In 1965, Valerie Askew’s life was the epitome of drudgery. She had four children under five, lived in a crumbling London flat with no heating or hot water and had to manhandle a pram up four flights of stairs. Because her unemployed husband was half Indian, they could not find any decent accommodation from racist landlords. With no money, she took in sewing until her fingers swelled from the stress.
Several years later Askew was a matriarch of British glamour, running the biggest modeling agency in Europe, with offices in London, Milan, Tokyo and Los Angeles and a growing renown as the “best eyes in the business” for spotting talent.
Effervescent and willowy, she was often mistaken for Audrey Hepburn when she put her hair into a bun. At the nadir of her fortunes, she applied to the Mayfair Models agency and began to model the latest collections in leading fashion stores and haute couture houses for “ladies who lunch”.
Relief was short-lived. The inventor of the miniskirt Mary Quant, breezier magazines such as the relaunched Queen and affordable boutiques such as Biba were revolutionizing fashion. When Mayfair Models closed in 1966, Askew’s father lent her and her younger sister, Gloria, $38 to buy up the agency’s phone lines and set up a modeling agency at 22 Bruton Street, Mayfair. Young snappers such as Terence Donovan, Helmut Newton and David Bailey began to swing by.
Effervescent and willowy, Askew was often mistaken for Audrey Hepburn when she put her hair into a bun.
Valerie, 27, and Gloria, 25, were sneered at and patronized but bank managers lent them the capital they needed. One told them, “One pair of brown eyes I can resist, two never. How much do you want?” Another said: “If you two girls ever get into trouble, I will take you both by the hand to my head office and tell them, ‘This is why I did it’.” Askew’s unemployed husband was required to sign the credit application forms.
In 1968 the sisters held the first Askews party at Hatchetts nightclub in Piccadilly. Their brother Tony engineered a dance floor that pulsated in time to the music as their coterie of models grooved about with The Beatles, Keith Moon, Vidal Sassoon and Lulu.
Having taken up the baton from the “twinset and pearls brigade” hitherto running modeling agencies, Askew was not entirely in tune with the new, swinging era and ran her growing empire with a genteel naivety. She once admonished a client who had sworn at one of her bookers, “How dare you speak to her with those words, she doesn’t even know what they mean.”
However, the husky-voiced Englishwoman found favor with powerful American modeling agents such as Eileen Ford and Wilhelmina Cooper. In Paris, where models would be lined up like debutantes for agents to scrutinize, Askew recalled Ford and Cooper, who did not like each other, starting from opposite ends of the room, giving each other a perfunctory nod in the middle before walking on. Askew won the respect of both. Cooper claimed that Askew was the only woman she could put on her makeup in front of. Meanwhile, when it emerged that Askew’s models had taken over a Parisian hotel, it was surrounded by serenading suitors with roses and guitars.
In 1968 the Askew sisters held a party at Hatchetts nightclub in Piccadilly and grooved about with The Beatles, Keith Moon, Vidal Sassoon and Lulu.
Askew often recruited models on the street. Bone structure was her starting point, but charm and personality, conveyed in a cheeky wink, demurring shrug or doe-like stare, was equally important. After one trip to Paris in 1968 she took home the Soviet model Galya Milovskaya, complete with a hastily arranged visa. She would become known as the “Soviet Twiggy”. Other Askew models would include Sue Nadkarni, Ika Hindley, Catherine Dyer (who would become David Bailey’s fourth wife in 1986), Lorraine Chase (the cockney model, later known for advertising Campari and dropping her “aitches” on the game show Blankety Blank), Michael Edwards (who had a relationship with Priscilla Presley, Elvis’s former wife) and Sadie Frost.
The Askews never tied the models to proper contracts, believing they would undermine the agency’s family atmosphere. As a result, many were poached by rival agencies. Askew would simply find more.
Few young women of beauty escaped her notice. She once gave her business card to a punk with a blue mohican and heavy make-up swigging a bottle of cider on the Kings Road. Espying the teenage Naomi Campbell, flanked by two glamorous blonde girls on New Bond Street in the mid-1980s, she urged her daughter Sarah to approach them. “Excuse me, my mum is a model agent and thinks you are beautiful.” The faces of the two blonde girls lit up, until the business card was handed to Campbell. The supermodel cited Askew in an interview with Vogue in 1992 as a key mover at the start of what would become a stellar career on the catwalk. Campbell soon moved on, but Askew thought she was a “lovely girl”.
Wilhelmina Cooper claimed that Valerie Askew was the only woman she could put on her makeup in front of.
In the early days her models were given a $25 weekly allowance and strictly chaperoned. The Askews’ golden rule was that they would not take their models anywhere they would not want their daughters to go.
She mothered them and often let them sleep at the end of her bed when they had trouble with boyfriends or bad experiences with drugs. She counseled a model who became a kleptomaniac, others who were questioning their sexuality and another who was having schizophrenic episodes. They confided in her. When she discovered that a photographer was exposing himself to her models, she took him aside and said, with as much delicacy as possible in her cut-glass accent: “Whatever you might call it, please do not take it out again.” The mortified photographer desisted with Askew models.
Drama was commonplace during her 15-hour days at Bruton Street, such as the disappearance of a model who it later emerged had eloped with a priest. Nevertheless she always made it home to cook dinner for her five children.
Askew was a single mother after separating from her husband in 1972. She was not seduced by the glamour of the industry, but she was a dedicated networker.
At one wedding she was unaware that the cake had been laced with marijuana and topped with LSD sprinkles. The teetotaler ate a slice before being called back to her home, which had been burgled and her eldest child tied up. The police, thinking she was hysterical because of the incident, got a doctor to administer morphine, adding to her hallucinations.
In 1973 Askews was the first London agency to open in Milan. She made friends with a young designer called Giorgio Armani who was so cash poor that he paid her in clothes for the use of Askew models. She quickly questioned the wisdom of the Italian venture. Her models were often harassed and a mafioso tried to convince Askew to buy out her sister as a business partner. Wads of cash were put in front of her as she was told “everyone has a price”. She replied: “I am afraid you have met the first person who doesn’t.” They later closed the office.
In 1978 Askews was nearly destroyed. A business partner, furious when Askew tried to stop him sleeping with the models, poached her three bookers and 22 of their models. The industry rallied round her and when the Askews managed to rearrange their existing bookings with new models, a group of “heavies” was sent to Bruton Street to take her booking diaries.
When the lead heavy demanded she hand them over, she offered him a cup of tea. Looking at the pictures of models on the wall, he saw Lorraine Chase, his daughter. “You looked after my girl. I’m not doing anything here,” he said, finishing his tea and leading his men out.
Askew mothered her models and let them sleep at the end of her bed when they had trouble with boyfriends or bad experiences with drugs.
Valerie Askew was born in Epping, Essex, in 1939. Her father, William, was an opera singer turned music and drama teacher. Her mother, Irene (née Molyneaux), was a poet. Her maternal grandmother, Edith Molyneaux, was a dressmaker to the Court of St James’s.
Valerie was educated at a convent. As a child she taught herself to sew and made her own clothes but her ambition was to go to art school. However, on the insistence of her mother she enrolled at Pitman’s secretarial college.
In 1960 she married Joe Joseph, an RAF engineer, whom she had met in a club. All was well until he resigned from the RAF because of an allergy to engine oil. They divorced in 1978. She is survived by their children: Pip, an academic, Anthony, a stage designer, Trevor, who runs an English school in Japan, Deborah, and Sarah, a writer and broadcaster.
After retiring in the early Nineties, Askew turned her back on the fashion world, disillusioned at the taste for “heroin chic” and “size zero” that required models to half-starve themselves. She returned to her first love of painting.
After her daughter, Sarah, became a Muslim, she would courteously protest against Islamophobia, saying: “Excuse me, my daughter is a Muslim and you are quite wrong, you know.” She visited South Africa often, and managed the jazz musician Bheki Mseleku.
Askew never forgot her extended family of models. A woman who often fell prey to spoonerisms, she once gathered them together and impressed on them the power of “pisitive thonking”.
Valerie Askew, modeling agent, was born on January 25, 1939. She died of heart failure on August 27, 2020, aged 81