The girl with the freckles

Linda Spierings was one of the first Dutch models with an international career. In the eighties she was on the cover of almost every foreign fashion magazine and has since worked with all the big names in fashion photography. Former editor of Dutch Elle José Rozenbroek meets with the model and learns that despite her outward beauty, the ‘Linda factor’ is more likely thanks to her state of mind. ‘Appearance is a game, nothing more, nothing less.’ (Read the interview below)

Photographs Liselore Chevalier Words José Rozenbroek Styling Valerie van der Werff

‘It was our very first Monday morning since we’d moved to Amsterdam and I remember suggesting to Pim that we go the Amstelveld to buy all kinds of plants and flowers. Now that we no longer had a garden of our own I said, we’d have to bring nature home a different way. And sure enough, in no time we had bees busily buzzing from flower to flower and butterflies fluttering around on our roof terrace. I was so happy! These are the sorts of memories that make me instantly happy to look back on’.

Linda Spierings (57) and her dachshund Tip (‘Just be sure not to stroke him if you want your feet to stay dry’) received me on a rainy Monday afternoon in the apartment where she and her husband Pim Thomassen have been living for the last few months: floor to ceiling windows overlooking a canal, dark wooden beams and floors, clean white walls and a soft white sofa standing in stark contrast to the dark table. An improvised altar stacked with art books, candles and pictures stands in one corner (‘I burn a candle for all my loved ones who need it’) and on the wall there’s a painting by good friend and ‘style meister’ San Ming. Two photographs take pride of place on the mantelpiece, testament to Linda’s modelling past: one from the eighties by American fashion photographer Bruce Weber and one from 2003 by the Dutch fashion photography couple Inez & Vinoodh. She’s beautiful in the pictures but even more so in real life, her light brown skin glowing with freckles, the elegant tache de beauté on her upper lip, her body slender and straight. She’s dressed in a black cashmere sweater, grey baggy pants and black sneakers with a fine gold chain around her neck and little gems in her ears. Her dark hair is in a braid and she’s wearing hardly any makeup. She is agile and graceful, talks incessantly and laughs a lot and exuberantly.

I join her in the modern open plan kitchen as she pours fragrant jasmine tea where we remain standing for our whole conversation, much to her delight. ‘There’s a different energy if you stand when you talk, don’t you think?’

After spending twenty-five years in the country she and her husband are back in town. Why? Because Amsterdam was beckoning, because the old house in Loenen in which they lived had become too large and empty after the children had flown the nest, and because her mother (80) needs more care and attention. ‘Now I only need to get on my bike and I’m with her in ten minutes. And it’s important that she can come here, too. This weekend we cooked Indonesian together.’

Pim runs his agency for photographers and stylists and Linda spends her days doing volunteer work with disabled children, travelling, taking drawing lessons (‘I’m the worst in my class and don’t dare to show Pim my work’) and generally just taking life as it comes.
Pim and her were high school sweethearts. ‘We’ve known each other for 39 years now. What a number eh? It scares me sometimes. As an outsider you might think its romantic; how lovely to have grown up together. And of course that’s true. But during your journey together you will discover if you want to be there for each other. ‘I never thought anything like, I must stay with this guy for the rest of my life. It was always more like if things feel this good, why should I be afraid of the future?
We have our two children, Sophia (29) and Daan (26), our foster child Titi and our countless good friends. Life is actually getting better as the years go by. We’ve experienced so much together, we have such a wealth of memories. If you can share everything with someone else for so long… well I’ve learned that that’s what makes a person rich’.

Linda was 22 and a third-year pedagogy student when she first walked the cat walk in her friend’s show, the beginning of her successful career as a model. She’s walked shows in Paris and Milan, done fashion series in Dutch magazines and also for major foreign magazines like American and British Vogue, ELLE and Marie Claire. She’s been photographed by all the great fashion photographers of the time — Steven Meisel, Herb Ritts, Karl Lagerfeld, Richard Avedon, Peter Lindbergh… you name it — but her fondest memory concerns the shoots with stylist Frans Ankoné and photographer Maarten Schets for Dutch magazine Avenue. ‘Frans packed a suitcase with clothes and I had my bag full of makeup and hair curlers (I did my own hair and makeup at the time). Maarten had his backpack full of photography gear and off we went. All over the world, as free as birds. Sometimes we’d be on the road for two, three weeks for a single shoot. Unimaginable in these times.’

“Often the greatest of minds are very approachable. They look all around and will never look down on anyone”

This was the glamorous period from which the iconic pictures that will be imprinted on the retina of anyone who read the Dutch magazine Avenue in those years belong: Linda in colourful skirts on the steppes of Mongolia; Linda in silken rags in Indian slums; Linda in a Mao outfit and waving a flag in front of a Chinese wall.
She shrugs: ‘You never know at the time whether a photograph will become iconic. Only time will tell. What I did know was that people had begun to recognise me. They would point or whisper when they saw me. That was weird for a pedagogy student who got around on their bike or on roller skates…’
This was also the time she met Tunesian fashion designer Azzedine Alaïa. The two were introduced by American fashion photographer Arthur Elgort who thought the new Dutch girl with her freckles and the then still unknown designer would be an interesting match for a photo session. ‘We’ve never lost sight of each other from that moment. Azzedine is one of my very best friends. He feels like family. He has a big family, I realise, I’m one of his many sisters. Between us it’s a little different because we already knew each other before we were famous. He’s faithful and has a good sense of humour, and taught me how to look at things. Azzedine can throw great dinner parties for which he brings all sorts of people together. You might be sitting next to his driver or Beyoncé or a writer or politician. You get a very special sense of cross-pollination. It’s the same idea as the Salons of the twenties and thirties, where people would tell each other stories and share beautiful things’.

Do you feel always at ease? ‘Yes, usually. Often the greatest of minds are very approachable. They look all around and will never look down on anyone. And I’m naturally curious, I just ask. An open mind goes a long way’.

Her exotic looks are the result of many cultures. Her father’s parents were of Jewish, Dutch, French and Spanish decent and her mother has English, Chinese, Javanese, Balinese, Belgian and German blood flowing through her veins.

It is extra difficult for a beautiful woman to grow older? ‘Frankly, I don’t mind getting older. Of course I see the transformation everyday in the mirror; see how my wrinkles are becoming a permanent feature, see how slow it takes the dark shadows under my eyes to disappear… But I’ve made peace with it. You can fight it, but that’s not real, isn’t natural. I think it’s important to stay physically fit, so I’m happy as long as I can run. But in the end you realise that the most attractive people are those with a personality, with whom you can have a good conversation. It has nothing to do with outward beauty.’ She laughs. ‘Of course the fact my friends are older makes me feel a little better about all this’.

“I make sure to start every day like someone who’s really enjoying their existence. I think that’s really important”

 ‘Appearance is a game, nothing more, nothing less. Every morning I wake up in a good mood and I wonder what the day will bring me. When the sun shines, I’m even happier. I make sure to start every day like someone who’s really enjoying their existence. I think that’s really important’.

She tells me how, at the age of ten, her father more or less disappeared from her life when her mother left him. How her mother and her four children then moved in with her own mother, Linda’s grandmother, who lovingly looked after them all. ‘At the same time as having to care for my grandfather who was suffering from Parkinson’s, too. That’s a typically Indonesian trait: they don’t complain, ever. My grandparents never even talked about their experiences during the war. My grandfather was deported to Japan, my grandmother and mother were in a Japanese labor camp… But you’d seldom hear them talk about it. Never look back, but forward. Sudah, it’s better that way.’ Indonesians take care of others. Every human being is important and you don’t let anyone down. I know what it means to feel loved and protected and that’s given me a lot of strength. I carry it with me always’.

Are you also an ‘Indonesian mom’ to your own children? Laughs: ‘I guess I am a little, yeah. On the one hand I’m a strict mom. I’m not afraid of telling my kids that life isn’t always fun. Not invited to a party? It can happen, get used to it. I don’t believe in endless pampering, but on the other hand I’ll never stop them from doing anything that could give them wings. ’

“I’ve enjoyed looking through their eyes all those years so much. A child can see such beautiful things, can say such beautiful things”

You became a full-time mother after years being the focus of attention. Wasn’t that hard to get used to? Linda is radiant: ‘I loved it. We were living on an island four hectares big on the Vecht. You had to manoeuvre the car over a very narrow bridge to reach it and there were only two houses on it. My children were raised fishing for frogs, skating, sailing in our Turkish fisherman’s boat. I’ve enjoyed looking through their eyes all those years so much. A child can see such beautiful things, can say such beautiful things.’

Did you get sad when the children left home? ‘No, actually not. Pim found it more difficult. It was more abrupt for him I guess, but I’d already been watching how they were slowly untying themselves from us’. She gestures with her arms. ‘Like how little birds flutter when they’re learning to fly. It tries out its wings, tries to fly from the nest, doesn’t dare and comes back, tries again and gets a little further but then quickly comes back to the nest where it’s safe, where it’s home… until it dares to try again. Back and fourth until finally, he goes! That’s the best thing there is. Ultimately, it’s what you do it all for: to be able to give your child everything they need and then finally letting them go’.

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