Dame Helen Mirren strides into a room in London’s Soho Hotel wearing a bright orange, three-quarter-length Victoria Beckham dress. She looks tanned, chic and slim: her curves are more petite in the flesh than they appear in pictures.
It was her 70th birthday last Sunday, but it seems she’s a little touchy about this as her publicity people have warned me not to ask about it.
“Hello girls and boys,” she says, as she walks through the small room. “Ah, it’s all girls here. I’ve spent an hour and a half in make-up, just so that you know that, in the name of transparency.”
The assembled journalists have an audience with Dame Helen in her role as one of the faces of L’Oreal Paris.
She is at the hotel to launch the brand’s Excellence Age Perfect range of hair colourants, and tells us her hair today is the brand’s light beige blonde shade, which she applied at home in her bathroom a couple of days ago.
But while you might imagine that she has frequent visits to a salon, she claims not to have coloured her hair much over the years. When she does, it’s often a DIY job.
“I put streaks in occasionally, with a toothbrush,” she says. “Me and my sister do it to each other. I am a bit laissez-faire. I rarely go to the hairdresser.”
And while Dame Helen is a fan of beauty products, she’s less keen on the way they are often marketed. “Certainly my whole life, one’s had these images of perfect, incredibly youthful girls shoved at you as what you should aspire to. And we are not talking about 25-year-olds, incidentally, we are talking about 15-year-olds.
“The most unbelievably perfect skins [are] offered up as the perfect skin we should aspire to. And obviously of course we are older and wiser and you start getting very cynical about it and very irritated and angry, and kind of ‘hmph, who the hell do they think I am?’.”
When Mirren was signed to L’Oreal in October 2014, she insisted pictures of her should not be retouched. She said at the time: “I am not gorgeous, I never was, but I was always OK-looking and I’m keen to stay that way.
“I hope I can inspire other women towards greater confidence by making the most of their natural good looks.”
L’Oreal’s own research suggests that 50 per cent of women over 50 believe that they are overlooked by society and brands, even though over-50s hold 80 per cent of the wealth in the UK.
But things are changing, according to Dame Helen. “I have to say that finally, and it’s taken rather a long time for the penny to drop, because women have been being 50 for a very long time, or 60, or 70.
“But finally the penny has dropped that women are financially secure, many of them, not all of them, I think that is an important issue to think of.
“I don’t approve of those insanely expensive ‘miracle, blah, blah’ [creams] – not – things have have ‘pure gold’ or caviar in them or whatever it is, and cost £200 for a little thing, I think that is terrible.”
And although she is being paid to be here by a huge player in the beauty industry, she is straightforward in her attitude to it. While she likes cleansers, body creams and face creams in general, she says: “I don’t know whether they do anything for you, honestly.
“I don’t know whether I should say that sitting here, but what I do like is the way it makes me feel, my face can move, I feel fresh, comfortable and ready for the day, and I think that is really as much as you can ask any beauty product to do for you.”
When it comes to make-up, she is a fan of the counters in chemists and goes for inexpensive, mass-market brands.
Losing the insecurity about looks
She is similarly forthright when asked whether she thinks she looks better with age. “I don’t think so, no, I certainly don’t look better. Of course I don’t look better than I did when I was younger, without doubt.
“The great thing that happens is that you don’t give a flying fuck so much, that’s the thing. Yeah, I don’t look so good but I don’t care…
“But that is the great thing about getting older, I hope, is that you lose the incredible insecurity of youth.”
Dame Helen is also outspoken about the film industry and the lack of roles for older women, but says the focus should be on better representation of them ‘in real life’.
“When roles for women in real life change, you will see a change [in the film industry], and the same in the advertising industry.
“The reason you’re seeing me, in the wonderful position of being a face for L’Oreal, is because life out there has changed for women.”
Discussing her role as DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect, the ITV series she starred in from 1991 to the show’s end in 2006, she says: “The show was about women in the workforce, and even then [people] were saying, how interesting, a woman of 50 on the television, we’ve never seen that before, that sort of attitude.
“In a way Prime Suspect was already ten years out of date because women had entered into the workforce in the 1960s. They spent the 1970s and 1980s gaining ground, quietly putting their heads down, not making too many waves, because that was not the way to get ahead. Not complaining, doing better, and now suddenly they are the head of the university or a hospital, and Mrs Thatcher appears.
“All these women are popping up, [and] in the police force, and then Prime Suspect came out and told the story of what these women had to put with in the last 20 years.
“It was kind of groundbreaking, and there was a huge sigh of relief among professional women [saying] that’s what it was like, that’s what I had to put up with. But they were very relieved to have their story told.”