Inspiration: Women We Love

Isabel Allende

The acclaimed South American novelist sounds off on passion, aging and what makes her feel beautiful.

Seven years ago, when Chilean author Isabel Allende was invited by the non-profit organization TED to speak on the topic of “passion” at one of its famous idea-sharing conferences, her 18-minute speech touched on beauty, aging and feminism with humor and emotion. So popular was Allende’s TED engagement that she was invited back to reprise these topics at the group's 30th anniversary event this past Spring.

At 71, Allende still has plenty to say on the subject. “When you pass a certain age [in America], you feel ridiculous even trying to look good,” she insists, pointing out that aging is a very slow process and doesn’t just happen because you turn 70. “You start aging when you are born!”

You start aging when you are born!

Her curiosity, her marriage and even her makeup help Allende feel passionate and beautiful these days, as well as her commitment to her craft: “I don’t want to retire ever because what I do is what I love the most,” says the author of The House of the Spirits and Eva Luna. (Her latest book, a crime novel called Ripper, bowed earlier this year). Allende’s continued involvement with the Isabel Allende Foundation is also key to maintaining her lust for life. “It keeps me grounded,” she says of the initiative to empower women and girls that she founded in 1996 in homage to her daughter Paula, who passed away at 28. Here, the inspirational matron of magical realism continues the conversation with The Estée Edit.

EL: Your new book, Ripper, touches on online gaming and the digital age. Has technology affected the way you write, and the way you conceptualize ideas?

IA: Not really. I do write on a computer, but the technology doesn’t write the book; the process is still very slow and very much like writing by hand. What the technology does do is it keeps me connected to the readers. That wasn’t possible before. Before, I would get snail mail — a lot of it — but it took a long time to answer those letters. Now, I have immediate reactions. I keep a Facebook page and I blog, which is a really powerful tool that engages the readers. I like the fact that I know what the readers are liking, and what the readers are reading.

Isabel Allende at home in Northern California, 2014

EL: Your TED talk has been so popular online that they brought you back for an encore! At 71, when passion should be diminishing according to our society, how do you keep it up?

AI: How do you keep passion? Well, how do you keep alive? As long as I’m alive, I have interests. I am lucky because I’m healthy and active and I have a job that I adore. And I’m lucky because I have a good marriage. I think that a relationship, when it works, is wonderful. It keeps you engaged.

EL: Our society has similar rules about beauty — that once you hit a certain age, you lose it.

IA: Well, I will always be a foreigner in this country. I will never look like an American, so I don’t have to stick to these “rules!” But I also don’t worry about it. I like to feel that I look the best I can given the raw materials that I have. So I don’t wear very tight clothes because I don’t feel comfortable. I’m very short so I wear platforms. I have to be very careful not to wear clothes and colors that cut me in half. For me, makeup is a routine — like taking a shower or brushing my teeth.

EL: So you wear makeup everyday?

IA: Every single day. I work at home and I have to walk 17 paces to the casita I have in the back of the house where I work. But after I get up in the morning, I do my exercises, I meditate, I have my shower and I walk the dog in full makeup— foundation and everything else.

I would tell my younger self not to be in such a hurry.

EL: What are some of your product go-tos?

IA: I wear the BB cream from Estée Lauder because it has moisturizer and sun protection and it’s like a primer. It evens the skin. And then I do my eyes, which is the only feature that I still have! And I might do a sheer lipstick. I just came back from Turkey. We were in a boat and I would get up and jump in the water before breakfast, but as soon as I got out, I would put on makeup and I would wear a long skirt.

EL: One of the funniest bits from your original TED talk is when you recall Sophia Loren saying that “posture” and “not making old people noises” keep her looking young. Do you have any tips for aging beautifully?

IA: I don’t in that sense, although during this trip in Turkey, I was with five couples — all women my age — and each evening we would have a drink and talk about a theme. One of the themes one evening was about aging. Another one was about happiness. We decided that the people who are really good looking, and feel good, are people who like themselves. When you love yourself, you feel comfortable in your body and you’re ok.

When you love yourself, you feel comfortable in your body and you’re ok.

EL: What advice would you give your 25-year-old self?

IA: I would tell my younger self not to be in such a hurry. You don’t have to perform all the time. Don’t be so disciplined, so punctual. Who cares? Just enjoy life more. I think my outlook really changed after my daughter died. That was the year I turned 50. I aged a decade in a year and something inside also changed. I became a more mature woman and I learned to let go of a lot of things. Since then, I think that I let go of something everyday. Now, I am much more relaxed.

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