Isabella Rossellini’s Animal Instincts

There are lunches at Michael’s and then there are lunches at Michael’s. Today I joined Isabella Rossellini at Table One and had a fascinating conversation with her about aging, celebrity, fashion and gay geese. Stay with me … these seemingly disparate topics are all connected.  Ostensibly there to talk about Mammas, her new series for Sundance Channel which looks at the ways different creatures use their maternal instincts in nature, Isabella did get around to the topic eventually. Yet, there was no feeling of the usual PR spin to the lunch which was attended by a handful of journalists who sat enthralled by her stories of her days as an actress and model and her charming tales of growing up in Rome as the daughter of iconic actress Ingrid Bergman and director Roberto Rossellini.

“The image I have of myself doesn’t correspond to the image people have of me,” she said. “I live on Long Island and I don’t go to fancy parties and premieres. I don’t like that aspect of celebrity. I never said, ‘When I grow up I want to be a celebrity.'” She didn’t have to.  Between her famous parents, ex-husbands (Martin Scorsese and model Jon Wiedemann), her celebrated career as a model and 14-year run as the face of Lancome before the brand dismissed her in 1996 for being ‘too old,’ and her unforgettable turn as tortured nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, she secured a permanent spot in our collective consciousness without employing any of the usual contrivances associated with modern celebrity.

Isabella Rossellini and Diane Clehane

When she showed up to join the small group of journos gathered to meet her (I was lucky enough to score the best seat in the house right next to the guest of honor!) the conversation first turned to fashion as Frazier Moore asked her who designed her understated ensemble of a wool tweed cocoon coat,  navy mandarin collared silk jacket, foulard blouse and simple slacks. She gamely removed her coat to reveal the impeccably tailored pieces designed for her by Christina Bomba in Italy. “It’s less expensive than Donna Karan or Dolce & Gabbana, and I like that I can pick the fabric and have it made just for me,” she said. Isabella told us she can’t relate to the fashion-celebrity complex which has turned the red carpet into big business. “When Mama got dressed for the Oscars, she wasn’t solicited by designers. She didn’t have a committee of business people telling her what to wear. She was loyal to one or two Italian designers, and, when they could no longer make dresses for her, the costume designers from her films created something unique.”

My eye fell on her beautifully understated handbag whose jewelry-inspired clasp I immediately recognized. She designed it for Bulgari when she was working with the house a little over a year ago. “They were between administrations, and they came to me and asked if I wanted to work with them and appear in their ad campaign,” she explained. “We have a real connection because both our families are from Rome, so it was easy for me. I went to the factory because I wanted to see how the bag was going to be made, and it was extraordinary. I went to the factory in Florence, and it looked like a photo studio. But these people were true artisans; it took 15 people to make one bag. I was honored to witness their craft. Today if someone came to me and asked me to design a line, I would not do it; it would be too hard. They probably wouldn’t ask me anyway.”

After all these years, people do still ask about her role in Blue Velvet as we did today. When the comment was made that she has made some brave, bold choices in appearing so vulnerable and exposed on screen, she explained matter-of-factly: “I don’t feel that I have been bold. It is about committing to the material. When my mother made a film, she spent most of her time reading everything written by the author whose work was used for the one film. There was a passion for the work and the process. My father was the same. For me, it is about that passion. I think that is why I left New York (City), because you are solicited to do so much (promotion) and I never liked that.”