BRIDGET SOUJORNER – AN ANTHEM TO LIFE

Photography: Henry Gorse
Styling: Patricia Villirillo
Interview: Leonie Volk

Bridget Sojourner sees the world through the eyes of a child: there is always a lot to explore with adventures waiting just around the corner. Her age doesn’t play a role in this: Sojourner is a proud 76 year old. An activist all her life, she has travelled the world and remains active. Today she works as both a gardener and a model on a mission against ageism. She found her way to public recognition as a protagonist of the Channel 4 documentary „Fabulous Fashionistas.“ It followed stylish women during their best years. Sojourner has no intension of hiding in her advanced age. She wears bright colours and affordable second-hand clothing. Throughout the conversation Sojourner reflects on the social response to demographic change, her approach to ageing and explains where she discovered her sense of style. An encounter with Bridget creates excitement about the years ahead.

Mrs. Sojourner, could you tell me what’s on your bucket list?
Bridget Sojourner: What’s a bucket list?

A bucket list names the things you’d like to do before you die.
Gosh I think I do them all the time so I don’t think there’s anything in particular that I really want to do. I’ve been to so many places in the world, I’ve done so much so I can’t really think of anything I still desperately want to do. I mean I definitely want to see my son and my grandson in the Pacific. Every time I go there I say it’s the last time I’m going because it’s so expensive and it’s such a long flight but I still think I have to go. If I have a goal, I go for it. I have recently noticed a pattern in my biography. I learn something theoretically, then I practise it or work on a project and study further. So the ageism thing turned to modelling, then the opportunity to be part of this documentary came along and now I want to go back to education. It’s not always a circle but it’s a flow. The other day someone said to me: “If you were younger you would have gone out to Sierra Leone regarding Ebola, wouldn’t you?” Yes, I would actually and I hadn’t even thought of volunteering. And then I actually wondered if I should now. But I don’t think they would take me considering my age because I would put myself in a fragile situation. At least they would interpret me as being fragile, even though I might be stronger than them. (laughs)! So I might put this on my bucket list.

You are known for being on Sue Bourne’s Channel 4 documentary “Fabulous Fashionistas”. You were portrayed as one of six stylish women with the average age of 80. But the majority of your life you’ve worked as an activist.
I’ve mostly worked around the Pacific and Africa. Anti-Racism was a huge campaign of mine. In the 60’s I was part of the anti-nuclear movement. There’s always been a campaign. At the moment it’s ageism that led to the documentary. Before that I worked in Bangladesh with a group of women against HIV. And then again you notice the progression I spoke about. I lived in London in the 80’s when HIV and Aids became apparent. I became employed by London University for the policy studies on HIV and Aids research, then I went abroad to educate others about these matters. I moved from activism to theory and back to activism or some sort of educational work. In the 50’s, in my youth, I was programmed to become a secretary, a nurse or a teacher and I worked in all those fields. Then I became a health educator, and in fact what I should have done is go to art school. But little middleclass country girls like me were not supposed to. I’ve been so internalized by caring that I entered into all those professions by a sort of brain-washing system.

In the documentary you strive to have an alternative career as a model.
It was just one avenue to confront ageism in this society. I don’t relish the thought of being a model for the rest of my life. It’s fun doing it occasionally. I wouldn’t like that life forever though. The Guardian used me for their ‘All Ages’ section once but I made such a fuss about choosing my clothes that they ended up using another model who didn’t criticise them. In the end models are clothes horses.

You dress uniquely and extravagantly for your age. Where does your sense of style and fascination for fashion come from?
I think I got it from my mother. She was unusual in her surroundings; being a really ordinary middleclass parent in a very middleclass society. There weren’t many people with her sense of style. I recently found a lot of drawings that I did of Elsa Schiaparelli and Cristóbal Balenciaga when I was about twelve. And when Mary Quant came on the scene I used to go to her sales. In my hippie phase I had friends making clothes out of curtains for me. I guess I have always been interested in style, not fashion.

What is the difference between the two?
Fashion comes and goes immediately. It lives in the moment. Whereas style is an individual thing that somebody appears in and possesses. There aren’t a lot of people who have style but there are a lot of people wearing fashion. What is this like Germany?

For you money is not a matter of style.
No, absolutely not! (laughs) I just love charity shops because it’s always an adventure and that’s what drives me. In fact a local charity shop has recently put up an advertisement for deputy manager and I might apply for that but that’s a little side issue. I have always made or bought stuff in charity shops or in sales. I don’t use high street shops at all. I go and look sometimes. For instance I go to Yohji Yamamoto. They always give me free samples of perfume (laughs). In the film I did try on dresses there but that’s as near as I got to them. If I became a millionaire tomorrow, I’d shop there.

Do you have a favourite piece of clothing in your wardrobe?
Probably my Dr. Martens and a long woollen coat by Yohji Yamamoto that a friend of mine gave me in Australia. But unfortunately it is now moth-eaten.

Do you feel attractive?
Yes but this hasn’t always been the case. I recently looked at old pictures of myself and realized that I was good-looking in my early years but I wasn’t aware of that at the time. I have always been confident but in recent years I have gained confidence. Maybe this has something to do with the attention I got from the documentary.

How do you keep yourself in shape?
I cycle a lot and I do Tai Chi and Pilates. I walk a heck of a lot. I rarely get buses or trains.

What do you think about plastic surgery?
Terrible, I wouldn’t dream of it. I have seen it on people and it doesn’t make them look younger – it makes them look forced, weird and strange. Wrinkles are natural. Particularly in Western societies everyone is afraid of death and they associate ageing with getting closer to death. That’s why we are obsessed with youth and prefer not talking about age and instead we try to hide it.

Are you afraid of death?
I have been around a lot of people who have killed themselves or died. As a nurse, I have been involved in the dying process. It was incorporated into my life so that I can live with people while they are dying and look after them. So the thought of it doesn’t faze me at all. I mean I’d prefer the process not to be painful or inhibiting. I would hate to be incapacitating.

Do you feel your age?
As people get older they always tend to say they are not feeling their age. It definitely has something to do with the media image. Everyone’s obsessed with youthfulness. I’m not quite like that. There’s no way I’m going to be invisible. I am really glad to be the age I am but I haven’t got an age feeling. I can’t look at an age and say I feel like 77 because I don’t know what that means. I only refuse to agree or admit to what the media says.

You definitely don’t fit the stereotype of an older lady. Is that the reason it’s harder for you to identify with people your age?
Some of my friends act and behave terrifically at their age. Most of them are still working and I think that’s what keeps you alive. I identify with them but generally I find it harder. I think people in their seventies still have that aura of getting nearer demise. I can’t really associate with that or the view on ageing of the general public. It is interesting in other societies that still respect the old and that’s what we have lost here. Social mobility made a lot of people move away from their parents and grandparents and they bring up their children in another area. The relationship with the older generation gets lost on the way and I think that’s really tragic. It’s good for one’s individuality though. I have lived in societies where people of all generations live in one community. It does make for tremendous cohesion with little children growing up knowing their grandparents. I notice too when I visit schools and we work on ageing that young people have a much more positive attitude to aging when they have a relationship with their grandparents or older people.

Why do you think people are so fascinated by you?
Because I’m older. I am a role model to them. In the film they use the word inspiring and I think the success of the documentary proves it. The model agencies claim that people don’t want to see older people. They say the general public want to dream and not get confronted by reality. I’m not sure about that. I get approached a lot. At the beginning it was three times a day. The attention that came with the film was really unexpected but sensational. I look back on it and think: this is my 15 minutes of Andy Warhol fame and now I can go on to do something else.

Do you get the impression that older people are expected to step out of the spotlight?
Absolutely! It’s within our tradition, the media, Christianity, our stance on death, the idea of drifting slowly away. Bringing up a boy in this society has been quite difficult. Maybe it’s easier now but certainly when my boys were young we thought we could bring them up as ‘feminists’. I think men can’t be real feminists but they need to have attitudes that are not discriminating towards women. We think people we surround ourselves with have the same morals and values but we forget what a tremendous impact the media has on our society. And it’s the same with ageism. There are so many people now who believe that you can grow old joyfully, there’s still this tremendous backdrop of discrimination against older people. I don’t know how it’s going to change, but it will, gradually. Hopefully like men are slowly changing.

Currently more older women are used as faces of fashion campaigns, editorials and runways. For instance, at the Jean Paul Gaultier presentation older models walked the runway.
Really? I haven’t noticed. I like the campaign that Steven Meisel shot for Lanvin. I have this thing with Vivienne Westwood not using older models. I wrote to her twice. I received a short reply from her secretary that asked me to pass on my message to the model agencies. Have you seen Tim Walker’s book “The Granny Alphabet”? I like his work tremendously but this really upset me (laughs). He captured this stereotypical image of the elderly. Apparently older women want to be the woman next door with the carpet slippers on. That’s not really what I want.

Do you think designers, photographers and stylists increasingly use older models to satisfy the needs of this target group or are they only seeking attention by doing the unexpected?
Well I wouldn’t know because I haven’t noticed. I’m guessing it’s the same thing with black models. Naomi Campbell is used all the time but there are more talented faces out there that are not getting enough attention. I’ll keep an eye on it now and form an opinion or maybe you should look into this further because I won’t be around for much longer. (laughs)

Does ageing bring along any advantages?
Most definitely! We are under great pressure these days. I have seen and accomplished a lot and now I’m at the point where I can be the person I want to be without any side effects.

Do you have a piece of advice for life you’d like to share with readers?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said: “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me” I thought that was really interesting. I took this to heart and I am trying to live by it. Some people would ask me why I get involved. Johan Galtung said what happens in the micro, is relevant to the macro. And I live by that philosophy. Everything an individual does has an effect on the world. This morning my neighbour rang me to tell me about a cycling accident at the end of the road and I ran down and helped. I don’t think for long, I react. How to challenge global matters in one’s life seems to be more difficult. Maybe technology has made things so much more apparent – you get confronted by more. Whereas I think in the 60s we were so into changing our immediate environment. Now because of the globalisation it’s harder to confront everything. I still try to continue my attitude. The people here call me sneaky Bee, they might think I’m interfering but actually I have stopped two burglaries. I am very aware. Although it can’t happen on the global level, one can be present in one’s local area.

Photography: Henry Gorse
Styling: Patricia Villirillo
Make up: Marie Bruce using MAC Cosmetics
Hair: Yusuke Morioka using Bumble and Bumble
Model: Bridget Soujorner
Text: Leonie Volk
Styling Assistant: Sofia Lai