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Eleanor's Letter: On Super Queenagers -Joan Collins, Martha Stewart, Tina Turner and what true 80-something inspiration looks like
I'm not so sure that Super Queenager success is looking great in a swimming costume; here's some different versions of what it can look like
Hope all is good with you and you’ve been enjoying the sunshine. I wrote a column this week in the Telegraph where I managed to squeeze in a final paragraph about Super-Queenagers. I wanted to make it the whole thing but they wanted Suella Braverman and her speeding course, and teens vaping… So that’s why I write this newsletter so I can say what I like.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the generation above Queenagers, the ones I am calling Super Queenagers, for a while. And then I noticed that Dame Joan Collins (who I’ve always loved) celebrated her 90th birthday last week on the arm of her husband who is a cool 30 years younger (go Joan!). The really Super Queenager aspect of Dame Joan, however, is her refusal to retire: “If I hear the word ‘retire’ it makes me want to throw up. What would I do then? Sit around and watch television?”, she said. It’s a sentiment shared by that other Super Queenager in the news last week, Martha Stewart, who told the New York Times: “When you are through changing, you’re through” – which I also love as a maxim. She is right: what keeps us feeling alive is the trying of new things, that state of always becoming, not being done.
And on that note RIP Tina Turner, truly a Super Queenager, who became the biggest rock and roll star in the world aged 61 – having already been a singer for 40 years and having survived unbelievable hardship, violence and domestic abuse from her husband/manager Ike (and the misogynistic gendered ageism of the music industry). Tina won through and encouraged millions of other survivors, by refusing to conform to stereotype, believing in her talent and her destiny; KNOWING she was not done, had no sell-by date. A true inspiration.
In the Hundred-year-life, 50 is only half way through – that’s why I called my platform to empower women in midlife and change the cultural narrative about ageing, Noon.org.uk. This is only the middle of the day; the beginning of our third quarter, a new period of possibility and growth, a transition into a new version of ourselves. What I love about the trajectories of Super Queenagers like Dame Joan, and Tina is that they are rare torch-bearers in our youth-obsessed culture, for what the third and indeed, fourth, quarter of our lives can look like.
I listened to a podcast with the head of the Milken Institute on ageing last week who was saying that one of the huge bits of good news for humanity of the last 100 years is the massive expansion, a doubling, in the amount of time we are living. But that the downside of that scientific win is that we haven’t really worked out what to do with that extra bit of time yet; or what we need to do to make the most of it! That is so true. We haven’t even really begun as a culture to think about what living longer means, or can mean.
I was lucky enough to get a great taste of what living a fantastic long life can look like and how to make the most of it, close to home: my own grandmother lived till she was 97 and she had an equally good Health Span, fit enough until a few months before the end to still provide what she called “Meals on wheels for the old dears in the village” – delivering hot food to oldies in her neighbourhood, most of whom were at least twenty years younger than she was! She also kept driving right up to the end (yes it was pretty terrifying) and when I broke a cruciate ligament and needed looking after, she did just that, in her nineties. Me hopping around Twyford Waitrose with her carrying the shopping. Just months before she died we did an obstacle course for some of her many great-grandchildren (aged then about three, four and five). It involved jumping over logs and a wheelbarrow, hopping, egg and spoon, running around the garden, hitting a croquet mallet: she was absolutely DETERMINED to beat the little ones. And she did! Panting over the line, keen to see her time on the stopwatch. (Though I was worried afterwards that the exertion might have killed her when she collapsed looking a little grey into a chair - luckily we hadn’t). She was fit because she dug her garden, cooked, walked her dog and did the Times crossword every day. Her motto was ‘use it or lose it’ – if you keep going and keep doing all the things you always did, then you can go on doing them. Her party trick in her nineties was doing a yoga move where she balanced on her hands and elbows. She wasn’t a health nut: she drank a G&T at lunch and a another one and wine in the evening, made and ate cake, ate a square or two of dark chocolate after lunch. I think it was her activity and her interest in the world and the doings of her 30-odd descendants that kept her going so well for so long. She was always engaged, interested – never a spectator. An excellent lesson in how to live well to nearly a hundred.
Her daughter, my aunt Eleanor (I am her namesake) is a similarly awesome Super Queenager. She is a successful artist who paints every day; plays tennis four or five times a week, gets up every morning and does thirty squats, despite being in her early 80s. “To enjoy your eighties you have to stay strong: it’s about balance, and keeping strong legs and core so you don’t fall over. And going on doing what you do!” she told me when I rang her for some advice. Indeed spry eighty-somethings are some of my favourite ladies. I had a hilarious afternoon at the Groucho Club last week with the indomitable Geraldine Sharpe-Newton (80) telling me about hanging out with Gloria Steinem, her work in journalism and going from ‘suburban mom to feminist activist’. While my friend Dame Carol Black’s schedule (at 83) makes me feel exhausted; when I hung out with her at her recent launch of Animals, a new exhibition at the British Library (where she is the Chair) she’d just come back from a trip to Singapore and America. She was moaning about the lack of consideration for Super Queenagers at Zara (she is the epitome of chic) and was also insisting (as a medic) on the importance of weight bearing exercise and activity for later-life women. “The more active you are, the more you keep going with what you have always done, the more you can do!”
The trouble is that usually the only older women we hear about in the media aren’t these poly-capable powerhouses, or ordinary extraordinaries like my granny, but ones who LOOK good for their age. Just think of the hullaballoo made about Martha Stewart appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated in her swimsuit,
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or the comments on Joan Collins at 90: “She must be the best-looking 90 year old in the world.” Or the Daily Mirror’s front page yesterday featuring newscaster Jan Leeming in her cossie at 80. I am all for more representation in the mainstream of Queenagers and Super Queenagers – but I can’t help but feel a bit depressed when once again when they are featured it is all about appearance, not substance. Far more cheering than praising octagenarians for being airbrushed to look like younger women, was reading Amanda Craig’s excellent new novel Three Graces, whose three heroines are all women in their 80s: “Age had not diminished them: quite the opposite. They had become more concentrated versions of themselves, just as a pot of soup does the longer it is simmered.” The rules of their friendship are not to moan about their ailments, demented husbands, widowhood or travails “but to live in and enjoy the present – let us live and love, for tomorrow we die.” The three of them exhibit such joy-giving traits as hard-won wisdom, compassion, revelry in arts and books and the people they love and a kind of amused tolerance for the egos and ups and downs of the world and the vagaries of others. While being tough, unself-pitying and resolutely independent. As I said: Super Queenagers. I highly recommend it.
So rather than judging ourselves and coming up lacking when presented with images of stunning older women (all the above but also Sharon Stone, 63, who was everywhere last week in a bikini) here’s a novel suggestion. Rather than fixating on looks and feeling a sense of lack, let’s remind ourselves that what makes us attractive at all ages is our fire, our energy, our engagement, our passion, our wisdom, our experience – WHO we are. To truly change the way older women are valued in our society we need to get beyond the patriarchal obsession of judging women (of all ages now) on their looks and concentrate instead on how we are FEELING, what we are and can DO, and feel lucky to still be here. (I highly recommend the beautiful book We All Want Impossible Things by Catherine Newman if you want a reminder of that).
We need to start valuing all women for ALL that they are, not thinking that we are changing the story about ageing by picturing a few freakishly young-looking oldies and banging on about how good they are for their age. That is not helping change the script at all. It’s just the same old nonsense with an older slant. So who are your favourite Queenagers and Super Queenagers – and why? They don’t have to be famous, who inspires you? Who do you want to be like as you age? Would love to hear your stories and suggestions.I’ll share them on another week.
Happy Bank Holiday.
PS for Paid Subscribers, the Noon Circle is on Tuesday May 30th at 7pm in Soho
And if any of you fancy a Noon expedition, there are still a few places on the Noon Wasing retreat on July 8th. Swimming in the private lake on this beautiful estate, Queenager yoga, walks, delicious lunch and a Noon Circle under the 1500 year old Yew Tree. See you there.