Aged to perfection: Role model for beauty
By Gail O'Neill
(CNN) -- When actress Meryl Streep recently became a French commander of the Order of Arts and Letters -- one of highest honors given to artists -- she thanked her fans in France for "loving women of a certain age in movies and in life."
The French expression "woman of a certain age" refers to middle-age, and the French -- and Europeans in general -- have long appreciated the beauty of older women.
But as 53-year-old Streep said that day: "America doesn't reward people of my age, either in day-to-day life or for their performances."
Those words resonated with her fans back home -- getting older has a bad rap in the United States, especially if you're a woman.
"As human beings we all want to be valued," says former makeup artist Cindy Joseph. "But the sad truth is that women are judged based on their looks, and in this age-obsessed society our value goes down as our age goes up."
Which is why Joseph thought "it was a joke" when a casting agent approached her on an East Village street in Manhattan nearly three years ago, asking if she wanted to model for an upcoming campaign for Dolce & Gabbana, the hip couture fashion house.
For one thing, Cindy, a single mother of two, was 49 at the time and ready to retire from the fashion business. Twenty-three years of painting some of the most famous faces in L.A., New York, Paris, and beyond had been fun, but the Seattle, Washington, native was ready to swap city living for a life "in the wilderness somewhere out West."
But in truth, the biggest roadblock to modeling was the little voice inside her head.
"Like everybody else, I suffered from all the prejudices about what a model should look like," she laughs. "I was not 18 years old. I wasn't 6 feet tall. And I wasn't really, really skinny." A perfect size 6, Cindy is 5-feet-7-inches tall and her weight ranges between 125 to 130 pounds.
But the creative team at Dolce & Gabbana saw things differently and hired a stunned Joseph for the gig.
A savvy dismissal of prejudices
Once the ad was published, the new "it" girl came to the attention of Patty Sicular and Janet Rohan of Ford Models in New York City -- legendary home of supermodels. The two signed her to an exclusive contract just two days after their first meeting.
Looking back, Sicular, co-director of the Ford's celebrity and classic division, recalls, "Cindy only defied convention in terms of her height " -- two inches shy of Ford's minimum height requirement -- "and her decision to begin modeling about 25 years later than the usual starting age. But knew we could get her booked."
Those instincts proved correct.
"O, The Oprah Magazine" was one of the first to feature Cindy in its pages. Before long, she was hired for lucrative print and TV ads for such companies as Lincoln Navigator, Nordstrom, Banana Republic, Hush Puppies and Verizon Wireless.
Joseph's look was seen as strong, contemporary, confident and authentic. But most important: Consumers reacted to her image positively, proving that she had what it takes to move merchandise for clients. Her career took off -- and today she commands a rate of up to $25,000 for a day's work.
Gray hair glamour
The shock of silver hair has become her trademark, but there was a time when she admits it made her nervous.
A flower child to the core, Joseph was "cool" with going gray in her thirties. Then came her forties, when, she says, "I'd catch a glimpse of myself on those off-days and think: 'I'm not ready for this.' So I started covering the gray."
After six years, she had a change of heart.
"I thought to myself, 'You are such a hypocrite!' I was always spouting off about the beauty of aging while covering up the evidence of my own age. So I stopped. And, don't you know -- the day I cut off the last inches of colored hair was the day that scout approached on the street."
"And the best part," she says, "is that I'm being used to promote products that represent vitality."
That point is not lost on her many boomer fans, both male and female, who look just like their new role model, and like her, show no signs of slowing down.
According to Nesta David, of Arcade Marketing, Madison Avenue is finally catching on that it pays to keep up with this pack.
They don't need Geritol or Depends; and they bristle at the sight of 20-something models hawking anti-wrinkle creams and "age-defying" makeup.
"Baby boomers are a vocal and aggressive generation," says David, a senior vice president and creative director. "They will demand representation reflected in the world around them. Cindy does everyone a service by helping to visually represent these women. They are our sisters, mothers, wives, friends, lovers ... as well as our directors, CEOs, doctors, lawyers and national security advisers."
And -- they're worth it.