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“I Didn’t Think of Myself As Good-Looking at All”

After two years of other women and fights and passionate reunifications, Dominguín left her for none other than Ava Gardner. “Can you imagine?” Machado says, laughing. “Some number. She was exactly like him. Would pick up a waiter at a restaurant and go to bed with him. They were both very famous, very beautiful, very rich, and were wanted by the whole world.” The experience, she says, left her “so beaten down, I didn’t know what happened to me. I had no world. I had no savoir faire. I was just a kid, really.” So she moved to Paris, where she got noticed at a cocktail party. She filled in for a sick girl at Givenchy and was offered a permanent position that day.

Machado spent three years there as a “house model.” As she explains, “Basically, the whole collection was designed on you. Then there was an opening show in a tiny room. You walked in, you walked out. There was a girl by the door who shouted out, ‘Numéro une!’ ‘Numéro quarante-six!’ You didn’t look at the clients. And Givenchy said, ‘Don’t go near them, because they’re going to try to go under your skirt to see how it’s made.’ ”

Machado left and became the highest-paid freelance runway model in Europe, she says, with a salary of $1,000 a day. She still had not been photographed professionally; a mannequin volant like her was distinct from “photo models” like Dorian Leigh, Suzy Parker, and Dovima, and designers were paranoid about being copied and often forbade photographers from attending their shows. “Did you know that Women’s Wear rented an apartment across from Givenchy and Balenciaga with binoculars to try to see what was going on? So while our clothes were being made, we had to put a piece of cloth over us, going up and down the stairs from the studio to the atelier,” she says. “I never saw the press, and they never saw me.”

The bullfighter left her for none other than Ava Gardner, her idol. “Can you imagine?”

Oleg Cassini, later Jacqueline Kennedy’s favored designer­, did see Machado and asked her to come with him to New York for two weeks to be in his show. The day she arrived, she met Diana Vreeland, then at Harper’s Bazaar, who threw her in a show at the Waldorf-Astoria that same evening; she opened it atop a twenty-foot ladder in “bat-wing Balenciaga hot-pink pajamas.” That was when Avedon spotted her in the flesh. He was 35, she 28. He asked her to come to his studio the next day. Those photographs wound up in the February 1959 issue of Bazaar, though only after Avedon made a stink when the publisher balked at running them.

“Dick was a photographer who made you think that you were the most wonderful person in the world, with every model,” she says. “You went in front of Dick and the lights came on and you thought, My God. Is this really happening?

That trip to New York, during which she joined the ­Avedon-Vreeland circle, with its celebrities and fabulous parties, stood in stark contrast to her only other visit to the city, at age 16, when she and her family had been turned away by immigration. “Can you imagine the difference of not letting me live in America to coming back to this fantastic opening of the doors of New York?” she asks. “For someone from Shanghai who never dreamt about modeling, it was such a wonderful welcome. It really made me say, ‘This is the country I’m going to live in, and New York is going to be my town.’ And I never went back. My roots were immediately here.”

Avedon and his wife Evelyn were witnesses at Machado’s City Hall wedding to her first husband, actor Martin LaSalle (Pickpocket), a boyfriend from Paris with whom she reunited after a yearlong affair with married movie star William Holden (The Wild Bunch). Her two daughters with LaSalle, her only children, were born here, too: Blanche, now an auditor at MGM in Las Vegas, and Emmanuelle, who is currently producing a ­documentary about her mother’s life. It’s one of three that Machado is filming.

Three years later, though, she still had no other ethnic contemporaries and doubted that she could advance commercially, given her very specific “type.” (It wasn’t until the landmark “Battle of Versailles” fashion show in 1973, with its splashy team of eight African-American models, that fashion’s racial barriers would have their next symbolic shattering.) Avedon persuaded her to join him on the other side of the camera, as Bazaar’s senior fashion editor.

They spent nearly every day of the next eight years together as they traveled the world and shot Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, Lena Horne. But they were neverlovers. Eventually Avedon went to Vogue and she went on to produce fashion TV shows, design costumes for films, and crisis-manage as fashion director of Lear’s, a magazine for women over 35 founded by Norman Lear’s manic-depressive ex-wife, Frances, that lasted a miraculous six years before Lear ran it into the ground. Machado would frequently rejoin Avedon to produce and style ads for Revlon, like his “Unforgettable Women” campaign, featuring her successors Beverly Johnson and Iman.