China Machado is searching for her beginning. At age 81, she has decided to write the story of how she came to have this life that fascinates so many, though she still cannot conceive of why. But where to start? “It just happened to me,” she says of emerging from the World War II ruins of Shanghai to become Richard Avedon’s muse and the first non-Caucasian model to grace the pages of a major fashion magazine, laying the ground for generations of models of color, from Iman and Naomi Campbell to Jourdan Dunn and Sessilee Lopez. When we set a lunch date at her Sag Harbor home, she gives these directions: “Drive straight to the end of the road. We’re on the beach. You can come right in. I am an ordinary person.”
Ordinary is perhaps the last adjective anyone else would use to describe China Machado, born Noelie Dasouza Machado, the product of 400 years of intermarriage among Portuguese colonials and the local women in Eastern trading ports like Goa, where her maternal grandmother is from, and Hong Kong, where her Portuguese gold-trader father met her mother. “I don’t say I’m a half this or a quarter that,” she says of her ethnicity, “because I could be anything, really.” Growing up in Shanghai’s wealthy French Concession, Machado spoke French in the streets, Portuguese at home, and Chinese to the servants—that is, when the family had servants: In their first occupation of the city, the Japanese confiscated her father’s business and their palatial garden home. The extended family, all fourteen of them, had to move into one apartment.
Her name change came when she started modeling haute couture. China is pronounced “cheena,” like chinita, the word hurled at her in Buenos Aires and Lima, where her family eventually ended up after fleeing China by boat—and getting rejected at New York immigration because of quotas—just before the march of Mao. All the children had to have gold nuggets sewn into their clothes so they’d have enough money in their new home.
Although Machado claims to have shrunken half an inch, to five-foot-seven, since her modeling days, she still strikes an imposing figure—regal in posture, thin but not frail. She is decked out in a head-to-toe faded-denim Levi’s outfit that only she could pull off as an octogenarian, and has a wild mane of dyed black hair that, she proudly declares, hasn’t seen the inside of a salon in years. “Well, it’s a bore! It’s a drag!” she says of going to the hairdresser’s. She doesn’t drive, she explains, so she’d have to get her husband, retired furniture exporter and businessman Riccardo Rosa, to chauffeur her. “I thought, I can’t deal with this. So I do it myself, and instead of it costing $120, it costs $4.” This all comes out in an odd, vaguely British accent, an amalgam of the seven languages she speaks, sprinkled with the occasional jarring twang from her 51 years in New York.
Her biggest break was, of course, Avedon, the man who declared her “probably the most beautiful woman in the world.” They were friends and collaborators “from 1958 until the day he died,” in 2004. But the Machado that Avedon met had come to fashion sideways. She claims that until she was employed as one, she didn’t know what a model was and had never read a fashion magazine. She’d been raised with two brothers and a stepbrother in a culture in which girls like her were invisible. White American women—Irene Dunne, Vivien Leigh, Rita Hayworth, and Machado’s idol, Ava Gardner—were the paragons of beauty in movies and posters around Shanghai. “We [nonwhites] 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,” she says. In other words, she’d never seen another China Machado.
It wasn’t until a few years later, in Lima, that she came to see herself differently. A handsome Spanish man, Luis Miguel Dominguín, who also happened to be the most famous bullfighter in the world (Ernest Hemingway wrote The Dangerous Summer about a rivalry between Dominguín and his bullfighter brother-in-law), took one look at her and asked her to come away with him. She was 19 and working as a stewardess and had no higher aspirations than to escape from her oppressive stepmother, marry, and have children. (Machado’s mother had died when she was 3.) Running off with Dominguín was a move that estranged her from her family for the next fifteen years. But it also took her to the Cannes and Venice film festivals and into the homes and yachts and studios of the likes of Errol Flynn and Pablo Picasso.