once. I'm pretty sure this is true for
everyone... But I haven't had a drab life, that's for sure.' How has
her Buddhist practice helped? 'I try to see what the priorities are
and not get terribly fussed about things that don't matter. Not be
swept away by feelings and emotions, which is my tendency,' she
replies. 'Having said that, I probably will in the next 10 seconds.'
She was a researcher on a documentary series in Australia with
Richard Neville, the infamous Oz publisher, when she met her second
husband who is a Jungian analyst. Finally, perhaps, someone she can
talk to, and who can listen. They've since returned to London and
live a quiet, unstarry sort of life. She is not interested in a ritzy
social diary, she says, although Bailey, remarkably, remains a friend
(he agreed to do the photoshoot for this interview). 'There were a
few years when I didn't want to be around him but the connection is
still very strong,' she says. 'I've learned how to stand up to him. I
wish I had then.'
For a while back then it looked as if she might be one of the
casualties of the Sixties. She is, in fact, one of its more elegant
survivors. I wonder what she thinks when she looks at her face in the
mirror. 'I feel like it has all gone but you might as well live,' she
replies, and laughs. I think afterwards that it is a very Penelope
Tree sort of reply: self-deprecating, and really rather wise.