September 14, 1981 12:00 PM

She was spotted on a Manhattan cross-town bus at age 13, and three years later adorned the cover of Vogue. By 18 she was regarded as one of the greatest stars of the modeling world. Famous men would pursue her. Salvador Dali would do her portrait. And after a spectacular career, she would marry the heir to one of America’s great fortunes.

It was not a 1940s film—but fact. Carmen dell’Orefice (dell-oh-ray-fee-cha), now 50, was a fashion legend. Her aristocratic features and 5’9″, 130-pound frame were ubiquitous. Harper’s Bazaar once carried 56 pictures of her in a single issue. In layers of chiffon and clingy negligees, she was for a dozen years the first lady of lingerie—the sole model for Vanity Fair, which paid her a then unheard-of fee of $300 an hour.

Nearly two decades later, Carmen is back, silver-haired but sylphlike, and leading the backlash against the fashion industry’s obsession with prepubescent models. She was recently featured in a 10-page Town and Country layout and has been photographed for a nude spread in Harper’s Bazaar. This year she stands to earn $100,000. “Carmen is a long-distance runner,” explains Francesco Scavullo, whose photographs of her are prominent in his forthcoming book, Scavullo Beauty. “She is poetic—a Madonna.”

Not everyone, however, has greeted her return with huzzahs. Eileen Ford, co-founder of the world’s largest modeling agency and Carmen’s agent for 10 years (though not now), concedes that “she was one of the greatest models ever, but she can’t expect to do the same thing again.”

Carmen doesn’t intend to. “I’m not trying to be 20 or 30,” she says. “The greatest segment of our female population is over 40 now, and they need someone they can relate to.” And at today’s prices for top labels, they need someone who looks old enough and rich enough to afford to wear the clothes. Designer Michaele Vollbracht, 33, rarely does a fashion show without Carmen. “She is the diva,” he enthuses, “and you can’t put a child in a dress that costs $13,000.”

That sounds like Brooke Shields need not apply, but Carmen herself is all praise for Brooke the mannequin. “She is a beautiful young girl. We did a fashion show together, and she was very well bred. I wasn’t that articulate or poised at her age.”

Indeed, as a teenager the New Yorker possessed little except fawnlike beauty and distinct grace. Her father, an Italian-born violinist (he played with Serge Koussevitzky and Eugene Ormandy), disappeared when Carmen was a young child, leaving her and her mother, a Hungarian-born ballerina, to fend for themselves. Carmen attended 13 public schools in eight years before her mother finally settled down in a cold-water flat in Manhattan. It was there Carmen contracted rheumatic fever and was bedridden for a year.

Shortly after she recovered, her fateful bus ride occurred. While en route to a ballet class, she was spotted by the wife of a Harper’s Bazaar photographer. In a classic case of lost opportunities, he took her picture and dubbed her “totally unphotogenic.” A few months later she was introduced to a Vogue editor by her godfather, and the next day Carmen was summoned to her first shooting. She was paid $70 for the seven-page layout—enough for two months’ rent—and was soon working regularly before the cameras of Cecil Beaton and Irving Penn.

“I’ve grown up in the lap of the world,” recalls Carmen of those early days spent traveling the globe for location shots. At 14, she posed for Dali, and the resulting portrait was presented by Lord Mountbatten to then Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip on their wedding day. She was frequently escorted by some of the world’s most glamorous men, including Aly Khan, William Astor and Alfred G. Vanderbilt. She was barely 15 when she was introduced to Joseph P. Kennedy, who whisked her off to his Park Avenue apartment after lunch. “I was so naive,” she remembers. “He took me right home.”

For all the glamour, Carmen has experienced her share of personal ugliness. Though she put her mother through New York’s Hunter College, their relationship now is strained; they recently saw each other for the first time in 19 years. “We are oceans apart,” Carmen explains. “My mother had a very difficult life.”

Carmen’s three marriages were anything but blissful. Her first, to real estate man William Miles—she was 21—broke up within five years (they had one child, Laura). A second union, with photographer Richard Heimann, also flopped. At 33, she met Richard Kaplan, heir to the Welch’s grape juice fortune. Three years after they wed she called the Ford Agency to tell them she was “booking out.” For how long? they asked. “Forever,” she replied. For the Kaplans, forever lasted scarcely 10 years. “The men in Carmen’s life,” contends Ford, “have never been good to her.”

Today she lives in a memento-filled one-bedroom apartment on Park Avenue. She keeps her figure trim by swimming every two or three days and exercising at a gym once a week. Her regimen at home includes leg lifts even before she gets out of bed and deep knee bends while brushing her teeth. She eats sparsely but never crash-diets, and eschews cigarettes and alcohol. She also cuts her own hair. Carmen says she has never considered a facelift, and so far cosmetic surgery appears unnecessary. Says friend and noted plastic surgeon Thomas Rees: “Her weight has never varied, so her skin has never been stretched. It’s all in her genes.” Carmen calls her life now quiet and peaceful. “The money I’ve earned has enabled me to keep my life in my own hands. I had a terrific body, and I got paid for using it.”

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