‘Why do so many women dress like lap dancers?’
She’s one of Britain’s most dazzling ladies, but as Joanna Lumley heads an inspiring new clothes-swap campaign, she talks to Fiona Hicks about battling indifference, still feeling 16 – and why you don’t have to strip off to be beautiful
Joanna Lumley is describing the moment she tried to leave a pair of tights at an M&S Shwop box. ‘I’d put them on that morning and they’d laddered, so I took them along to M&S and dropped them in. The trouble was, they kept wanting to come out again,’ she whispers theatrically, acting out how they stuck to her arm. ‘It looked so tragic. I somehow seemed like a burglar. I must remember next time to tie the tights neatly in a knot.’
Even when relating this anecdote – all jollyhockey- sticks diction and elegant gesticulations – Joanna is the picture of sophistication. She’s lending her beautiful face to front Marks & Spencer’s green campaign, Shwopping, which encourages customers to bring in their old clothes every time they buy something new.
But hers is far from a merely token ambassadorial role. In fact, it is clear that the 66-year-old actress cares very much. ‘It supports ecology, fairness in human trading, looking after the planet, not chucking stuff away, good work practice… All wonderful, wonderful stuff.’
Interestingly, the former model is not in the habit of buying a lot of clothes herself. ‘Clothes have been my life to a certain extent,’ she says, ‘which slightly takes the joy out of shopping. When I was a model I put on everything in the world with degrees of brilliance and awfulness, and as an actress you’re forever trying things on for characters.’ Yet she remains ‘fascinated by fashion and by what people are doing’, though she finds that the more modern styles leave much to be desired.
‘A lot of people have started to dress like lap dancers, and I don’t know why. Everyone is judged so intensely by their appearance, but we’ve got to stop thinking that to look lovely you’ve got to go out in practically nothing.’
Joanna is delighted that there are those in the public eye bucking this trend. ‘I think the Duchess of Cambridge sets a wonderful example. She is beautiful and graceful and elegant beyond belief. Our young ones should know they don’t have to take more off to look dazzling.’ Sartorial savviness aside, Joanna is perfectly placed to front the campaign because she is no stranger to drumming up public support. In 2009 she managed to overturn legislation so that now all ex-Gurkhas who have served more than four years in the British Army have the right to settle in the UK. She has supported a number of causes before and since, born out of a genuine passion for ‘people and the planet’.
‘I want people to take control of their lives,’ she states. ‘Life just isn’t worth living if you’re always waiting for someone else to act.’
From Gurkhas to green issues, she believes accountability needs to be injected back into our society. ‘The hardest thing to fight is not evil, it’s indifference. It’s the worst enemy we’ve got, the people who can’t be fagged to pick up litter, or recycle their clothes, or intervene in a fight.’
Joanna has the captivating ability to speak about serious issues in a light-hearted way, her shrewdness tempered by a charmingly mischievous manner.
‘I haven’t actually changed as I’ve got older,’ she laughs. ‘In the middle of me is still the 16-year-old Joanna Lumley at school. I’ve always been daring and ridiculous, sometimes thumbing my nose at authority.’ And yet – crucially – she has always taken responsibility for herself.
‘I was always polite to the nuns at school, and always helped out when I could.’
When she fell pregnant at 21, she raised her child as an unmarried mother at a time when it was greatly frowned upon. Throughout it all, despite periods where she was ‘practically a beggar’, she relied on her unfailing optimism. ‘And I’ve been treated marvellously by life,’ she smiles.
But where does this optimism come from? ‘I was born with a grin from ear to ear,’ she says, eyes sparkling. ‘And no critical faculties. I just think everything is pretty fabulous.’
And lest she sounds as if she’s paraphrasing one of Patsy Stone’s lines (her infamous character in Absolutely Fabulous), she again reveals a very Lumleylike strand of thoughtfulness. ‘I believe most people are kind and good, but it is true that something happens to people in crowds. They can be quickly stirred into hysteria and violence. Just look at the riots last year: if you took those people individually, they’d never dream of putting a brick through a window.’
As ever, her innate positivity quickly prevails. ‘I find that people, separately, unless they are utterly ghastly, usually have so much going for them.
‘People are extraordinary: they’re generous, they want to do well by their families, they are friendly to strangers and they’re helpful. Occasionally somebody’s just bad, and in that case I think I would fight them to the death. I really would. But most of the time you just have to draw the good from people.’
It certainly seems that Joanna, with her natural warmth and her generosity of spirit, is the right person for the job. Her advice is simple: ‘give people the benefit of the doubt. It is always better to be the sucker than the mean cynic who turned people away from the door’.
Joanna is understandably inundated with requests for support, and with so much that ‘touches me a lot’, her diary is always full. In fact, on the day of our interview she has just spent the morning launching a new initiative to inspire school children with the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. ‘We want to say to children, “Come on! You’re all special so let’s see what you can do”,’ she says with characteristic ebullience. ‘Somehow we need to pass on the idea that with a little bit of application, all can be well.’
From modelling to acting to campaigning, the actress has worked incredibly hard all her life. ‘It’s been absolutely fabulous,’ she purrs, without a trace of irony. ‘I just want to tell people never to be bored. Never be furious. Do whatever you do absolutely beautifully. And please help people if you can.’
PHOTOGRAPHY: VICKI COUCHMAN
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