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Celebrating Influential Women: Audrey Hepburn

For many of us, Audrey Hepburn is known for her dazzling roles in a never-ending list of ‘Hollywood classics’: A Roman Holiday (1953), Funny Face (1957), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). However, for me, Audrey symbolizes much more than a face on our screens; Audrey Hepburn changed the world through her humble heart and her value of ‘the self’. 

Prior to her career as a Hollywood actress, Audrey had a difficult childhood. Born in May 1929, Audrey Kathleen Hepburn-Rushton grew up in Brussels with her two older half-brothers and her parents: Ella van Heemstra (a Dutch Baroness) and Joseph Hepburn-Rushton (an English banker). 

When Audrey was just six years of age, her parents divorced. The aftermath of this divorce provided Audrey’s mother with the motive to move to England with her children. Here, Audrey attended a British boarding school and grew up speaking English. However, as World War II broke out in September 1939, Audrey’s mother felt that England was no longer a safe place of residence for her children. Ella took her children and quickly moved to Holland (a supposed neutral country). 

Despite Ella van Heemstra’s efforts to keep her children safe, Germany invaded Holland on the 10thMay, 1940.

During the next few days, Audrey’s hometown was obliterated; the Germans threatened to bomb every Dutch city until Holland surrendered. After five days of intense bombing and violence, Holland surrendered (and would stay under Nazi rule for five very long years). 

As an English speaking girl, Audrey’s mother was terrified by the prospect of the Nazis capturing Audrey. Audrey’s English name was thus changed to a Dutch one (‘Edda’) and she was also sent to Dutch language lessons. From here onwards, Audrey was to only speak Dutch. 

During the winter of 1944, the Nazis had cut off all imports to the Dutch people (as a punishment to the Dutch Resistance). Audrey, along with thousands of other Dutch people, suffered from severe starvation and malnourishment. During one particular interview, Audrey confessed to eating grass and tulip bulbs – such ingredients were common to the Dutch at this time. By the end of the war, Audrey weighed only 84 pounds. This level of malnourishment had a life-long lasting impact on her body. 

Despite such horrific conditions, Audrey continued to take ballet lessons during the war and, around about a year before the war ended, Audrey had felt that she had learned enough to perform. During her screen test for her role in ‘Roman Holiday’, Audrey claimed that she gave ballet performances with her friends. The windows and doors were to be shut at all times in order to prevent the Nazis from finding out. From these performances, Audrey  collected money and handed it over to the Dutch Resistance. Moreover, to prevent any attention, the audiences were not allowed to clap. In one particular interview, Audrey discusses one of her performances: “The best audience I ever had, made not a single sound at the end of my performance.” The following photo was taken during one of Audrey’s dance recitals in 1944:

Audrey has also confessed to assisting the Dutch Resistance by passing messages and notes back and forth. Audrey claimed that this was particularly easy for her, as children could move more freely than adults; why would the Nazis suspect children? This, in itself, paints Audrey as a brave and courageous fighter, especially for causes that she believed in. 

During one winter’s day, Audrey was ordered to enter a Nazi army truck with a group of other girls. After reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Dutch, Audrey managed to gain the confidence to escape when the truck suddenly stopped: “I remember hearing the dull sound of a rifle butt hitting a man’s face. And I jumped down, dropped to my knees, and rolled under the truck. I then skittered out, hoping the driver would not notice me – and he didn’t.”

During this time, Audrey’s father was arrested in England for selling and promoting Nazi propaganda. The following photograph is of Audrey and her father prior to the war. 

Fast-forwarding to the 1950s (with the war long gone), Audrey made her way to Hollywood. From here, Audrey was about to change the way women looked in the media. 

During the early 1950’s, bombshell-icons such as Marilyn Monroe took the spotlight. Such icons followed a very specific ideal: tanned skin, a curvy figure, blonde hair with a high sex appeal. Young girls following the Hollywood scene felt pressured into following such ideals, even though for many, it was physically impossible. 

However, as Audrey’s career set off, not only did she break the mould of the typical American actress, she taught others to love themselves for who they are. As a petite female (recovering from malnourishment) with dark hair, dark eyes and sharp features, Audrey herself was aware of her ‘unique’ appearance. During another interview, Audrey expresses this awareness: “I don’t have sex appeal and I know it. As a matter of fact, I think I’m rather funny-looking. My teeth are funny, for one thing, and I have none of the attributes usually required for a movie queen, including the shapeliness.” 

Even Audrey’s mother had frequently made comments about how unattractive she was. We can only imagine the anxiety! Despite her supposed ‘funny looks’, Audrey embraced her appearance and rose to fame; Audrey was able to ignore her demons and fight against the rigid world of Hollywood to become one of today’s timeless beauty icons.

Perhaps more importantly, Audrey was able to use her platform to spread important messages to young girls around the world. As a true believer in working on your ‘inside’ (as opposed to only your physical ‘outside’ appearance), Audrey delivered a powerful message: “Makeup can only make you look pretty on the outside, but it doesn’t help if you are ugly on the inside. Unless you eat the makeup.” In today’s world, where social media is one of the biggest platforms for bullying and enforcing beauty ideals on the younger generation, Audrey is still as relevant as ever. 

After a very successful film career, Audrey left the Hollywood scene in the 1980’s and became a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. After having dealt with such a horrendous childhood in the war, Audrey’s passion for helping suffering children around the world really hit close to home. Audrey’s eldest son, Sean Ferrer, had even expressed that his mother had never forgotten the ‘little gifts of chocolates to her outstretched hands’ as a child; Audrey wanted to give something back to the world. 

During her time working for UNICEF, Audrey had visited various places around the globe, including: Ethiopia, Turkey, South and Central America, Mexico, Sudan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, and Somalia. Overall, Audrey made over 50 trips to other countries on behalf of UNICEF. 

Audrey’s commitment to UNICEF had also broken another boundary in the world of Hollywood; Audrey was one of the first ever actresses to agree to travel to other countries on behalf of UNICEF. Prior to this, many actors and actresses had refused to take on such a role. Thus, despite Audrey’s terrifying upbringing, she always remained a fearless fighter, on the hunt to help others. 

Before her death in 1993 from cancer, Audrey made it clear that she wanted to embrace the idea of ‘becoming old’. After having her photo snapped during a UNICEF visit, Audrey was quoted saying ‘don’t you dare touch any one of those wrinkles, I earned every single one of them.’ This further reflects Audrey’s passion and message in accepting yourself and loving yourself, regardless of what your physical appearance may mean in society.

After reading this article, I hope you are able to understand how iconic Audrey is – not just within the world of fashion, film and beauty – but in the world of making a difference, being brave and not being afraid to stand out.

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