We caught up with the longtime L’Oréal Paris brand ambassador about the honourees of the annual Women of Worth gala, what makes her feel empowered as a woman in 2021 — and the power of a great lipstick.
When I “meet” Dame Helen Mirren over Zoom, my nerves — she’s practically royalty, not to mention a bona fide screen legend and norm-defying badass, after all — are immediately calmed when we both realize we’ve chosen a headband and statement earrings for our from-the-collarbone-up look of the day. Twinning with an icon? Not a bad way to end a Monday. I’m chatting with the 75-year-old actor, model and activist, who is back hosting the L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth Awards Gala (virtually, of course), an annual event that honours a diverse group of Canadian women leaders committed to fighting for change in their communities.
Over the last five years, in celebration of International Women’s Day, the L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth Awards Gala has recognized the women leading organizations whose causes include the prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse, food insecurity, environmental sustainability, the development of platforms for BIPOC communities, and more. (You can read more about 2021’s deserving group of honourees here.) Mirren, a longtime L’Oréal Paris brand ambassador, last hosted the gala in Toronto in 2019.
Here, my delightful conversation with the unwaveringly charming Helen Mirren about what makes her feel empowered, why she favours the word “swagger” over “beauty,” and the power of a really great lipstick.
How does it feel to be back hosting the L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth Awards Gala, but this time virtually?
The gala is so wonderful because it gives these women — who work sometimes in very difficult circumstances and with such energy and commitment and sacrifice — a wonderful evening where they can dress up, have a glass of wine and be lauded, praised and applauded. And I love that L’Oréal does that for them. It’s always very glamorous. It’s very beautifully done. So I’m sad that they’re not experiencing that [this year]. But, I know that it will be an awe-inspiring experience for all of us to witness what these women do, and what women in the past and women in the future will do. And just to be inspired by the energy of women and their humanity and their commitment and their professionality and their abilities; it’s a great thing to be a part of.
What does the role of community with other women play in your life?
I’m very lucky. I have a sister who’s a very important part of my female world. I have some very, very old friends that I’ve known since I was in my early twenties and those women are incredibly important to me. And then of course, for me to be inspired by women; I love it when I can find a woman who is an inspiration and that’s why [the Women of Worth gala] is so great because there are so many know profoundly inspiring women there. A community of women is very important; only we really understand what we go through. Obviously that changes culturally — it changes from country to country, culture to culture. But I think there is also a universal understanding that women have that cuts right across cultures and languages.
“I think we should all learn that when we see inequality or injustice happening around us, we’ve got to stand up and be counted.”
What are some ways that you have felt empowered in your life, and what does women’s empowerment mean to you now?
It’s extraordinary just how much the world has changed since I was 22. Or, well, since I was 15 or 16 [actually], because before that, I didn’t really think about stuff like [women’s empowerment]. But suddenly it dawned on me the incredible inequality that women had, and the monstrous unfairness of it. I was enraged with the unfairness of it as I became more and more aware of what was going on in the relationship between men and women, what women were allowed to do, what women weren’t allowed to do, what professions were open to women, what they were supposedly not suitable for, the responsibility they had to take for anything to do with sex.
It’s been so wonderful to experience and witness the change in attitude, and also learn myself because as much as I considered myself a rebel — and I was in many ways as a young person, fiercely defending my right to be who I was — at the same time, you realize you had attitudes or you didn’t understand certain things. The whole process of development is a learning process.
But in terms of personal empowerment, it’s simply those moments that you have when you think, No goddamnit, I’m right about this. And you say so. And sometimes that’s quite difficult but I so admire people who do that. There are women out there who are beacons of hope for us all, and always have been. So it’s those moments you just stand up for yourself — or you stand up for someone else, which I think is even more important, incidentally. We should all learn that when we see inequality or injustice happening around us, we’ve got to stand up and be counted.
What has the last year of the pandemic taught you about the importance of self-care? How has it impacted your daily routines and regimens?
It’s given me time for exercise. I’m not ferocious about exercise at all but I’ve been doing yoga every day, which has been really great. And to have the time to do that has been terrific. It’s also taught me that, yes, it’s important to get up, get dressed. Even if you get dressed in lovely, comfy jim jams. [Editor’s note: That’s U.K. lingo for pyjamas.] Every day I put my makeup on, although only my husband ever sees it and he makes fun of me, anyway. But I don’t care because it’s for me. Once I get that done, I feel I can get on with business, with work, with Zoom calls.
What role does beauty or makeup play in making you feel empowered?
I love putting on makeup. I find it rather meditative. I love playing with different products. I get made up every day during COVID; every day I do my exercises, have a coffee, get made up [laughs]. Then I take it all off again, later on. I’ve always loved makeup, always. Maybe it’s one of the reasons I’m an actress because professionally I’ve had to wear it.
But the word ‘beauty’ — I’ve always had a bit of an issue with the word beauty. It used to be that you only saw very beautiful people advertising beauty products. And so people like me, and billions of other people like me, felt shut out because [they think], I’m not beautiful. I’m never going to look like that if I put makeup on, it’s not going to happen. But makeup and hand lotion, skincare and great hair products, can make you feel terrific and look clean and fresh and energetic and wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, which is much more important than looking ‘beautiful,’ you know? So, I’m looking for a new word and my new word at the moment is ‘swagger.’
What makeup products give you swagger?
L’Oréal has a great lipstick called the Hydrating Core Lipstick in an incredible range of colours, but it also has a balm in the middle. So it’s like a balm, but it’s lipstick and it lasts, and you can just smush it on and you don’t need to have to look in the mirror. Now that’s a great lipstick! And a great lipstick goes a long way in terms of giving you swagger. Lipstick and mascara — for me, mascara because I’ve got very blonde eyelashes — will give me swagger.