Real dilemmas, real solutions – from our real-life superheroes. A model now, a model back then, a model citizen always – American-born Anglophile Jan de Villeneuve believes wishes can come true and just might be related to Spike Lee.
What makes you feel wild?
I’m not someone who tends to feel wild, but when I was 50 I acted in a Noël Coward play, Design for Living, at the Donmar Warehouse along with Rachel Weisz, and it was a new and amazing experience. There were ten of us, but while they were all actors, I’d never done any acting before. Our group rehearsals were almost a spiritual experience, such a passionate feeling. You think you’d get tired of saying the same things every night on stage, but it was different and wonderful each time. You never tire of being with the same people night after night, because after such a long period of doing everything together you become very close. I never expected to be acting on stage at that age, nor to love it as much as I did.
What one thing are you currently doing to make the planet greener?
I’m always recycling. And in this neighbourhood – we live near the Oare Marshes Nature Reserve on the Thames estuary – we have an ancient artesian well dating back to the 1700s, so I get all my water there using left-over apple juice bottles. It’s such a gift to get really pure water and not to have to use any plastics, and some people say it’s the best water in England. It runs 24 hours a day and never stops flowing.
Where does your soul most happily reside: city, countryside, or both?
Pretty much both, I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland Ohio, which has a rapid transit which goes downtown in 25 minutes. My mother would trust me to go that far – into town and back – and ever since then I’ve always liked the idea of being in the country but also being able to access a city’s culture really easily.
The DJ fails to show up. What’s your go-to track to get everyone dancing?
I love the Neil Young song “Like A Hurricane”, but the version sung by Bryan Ferry, it’s just such a wonderful song to get up and dance to. My partner Andy Newmark is a drummer and used to play with Bryan. I met him when the kids were little, nine and 13. We’ve been together for 30 years and I used to play this on the school run.
Who is the hero or heroine you’d be tongue-tied to find yourself sitting next to at a dinner?
I was very shy as a young girl but nothing much stops me from talking now. I think President Obama or his wife Michelle would be interesting to talk to. I’m an American who has lived abroad for some years, so it would be wonderfully inspiring to sit next to them.
The message to your younger self?
Always seek more knowledge. Keep an open mind. Be prepared to change your opinion if you get more information that makes more sense – a lot of people get new information but they just won’t allow themselves to change their minds.
Which world conflict would you like to see resolved first and how would you do it?
Immigration is an issue that’s important: people need refuge. There are so many people who have lost their homes, of so many different nationalities, and as human beings, we’re not all that different and we need to help and support them. I’m not quite sure what I can do to resolve this crisis but it would be nice to help if I can.
You’re on a raft adrift in the ocean and the sharks are circling. Who is your companion to get you to shore safely - and who would you feed to the sharks?
This is a tough one. I had an uncle, Bud Kenny, one of my mother’s brothers, who had polio at 19 and was completely disabled. He couldn’t walk, go to the loo, feed himself, but he was completely inspirational and managed to do everything just through sheer spirit and inner force. His integrity and hard work enabled him to travel the world. He lived across from the university and he’d let university students live with him – in return for a room they would help him out of his car and into his wheelchair. He carved out a wonderful life for himself, dying when he was 71. You never thought you were doing anything for him; you always felt he was doing everything for you. He was a very spiritual man. You never heard him complain. I’ve always been conflicted by modelling as a job. Even though there are many parts of it that are wonderful, the idea of trying to make a living through how you look never seemed quite right back then, and thinking of my uncle and how he managed to do so much with so many obstacles in his life somehow helped me get through the superficial bits. So I think that Uncle Bud would be great on the raft. As for, who I would push off – well, President Trump seems to enjoy swimming with sharks.
What do you look for in a deputy?
Someone who is trustworthy, professional, congenial and with a good sense of humour.
What’s the key requirement for a lifetime partner of the romantic kind?
I would say a good communicator, someone with a sense of humour, who is fun to be with, loves my family, and if they’re a good dancer that’s a bonus.
What’s the retirement plan?
No plan, I’m having a good year and I’m 74 so no plans to retire.
What’s your favourite lazy-at-home dish to cook?
Probably my go-to thing is vegetarian lasagne. I find some nice organic wholemeal pasta and I use a jar of tomato sauce, loads of organic leeks from the freezer, then I add some spinach, mozzarella, ricotta, layer it all up and top with parmesan cheese. It’s quite easy.
Career advice for the Jan wannabes?
I did not intend to be a model, nor would I encourage anyone to be a model. It’s such an arbitrary job description. You have to pay attention and learn certain ways of doing modelling; acting for me was something that was more life-enhancing. I would do more but I have such an American accent – I came here in 1958 but it sounds like I stepped off the plane a week ago. I’m not about to take any work from Glenn Close, that’s for sure. But going back to modelling – you have to be professional, pay attention and don’t worry about what others think. It’s all changed so much now with Instagram which I diligently beaver away at, dragging out all the old modelling pictures because people like them, but to be honest, it’s not in my nature. I’d rather post pictures of the artesian well. But one thing that’s nice is that people seem to like the pictures of me “as is” – with no plastic surgery – and I think they like the fact that I do look old.
What do you wish you had said to someone who has departed this earth? And what do you wish they had said to you?
I was in therapy with the psychiatrist RD Laing for two years and I realise now that he must have seen things in me that he hadn’t talked about at the time, particularly in regard to some relationships. I started seeing him after I left him a note in a milk bottle asking for an appointment – luckily the milkman didn’t take it – because I’d been writing all my dreams down in the middle of the night when I woke up, and I had all this information that I thought might be interesting for him. I’m not sure why he became such a cult figure and then later some people were very anti him, but I guess that’s the way it goes with stuff like that. He would ask questions that would cause you to ask things about yourself, and I’d be in his office and think, “Why didn’t I think of that?” One day, I was doing a job for Vogue and had to run off in my lunch hour to see him. I felt embarrassed as I had all my make up on still, which in those days I’d probably have done myself, and I started to waffle on before I checked myself, realising it was important to make use of that hour. One time I thought he was sleeping, but it was always an illuminating experience seeing him, and anyway, I’m sure I do send some people to sleep.
The last time you prayed, who did you pray to and were your prayers answered?
Sometimes things happen for the best, and they’re not always the things you pray, hope or wish for. I had a little boy who died prematurely, born nine weeks early. It was really sad that he died, but then I had Poppy two years later and I wouldn’t have had her if he had been here, as I already had Daisy. So a happy situation sometimes arises that you don’t foresee. You just have to be philosophical.
Who do you currently have a crush on?
I’m not the kind of person who has crushes but I am particularly susceptible to my granddaughter Edie who is two. Charming, funny and very enjoyable. It’s wonderful to see the world from the perspective of a two year old.
What would your Tinder profile say?
Dog and cat lover. Devoted to family and friends. Interested in art, books, places and people.
What superhero power would you most like to have and why?
Time travel. My maiden name is Griswald, and there were three Griswald brothers who came from the Malvern area in England to America in 1639, so I think to go back and see how they made that trip and find out why they left – it seems amazing, probably not for you English, but certainly for us Americans. I was watching the Who Do You Think You Are? programme featuring Spike Lee, and it turns out there was a Griswald in his family from down South. It would be fabulous to be related to Spike Lee, can you imagine? It may be a long shot, but who knows?
Where do you get your therapy from?
I have a wonderful yoga teacher and masseuse who has a great depth of feeling on both a spiritual and physical level, so she’s someone I do occasionally say things to because she has a wealth of emotional goodness.
Your book at bedtime?
I’d like to re-read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – it’s a novel about an immigrant Greek family, set in Detroit and Michigan, and explores inter-sex gender anatomy as well as human emotions. I spent all my summers in Michigan and so this book appealed to me not only for the intriguing ideas about inter-sex anatomy and gender identity, but also because of the places I grew up in.
“Live your life so you can say I have really done my best to be true to who I am.” My mother took it from the opera singer Barbara Hendricks.
What did you learn from the toughest time in your life?
When I had the little boy who died I learned that you have to just press on and hope for better days. And two years later I was able to have Poppy and I can’t imagine life without her.
And from the happiest?
Take things in your stride, don’t expect too much. Life moves on and you have to keep perspective.
You’re blowing out the candles on the birthday cake. What one thing do you wish for?
Probably I would wish for happiness and safety for my family. I remember when I was seven, I blew the candles out on the cake and wished for an Alice in Wonderland doll, and sure enough I got one in a little tin trunk, and she was so beautiful in her little outfit. And every Christmas my mother would make more little dresses for this doll, a red ballgown with stars, a wedding dress, so for me, that wish came true. It made me think that wishes can come true.