This week our throwback is dedicated to China (pronounced Chee-nah) Machado, one of the greatest supermodels of the late 1950s, who was the first non-white cover girl for Harper’s Bazaar. It was her striking features, effortless poise and commanding presence in front of the camera that made her so successful, paving the way for the increasing acceptance of models of colour that came after her.
Image: China Machado on the cover of the February 1959 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, shot by Richard Avedon
The mixed-race Portuguese and Chinese beauty, once referred to as “probably the most beautiful woman in the world” by fashion photographer Richard Avedon, found her way into modelling when she moved to Paris and was invited to model for the house of Hubert de Givenchy. It was around this time that she decided to change her birth name from Noelie, to China, reclaiming the derogatory word “chinitas” she had heard used to describe Asian girls during her childhood in South America. After three years with Givenchy, Machado started on the catwalk, and earned the title of the highest-paid runway model in Europe at the time, on a salary of $1000 a day.
Image: China Machado shot by Richard Avedon
Machado led the glamourous and notorious life that you would imagine a supermodel living. Partying on yachts with Errol Flynn and Picasso, having relationships with the world’s most famous bullfighter (Luis Miguel Dominguín) and various movie stars and constantly travelling around the world. After a few years of modelling, Machado’s success in the creative industry went from strength to strength and she became the Senior Fashion Editor of Harper’s Bazaar– the very magazine that were initially reluctant to feature her on their cover due to her race. She eventually made it to the role of Fashion Director. During her career she also worked as a costumer, designer, stylist, television producer and gallery owner.
In 2011, Machado told NY Mag that before she began modelling, she had never thought of herself as beautiful because she didn’t see any non-white people in films or on posters. Even growing up in China, the style and beauty icons were white American actresses like Riya Hayworth and Ava Gardner. She said “We had no images. We had nothing that told us we were nice-looking. Nothing. So I didn’t think of myself as good-looking at all. It never occurred to me”. Although race representation in fashion modelling has improved a lot since Machado’s day- a lot of that thanks to her perseverance in the industry, it’s sad that a lot of women of colour still say something similar today.