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Trailblazing fashion model China Machado dies at 86

Supermodel China Machado poses for a portrait during

Supermodel China Machado poses for a portrait during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival at the Getty Images Portrait Studio at T-Mobile Village at the Lift on Jan. 22, 2012, in Park City, Utah. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Larry Busacca

China Machado, a legendary model who challenged traditional standards of beauty as the first non-Caucasian to appear in an American fashion magazine — and later returning to modeling in her 80s — died Dec. 18 at Stony Brook University Hospital in Stony Brook, after suffering cardiac arrest. She was 86.

“I never thought I was good-looking,” she said in 2013, referring to the screen idols of her generation who once seemed the epitome of beauty — Vivien Leigh, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner. “I didn’t look like them so, I thought, you know, I can’t be good-looking, right?”

Wrong. Her lean figure and exotic multiracial look (her family tree has roots in China, Portugal and India) helped revolutionize the fashion industry.

“She was first . . . the trailblazer,” Beverly Johnson, Vogue’s first African-American cover model, once said of Machado. “I stood on her shoulders.”

Born Noelie Dasouza Machado on Christmas Day, 1929, in Shanghai, she lived a well-to-do life (her father was a gold-trader) until World War II and the Japanese invasion. In 1946 she and her family fled, first seeking refuge in the United States (where they were refused), eventually settling in Lima, Peru.

A torrid affair at age 19 with Luis Dominguin, a Spanish bullfighter, took her to Europe. He left her for one of her screen idols, Gardner — but by the 1950s, she’d changed her name to China (pronounced “CHEE-nah”), and was working as a runway model for Givenchy and Balenciaga.

A momentous trip to New York in 1958 changed everything. She was whisked to the office of influential editor Diana Vreeland, who put her in a show that night. Photographer Richard Avedon spotted her, and arranged to shoot her the next day. She was terrified — she’d never been photographed. At that time, runway models walked and print models sat for photos. The two never mixed. But Avedon had found his muse.

Convincing editors of that, however, proved tougher.

According to Machado, Harper’s Bazaar publisher Robert F. MacLeod balked at the idea of running her photos in the magazine, saying, “In the South, they’ll cancel all subscriptions.”

Hotshot Avedon’s contract just happened to be up, and he refused to renew unless they ran the photos. The magazine caved, sowing the first seeds of diversity in the modeling industry.

Machado worked with Avedon for three years as a model, then went on to work behind the camera, as a fashion editor, television producer and entrepreneur (opening Country Bazaar, a gourmet shop and gallery in Water Mill in 1991).

Modeling occasionally called her back — appearing on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in 1971, walking the famed Battle of Versailles runway show in 1973 and, at age 81, signing with IMG Models, starring in ad campaigns for Cole Haan and Barneys.

During a brief marriage to actor Martin LaSalle, she bore two children, Blanche and Emmanuelle, and raised them on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She eventually settled in Sag Harbor, where she and her second husband, Riccardo Rosa, an Italian furniture exporter, have lived for 20 years.

She is survived by Rosa, her two daughters and two grandsons.

For such a free spirit, it’s curious that she never learned to drive.

“She had a driver — was me,” says Rosa. “It was easy. We were all the time together.”

In her later years, she took up painting, and painted various rooms in the house with images inspired by travels to places such as Morocco and India.

Her last big trip was in 2011, when she returned to Shanghai for the first time since 1946.

“That was a lot for her,” says Rosa. Her family home was destroyed, but an apartment building her family lived in briefly was still there, and their Catholic Church (now government offices).

“I’m glad we did it,” he says. “This winter, we were planning to go to Lima, but then . . . she had this heart attack.”

He pauses briefly, then adds, “But she didn’t suffer. That’s the good thing.”

And she lived life to the fullest, to the end.

“I’m not very much into clothes,” she says in a Cole Haan video in 2013. But being in her 80s didn’t mean wearing “dowdy” dresses, she explains. “I wear skirts up to here,” she says, gesturing to mid thigh. “I got good legs. So I show them,” she said. Then she burst out laughing.

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