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Madam Helen

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Mirren, who began as a devoted stage actress, schooled in Chekhov and Shakespeare, quickly learned to use her sexuality to her advantage. “Especially when you’re younger and you’re a female, you’re being judged physically as much as for everything else,” she says. “And when you’re a serious actress like I was … I’ve always taken it very seriously at that level.”

Of her scandalous early roles in 1969’s Age of Consent (when she stripped as the teenage muse of an older painter) or Gore Vidal and Bob Guccione’s nutty art-porn Caligula (1979), Mirren says she had a plan. “A lot of it is plain, old-fashioned practicality. I wanted to work,” she says. “When I did Caligula, for example, I hadn’t really done movies.” And besides, she adds, “I much prefer overt sexuality to sleazy, vulgar prurience.”

As Mirren explains it, she struggled to get a handle on her own sexuality in order to use its power to accomplish her ambitions. “The Playboy Mansion, coke, and the rise of all that—Guccione and Hefner always pushed it as liberation, but it didn’t seem like that to me,” she says. “That was women obeying the sexualized form created by men—though maybe we always do that, because we want to be attractive. But I was kind of a trailblazer because I demanded to do it my own way. I’d say, ‘I’m not having it put on me by someone else.’ I didn’t want to be the sort of puritanical good girl with a little white collar who says, ‘Don’t shag until you get married.’ ”

Now, her reputation secure, Mirren’s enjoying the results of her efforts. “I’m thrilled young girls are claiming their sexuality for themselves,” she says. “I love bold women: Madonna and Scarlett Johansson—sexy and gorgeous, but not only that. And Miley Cyrus—fantastic! And Lady Gaga. I love the way she’s elevated pop to performance art, or dragged performance art down to pop, or maybe made a wonderful amalgam of the two.”

With her coy smile, Mirren looks like the conspiring queen who’s usurped the throne, securing the kingdom for her heirs: “My girls: Miley, Scarlett, Lady Gaga. My team … Yes.”


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