Here With Her

The stories of five ordinary women doing extraordinary things

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BY NICOLE ROSS

Part I: Where Are You

Most know her from the magazines.

The glossy pages make her silver hair shine. Her cheeks are hollow, her skin soft and fair, and dark, oversized sunglasses hide her eyes. She plays with the collar of a $710 Alexander Wang men’s shirt, slightly exposing an illegible wrist tattoo. Her lips are painted deep red — “Mayday” by Dior, to be exact, which can be purchased for “$33 at department stores,” should you want to “paint your own cherry lip.”

Bold black letters read, ‘How to Grow Up to Be like Linda Rodin.’

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A fashion icon, Rodin is credited for setting the pace in the industry over the past fifty years. Her start in modeling gave way to a stint as a fashion stylist, which led to the opening of her own boutique and, eventually, her current cosmetics empire, Rodin. Its olio lusso oil has become a mainstay in the medicine cabinets of beauty moguls everywhere.

Despite the hype, superficiality and collective apathy that the industry is known for, Rodin remains above the fray. At 70 years old, she has defied societal formalities by not only embracing, but building a personal brand on an often avoided reality: age.

She sits now with her poodle, Winky, in her colorful, cluttered-in-the-best way Manhattan apartment — a collection of trinkets she’s acquired over the course of a lifetime.

“I think people expect me to live in an empty, white-walled apartment,” Rodin says. “That’s not me.”

 

Maira Kalman sits at her yellow kitchen table with a cup of coffee in her hands, listening to the busy streets outside her window. She has taken a break from painting, there is soup on the stove and her grandchild sleeps in the next room. “It has been snowing,” Kalman says, “and now the snow has turned to rain.”

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Dressed modestly in a white t-shirt, black pants and sneakers, Kalman blends in with the other 8.5 million New York City dwellers. Like her work – which toes the line between naïve and utterly genius – her studio’s charm comes from its imperfections and personalized marks. Nestled in the West Village, it’s quaint, quiet, almost mythic — a romantic, unfussy and deeply “New York” vestige of what the neighborhood used to be when she first moved there more than 30 years ago.

“It’s more gentrified,” Kalman says, “but in the fabric of humans and madness and intricacy, it hasn’t changed at all.”

Kalman’s deliciously off-kilter personality is apparent on paper. Her whimsical, witty drawings have appeared on numerous New Yorker covers, in dozens of children’s books and throughout the pages of Strunk and White’s grammar bible, “The Elements of Style.” She authored and illustrated the picture book, “Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey,” which won the Boston Globe-Horn Award for nonfiction in 2003. She kept a year-long illustrated blog for The New York Times, which she later published as the award-winning book, “The Principles of Uncertainty.”

The legendary illustrator communicates in color — her humor infecting readers across the country. But one thing that is not evident in her art – though it has certainly influenced it – is the fact that Kalman was born without the blinders of an American dream. She is an Israeli immigrant who started with nothing, turned it into art and left a legacy in the process.

 

Malika Ameen wears life like she wears her favorite twelve-year-old pair of boot-cut jeans. She’s used it up, wrung it out and dragged it around. It’s been permanently penetrated with the smell of cardamom and black pepper, stained by grease and molasses, and frayed from hours of rubbing against a cold kitchen floor. It’s been tainted and dirtied, but that hasn’t stopped her from wearing it — and wearing it proudly.

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“I love big, and I fight hard,” Ameen says.

Ameen is an esteemed chef whose career took off when she began running the pastry kitchen at Los Angeles’ famed Chateau Marmont, where she fed Hollywood’s A-listers. Back home in Chicago, her critically acclaimed restaurant, Aigre Doux, was hailed by names like Michelle Obama, Nate Berkus and Bono. She’s guest-starred on shows like The Today Show and Martha Stewart, and her recipes have appeared in The New York Times, the Tasting Table and Food & Wine. Her south-Asian heritage shines through the ingredients in her cook book, “Sweet Sugar, Sultry Spice: Exotic Flavors to Wake Up Your Baking,” which has been highlighted in media around the nation.

She has lived life to the max, filling her day with errands, flights and countless hours with the oven. But for Ameen, what’s all-the-more gratifying is that she’s done it while being a single mother of three. She sits with them now on a flight from Chicago to Florida.

“Airplanes are always an interesting place to observe people and patience, because it truly tries everyone,” Ameen says. “Well, maybe not if you’re in first class.”

 

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Mary Lambert wears her heart on her sleeve, literally. What started as three pansy tattoos – one for her mom, one for her grandmother and one for her great-grandmother – has turned into a half-sleeve garden. “They are my inspiration,” Lambert says. “Each played piano and sang, and each grew pansies.”

A famed singer, songwriter and spoken word artist, Lambert is recognized for her emotional hook on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ equality anthem, “Same Love,” which has over 193 million views on YouTube and was nominated at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards for Song of the Year. Lambert has produced multiple albums, most of which address the trials, terrors and treasures that come with being LGBTQ.

She sits with her bandmates in the back of a twelve-passenger van. They’re on tour, heading to Pittsburgh, PA. “It’s cold,” Lambert says, “but it’s real, you know?”

 

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Debbie Millman is on a flight from Shanghai to Chengdu. The plane is quiet, the lights are low and passengers around her have drifted into sleep. “I’m busy, but I love what I am doing and feel so incredibly grateful for these amazing opportunities,” Millman says.

Millman is on tour in China, where she’s speaking at various conferences about design and branding. She’s authored numerous books related to visual storytelling, and her podcast, Design Matters, has become a go-to for creatives around the world. An educator, she has moderated Design Yatra in India and presented keynote lectures at Princeton University, the Hong Kong Design Association, the Festival of Art and Design in Barcelona and many more.

To an audience, Millman pulsates a nearly palpable creative energy. But one thing they do not know is that her success stemmed out of a dark past filled with the horrors of child abuse.

 

Part II: How Did You Get Here

Rodin’s approach to life is the same as her approach to beauty: Transparency is key.

“My biggest fear is to be a fraud with anything,” she says. Her voice is delicate. “The pictures everybody sees of me are retouched. That’s not how I really look.”

The wrinkles around her smile and freckles on her forehead suggest stories of a life well lived. “Let’s be honest — they’re age spots,” she insists.

Rodin’s day began like every other. She wakes up, splashes her face with water and takes her poodle, Winky – whom she affectionately calls Winks – for a walk to the end of her block, where she buys her usual morning cappuccino. She then works from home, checking emails and scheduling interviews, before heading out for meetings.

“I’m done by 5:00 p.m. — I never make appointments after that,” Rodin says. “I really like to be alone. I’ve always been that way.”

In her down time, she unwinds with a bath — no music, magazines or phone. “I come up with the most interesting ideas in the tub,” Rodin says. “The best answers to emails. Things I want to do around the house. Then I completely forget the minute I step out of the bath. They run down the drain with the water.”

 

Kalman wakes up around 6:00 a.m. every morning. She drinks her coffee and reads the obituaries.

“It’s fascinating to learn, in the form of a condensed biography, the things that people have done that merit an article in The New York Times,” Kalman says. “It’s a kind of investigation of human courage. There’s such an interesting range of things that people do with their lives. It’s like a daily wakeup call.”

Kalman was born in Tel Aviv, Israel, in the 1950s. Tension with surrounding Arab nations was high as the country faced the overwhelming effects of war and its newly acquired statehood. When she was just four, her family packed their belongings and moved to The Bronx — where she was swept up by the powerful whirlwind of capitalism.

She always knew that she wanted to be an author, of sorts. Having found a passion for narrative drawing, she defied the norm by dropping out of her literary studies junior year of college. She created a portfolio of illustrations, pitched them to magazines and crossed her fingers.

It worked.

“After getting work as an illustrator, I decided to start writing again and creating children’s books — then I was able to do work for adults,” she says. “One thing led to another.”

Walking is an essential part of Kalman’s day. Her creativity flows when she allows her mind to wander. She reads. Listens. Looks at people.

“I incorporate everything that I see, feel and encounter during my days into my work,” she says. “I wander about and collect information. I day dream. I allow myself to not know. Then, I go to my studio and write and paint hoping to find my way to the answer.”

 

Ameen begins every day with five to ten minutes of meditation. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more spiritual,” Ameen says. “The time alone helps me feel ahead of the game — especially because soon after I have to wake up three little monkeys.”

She paces between her three sons’ rooms, tapping, hugging and kissing them awake. “It takes a good 20 minutes,” she says. “By the time I’m done doing that, I feel like I’ve had a full day’s work.”

Then she heads to her domain, the kitchen, and cooks breakfast. Monday is old-school porridge with almond milk and bananas. Tuesday is scrambled eggs. Wednesday is French toast. Thursday is eggs. And Friday is cereal. “They’d probably just prefer cereal, to be honest,” she says. “But that always comes with a lecture about how bad it is for them.”

Meals have always been about more than flavor, or even nutrition, for Ameen. As a young girl, the table was a sacred place — a place of gathering, of rest and of healing. Her mother and father came to the north suburbs of Chicago from Pakistan, bringing with them their love for home-cooked Pakistani cuisine. They spent hours in the kitchen together and kept it stocked with family, friends and food.

“I’m drawn to positive, driven people,” Ameen says. “I strongly believe we work to create our own path and destiny. Not only by our actions, but also by our mindset — by being positive and believing our dreams and aspirations will happen.”

 

Lambert was born into a strict Pentecostal home in Everett, Washington — the daughter of a sweet mother and abusive father. For her, music quickly became a self-soothing form of survival. At six years old, she sat at her Casio keyboard and wrote songs — a hobby she picked up from her mother, who processed pain at the piano.

“I’ve always resonated with the kind of songwriting that is burning inside of me — that’s like, I’m going to die if it doesn’t come out,” Lambert says.

Her break as a musician came while she was biding time as a bartender. Her friend Hollis Wong-Wear, who sang on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “White Walls” track, recommended Lambert to the duo to write their chorus for “Same Love.”

“She called and said I had two hours,” Lambert says. “I got off the phone, ran across the street to the bar where I worked and told my boss. We took a shot, sabered a bottle of champagne, then I was like, ‘Okay, I’ve gotta fucking write this thing.’”

Lambert wrote the chorus from a vantage point of being both a Christian and a lesbian.

“I never thought that I was queer, until I was,” she laughs. “I was always boy crazy, then I developed feelings for this girl, and I realized everything else was filling a void in my life.”

For Lambert, attraction is not bound by a heteronormative constraint. “I’m really sensitive to disposition,” she says. “How someone moves through the world is really beautiful. I think that people who are passionate are beautiful. People who are sensitive are beautiful. People who are good to themselves and the world are beautiful.”

 

The looming notion of a ‘starving artist’ was vivid in Millman’s imagination — so much so that the first fifteen years of her career were structured around avoiding failure. Having grown up in a broken family riddled with violence, abuse and child neglect, she had developed a sense of inadequacy, which she carried with her into the workforce.

“I had a long list of career aspirations but never felt that I was good enough, smart enough, pretty enough or thin enough to do much of anything,” Millman says. “Nobody was telling me that I couldn’t do something — nobody was telling me that I couldn’t succeed. I lived in a self-imposed reality.”

Her first job out of college was in the design department of a cable magazine, where she earned $6 an hour. Successive positions in real estate and marketing were no more fulfilling, and she wandered about for ten years before landing a job at Sterling Brands. There, she climbed the ladder.

When she reached the top, she felt empty-handed. Former CEO Simon Williams offered her his position, and it took her four months of consideration to decline. She’d spent 22 years with Sterling, building herself up, only to realize that she didn’t need a title to give her the confidence she’d always longed for.

“It’s been wonderfully liberating, and I’m having the time of my life,” she says. “I’m working on all the things I wanted to and more.” That is, running the graduate program in branding at the School of Visual Arts, working on her podcast and curating an art exhibit for the Museum of Design in Atlanta.

 “If you do manage to take a stand for something you want, as I ultimately did, that little bit of confidence helps you reconsider what is possible — both for yourself and in the world,” Millman says.

 

Part III: Where Are You Going

As always, Rodin will be in bed by 8:00 p.m. Her nightstand is cluttered with jewelry, sea shells and photographs of her sister, Christine, who passed away seven years ago. The tattoo on her wrist commemorates her name.

“We fought a lot,” she says, “but I miss her.”

She’ll read The New York Times until she falls asleep — Winky at her side. When she wakes, she’ll do it all over again.

“As you get older, you realize: This is it,” says Rodin. “Take it all in.”

 

Kalman will go back her painting station — its walls lined with dolls, sculptures and film portraits. She’ll pick up a paint brush and – with Fred Astaire’s version of a Gershwin tune playing in the background – allow her thoughts to drift.

“The point is to ignore all setbacks — on to the next,” Kalman says. “Do your work. Love who you love. That’s all there is.”

 

Ameen will spend the remainder of her flight brainstorming recipe ideas on a small legal pad. She’ll tend to her sons until they land safely in Florida.

“In ten years, I want to have raised three young boys into caring, conscious and respectful men,” Ameen says. “True happiness is found only in one’s self. Don’t depend on anyone to give it to you.”

 

Lambert will continue to make her way through the East Coast for her tour of “Bold.” It’s her farewell to the pop music scene, though she isn’t going far. An ode to overcoming self-deprecation, her orchestral-based album, “Shame,” is already in the works.

“I used to have stock advice, like ‘find community,’” Lambert says. “But there is no absolute. There’s no dogmatic solution to being okay. What I care about now is staying alive. It’s about survival. We need you — a vibrant, queer community that’s physically alive.”

 

When she’s finished her tour in China, Millman will return home to New York City and continue working on her latest book. As President Emeritus of the American Institute of Graphic Art (AIGA), and board-member of The Joyful Heart Foundation, Performance Space 122 and The Type Director’s Club, there’s plenty to keep her busy.

Millman shares: “There is a wonderful scene in the third installment of Indiana Jones where Indy knows he has to step on a path he can’t actually see — it’s not visible to the naked eye. But in his heart, he knows it’s there, and he knows that he must take the first step to fulfill his destiny. Without seeing the pathway, he puts one foot in front of the other and steps into the unknown. And just like that, a visible pathway appears in front of him, and he is able to cross it. Courage is the foundation for authentic confidence. Taking a first step creates courage, which will grow with every repetitive step you take.”


 
Photo courtesy of Maira Kalman

Photo courtesy of Maira Kalman

 

Bloopers 

What inspires you?

“Looking at people.” — Maira Kalman

What’s your go-to, well-worn, toss in the backseat article of clothing?

“Denim. I wear denim every single day — have been for sixty years. Levi’s are my favorite.” — Linda Rodin

Tell me about your creative process.

“People are always looking for this sort of methodology. I think the easiest way to overcome a creative block is to look at other amazing work and then feel really shitty about the fact that you’re not making some. There is no process. Just get your ass in the chair.” — Debbie Millman

Your life is a movie. What song is playing during the credits?

“'Fight Song’ by Rachel Platten.” — Malika Ameen

What does success mean to you?

“Success means being able to define it. It’s about the success’ inception.” — Mary Lambert

How do you stay balanced?

“I have a great therapist. And I do almost anything I can to get eight hours of sleep a night.” — Debbie Millman

What advice would you give other creatives?

“Keep working.” — Maira Kalman