Carmen Dell'Orefice
Photographed for Sunday Life in NY, January 2013.
Photography by Gabrielle Revere

Carmen Dell'Orefice has been steadily employed as a model since the age of 13. Photo: Gabrielle Revere

Even in pyjamas, slowed by arthritic pain and with half her hair in rollers, Carmen Dell'Orefice, 81, commands attention. Sleek and straight-backed, with enormous cat-eyes and a cloud of silver hair, she is impossible to look away from.

Before the camera, she unselfconsciously pulls dozens of exaggerated faces, throws her head back, mimes laughter, extends her arms elegantly, or uses them to frame her face like an exquisite sculpture. The effect is wildly melodramatic - even a little eccentric - until you see the stills; each a moment of striking engagement. "It's like watching an old Hollywood actress," says sleepwear designer Peter Alexander, who is in New York overseeing a photo shoot of the octogenarian supermodel for his Mother's Day catalogue. "She doesn't miss a frame."

Alexander says he has been "infatuated with her for five years", but only recently considered they might work together. "She's a survivor in an industry that is so youth-oriented," he says, hoping the association will position his own designs as "ageless classics".

Dell'Orefice is inevitably described as the world's oldest - and longest-working - model, having been steadily employed since the age of 13. Her first Vogue cover (of six) was shot in 1947, when she used to rollerskate to bookings, and she is still gracing Paris's couture catwalks 66 years later. Two days after we meet, she will be in Paris, stealing the show in a bridal tuxedo for French designer Stéphane Rolland.

Her name is synonymous with luxury brands, including Rolex and Hermès, and she has been photographed by every legendary fashion photographer of the 20th century. She has razor-sharp cheekbones and fine skin. Her eyes are captivating; a bright, light blue. She is tall and graceful, but when we meet her knees are a source of such "searing discomfort" that she moves with some difficulty. She wears hearing aids. "These are about three months old on me and both batteries are f...ing dead," she says, with some residual Queens sassiness.

Her motivation to keep modelling remains simple: she likes what she does and appreciates the collegiality. "It brings me in touch, as a single person, living on my own."

Her resilience can partly be attributed to her early years as a dancer, and to modelling, each of which taught her to be "too good at overlooking discomfort - a dangerous thing".

"I'm just fascinated, all the band-aids I've had to use in my life work. I should have been dead long ago, starting from the feet up and the ovaries and a hysterectomy ...", she says, referring to her long list of injuries and operations over the years.

While still a teenager, she submitted to hormone injections, paid for by magazine publisher Condé Nast, to bring on puberty, which had been delayed by illness and dance training. These days, when people inquire whether she's had cosmetic surgery, Dell'Orefice responds, "Please, I fix everything I possibly can."

She is about to undergo simultaneous knee implants, "so that I can toe dance again, you see ... We're living so long - I'm planning over 100. And to live as pain-free as possible physically and as whole as possible." Does she plan a retirement anywhere in there?

"I'm going to ask you a question," she replies. "Would you consider stopping breathing?"

There is a "make do and mend", Depression-era practicality in Dell'Orefice's refusal to retire. She was born into hardship on Welfare Island (now Roosevelt Island) in New York's East River, in 1931. Her Hungarian dancer mother was 19, her Italian violinist father, 39. The marriage was tempestuous and broke down several times, eventually leaving Dell'Orefice alone with her mother, who occasionally dropped her into foster care when times became too hard.

Dell'Orefice took it all in her stride and thinks young people today have an overblown sense of entitlement. "Being a single mother - it's as if it's new," she says. "But this thing of children divorcing their parents ... people forget to be human first, they get into all kinds of esoteric ideas of law and what they're entitled to. I grew up the real way. I worked for everything and I saw my mother work - it's not a dirty word."

Although she thanks her father for her bone structure, from her mother she learnt practical skills, including cooking, upholstering and sewing. Presumably, she also inherited a certain unstoppable force.

"Every time my mother couldn't pay the rent, they kicked us out, we'd move on," she says, reciting a list of working-class neighbourhoods: Woodside, Sunnyside, Bayside, Flushing. "By the time I was 12, we ended up at 900 Third Avenue, opposite my nemesis's building; opposite Bernie Madoff." But more on that later.

During a cross-town bus ride to dance class, shortly after a year of being bedridden with rheumatic fever, Dell'Orefice was spotted by the wife of Harper's Bazaar photographer Herman Landshoff. Test pictures followed - she was deemed "unphotogenic" - but a seed had been planted in the mind of an ambitious child. Dell'Orefice's godfather contacted a friend at Vogue, beauty editor Carol Phillips, who brought her in for more shots. The result was a seven-page spread and the launch of her career. "I loved getting out of the cold-water flat," she says. "We didn't have a telephone, so Condé Nast would have to send a runner over, and up four flights."

At 14, she modelled topless for Salvador Dalí - an introduction made by the English photographer and designer Cecil Beaton. The Spanish artist paid her $12 an hour - an improvement on the $7.50 she was getting for editorial work - and "he never touched" her. By age 15 she had appeared on the cover of Vogue. The "laundry list" of photographers she has worked with is stunning: "[Erwin] Blumenfeld and [Horst P.] Horst and Beaton, [Constantin ] Joffe and [Irving] Penn and Frannie McLaughlin-Gill ... I tell you, I've worked with everybody."

That roll-call also includes Richard Avedon ("A new kid on the block - I'd already been used goods by the time he got to me") and Norman Parkinson, with whom she had an affair and who restored her confidence at 41 after bumping into her at a party, commenting she was looking good "for an old bag". They shot pictures for French Vogue together and her career took another leap forward.

Looking back on those early days, Dell'Orefice explains she was born into her career as the industry itself was being born after World War II; that there were only a few girls on all the jobs and no one was given the kind of star status models now command. "I don't know that it was anything, except that I could bring home money to my mother and she could stop working and she would stop hitting on me," she says.

When Dell'Orefice and her peer Suzy Parker (Avedon's muse and a face of Chanel) went to Europe to model in the parades, they'd take a sewing machine with them to make their own evening gowns to attend parties.

If Dell'Orefice now appears to conduct herself with any hauteur, it is simply the mark of experience. If the energy in the room lags or becomes scattered, she takes control; assuming the responsibilities of the stylist, or restoring the photographer's status, which is currently being chipped away at by half-a-dozen onlookers with camera phones. "I've lost patience with people who let themselves be used or infringed upon," she says. Women, she goes on, have the right "to control their environment for themselves".

This she knows more than a thing or two about, having been cheated out of her life savings by Bernard Madoff, whose Wall Street investment firm was exposed in 2008 as a gigantic Ponzi scheme. She doesn't beat up on herself for losing the money, though. (After all, it was not the first time, having lost everything before on the stockmarket in the 1980s and '90s.) "A lot of people around me were really staggeringly rich, which I never have been," she says. "I walked in between the raindrops of real money, but I've stayed happy."

Norman Levy, her late boyfriend who died in 2005 aged 93, was a close friend of Madoff; it was at Levy's behest that she invested all her money with the fraudster. She no longer lets herself be put upon by men. "Don't fall in love," she tells me, quite sternly. Falling in love, she points out, is a most unpleasant sensation. "The real thing is to be in love - and that is quite a challenge."

Her passion - attributable, she says, to her European heritage - has been known to get her in trouble. "You know, Italian-Hungarian," she says. "No matter how linear and cool I look on the outside, I have all that energy trying to find its way through life."

She laments the legacy of Puritanism in the US that has relegated sex to being "a dirty word". "People miss the wonderfulness of the richness of relationships, and sex is part of it - if you choose it; if the affinity is there," she says. "It can be like a wonderful wave that starts way out in the ocean and then finally hits on shore and is fabulous."

She was "always one to have crushes", she observes, and to this day claims to always have a love interest. "I love my relationships and I don't have a set idea of what they should be," she says. "I live out what is there, the dance of need, daily, weekly, yearly, if it's geographically possible ..."

It is just as well she doesn't have a conventional view on romance, I reflect, as she recounts how a recent relationship inspired the man she was seeing to return to his former girlfriend. "He called me and said, 'I just realised how much I loved her and I have a ring in my pocket and if she'll have me, I'm going to marry her'," she says. Wasn't that galling? "I was thrilled for him ... And that's a friendship and memories I'll have forever."

Her marriages seem to have been less fortunate, although she is not one to bear grudges. "I've been married three times by choice," she says. "By love." At 16, Dell'Orefice fell for William Miles, variously described as a playboy and entrepreneur. She terminated several pregnancies during their courtship, determined not to "entrap" him, but gave birth to their daughter Laura after they married, when she was 21. (Laura is now a therapist in California.) She bought Miles racehorses, he cheated on her, and they were divorced by the time she was 24.

Her second husband, Richard Heimann, was a photographer she met through work. For him, she purchased a studio and paid for his director's card to become a cinematographer, but the marriage failed.

She met third husband Richard Kaplan, a young architect, at a dinner party. She reduced her workload after they married, a decision she suspects hastened the end of their relationship. He was ungenerous about their age difference, criticising her body and plucking out a grey hair when they lay in bed together - an audacious gesture she credits with inspiring her to let her hair go entirely grey.

Dell'Orefice's extraordinary looks, in her opinion, are not the secret of her success, anyway. It is due to the way she responds to whoever is looking at her. "I understood that synergistic dance between photographer and object - muse, if you will, model, whatever you call us," she says. "It's that silent language of communication, like being psychic with each other."

On this topic - energetic exchange - Dell'Orefice says that she believes "in an energy world - we're all energy. Thoughts are held in the energy world. Energy goes to energy. Nothing is lost. Nothing is gained. It only changes shape and form."

This belief system - nothing is lost, nothing is gained - is the key to her rare equanimity and refusal to dwell in the past. "I don't live for stuff and things, and if I had to live in a cardboard box, I would put curtains on it."

With that, after an unrelenting day of posing and being photographed, she cheerfully throws a bright red scarf and stylish winter coat over her Peter Alexander pyjamas to make the trip uptown to her apartment. "I'll give my doorman a thrill," she says.

Styling by Nick Nelson. Carmen wears clothing by Peter Alexander, earrings by CZ by Kenneth Jay Lane, ring by Gumuchian, necklace, Carmen's own.