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Daphne: Golden girl of the Guinness dynasty

Muse, socialite, heiress - none of these ever seemed enough to describe Daphne Guinness. Now, as she begins a pop music career, Donal Lynch looks at her singular life as part of a storied Irish family and her chances of topping the charts

Published 06/02/2016

Daphne Guinness
Daphne Guinness
Daphne with her ex-husband Spyros Niarchos
Daphne with David LaChapelle

One fan's review of the latest glimpse of Daphne Guinness's forthcoming debut album - a single called The Long Now - put it as "somewhere between Marlene Dietrich and Marianne Faithfull". It seemed an apt description, as the fashion icon mixes a sort of quizzical, Blue Angel-inflected vocal delivery with a Faithfull-esque weariness, and whether it's actually good or not seems slightly beside the point.

With Bowie gone, Madonna getting matronly and Gaga gone respectable, this is seen as a potential passing of the pop torch. The producer, after all, is Tony Visconti - the man behind some of Bowie's finest moments. Guinness has also collaborated, for the visuals, with iconic photographer David LaChapelle. The buzz has slowly been building for two years, kindled here by a well-reviewed live appearance on Manhattan's Lower East Side, ignited there by another phantasmagorical video clip.

Ordinarily, the length of time it's all taking might produce murmurs of disquiet, but with Daphne the fashion press gushes expectantly. For all her roles - muse, socialite, model, heiress - none ever seemed quite enough to encompass her larger than life presence on the cultural landscape. It seems only right that she now graduates to pop star.

Perhaps there's also a sense that after generations of working class singing sensations it's time we anointed an eccentric aristocrat. Other aspiring stars might get their start warbling out a cover version to Simon Cowell on The X Factor, Daphne got hers singing arias in a powdered wig at a costume ball in Regensburg, Germany, to celebrate the birthday of Prince Johannes von Thurn und Taxis. While the reality TV apprentices have some tedious "journey" that invariably involves rags to riches and a sick granny, Daphne's back story takes in most of the 20th century and she has a granny who was a mink-wearing Nazi apologist.

As the child of a faded Irish gentry, she has impeccable breeding and, as perhaps the era's ultimate clothes horse, she has impeccable taste. It helped that she had access to the best in the business: She was close friends with Isabella Blow, the influential stylist who committed suicide in 2007, and with Alexander McQueen, the fashion icon whose clothes she collected.

Her clothes have been featured in their own FIT exhibition in New York and she has been described as belonging to a rarefied breed of woman - alongside the likes of Grace Kelly and Jackie O - whose personal style amounts to a form of creativity in and of itself. Despite this, she has always been dismissive of the fashion industry - too focussed on commerce in her opinion - and seems to be the embodiment of Quentin Crisp's maxim: "Fashion is instead of style; When you don't know who you are, you consult the papers."

Of course for many people, Daphne's fame is more defined by the LBD (little black drink) than any frock. In the Guinness dynasty that she was born into the men controlled the finances, but the brittle beauty, talents and wilfulness of the women made them as least as important in the lineage.

The strong female influence in the family can probably be traced back to the group that director John Huston christened "the golden Guinness girls" - Aileen, Maureen and Oonagh. These were the daughters of Arthur Ernest Guinness, second son of the first Earl of Iveagh (great-grandson of the first Arthur), and they grew up in a Tudor-style Edwardian mansion called Glenmaroon in Chapelizod. These wealthy young socialites had, like Daphne, money, confidence and nobody to answer to. They lived lives of finishing schools, debutante balls and blue-blooded suitors.

The other side of Daphne's family was characterised by an equally colourful female line. The Mitford sisters - Nancy, Unity, Jessica, Deborah, Pamela and Diana, who was Daphne's grandmother - achieved infamy throughout the 20th century and were the type of characters that writer Anthony Haden-Guest said "even the most shameless pulp novelist would hardly dare invent".

Nancy Mitford, Daphne's great aunt, was an acclaimed novelist who is credited with developed the idea of 'U' (meaning upper) and non-U language. Unity Mitford, Nancy's sister, became a part of Hitler's inner circle during the 1930s and shot herself in the head after Britain declared war on Germany in 1939. "Why didn't Unity shoot Hitler instead of herself?" Daphne famously asked. "Then we'd be descended from heroes instead of villains."

In 1980, when Daphne was 13-years-old, Oswald Mosley, the second husband of her grandmother, Diana Mitford, died. Mosley had been the founder of The British Union of Fascists and he and Diana had been married at the home of Joseph Goebbels, with Hitler himself among the guests.

Mosley's death was announced on the evening news and Daphne excitedly told the other girls watching with her that he was her cousin. They sent her to Coventry and Daphne never quite succeeded in convincing her grandmother of the error of her ways. She remained protective of her, however.

Daphne is the torch bearer as far as female Guinness drama is concerned. She is the daughter of Jonathan, Lord Moyne (brother of Desmond Guinness), and a French actress, Suzanne Lisney. She spent her childhood moving between Ireland, Paris, her family's country estate in Warwickshire, their house in London and their holiday home in Cadaqués, Spain - which she has described as "a Spanish Wuthering Heights".

Salvador Dali was a neighbour. Dieter Roth, Richard Hamilton and David Hockney were among those who sometimes came to visit. Her brother Sebastian is five years older, and although she also had three half-siblings from her father's first marriage, she often spent time in solitude.

As a teenager in Vienna she was reduced to sobs by the last 20 minutes of Wagner's Die Walkure. In her early teens she had discovered that her father had three other children - her half siblings - by his mistress, Susan 'Shoe' Taylor, a hippy masseuse. With typical English understatement Daphne described her mother as "not entirely happy with the situation".

Daphne went to school at St Mary's, Wantage, where she learned that her life was simply too fantastical for the other girls to tolerate the unabridged versions of her 'what I did on my summer holidays' essays.

When she was five there was a terrible incident in which Tony Baekeland, a mentally ill family friend, came to the house looking for his mother, who was out with Guinness's mother. Daphne would later recall that he dragged her from the house, telling her he was going to murder all of the women in the world, beginning with her. In the end he let her go, but he did murder his own mother (in a crime that sent shock waves through high society on both sides of the Atlantic), and on his release from prison, he did the same to his grandmother. The tragedy was dramatised in the 2007 movie Savage Grace.

In her youth Daphne became first a punk, then a New Romantic, trying each new identity on for size. For her, clothing was about "concealing yourself" and " being able to spot your tribe, at school or at nightclubs".

In the mid 1980s she went to New York, where her half-sister Catherine was working as a PA to Andy Warhol, and planned to become an opera singer. Love intervened. When she was 17 years old she took up with the Greek shipping billionaire Spyros Niarchos and they were married a year and a half later. She gave birth to her first son, Nicholas, a year later, followed by Alexis and Ines.

She felt left behind while her friends made their ways in the world. When she divorced in 1999 she was 32 years old and experienced it as a kind of liberation. In the following years her distinctive and highly unorthodox style attracted luminaries of the fashion world to her, including stylist and editor Isabella Blow and the designer Alexander McQueen.

Daphne's great-grandfather, Walter Guinness, was once involved with Isabella's grandmother, Lady Vera Delves Broughton. The stylist and the heiress met at a family party; Isabella said that Daphne looked like a grasshopper and dubbed her 'Daffers'. A firm friendship was born.

Blow wanted to introduce her to McQueen, but Daphne was nervous and kept declining, despite being a fan of the designer's work. Then one day Guinness, wearing a silk McQueen kimono, was walking through Leicester Square, when all of a sudden she heard: "Oi! That's my coat! I'm the person you don't want to meet!" It was McQueen.

Their suicides came as huge blows to her. "You just think, 'what if?'" she said later. "But you can't change what is. Alexander was so kind, shy, loyal. He was always there if you were sad. He was a true aristocrat, with a nobility of spirit that you find very rarely."

When she heard that Blow's sisters were planning to auction off her wardrobe, she bought the lot.

She had a relationship with the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, who nonetheless remained married to his third wife, Arielle Dombasle, an actress and singer. Daphne remained philosophical. "You're a scarlet woman for a while, but you get over it", she said.

Levy has been speculated to be the subject of one of her new songs, which she told AnOther Magazine is, "intrinsically personal and is about a relationship which has, frankly, gone really bad". There will be no doubt that Daphne will be able to talk eloquently about her output, but while the press love a colourful back story and we live in an age that embraces flamboyance, neither of these by themselves are a guarantee of success.

In many ways Guinness is also seen as a well-connected child of privilege whose most celebrated talent is really what the writer Rebecca Mead called "a rarefied form of consumerism."

After the years of gushing in the fashion press, the world's music reviewers might not be as kind.

The heiress herself doesn't seem overly worried. She has said that she intends her debut to be "amusing in a Monty Python sort of way." And, after all, with Guinness millions and a McQueen wardrobe, perhaps she's already had the last laugh.

Belfast Telegraph

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