China Machado, the legendary supermodel and first woman of color to grace the pages and cover of a major magazine, passed away on Sunday morning. She was 87. In an industry full of eccentrics, she stood out as a genuine character and pioneer. Her life was, whichever way you view it, extraordinary.
Machado grew up in Shanghai, born Noelie Dasouza Machad, to a Chinese mother and Portuguese father. The family fled China by boat after WWII, and after being rejected by New York immigration authorities, continued onto South America where they found a home in Buenos Aires and later Peru. At 19, Machado ran away with Luis Miguel Dominguín, the famous bullfighter.
They met on a chance encounter, and three days later he called to say he was coming to get her. She left with him to Mexico. They traveled all around the world together for almost two years, dancing and yachting with everyone from Pablo Picasso to Erol Flynn and Ernest Hemingway—until Ava Gardner, still married in name to Frank Sinatra at the time, swooped in and started seeing Dominguín. Displaced and alone and unable to go home, Machado moved to Paris. She started modeling there after an employee of Cristobal Balenciaga's saw her at a cocktail party and suggested she give it a try, and soon became a house model for Givenchy.
She moved to New York in 1958, and almost immediately found herself in Diana Vreeland's office. Richard Avedon shot her for the first time a few days later, and they became lifelong friends and collaborators. The life, energy, and grace she brought to his images are legendary. He put her in Harper's Bazaar in 1959, threatening to dissolve his contract if his images of her didn't appear in the magazine. This bold move—and Machado's continuing sense of adventure and ingenuity in a space that did not consider women who were not white and American to be examples of beauty—was essential.
She paved the way for nonwhite women to have a face in fashion, and created unforgettable imagery with the likes of Avedon, Steven Meisel, Warhol, and more. She later became fashion editor for Harper's Bazaar and returned to modeling in her 80s. There were very few moves in her life that were not daring and lasting.