Paulina Porizkova and Naomi Watts should have met much earlier. As a supermodel and author (her new book No Filter: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful came out in November), Porizkova first became famous in the 1980s for being awarded the highest-paid modeling contract at the time and appearing on the cover of multiple magazines, including this one. Shortly before the pandemic, she suddenly lost her husband, and soon became an active chronicler of the process of grieving, aging, and betrayal—all on Instagram, leading the New York Times to call her “Paulina Porizkova, Full-Frontal Emotion.”
Oscar-nominated actress Naomi Watts’s work in films such as Birdman, The Impossible, and 21 Grams often has her acting with full-frontal emotions, too, as her characters repeatedly encounter tragedy and loss. Her newest role, as the founder of the menopause beauty brand Stripes, is different in that she actually feels hopeful. “We know all the bad shit. We’ve felt it; we’ve done it; we know there’s more ahead. But is there any hope? Yes, there is,” she says. ELLE brought together Porizkova and Watts over Zoom for an open conversation—over laughter, joy, and mutual appreciation—on almost all of society’s taboos: mourning, becoming “well-seasoned women,” and sex at a certain age (plus a little bit about psychics).
NAOMI WATTS: Paulina, I’ve been following you on Instagram. You’re a beautiful writer. You’ve written a few books now, and you’re on to your third?
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PAULINA PORIZKOVA: Yeah, on my third now. And I still get comments like, “Paulina Porizkova is attempting to write a book.” I do wonder how many men they’d say that about, who have two books published. You did Gypsy in 2017, a Netflix TV series where you played a therapist. I couldn’t get enough of your face—a face that looked real, that looked like mine, that moved and had all of its things, all of its stories.
NW: I’m not always one to go for a compliment, but I’ll try to breathe that in. I feel like today, so much has changed in the need for one’s voice to come through, and you’ve achieved that so beautifully. Do you ever have a mini panic attack about what you’re posting and putting out there in the world?
PP: You answer first because I think that’s in your brain. How does that work for you?
NW: Like your industry, it was almost always, the more mystery the better. I’ve always been quite naturally shy and private. But there’s the other side of me that does want to break that open, and goes, I’d like to start a menopause brand.
PP: For models, nobody really cares because we are just supposed to be pretty in a picture, and if we talk a lot, we mostly get ignored. I’ve had this great desire, since my childhood, to be heard. People have always had an assumption of who I was without actually ever listening to me. When I became a model at 15, my life was always seen from the outside. On Instagram, I usually compose my words in the morning, and I read all my comments. Sometimes I send it out with a little tremble, but never with a desire to take it back. Only with a little shudder of, Gosh, I hope I’m not going to get my ass kicked on this one. Whether it’s acting, painting, writing—if it doesn’t come from a deep inner truth, it’s not art.
NW: But it’s not always easy to find in yourself. What means something to me one day might not later.
PP: That’s true, and I think that’s called growing up and changing your mind, which we’re absolutely allowed to do.
NW: Yay to growing up, definitely.
PP: Thank you so much for what you are doing for us women—I like to call us well-seasoned women. We start off as little blobs of dough: bland, not much in there, maybe a little bit of sugar. We acquire seasonings from everything we’ve experienced and everything we’ve seen. And we are spicy now.
NW: If you’d asked me years ago if I would ever have a menopause brand, I would’ve laughed, like, “As if. Gross.” And here I am talking about it all the time now. I started perimenopause very early, living through fear, panic, shame, secrecy, and it just felt like there’s got to be a platform for people to come bitch, moan, cry, laugh, and feel less alone.
PP: I was talking a lot about grief, having lost my husband, and in the middle of the pandemic, too. I was just looking for a connection, like you with menopause. But talking about it draws all the rest of us in who need that light. Ageism and grief are still two things that are really tucked away; perhaps it’s because it has to do with death, and so it’s uncomfortable.
NW: You said losing your husband drove you there. But was there something in your childhood…I don’t know. Sorry.
PP: No worries. Please, no, please continue your question. Because I don’t have Botox, my face looks [very animated] with everything you say.
NW: [Laughs] I have a repetitive theme in my work as an actor, and it’s grief and identity. I try to change up my choices, but they seem to become thematic.
PP: Once you have become the unfortunate member of the grief club, it does expand your world a bit. It adds empathy, and those who are not members cannot [really understand]. It’s not a club that you want to be in. But the silver lining is that once you are a member, I understand you, you understand me, and it’s a little piece that would’ve gone missing if we hadn’t had that happen in our lives. And now you’re making me feel so…but that’s okay, I’m down for crying if you are.
NW: Let’s just call it what it is, we’re up for weepies.
PP: I used to be the one person who never cried. I took such pride in not crying because I saw it as a weakness, which wasn’t super great when I was in movies. I’d rather that you’d see me on the toilet taking a poop than crying because crying felt more intimate. But once my husband died, I just decided to go with the new me, who will cry when I feel sad, and when I feel sad for you—because it’s a beautiful connector when you can hear somebody and you can acknowledge the weight of their feelings.
NW: That went deep. And I’m very sorry about your loss, too. That’s not something you get over, is it? You just manage it.
PP: No. You never do get over it. I’m sure you’re never really going to get over your dad’s passing, either, or missing him or missing having one. Women will sometimes ask me about menopause, like, “How was it for you? What did you do?” I was also going through menopause at the same time that my husband died; I didn’t know what my money situation was going to be, I had to sell my house, and a man I was going out with walked away from me. There’s years of time that I actually don’t even know what was going on, where I was, or how I was feeling besides the worst that one could possibly feel and still be alive. But I do know about postmenopause.
NW: And how are you feeling?
PP: I started getting perimenopausal symptoms in my late forties. Toward the end of my marriage, I was becoming invisible to my husband sexually at the same time as I was becoming invisible to the rest of the population. I thought, I’m not desirable anymore. I was 50 and I was like, Oh Lord, I just want to know if I’m ever going to have sex again.
I remember going to a psychic: “Will I ever have sex again?” And the psychic reassured me. I figured that being postmenopausal, you would not really have a desire for sex anymore, or that it could become painful, or that it wouldn’t be that much fun anymore. The big surprise to me was that sex postmenopause is just as good if not better than before, and that’s my happy discovery.
NW: Congratulations. It shouldn’t be only seen as doom and gloom. There is a reclaiming of oneself postmenopause. We’re in closer touch with our most authentic selves. We’re at a place where we can make decisions that are not hormone-related, so they’re better decisions. In stories, we’re usually just the crazy lady losing her mind. This is a natural phase of life; it’s going to happen to half the population and indirectly affect others.
PP: We are also living for considerably longer. It’s entirely possible that you and I will be 100.
NW: I always used to be so concerned with what everyone else was thinking, or wearing. Now I’ve got this stomach that’s had babies and crinkly skin and I’ve never fixed it—and I might one day, never say never. I do the three-quarter-length top in yoga, and I don’t care, because it tells a story. My girlfriends and I in our fifties all do it now, because we feel great that we are there. We might feel better about ourselves than the twenty-somethings.
PP: I felt most shit about myself when I was voted one of the 50 most beautiful women. I was dissected in such tiny miniscule parts and always compared to somebody. A supermodel is always compared to another supermodel. I don’t get to be compared to your cousin. When you’re young and insecure, you don’t have the wisdom and the confidence that come with age. I appreciate the way I look on the outside so much more now than I did 35 years ago. I think I’m more beautiful.
NW: In terms of sex and desire, I’ve always felt that if you know what you want and know who you are, there’s nothing more desirable. A woman becomes more beautiful when she’s in herself, when she’s garnered multiple experiences, and the successes, failures, humiliations, and recoveries [that come with that]. That, to me, is true beauty, and if I was a [heterosexual] man, that’s what I would desire.
PP: I have an essay about it in my book, but what society considers beautiful is actually more like pretty or attractive, literally attractive—because it makes people attracted to them. But it’s not actually what beauty is. It comes back to beauty being truth. And I’m not actually only talking about inner beauty. Again, that’s kind of the cliché: The real beauty is on the inside, etc. Yes, in a way, but the inside filters onto the outside. All women are beautiful on the outside; you just have to know how to look. And as seasoned women, we are just better at looking. I’m 57, and I find this to be an extraordinary time, where I finally have a really perfect balance. The way I look outwardly is still okay, and the way I am inwardly is really good. With age, society will probably see me as less and less attractive, and so I’ll probably become more and more brilliant just to make up for it.
NW: It’s true, balance is everything.
PP: Enjoy the scale while it’s right. Men are absolutely fantastic creatures, but men my age, my generation, I wish they could see a little better.
NW: They’re too rare. I didn’t expect to meet someone after I separated. He’s not squeamish about me aging, and I met him in the height of my menopause.
PP: Really? Wow. Now when I dare to post a bikini shot—
NW: God forbid.
PP: A dude on Twitter who claimed to be an anthropology professor said that since I can no longer reproduce, why should anybody be interested in me? All women didn’t die after menopause, did they? We have biologically evolved as human beings. If you had put Bill Gates out in the jungle 2,000 years ago, how many children would he have spawned? Now there are men in charge of the world who would have never made it past childhood. So if those rules don’t apply to men, they shouldn’t fricking apply to us either.
NW: Yeah. That’s right.
PP: So get with it.
A version of this article appears in the December/January 2022 issue of ELLE.
ELLE Beauty Director
Kathleen Hou is ELLE”s Beauty Director. Previously, she held the same title at New York Magazine’s The Cut. She’s appeared in publications such as New York, The New York Times Magazine, Vogue India, Forbes, and Allure. She was also a co-founder of Donate Beauty, a grassroots beauty donation project started during the COVID-19 crisis, which donated over 500,000 products to over 30,000 healthcare workers across 500+ hospitals.