things audrey hepburn taught me

Yesterday the world celebrated what would have been Audrey Hepburn’s 85th birthday, and as I spent some time thinking about Audrey’s impact on my life it was, as it always is, a bit of a remarkable and moving experience to recall the many different lessons she’s managed to teach me through her legacy. Some lessons she’s still trying to get me to understand, while others I feel are well-traveled ideas that I keep close to my heart.

She taught me to be unexpected, and particularly to never be swayed by others when your personal path leads in a perhaps unpopular direction. She was a celebrity smash, her name working magic on ticket sales, but she stepped away from films in favor of spending more time with her children. Despite having rocked the fashion world with cigarette pants, ballet flats, and a certain Parisian minimalism she explored wild and wonderfully excessive style aesthetics in her later years. The gamine little European girl evolved into a worldly, spirited woman who had no qualms about donning a crimson feather boa or doing an extravagant cat-eye. Being arguably one of the biggest style icons the world has ever seen, she could have let that define her for the rest of her life, but she didn’t. And despite being a coveted muse, a top fashion insider, and a monumentally famous celebrity, she put it all in its place to lend a helping hand for desperate children in the developing world. One thing I’ve always understood from her is that you have to follow where your spirit leads you, wherever that will be and regardless of what it offers you in return.

She taught me to be a citizen of the world. Belgian-born to a British father and a Dutch mother, she spent her childhood in Holland and lived throughout Europe, from England to Rome and eventually her beloved Switzerland. Her UNICEF work took her across Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. She was fluent in six languages. There was, of course, her very French style inclination, and her very Italian devotion to pasta. When her first son was born she said, “I would like Sean to mix with all kinds of people in all countries so that he will learn what the world is all about. He should take his own small part in making the world a better place.” I’ve always loved the openness with which Audrey viewed the world, as a sort of collective humanity. To me she promoted an idea that you should remember yourself as a part of the bigger picture – and to help out, to contribute to the bigger picture as much as you can, and to understand the equality of humanity in that aspect. John Isaac said, “Audrey had no race, no color”. She had a way of appearing universal in part, I think, because she supported everyone; she valued everyone.

She taught me that no matter how much you long for strength in certain areas of your life, your faults and struggles will never be erased. It’s a matter of simple perseverance in the face of challenge. You won’t suddenly be what you want to be – instead, you’ll be something you never would have expected, and somehow you’ll learn to understand and to love that person despite everything. My understanding is that she was shockingly insecure, maybe a bit of a perfectionist for herself, and she had a lifetime of frightening experiences from the war that followed her throughout her life. She was prone even to bouts of self-loathing, and having to handle something like that with the sort of limelight she found thrust on her must have been staggering. Everyone wanted to be Audrey Hepburn, and she considered herself to be not nearly as Audrey Hepburn-ish as the ideal that was based on her. But I think if there’s one bit of wisdom she would always pass down (besides “Be kind”) it would have been that you mustn’t waste time worrying about what doesn’t matter. Of her own insecurities she learned to live with them, as she said, “by adopting a forceful, concentrated drive.” What I saw in her later years was the image of a woman secure in her purpose and determined in her hopefulness; rather than fixing the perceived flaws there was suddenly more of an understanding that this skin she was living in was hers, and however imperfect it might seem to her it was still a body that could lend a hand, that could take action and make a change. In the face of that, a crooked smile doesn’t seem like a very powerful thing at all.