By JANE GORDON
25th January 2008
She is a top model and a member of the one of the America's richest families.
But Lydia Hearst, great-granddaughter of press baron William Randolph
Hearst, has a bizarre background. Her mother was once kidnapped by
terrorists and ended up being jailed for bank robbery.
Lydia Hearst-Shaw is only too aware of the responsibilities that come
with great wealth and exalted social status.
The 23-year-old heiress and supermodel is a member of one of the most
fascinating – and moneyed – families in America.
The privately-owned Hearst Corporation (worth an estimated $4.4
billion) has interests across the media (it owns magazines such as
Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping, a tranche of American newspapers
and various cable TV channels) and was founded by Lydia's
great-grandfather, William Randolph Hearst, the inspiration for the
ruthless press baron of Orson Welles's 1941 film Citizen Kane.
But it isn't just the dark central character that makes the Hearst
history so intriguing. In 1974 the family became headline news around
the world when Lydia's mother – William Randolph's 19-year-old
granddaughter Patty – was kidnapped by a left-wing terrorist group
calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).
After several months in captivity, the Berkeley University student –
apparently suffering from Stockholm syndrome (a psychiatric disorder
where a victim becomes sympathetic towards their captor) – took part
in an SLA bank robbery and was eventually arrested, tried and given a
seven-year prison sentence, of which she served 22 months.
It took Patty 25 years to have that sentence overturned – she was
given a full pardon by the outgoing President Clinton in 2001 – and
her struggle to clear her name and lead a normal life has had a
profound effect on Lydia.
"I am very proud of my mother – she is one of the greatest influences
in my life.
"She has instilled in me this belief that I have a responsibility to
make a difference, to live up to my family name and become involved
with contemporary issues that are important.
"It's not about wearing a cocktail dress on the red carpet, it's
about being 100 per cent involved with a cause," she says with a
smile that softens a face that is startlingly similar to the iconic
image of her mother – wielding a sub-machine-gun – that appeared in a
1974 SLA publicity photograph.
It is to the credit of Patty Hearst and her husband Bernard Shaw –
her former bodyguard whom she married two months after her release
from prison in 1979 – that Lydia and her sister Gillian, two years
her senior, were given a 'regular' upbringing in Connecticut.
The girls attended their local high school and enjoyed a sheltered
childhood with the minimum of media attention. Indeed, it wasn't
until Lydia enrolled on a communications and technology degree at the
Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, that she became
aware that she was different from the other students.
People magazine featured her as one of the '50 most beautiful' young
Americans, and she found herself the focus of intense, and not always
favourable, peer scrutiny.
"Because my course involved studying the media it was often
embarrassing for me.
"When we studied 'yellow journalism' – the scandal-mongering and
sensationalising of news that my great-grandfather had been involved
in originating – everybody would look at me.
"I later discovered that everyone else on my course – but in
different classes – had studied what happened to my mother, but the
whole episode had been edited out of my classes. I think they were
trying to be kind, but it was odd."
Until she arrived at university, Lydia had thought that the only
really different thing about her was her unorthodox fashion taste.
She was, she says, a fashion victim from infancy.
"I don't really believe there is such a thing as bad fashion – it is
all self-expression, which used to get me into trouble when I was a
little girl because I think I started wearing heels when I was about
ten, and I always refused to wear matching socks," she says, grinning
down at her six-inch wedge-heel Celine shoes.
It was always her ambition to be a model but at 5ft 6in (without her
heels) she was regarded as too small.
"I started out like any other model – I didn't use my name as
leverage. I went out with a portfolio and pounded the pavement and it
was surprising how many people wouldn't see me because I was too short.
"Then I got a call from the photographer Steven Meisel's office, my
first job was the cover of Italian Vogue, and the rest is history," she says.
Lydia may have never knowingly used her name as 'leverage' in her
modelling career – she prides herself on never having worked for any
Hearst Corporation magazines – but she is known professionally as
Lydia Hearst (she won't say why the 'Shaw' was dropped).
There is little doubt, though, that she has worked hard to sustain
her success – she has featured on the catwalk and in ad campaigns for
everyone from Prada to Cavalli, she is the face of the new Escada
perfume Incredible Me, she writes a bi-monthly 'society' column in
the New York Post magazine Page Six, and there is a range of 'Lydia'
bags that she has designed for Puma.
A socialite with a social conscience, Lydia last year organised a
major fashion show and auction to raise awareness and funds for
Darfur, and she has recently become involved in an American-based
charity that aims to lower the rate of teen pregnancy through education.
"It was really important for me to try to do something about the
situation in Darfur because in America – shockingly – a lot of people
had no idea what was happening.
"It's surprising but in a sense the news in the US is very censored,
people are very sheltered and they don't have a realistic perspective
on what is taking place in the rest of the world. I don't want to
knock America, I love America, but I don't think many Americans
understand what genocide and terrorism truly are," she says.
With her charity commitments and punishing work schedule, Lydia has
little time for romance: "I have trouble even getting a date," she says.
Since her eight-month relationship with American actor Justin Bartha
broke up last summer she has been single, although she does concede
she currently has a crush (she won't say who he is, although he is
'famous'). It was recently rumoured in the US that she was the new
girlfriend of Cisco Adler (ex-boyfriend of Kimberley Stewart and
Mischa Barton) but she laughs out loud when his name is mentioned and
insists he is just an old friend.
"The most incredible rumour I read was that I was dating Prince
William. An American magazine did a three-page story on us. While I
have quite an imagination and I am sure he is lovely, I haven't
actually met him," she says.
When she does marry it will, she believes, be 'for ever' in the
manner of her own parents' marriage.
Her family is at the centre of her social life – she is very close to
her father, who is head of security for the Hearst Corporation, and
she has an apartment in the same New York block as her adored married
sister, an editor on the Hearst magazine Town and Country.
She speaks to her mother every day and whenever she can she spends
weekends at the family home in Connecticut.
"My mother was very protective at the start of my career – she was
present when I had my test shots taken and she sat in on my first
press interviews. I know she is always there for me."
Lydia is obviously relishing her success and enjoying the way her
career is expanding. Her forthright views – expressed in her new
column (which she rather pretentiously compares to the work of Mark
Twain) – are already causing controversy in the US, where models do
not often express themselves on important subjects such as this
year's presidential elections.
"I would like Hillary Clinton as president but to be honest, I don't
believe that the United States is ready for a woman president.
"Every other country in the world is, but not us – we will have a
foreigner in office before we have a woman. America may be the home
of feminism, but I don't think the electorate will allow a woman to
"It may be possible for a woman of my generation – in ten or 20
years' time…" she adds, making you think she herself might one day
For now her energies are focused on her modelling (which she loves)
but her charm and strong convictions (she is a vociferous opponent,
for example, of reality television) could well propel her into a
wider role in the media.
And although Lydia laughs when I suggest a political future (William
Randolph Hearst, after all, was a member of the House of
Representatives), she is that rare thing – a model on a mission.
"I am aware that there are very few positive role models for young
people – that is something I would like to change. I am very
disappointed by the way so many young society men and women behave.
"Their idea of supporting a cause is to turn up on the red carpet and
party – they are not making donations, they are not raising awareness
– they are just going for the party, and it's not a party at all.
It's very serious," she says.
So if Lydia had to choose between politics and partying would
politics be the winner? "Well, you won't see me getting out of a car
without underwear on, or falling over drunk or being on drugs. That
is not me," she says.
And you can't help but believe her.