She has garnered two Oscars and is tipped to win another for her lead role in the new Amelia Earhart biopic, so why would Hilary Swank be interested in judging an underwear contest? As she tells Jane Gordon, it’s all to do with her passion for fashion.
Hilary Swank looks just a little out of her comfort zone. Squeezed between a model called Qi Qi and a ‘legendary’ photographer called Giovanni, the two-time-Oscar-winning actress is the ‘international celebrity’ on a panel of judges at a glamorous fashion-awards ceremony in Milan.
The climax of the event is a catwalk show held at the city’s famous design museum La Triennale, where the 28 final entries in a competition run by underwear manufacturer Triumph will be displayed. Design students from all over the world have entered the prestigious contest (the prize is E15,000, around £13,500, and a contract to put the winning bra-and-pants ensemble into production), and as the judges take their places in the front row Hilary looks very nearly as uncomfortable as the models who are wearing the more outlandish of the creations.
The organisers have promised a ‘star-studded’ audience, and a number of immaculately groomed and underdressed women seated on the front row are being photographed by the paparazzi and interviewed for an Italian cable TV network. Whether Hilary (or anybody outside Italy for that matter) has ever heard of Alena Seredova (who turns out to be the country’s number one Wag) or Anne Vyalitsyna (a model rumoured to be the latest love interest of Leonardo DiCaprio) is debatable.
But the actress, who won Oscars for her roles in Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby, is putting on a brave face for the cameras, however out of place she feels.
Hilary – who has repeatedly said, ‘I am an actress not a celebrity’ – has generally avoided occasions such as this, limiting her endorsements to a period as the ‘muse and spokesperson’ for Guerlain perfume and a US campaign for pet-rehousing.
Not that she doesn’t look like a celebrity tonight; dressed in a chic little black dress that turns her into the glamorous antithesis of the roles that made her famous (a transgender teenager and a female boxer), she smiles and claps throughout the show.
When the winner is announced – it is a victory for 20-year-old James Nolan of the UK, whose beautiful couture creation stands out against the often rather bizarre competition (the runner-up, from Australia, features a bra shaped like the Sydney opera house and a hat of the city skyline) – Hilary says all the right things (some of them in faltering Italian).
An hour later, when I finally get to meet the actress for my exclusive interview, Hilary is understandably just a little on her dignity. Our talk takes place in a corner of a large room specially set aside for VIPs. In another corner of the same room
Qi Qi (who’s famous in Singapore) is giving an interview to a lecherous Italian journalist, and over by the door, winner James (clearly lost for words) is being briefed for his first meeting with the world’s press.
Isn’t Hilary, I venture to ask, stepping out of her normal sphere to be a judge in an underwear competition? ‘No, no, I am here to judge art. I haven’t been on a panel of design judges before but I have definitely given an opinion on art,’ she says a little defensively.
Wary of putting her back up by further questioning along these lines (is underwear really ‘art’?), I ask her about her icon (the theme of the competition). Thankfully this leads us to Amelia Earhart, the pioneering American aviator, whom Hilary plays in her latest film, Amelia.
‘Amelia is one of the most iconic women of all time. It’s amazing how well known worldwide her name is, yet she died in 1937. She is a modern woman, so ahead of her time. I think she personifies a woman with her grace and her dedication to her career and her dream to fly. She was not afraid to live her life the way she chose to live it,’ she says.
The same could be said of 35-year-old Hilary. Raised in a trailer park in Bellingham, Washington, the young Hilary – a gifted gymnast and swimmer who competed in the Junior Olympics – was something of an outsider among her peers. Her parents – her mother Judy was a secretary and her father Stephen a salesman – separated when she was 13, and at 16 mother and daughter set off for Los Angeles to pursue Hilary’s acting ambitions. With little money – they lived in their car until they could rent an apartment – they got by on Hilary’s earnings from small roles in TV shows such as Growing Pains.
At 18 she had a minor part in the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, and at 20 she won the central role in The Next Karate Kid which led to what she thought would be her breakthrough part in Beverly Hills 90210. When her character was dropped from the series, Hilary thought her career was over, but an audition for an independent film turned out to be the route to her first Oscar in 2000.
‘The great thing about my job is that I get to step into somebody else’s shoes – whether that’s a pair of brogues or some stilettos’
For a month before shooting began on the true-life story Boys Don’t Cry, she got into her role by cutting off her hair and living as a man (her character, Brandon Teena, took on a male identity and was raped and murdered when her secret was uncovered). Hilary won her second Oscar, in 2005, in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, but her roles since then – including romcoms such as PS I Love You – have not received the same critical acclaim.
However, on the day we meet in Milan, the LA Times is suggesting that Hilary is a front-runner for next year’s Oscar for her role as Amelia, and for the first time in her career the actress is reluctantly playing the publicity game (which might explain her presence tonight). Winning two Oscars puts her in a rarefied group that includes Vivien Leigh and Meryl Streep, but to win three would elevate her beyond even her dreams (when she won her second she commented that she was ‘just a girl from a trailer park who had a dream’).
Hilary has become something of an icon herself and a role model for young women. Does she think that such success brings with it certain responsibilities?
‘It certainly does. Although at the beginning of my career that wasn’t a challenge I was really up for, because I thought I was an actor and I didn’t really sign up to be an example to young people. All I ever wanted to do was act – I didn’t want to be a celebrity – and as a result I have tried to keep part of my life to myself.’
Hilary’s nine-year marriage to her first husband Chad Lowe (brother of Rob) broke down in January 2006, and in December of that year she confirmed that she was in a relationship with her agent John Campisi, 41. This summer the couple – accompanied by his six-year old son Sam, Hilary’s mother Judy and various other members of both their families – spent a month in Tuscany.
‘John and I have been together for about three years, so I have known Sam for half his life. Our relationship has developed very naturally during that time and I am really enjoying being a stepmom.’
There are no immediate marriage plans, and for the foreseeable future the only additions to the family will be another rescue dog (so far they have two) because right now, Hilary says, her career is her ‘baby’.
‘I am a total homebody. I love to cook and have downtime with John and Sam. Home is where I recharge, it’s the one place where I can be me. Because, you know, this life can be very stressful and I often find myself in difficult environments,’ she says, glancing across at Qi Qi (who is now posing provocatively for photographs).
Hilary is, I venture to suggest, not an obvious choice of celebrity for a lingerie company to choose to promote their products; her image is more athletic than sexy, and the most outrageous thing she has ever admitted to is sleeping naked. The roles she has played – often rather masculine – might have given the public the wrong impression of who she really is. So, I ask, in her private life does she love fashion, clothes and indulging her femininity?
‘I love clothes, and fashion is a great art form. Being a woman and my femininity are very important to me. But with my work I have to check my preferences at the door and personify the character I am playing as best I can. Your character isn’t who you are. That’s the great thing about my job. I get to step into somebody else’s shoes – whether that’s a pair of flat brogues or some stilettos,’ she says glancing down at the spike-heeled ankle straps she is wearing (shoes, she says, are her greatest indulgence).
The worst thing about her job – it goes without saying – is dealing with inquisitive members of the media. Charming and polite though she is, it’s clear that she finds giving interviews as pleasurable as having her teeth pulled. Although she smiles a little when talking about her pets (particularly her two parrots), she is tense and clearly anxious to bring our talk to a close. As we part, I ask how she has managed
– as such a prominent Hollywood star – to maintain a relatively normal life.
‘I have never courted fame and I don’t think I have ever been regarded as a celebrity. Of course, I do get followed by the paparazzi, but they would follow any actor because that’s their job. It’s not something I enjoy, but I don’t get bothered too much.
‘The thing is that I love my job. I love being an actor. And I have had to come to terms with the fact that doing this – I suppose I must admit that that’s being a celebrity – is part of that job,’ she says, smiling through gritted teeth as I am shown out of the door.