INTERVIEW / Marisa Berenson: In Her Own Words
Marisa Berenson is an icon of a bygone sensibility. A way of life characterized by unabashed glamour, going headlong into one’s passion, and a continuous deep curiosity about oneself and the world around. An inquisitiveness that she describes as “going profoundly into things.”
Having lived a life in front of the camera, whether that be Kubrick’s or Avedon’s, Berenson has picked up an incredible amount of wisdom which formed her into the woman she is now. She shares her journey here in her own words.
JJ: Can you introduce yourself in your own words, for someone who might not know you?
MB: My name is Marisa Schiaparelli Berenson. I would say I am a creative person. I feel that creativity is what my life is about. Most importantly in my life is my spiritual journey. It's that spiritual path that I’ve never wavered off and that has given me hope and strength and that has helped me build the core of my being.
I had to build myself and to be able to live the things that were brought into my life
A lot of the times when you’re young you don’t know where you are going, you just have to choose the path that is going to bring you to the things that you want, that you dream of, that you want to build in yourself. Your strengths, your capacities, your talent
Along the way I’ve always had dreams, and although I was very insecure as a child because I never thought I would become a model or an actress. Although my grandmother was a very famous fashion designer–Elsa Schiaparelli
She never shared her experiences, she never talked about her life. And so I was brought up sort of completely unaware of that whole world that she created, really. I knew she was very famous, but she never talked about fashion.
JJ: How come she never spoke about it?
MB: She was quite secretive, well-brought up and discreet. Although she had a very strong personality, she was a true artist and a pioneer in fashion. She was very independent and had left her family very young. She wasn’t educated to do what she did. She started from scratch and made her own way and money. I kind of did the same thing, really. But I didn’t ask her for her advice because she never gave it to me. She wasn’t at all happy about my choices.
It wasn’t easy in her day because she was a single woman bringing up my mother on her own when my mother was two years old. She divorced her husband. She was a single woman. Strong and out there building a career in the ‘30s and '40s on her own. So that was tough. I think for me she wanted something else. I understood later the reason she wanted me to settle down with a nice, stable man instead of going out on my own and working in the fashion business, was more of a protective thing, although she never said it.
I went out into the world at 16-years-old when my father died in New York.
I was born in New York, we lived on Long Island in Oyster Bay for the first two years of my life. Then, when I was two and my sister was one, we moved to Europe because my father worked for Aristotle Onassis who had shipping companies. And then, I went to boarding school at age 5 for the rest of my life until I was 16. Many boarding schools–three boarding schools in Switzerland, one in England, and one in Italy.
And then, at one point my father became an American diplomat. He was appointed by President Kennedy as a “ministre”, a minister for all of the countries in development in the world. He had a big job for the American government, so he started to travel with my mother to all of these different countries like Asia, Libya, and Yugoslavia. We were brought up a bit all over the place, but in schools basically.
JJ: Did you like that?
MB: No, I can’t say I liked those boarding schools because I felt very lonely. And I was very, very young. But it taught me to be alone. It taught me to deal with solitude. It taught me to be independent in a way because I felt that I, well I had all these dreams as a child, and I wanted to escape and do something wonderful. When I got to be seven, I started to have these questions. Very existential questions about God and what I was doing on this planet, why was I here and what was my purpose in life?
I always had these dreams of becoming a model and actress, but honestly it was never a reality in my life. They were just dreams. I thought “How is that possible? I’ll never be able to do that. I’m too insecure, I am not pretty enough. I’m not prepared.” I never expected any of it.
JJ: Were you raised with some spiritual or religious background? That is so difficult for somebody to get without any sort of guidance. Obviously, you have such a strong force inside you.
MB: I was brought up a Catholic. I was brought up going to church on Sunday’s with all the Catholic symbols–which I love. The saints and the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. But, along with that went a lot of other things like guilt. So early on I sort of questioned all of that, although I still love to go to churches, light candles–I love the Virgin Mary and Jesus. It wasn’t a spiritual education per-se. Not like I taught my daughter, for instance, which was much broader and about spirituality as we know it in every religion. That kind of spirituality I learned on my own afterwards.
When I went out on my own, I just had this incredible desire to acquire knowledge and to figure out who God was. And to figure out my purpose on this planet. And then I got the opportunity as a model to go to India and to do some photographs for Vogue. When I was there, I was 18. I was led–I don’t even remember how I got up there–but I was led to this ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He was at the time the big guru that everybody followed. He had an ashram in Rishikesh overlooking the Ganges. I ended up there on this trip to India that changed my life because it opened this door to learning about a different kind of spirituality. That’s when I started my journey on that path of spiritual awareness.
It is really an amazing journey, and one is often put through a lot of tests and challenges to stay on that path and to make sure that your faith is unwavering. And also, it's a huge, huge strength to have that inner core that is strong. That faith gets you through everything. It got me through everything in life. I honestly don’t know how I would have dealt with certain things or faced certain things if I hadn’t had all of that.
JJ: Looking back on your life, you have done so much. It seems like if another person did that without that base it would be impossible to be sustainable and make it through to where you are.
MB: Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t make it and along the way have gotten lost or passed on or have gone through terrible experiences, or just revert to things which are destructive. I’ve been lucky in that sense to have that inner desire and core because it has saved me. Totally. I could have gone crazy or become a drug addict or just ended up dead. The fact that I’m still here through thick and thin to tell the story is a miracle in itself.
JJ: What does God mean to you?
MB: For me it's truth. It's love. It's light. Everything is energy, and God is a divine energy. what I’ve learned is to try and connect with that energy as much as possible. Learning to let go and trust that divine energy is something I learn all the time. It’s what faith is, trusting that whatever happens that that energy is there to help you through and to take care. Even if you go through difficult things, it makes it easier to go through them when you're connected.
And knowing how to surrender to it, it's so important. It's all about trust.
JJ: think that’s the hardest part, the resistance.
MB: It is. Because the ego gets in the way. We want to control everything, and we think we know what is best and actually we don’t most of the time.
JJ: What is your most favorite and most sacred part of your day?
MB: Sacred is certainly when I meditate. What I try to do is stay in that energy as much as possible, even when one is not meditating. It’s trying to ‘be’ so that you enjoy everything that you’re doing. That is the secret to life–to enjoy everything you are doing and to love everything you’re doing, whatever it is.
Nobody knows what’s going to happen and the proof is we're in a world now where we don’t even know from one day to the next what is going to happen. Everything is so uncertain and so scary that it's so important to live in the present moment. You realize more and more the importance of that. Also staying in the right values, the right environment, with the right people around you, the right energy–that is essential nowadays. I find that that’s one thing the younger generation are very aware of now.
JJ: Yes, but it's kind of split. On the one hand, because of social media. at the press of a button I can find all these amazing books teaching about everything you’re saying. But, I also have Twitter and I can read every 5 seconds about what is happening in the world that is bad. I do think there is a greater awareness because, I can learn about the principles that you learned in India literally from my bedroom.
MB: But I think when you’re on a spiritual journey you don’t need to go to India to be enlightened. You can be enlightened in your own room, as you’re saying, by learning, by reading, by connecting. You can be in one space, and you don’t need to go anywhere if that's what you desire and what you aspire to.
JJ: What is your favorite book and the book you think everybody should read?
MB: When I grew up, I did literature. I read a lot of the classics. I was really into poetry. All the English poets–I love Keats, Byron, and Shakespeare. Then, I started to read a lot of philosophy books. I was so into philosophy. I can’t say there's one book or a favorite book because I read a lot.
There’s a book I gave to my daughter at Christmas by a woman I love called Marie Corelli. I don’t know if anyone knows who she is. I don’t know how I discovered her years ago, a book called Life Everlasting. It is a book that I loved and that inspired me years ago. I have had it for 30 or 40 years. She wrote it in the 1800s, she was a woman writer. This book I carried around and it just touched a note in my heart and soul because it’s an initiation. About a woman who goes through an initiation process, she's on a spiritual path, and she meets this man who is her soulmate. Before she can be with him, she has to go through this whole personal initiation and its very interesting.
I love Jane Austen so much, all her books. I’ve read every single one. They're all so wonderful. I love the Age of Innocence. They're all so romantic, I am a romantic person.
Nowadays I think it is a little too superficial. People don’t read anymore. They don’t go profoundly into things. It's fun to read good books, it is wonderful.
JJ: What is your favorite flower?
MB: I just love flowers. I can’t grow everything in Marrakech, but I love all flowers. I don’t have a favorite flower. I love Petunias, Orchids, Roses. I’ve tried to plant everything in my garden. I am planting Bougainvillea on my house and jasmine. I have a vegetable garden too. I love nature, I love trees, I love flowers
JJ: Yes, I guess flowers are all very likable!
So are trees, I love trees. So wonderful to walk in nature and to hug a tree. It is so important.
JJ: Your life is so glamorous and sophisticated, everybody knows that. But, is there one thing that you like to do that people would be surprised at? Like do you ever just go on a rollercoaster or do something so random?
MB: No, I hate roller coasters! I am a very quiet person actually. I know my life has been very busy and out there. When I was younger there were a lot of parties. Not to say I don’t like a good party once in a while, but the older I get the more I need my time alone and to have quiet. I think the biggest luxury today is quiet and peace–inner peace and outer peace.
There is nothing that I do that is so exceptional. When I am at home, I like to swim every day. I walk and meditate in my garden. I connect with nature. I eat out of my garden as much as possible and do all the simple things that make me feel good. I love to watch a good movie, read a good book, and be with the people I love. Those are the essentials, the most important things. And then to be creative.
I still love my work. I like to go out and make a movie, a great television show, and be in the theater. I am still very into creating things and doing new things, new projects. I do need that.
JJ: Do you have a dream that you haven’t accomplished yet?
MB: There's a lot to do out there. Entertainment is a very important thing, and I think that people have realized that culture and entertainment is essential to one’s life. I like the idea of entertaining people. Doing things that make people feel good or bring beauty or bring happiness, bring joy, bring healing, or bring something. I like to participate in the world and to bring my experiences, and the whole point of living on the planet is to pass that on and share that with others.
I feel that I am multi-creative. I am able to be creative in many different things in many different ways. That is how I express myself. The more expression the better. Not to be afraid to express yourself. To be out there and express yourself in the way you feel you need to or want to. I thoroughly recommend that.
The whole purpose in life, because we're all connected, is to connect in one way or another and to be of service. To be of help is a nice feeling.
JJ: What is glamour to you?
MB: I think glamour is something that is completely innate, just like style is.
If you like glamour, you have to dare to show that side of you. Glamour is also about the way you come into a room, the way you express yourself, and also of course how you dress and put yourself together. But not only that. It’s also a charisma, a charismatic way of being. It’s an attitude, and of course, if you love to dress up and have a fashion sense then go for it.
I feel that nowadays people need the glamour, they need the dream. It's about dreaming and expressing yourself, about being who you want to be. If you want to be glamorous and dress up in the middle of the day with great lipstick and a hairdo and high heels and put on a great dress, then do it.
You have to live your dream. If I can give any advice, it's to not be afraid of dreaming and believing that your dreams can come true. Even if it's hard to always persist. Never let go of that dream and you can make it happen. I believe that.
JJ: That is really interesting because at the beginning of our conversation you were saying how you were very shy and didn’t have lots of self-confidence, even though you had all these dreams of becoming a model and actress. Were you ever scared?
MB: I was very insecure. But I was at the right time and the right place, and I bless Diana Vreeland every day of my life and I bless Luchino Visconti every day of my life. They saw something in me that I didn’t see.
And when your dreams come true and the opportunity comes, then you have to grab it and run with it and make the most of it. I started working as an actress, going to acting school, and developing my craft. I remember going off-Broadway, off-off-off Broadway, literally off-off-off-off. Little theaters when I was in acting class at night when I wasn’t working as a model. I went to the night classes at theaters and did these ridiculous things to force myself out there because I was so terrified to get up on stage. I hated to go out on auditions. It was a real agony for me. But little by little you build.
Whatever you do, doesn’t matter what it is, you have to be passionate about it. You have to put your whole heart and soul into it and be the best that you can be at that. It's an ongoing process and sometimes you fall, and you have to get up, you fall again and have to get up again. Sometimes there are very difficult periods in life where you are desperate, and you think that it's all over and that you’ll never be anything or ever work again. That your life is over. But it's not if you don’t want it to be.
JJ: I am definitely still working on that personally. Being courageous despite having fear, but doing something anyway. Does that come with practice?
MB: Absolutely. It comes with practice and work. And I feel more confidence about myself than I ever have. It's all about the journey and the practice. Wanting it and having the courage to do it.
It can be very discouraging sometimes because when you have a career it doesn’t always go great. It’s a hard process and journey. Sometimes you have incredible opportunities, or not. Sometimes you have to really persist. But I do think if you have a dream, and you persist and work hard and believe in yourself–and even if you don’t believe in yourself. If you persist and try and try again, eventually you do succeed. You are able at least to do the things you want to do.
Develop those gifts that God has given you and make the most of them. One way or another. It can be anything, doesn't have to be glamorous or out there in the world or in the spotlight.
JJ: I think a lot of it is getting over yourself and it is somewhat a decision in your mind to not care what people think. Nobody is really standing in your way except yourself. But just making that decision is so hard and so scary.
MB: It really is. It’s one step at a time, one day at a time. Focusing on, as you say, getting out of your own way and focusing on what you want to do. Let go of fear.
It's how you deal with life in the end that is important. It’s how you deal with yourself. One is always going to get challenged in one way or the other.
JJ: And it all goes back to you having to pray and meditate and being with yourself enough in order to recognize even what those sensations are. To acknowledge that you even do have fear.
MB: Yes. And you must sit with that sensation and not judge it. You just sit with it until you can let it go.
This interview was transcribed from a phone call and has been edited slightly for clarity and concision.