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Feb 6, 2023
Elle Fanning on Queenly Makeup, From Blush on The Great to Vivienne Westwood as Muse

The actor, returning soon for a third season as Catherine the Great, pays homage to classic screen stars in the campaign for Paco Rabanne’s latest perfume, Fame.

It has been nearly six decades since Truman Capote invited 540 pals to the Plaza Hotel for the Black and White Ball—a swanning crowd that included Frank Sinatra, Babe Paley, Gordon Parks, Andy Warhol, and the Italian princess Luciana Pignatelli gleaming in a 60-carat diamond (a Harry Winston loaner). But on a recent afternoon at the hotel, Elle Fanning is seemingly ready for a redux, wearing a high-necked white Paco Rabanne dress studded with tiny diamantés. Fanning, a student of history, summons another canonical reference: “Eloise at the Plaza!” she says, perched on a sofa in a high-floor suite. The 24-year-old actor has regal bearings in spades, as proved by her Emmy-nominated turn as the Russian empress Catherine II in Hulu’s The Great. But there’s an ebullient quality too, a through line from her earliest work onscreen—as a three-year-old in I Am Sam, playing the younger version of her sister Dakota’s character.

A woman so long in the spotlight is a fitting match for the latest Paco Rabanne fragrance, Fame. The bottle conveys the flashbulb sense of the word, styled with cat-eye sunglasses, au courant pierced ears, and the house’s signature chainmail. Fanning herself, having studied ballet through her teen years, also brings a performing-arts-kid magnetism to the role. If David Bowie’s “Fame” inspired the name of the 1980 cult movie, the song also soundtracks the Paco Rabanne campaign. In it, Fanning turns up at the brand’s Avenue Montaigne flagship, where the perfume sparks a series of understated homages to ’60s screen stars, including Audrey Hepburn (Two for the Road), Brigitte Bardot (Le Mépris), and Jane Fonda (Barbarella). It’s a familiar move for Fanning, slipping in and out of guises onscreen and on the red carpet, where she and her longtime stylist Samantha McMillen often showcase rare treasures pulled from Cherie Balch’s Shrimpton Couture. Here, the actor shares a few treasured looks, the makeup product she wishes she’d invented, and Catherine the Great’s approach to power dressing.

Vanity Fair: With fame in mind, what do you guard as private in your life and what parts do you relish being less precious about, whether TikTok or karaoke?

Elle Fanning: The relationships that I care about with friends and family, that’s kind of my private life. We’re multifaceted human beings, and I feel sane that I can keep a part of myself to me that other people don’t know unless they really are on the inside—when I can just really let my guard down and be jokey or whatever it is. And then through a character, I’ll explore anything. I’m not embarrassed easily. I think, since I started this at such a young age, I’m able to let things out of myself through the character. That’s on a stage that everyone sees, but they might not necessarily know that it’s something I relate to. It’s really cathartic for me.

Couture is, to me, a true perk of celebrity, and I love the world that you’ve made with Samantha McMillen. What borrowed dresses, new or vintage, have been high points for you?

Samantha and I have been working with Shrimpton Couture quite a bit. She has amazing vintage pieces. I wore an Alexander McQueen dress the other day [for a Critics Choice after-party]. And then for the Babylon premiere I wore this black Alexandra McQueen dress that was Samantha’s, because I didn’t have anything and I kind of wanted to be more simple. Samantha had given it to Kim Basinger for the Fifty Shades of Grey premiere, I think, as well. It’s a Lee [McQueen] design, so that doesn’t go out of style. It was super special. But I love that it just, like, came from Samantha’s closet.

A sisterhood through couture. Who have served as beauty inspirations for you? I saw your tribute to Vivienne Westwood, for one.

So many. Vivienne Westwood is a great example because I’m always drawn to the individual. Gosh, there’s no one more singular in what she created and how she presented herself and her attitude of, I’m going to show up and just be myself, whatever the occasion. I’ve started to get a little better at that because, living in LA, it’s very relaxed there and I’m not a super relaxed dresser. Sometimes I show up to things and I feel overdressed. I’m also tall, so things kind of look dressier on me, versus my sister—she’s petite and can wear something that blends in and is not so overly Wow, you look like you’re in a gown. I remember when I met [Westwood], I think she had drawn-on circle eyeliner around her eyes and lip liner that was, like, blue. Sometimes, if I’m not going out one night, I’ll be like, Okay, I’m just going to try and do this crazy [makeup] look. That’s usually a private thing; sometimes I’ll post it. But I love a risk taker—anybody that can dare to be themselves. Those people are going to continue to push creativity forward.

How has the transformation back into Catherine felt, mentally and also physically?

The third season is coming out soon! We just finished it. The costume designer, Sharon Long, is incredible—all of her designs are original. I think we really have a great balance of hard and soft with Catherine because she is quite feminine-ish but also practical. She runs a country. I learned that the real Catherine the Great—even though we’re not super historically accurate—used her clothes politically. It wasn’t that she loved fashion; she wasn’t like Marie Antoinette in that sense. She would dress for the political occasion to try to get her way or fit into a situation. The corsets, as uncomfortable as they are, I do kind of love wearing them. And it’s two hours of hair and makeup before each day, so I’m there before the crew. I wear a wig, which is better because to do it with your own hair would be impossible. And honestly the makeup just consists of lots of blush, which I love. I could give everything up except for blush.

Are you the type to incorporate scent into your characters? I’m curious what perfume might accompany The Great. And, separately, what past role of yours might Fame be a fit for?

I know that actors have in the past worked with a perfumer to create a scent for them, and they wear it throughout filming. I’ve always been curious to do it because I’m like, what would Catherine wear?

Something animalic or Bulgarian rose?

I was thinking the morning dew—something crisp, like the outside fresh air, and vodka-infused. Like a little sour punch. Also, they probably smelled so bad back then. We always talk about it on set. Like, if we were really doing this completely accurately, God. And Fame is very Neon Demon, in a way. The metallic bottle at least. I do think Jesse would probably wear it—she’s my character in that. It has a little edge.

During the pandemic, you did your own makeup for a Vanity Fair cover story. Are there certain tricks you’ve gleaned in your long career?

Erin [Ayanian Monroe], who is my makeup artist for red carpet and also does films with me, we have such a close relationship. I’ve known her since I was 14. It’s interesting because we have these red-carpet moments that are so different from what you’re trying to achieve on a film set, where it’s not about looking pretty. It’s just, how would the character be looking at this moment? She does The Great as well; she does scars and blood and all that stuff. It’s so fun to work in the two worlds. We’ve been doing fake freckles for so long, and now I see everyone doing it. We’re like, we should have come out with a freckle pen because back in the day we would use a little eyebrow gel pencil. Speaking of, when I did The Girl from Plainville, I had to look like someone very specifically, and her eyebrows were very specific. I’ve never done anything to my eyebrows. People are saying, what, thin eyebrows are back? I don’t know. I like unruly eyebrows.

You recently posted about your late ballet teacher—my condolences. How does that training stay with you, whether dance scenes in The Great or a secret desire to do a dance biopic?

Oh God, totally. That would be really fun. I think dance, since I had that training, I’m aware every day how much it helps me because I feel like I’m so aware of my body. You have to fixate on the smallest detail, the smallest muscle movement. In acting, if you get a note from a director of ‘Can you change this or do this in a different way,’ it’s not just about the mindset. I think changing the physicality can change the entire scene, just the way that you move. I haven’t taken a ballet class since I was, like, 17. I want to try to go back, but I just don’t think I would be as good as I was. That’s the hard thing.

I’ll hope for that dance biopic then. An excuse to get back into the studio.

One day! Then I can really train. My Black Swan. [Source]

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The Great (TV Series)

Role: Catherine
Release Date: 2020
A royal woman living in rural Austria during the seventeenth century is forced to choose between her own personal happiness and the future of Russia, when she marries an Emperor.

The Nightingale

Role: Isabelle
Release Date: 2023
The lives of two sisters living in France are torn apart at the onset of World War II. Based on Kristin Hannah's novel 'The Nightingale'.

Francis and the Godfather

Role: Ali MacGraw
Release Date: 202?
Young director Francis Ford Coppola faces off against producer Robert Evans during the production of 'The Godfather.'


Role: Stratten
Release Date: 202?
The founder of the all-male strip club, Chippendales, becomes suspicious of the New York choreographer he hired to help turn it into a highly-successful enterprise.

I Am Sybil

Role: Mason
Release Date: 202?
Examines the circumstances surrounding the case of Sybil, one of the first well-known instances of dissociative identity disorder which raised issues of identity and mental health in the public eye.


Role: Unknown
Release Date: 202?
Follows a young man suffering from epilepsy who plots the murders of his dysfunctional family.

A Complete Unknown

Role: Sylvie Russo
Release Date: 202?
A young Bob Dylan shakes up the folk music scene when he plugs in his electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.
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