The Silver Era Of Andie MacDowell
The Hollywood icon, 63, finds strength in her new look.
Andie MacDowell isn’t like most movie stars. With her big curly mane, gentle South Carolina twang, and that full-barreled laugh that sounds a second away from breaking into a snort, MacDowell has never, despite her more than three decades as an American icon, quite managed to stop seeming gracious and down to earth.
This theory is put to the unfortunate test when I, having plugged in the wrong address into my Lyft app (right Hollywood studio, wrong location), show up 57 minutes late for our interview.
Many celebrities would have been long gone, but I find MacDowell waiting in a featureless room with no windows. Her back is turned to me, and the slant of her body lets me know that she is exhausted from a full day of being poked and posed for the photographs accompanying this article. Here is a woman ready to go home. She is wearing comfy off-duty attire of cream knits and tobacco-colored clogs. Her newly salt and pepper hair hangs over the back of her chair in waves that catch the light like polished silver. And then she turns around. There she is, with the same high forehead and arrowhead chin that, no matter the role, make her look like the subject of a John Singer Sargent painting. She glows, not in the manner of a rosy-cheeked ingenue but a majestic being who has just descended Mount Olympus.
Fresh off my first full-blown L.A. traffic panic attack, I fumble an apology. She’s the one who’s supposed to keep me waiting. Her eyebrows pitch in that way they sometimes do in the movies, like a roof in a child’s drawing of a house. “You’re growing your silver out,” she says. “It looks really good.” Her tone suggests that we’re old friends; in fact, many of my old friends have not had the nerve to bring up my no-longer-raven hair in conversation.
“How old are you?” MacDowell asks and calculates that it took her 20 years beyond my age to break up with her dye bottle. “But I’ve been selling hair color for a long time,” she says, letting loose a dark cackle.
MacDowell, who is 63 and has been a L’Oréal brand ambassador for an impressive 35 years, didn’t start coloring her hair until she was about 40, when she caught a journalist clocking her silvers during an interview. It made her feel uncomfortable — and so began what would balloon into an every-three-weeks coloring habit. “I’d been wanting to do it for a few years,” she says of embracing her natural salt and pepper. “And then when COVID happened and I saw the roots coming in, I thought it suited me.”
Her manager was apprehensive. MacDowell works in an industry that puts a premium on beauty, and by beauty I mean youth, and she was jeopardizing her livelihood. Determined, the actor booked an appointment with Jack Martin, the famed Tustin, California, colorist. His daylong, trompe l’oeil technique of painting silver onto older sections of dyed hair enabled the transitions of Jane Fonda and Sharon Osbourne (and whose work inspired my own jump). Last August, MacDowell joined their ranks.
“Men get old and we keep loving them. And I want to be like a man.”
She waited nearly a full year, until July 2021, to debut her new look, on the Cannes red carpet. “I was scared that people would be mean,” she says, her voice filling with vulnerability. Unlike some actors who shield themselves from the internet chatter, MacDowell can’t help but tune in. “I read all the comments.”
The reaction, much to her surprise, was nothing short of glorious. Hordes of women rallied around her, ready to anoint MacDowell a new torchbearer for their cohort — women who came of age being told they’d be over the hill at 40. Now that they’ve reached the top of the hill, this pack of silver foxes is surveying the landscape and ready to rewrite the rules. Aging need not be a source of embarrassment. What’s embarrassing is forever trying to look like a version of yourself that you’ve outgrown. And when the pandemic hit, cutting us off from society and salon chairs, many women who’d long been curious about a life not lived in slavish devotion to an expensive and time-sucking habit took the leap toward self-acceptance and let their roots come in.
Yet MacDowell doesn’t seem interested in being handed any extra credit for her act of daring or bearing the mantle of pandemic patron saint. “I think women are tired of the idea that you can’t get old and be beautiful,” she says with a slow shake of her head. “Men get old and we keep loving them. And I want to be like a man. I want to be beautiful and I don’t want to screw with myself to be beautiful.”
I tell her that a year into my transition, I’m still getting used to it. I wear a baseball hat more often than I should, and I rarely post pictures of myself on social media. MacDowell, not so much. “I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I love my hair so much that I look in the mirror and I go, ‘Oh my god…’ ” She gathers her hair on top of her head and cranes her neck to look in the mirror behind her. “It’s so pretty,” she says softly. “And the light here is shitty.” There she goes again with her laugh. “Men can go salt and pepper; we just think they’re gorgeous. We’ve been sold this idea that they’re better than we are. It’s bullshit!”
MacDowell often uses the word “strong” when discussing her hair, and it’s apt. Her sterling mane gives her the air of somebody who wields a magic power. This new power animates her scene-stealing performance in Maid, the upcoming Netflix series (out October 1) based on Stephanie Land’s bestselling memoir of being a young single mother getting by as a house cleaner. In the series, co-produced by Margot Robbie’s production company LuckyChap Entertainment, MacDowell plays Paula, the narcissistic artist mother to Alex, movingly played by MacDowell’s daughter Margaret Qualley. “I was in Canada quarantining, and it just dawned on me that it should be my mom,” Qualley says. “I pitched the idea to Margot, and she was so excited, and that was that! My mom’s career is so incredible and expansive and now she has the luxury of only doing things that mean the most to her. I feel lucky that Maid fit the bill. It’s always been a dream of mine to work with her and everything just felt right.”
Created by playwright Molly Smith Metzler, the show is a trenchant examination of America’s working poor. MacDowell’s performance is a revelation, equal parts frightening and wackadoodle. This is not the gamine leading lady you remember from the romantic comedies of the 1990s. She bursts onto the screen like a human thunderbolt, her hair wild as a storm cloud. “My hair looks different because we didn’t do anything to it; we just let it go crazy,” she says. “Paula couldn’t afford a hairdresser, so she does everything herself.”
“Paula” was also the nickname of MacDowell’s mother, Pauline Johnston, a music teacher who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and briefly institutionalized when MacDowell was an infant. Johnston lived with alcohol use disorder, and MacDowell’s childhood was spent taking care of her mother, cleaning up after her DUI, driving her to the McDonald’s where they both worked. Johnston wrote to MacDowell that she had quit drinking just a few months before she died of heart failure at age 53. While MacDowell says she didn’t base her performance on the original Paula, she drew from her experience. “My mother had demons and issues,” she says. “I saw a lot of crazy.” The childhood trauma has not evaporated. “I’m still working on my anxiety,” she says. “It’s hard to get rid of so much PTSD. It’s in your bones and it’s in your nervous system for sure.” She pauses. “But I look at the bright side: I can use it, I can tap into that.”
Rosalie Anderson MacDowell of Gaffney, South Carolina, wasn’t “Andie” until she was signed by a modeling agency in 1979. The agency wanted a new name for the face that would go on to sell everything from Calvin Klein jeans to Armani perfume. “I think they thought I looked too ‘ethnic’ with my big curly hair, and the name ‘Rose’ made me less palatable,” she says, rolling her eyes at the industry’s long history of whitewashing. The young model tossed out an option on the fly: “Andie,” a nickname that her sister occasionally used as a tribute to her tomboyishness. It stuck.
MacDowell had been modeling for a few years when she landed her first part in a film, in the universally panned Greystroke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. Producers objected to her deep Southern accent (after all, her character was English), and in post-production hired Glenn Close to dub over the lines. Determined to improve, MacDowell dialed down the modeling and enrolled in method acting classes. The jobs came at a steady drip, but she says, “I was losing a lot of parts to actors who were known for box-office potential.”
“It’s hard to get rid of so much PTSD. It’s in your bones and it’s in your nervous system for sure.”
Everything changed when she was cast as Ann, a repressed yet sexually curious housewife in Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 indie classic Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Shot for only $1.2 million, the film went on to earn nearly $25 million at the box office and led the way for the next decade’s boom in American independent film. MacDowell’s performance, suffused with her innate vulnerability and curiosity, won her a Best Female Lead Independent Spirit award and a Golden Globe nomination. An A-list star was born. In rolled offers to star in box-office triumphs that endure as classics like Green Card, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Groundhog Day. “Once I did Sex, Lies, and Videotape, I was part of the money machine,” she says with a goofy grin.
This success gave rise to another central tension in MacDowell’s life: being a Hollywood star and being a mother who was present for her family. MacDowell has three children with her first husband, Paul Qualley, a contractor and model she met when they were shooting a Gap ad. The pair raised their kids in the decidedly un-Hollywood environs of Missoula, Montana, a university town, and then Asheville, North Carolina, a liberal enclave in the Blue Ridge Mountains. “I didn’t want to be in a town where the only thing people thought about was the work,” says MacDowell. “I just wanted to live where I thought about my kids and I was in book clubs.”
Her oldest, Justin, now lives in Missoula and works in real estate development. Daughters Margaret and Rainey have both pursued careers in acting, which MacDowell finds personally reassuring. “If they chose to do what I did, that meant there weren’t any negative feelings about my being an actor,” she says.
Now empty-nested and twice-divorced (she prefers to call her second wedding, to a businessman she’d grown up with in South Carolina and who didn’t share her love of art, “a big party”), she lives alone in Eagle Rock, a Los Angeles neighborhood known for being home base to normal people with normal jobs. Which is exactly what she seems to love about it. “It took me a while to make friends,” she says, but eventually she found her people. Her closest friends these days are neighbors that she’s met on her daily walks.
“I used to see Andie out on the street when I was walking my dog, but I don’t tend to approach celebrities,” says Karen Stetler, a senior producer at the Criterion Collection who has become MacDowell’s dear friend. “We were re-releasing The Player, and I finally walked up to her and introduced myself,” she recalls. “A little while later, I left a few discs on her porch. And she wrote me the nicest email and said, ‘I’m always looking for hiking companions; would you ever want to go with me?’” Stetler didn’t set much store by the suggestion, but MacDowell asked again a couple of months later. The pair now travel together and hike frequently, and talk about everything from their shared interest in cooking (especially Indian food) to mothering to books (they both loved David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, and Stetler is now waiting for MacDowell’s verdict on Coyote America by Dan Flores). “She’s a super creative and curious person with a wide range of interests,” Stetler says. “Most movie stars in L.A. live in Bel Air or gated communities. Andie’s not like that. She’s a real adventurer.”
Being back in the L.A. swing of things has taken some getting used to, MacDowell says, but she’s enjoying following industry gossip and playing conversational ping pong with her neighbors. She’s also having fun on Instagram, where she has 200,000 followers, which she is the first to tell you is practically nothing in her industry. “I became kind of depressed because I felt irrelevant,” MacDowell says. “Now I’m not trying to be relevant. I see people trying so hard to be successful at it, and I don’t want that.” So what does she like to use the platform for? “I like looking at clogs,” she says. “When I lived in Montana, I was totally into clogs. And when I got divorced, I lost my spirit, and my spirit truly is clogs.” She glances down and gives her shoes a little kick. “Anyway, I’m back. Completely back in my clogs!”
When she’s not clog-stalking, MacDowell supplements her hikes with yoga and Peloton. “It’s fabulous — you don’t have to leave the house and you break a sweat like that,” she says, snapping her fingers. She also practices self-soothing techniques to quell her lifelong anxiety, which have evolved from sucking her thumb until age 18 (“it’s the best thing; giving it up is so hard”) to breathing exercises and her own sound therapy. “I make noises that calm my system,” she says, and leads me through a round of low vibrational “mmmms.” She lifts her amazing eyebrows and smiles. “Can you feel that?”
I tell her I can, and ask if she gets self-conscious making those sounds at bedtime. “I live alone, and I don’t ever want to live with anybody ever again,” she says. “I have no love life. I wouldn’t mind someone who can stay with me occasionally, but I’m such a quiet person. I’m not going to go on an app.”
As I stand up to leave, I’m stunned to see that we have been talking for 75 minutes. Andie MacDowell didn’t just live up to my dream of Southern courtesy and straight talk; she sacrificed her long evening walk to save my professional life (“I might take a little stroll,” she tells me). This being a celebrity profile, I remember to ask what she’s wearing (Vince knit pants, St. Agni knit top). “And my underwear is Eres,” she tells me. She lifts her tank top to reveal a satin-trimmed cotton bra, pushing down the waistband of her pants to reveal matching panties. “See?” Her mouth hitches up into a smile. “Sixty-three’s not so bad.”
Top Image Credit: Valentino clothing, De Beers jewelry
Photographer: Christine Hahn
Stylist: Petra Flannery
Hair: Marcus Francis
Makeup: Stephen Sollitto
Manicure: Zola Ganzorigt
Bookings: Special Projects
Videographer: Sam Miron