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The Coolest Person We Know: Life Lessons From a 94-Year-Old Model

Loving yourself, dessert after dinner, rejecting perfectionism and long eyelashes are the keys to being healthy, happy and your own best friend.

| July 17th, 2014
Photos by Valerie Fischel & Saria Atiye
Ilona Royce Smithkin

Ilona Royce Smithkin is an established artist and Cabaret performer. She paints and draws daily and stays active by trekking up the stairs to her tiny, third-floor walk-up in New York City's West Village. In the summer, she goes swimming in the cold Atlantic waters outside her Cape Cod studio. Hers is the portrait of a vivacious, creative woman leading an active, fulfilling life. But at 94, Smithkin is so much more than that. She's proof that adopting a positive outlook and filling your life with things you love can keep you healthy, happy and beautiful at any age.

Ilona Royce Smithkin

At 92 years old, Smithkin was scouted by fashion photographer Ari Cohen of Advanced Style. She has since become a fashion icon and minor celebrity, known for her style, which often consists of random objects and hodgepodge fabrics she’s morphed into fabulous pieces of colorful clothing and bold accessories, and for her fiery red hair and matching long, hand-made eyelashes. She’s modeled for Karen Walker, been featured on numerous style sites and has had editorial exposure worldwide. But most importantly, her contagiously joyful, effervescent personality steals the attention of everyone around her.

Her spirit and effervescence are so inspiring that we were clamoring to pick her brain for her secrets to staying so youthful and energetic. The evening of our interview, Ilona was scheduled to sing a song on closing night at La Soiree, a New York circus (the director had spotted her in the audience and recruited her to perform). The following night, she was going to make an appearance at a bachelor party. When we managed to pin her down, she was full of wisdom, full of advice and above all full of life.

How do you start each day?
I take a bath every day, and I really enjoy it. I put a little perfume in it, little goodie goodies in it, and this is my luxury. After that, I put my eyelashes on and I'm ready for the world!

Do you stick to a diet?
I try to eat right without any particular diet. I eat almost everything and not too much of anything. Greens, fruits, and then after a meal I always have a little piece of something sweet and a tiny coffee. I eat only how much I feel is right. The moment I feel it’s too much I stop.

Ilona Royce Smithkin

How do you feel about aging?
I never worried about getting old and never celebrated my birthday until I was 90 and my friends threw me a surprise party. I had no feeling of aging. It’s always just been another day. When I really think about it, I’m amazed at how many years I’ve been on this earth.

Ilona Royce Smithkin

What do you think about today's youth?
Some young people are wonderful, and some are spoiled brats. I feel love and sadness that they have such superficial lives. They’re not hearing the raindrops fall or looking at flowers—the simple things. I don’t think very many of them are happy. “I want this, I want that.” There’s always a need. Never, “I’m so happy with what I have.”

How have you kept your mind so sharp?
I’m no longer concerned about myself. I am more open to the world and to things. I reject ugliness. It shortens your life to think negatively or be vengeful. You have two wonderful friends in you: your mind and your body. They are both very fascinating and have a very complicated unity. The closer the two are to each other and more friendly and respectful, the better it is. When you’re older, your mind has to protect your body, or you have nothing, and you go.

Name one thing you've learned that has improved your life.
Realizing that in reality, we are very unimportant. We are tiny little dots, almost invisible in the whole. We make everything so important and so serious. Sometimes we have to let go of this deep perfectionism that people feel because you waste precious energy and you become a slave to it.

Ilona draws or paints every day, and the day of our interview was no exception. Eyes are one of her fortes.
Ilona drawing

How has your perspective on life changed as you've gotten older?
My greatest joy has come late in my life. Everything I did when I was younger was connected with a great deal of pain and stress, because I never gave myself credit and I always thought everyone was better than me. Now I do things with pure joy and don’t worry about whether people will like it. My art has become much clearer and more focused because I’m my own friend now and I’m not worried about what people think.

What's your favorite fashion tip?
When you feel comfortable in your clothes, you look good. When your shoes fit right and your dress isn’t too tight, you can forget about your looks and show off yourself. There’s so much concentration on exterior beauty, you can wind up saying “I can’t go to this party, I have nothing to wear.” Who the hell cares? If you’re bringing yourself and you’re a nice person, you’re the life of the party. 

What would you tell 27-year-old Ilona?
I wouldn’t be able to talk to her because she wouldn’t be open to listening, but I’d try to tell her never to compare herself to anyone else. You have to find what’s best in you and develop and make it better. Why wish you were like someone else when you have something wonderful [inside you] you can use? I know who I am now and I don’t depend on anyone else. Wherever I go, I feel like I belong there.

Would you like to have a lot of money?
I wouldn’t want anything to change. If someone gave me a lot of money, I’d live the same. Maybe I wouldn’t live in a third-floor walk-up, but then again that’s probably what’s kept me so healthy.

If you could change anything about your life, what would it be?
When I was younger, I thought someone would ask me if I would change something, I’d want to change 10 things. Now, I don’t want to change anything. Even the bad or difficult things, they’ve made me who I am today. If you don’t experience it yourself, how will you ever learn?

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