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'Iris' documentary spotlights Iris Apfel

Designer Iris Apfel attends the HSN Fashion Week

Designer Iris Apfel attends the HSN Fashion Week Lounge At The Empire Hotel on Feb. 10, 2014 in New York City. Credit: Getty Images / Brad Barket

Turns out Iris Apfel, the self-declared "geriatric starlet" known for her eclectic wardrobe and signature frames, is also a comedian. On plastic surgery: "Why mess? You could come out . . . looking like Picasso." Or life at 93: "I'm vertical, so I'm happy."

Her style, wit and outrageously-crammed-to-the-rafters apartments (Park Avenue, Palm Beach) are all on display in a new documentary, "Iris," the last work by award-winning filmmaker Albert Maysles (who died in March). It opens April 29.

Maysles and his brother codirected "Grey Gardens," about Jackie Kennedy's eccentric cousins and their dilapidated East Hampton mansion. But while that film swirled in an undercurrent of pain and dysfunction, the through-line here is pure joy. It traces Apfel's life from her Astoria childhood to her career as a fabric restorer (with husband, Carl Apfel, 100, she's worked with the White House and museums around the world) to her unexpected splash as a trendsetter.

"I like big and bold and lots of pizzazz," she says. No kidding: swathed in turbans, bangles and scads of beads that click-clack with every gesture, she's like a living percussion instrument. She chatted recently on the phone with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.


Were you always a style maven, even at Bryant High in Astoria?

Who can remember that far back? Dinosaurs roamed the earth.


In the film, you're seen trying on an Oscar de la Renta jacket one minute, then hitting a dollar store bargain bin the next.

I've always loved to mix trash and treasure.


Right -- but most folks in the fashion or interior design industries wouldn't dream of going near a bargain bin.

I don't cotton to that mentality. I've always done my own thing. I'm not wearing a price tag. And it's nobody's business what I paid. "It ain't what you do it's the way howch ya do it." (She quotes the 1939 jazz song lyric.)


Was it difficult to see yourself on screen?

It's kind of strange, I never think whatever I do is good enough.


That never goes away, huh?

No . . . I guess it only gets more so.


I love the moment when your husband sings, "That's where my money goes, to buy my baby's clothes."

Yeah, he always sings that song.

Why do you think your marriage has lasted so long?

Sense of humor -- that's the most important thing in living. I don't mean saying funny things -- I mean not taking yourself too seriously. And giving each other space. Whenever he wanted to do something, I didn't say-(and here, she whines)-"Oh, where ya going, ya gonna take me along?" And he always let me do my own thing. We trust each other. We're married 67-and-a-half years. That's a long time. Especially in today's world where kids don't stay married longer than 45 minutes. I feel sorry for young people these days. I'm so glad I'm not young anymore.


You don't think you'd fit in?

God, no! They seem to live to press buttons. Technology is wonderful for the right reasons, but social media has ruined the world. I dunno . . . I don't want to preach, but kids today seem robbed of their humanity. They have no imagination, no curiosity. I think curiosity is one of the great, great gifts the wise men brought to my cradle.


So to really live you need humor, curiosity . . . and Inez Bailey, housekeeper extraordinaire, right?

Oh, I couldn't live without her. Inez worked for my mother, then came to help me. We've been together about 18 years. You should write that . . . she sometimes doesn't think so but we love her dearly.


Say, how's your hip -- you broke it?

Twice. Once in Paris -- that was very chic. [She chuckles.] Then again at a photo shoot. It's fine.


My mom had hip surgery last year. The physical therapy's rough.

Agonizing, but so important. How's mom doing?


Much better, thanks. So glad to have her mobility back.

We don't realize how blessed we are till we lose something. She's lucky. Well, not lucky -- she works hard at it. You have to work hard at things.


Do you?

I guess so. If you want to be interesting, you have to be interested. You have to keep your eyes and ears open and . . . live a little. Lots of old people roll up in a ball. Not good, not good. You must keep doing stuff. My mother had a friend and when I'd ask how she felt she'd say, "To tell you the truth, everything I have two of -- one hurts." And that's true. When you wake up you kvetch a bit, and you could spend the whole day kvetching. But if you have projects, interests, things you have to do, then once you start doing that you forget the kvetching.


So . . . busy is good.

Very good.


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