With her seemingly boundless joie de vivre, fiery red hair, and lashes that would put Bambi to shame, 93-year-old artist and performer Ilona Royce Smithkin truly puts the E in effervescent.
One of the shining stars of Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style blog and the documentary he made with Lina Plioplyte, both of which pay homage to stylish seniors, Ilona’s appeal goes far beyond her Technicolor sartorial splendor.
The Polish-born artist studied her craft in Berlin and Belgium before moving to the States in the late 1930s. During a long career as an art instructor and painter, she’s hosted her own television series, “Ilona’s Palette and Painting with Ilona,” and captured the likenesses of personalities such as Tennessee Williams, the Kennedy Children, Bobby Short and Ayn Rand. (If you happen to have an old copy of “The Fountainhead,“ take a look at the cover to see Illona’s handiwork in Rand’s portrait.
She still sketches and paints, and has several books in the works, and if if that weren’t enough, Royce Smithkin is also a late-blooming chanteuse, performing her favorite Dietrich and Piaf tunes in her well-loved Eyelash Cabaret shows, which she performs annually.
Senior Planet caught up with Ilona on a cold February morning in NYC. She welcomed us warmly into her cozy painting-filled West Village apartment and offered us coffee, along with conversation on self-acceptance, finally owning up to being an artist in her 80s and those famous lashes.
In the past, when asked your age, you used to say that you were “between 50 and death!” But now you seem to embrace your age. What changed?
I think I finally realized that I was really an old broad! But honestly, I don’t think about age except to say that each day follows the other and I do the best I can. I stay as healthy as I can, and I give my body what it needs, and that’s it.
I have my painting and my writing, but I don’t have to be too ambitious, I don’t have to prove anything to anyone and I am happy with the person I have become. If you had asked me 20 or 30 years ago, maybe even less, whether I would have changed anything in my life if I had the chance, I would have given you a number of things, but now I don’t want to change on iota – the good, the bad or the indifferent. Because in spite of it all, I’m proud of the person I’ve become and I accept it.
I finally got comfortable with myself, and then all of these fun things started happening, and, well, it takes your mind off of your boo boos!
What does aging with attitude mean to you?
Your attitude is what makes you. “It’s not your latitude, it’s not your longitude, no, no dear, it’s your attitude!” Attitude is very important, because if you are feeling too sorry for yourself, or insecure, or over the top about yourself, that is all attitude. If you have a proper attitude, one where you can smile and feel good, then things are much more pleasant as you age.
I read that you initially had trouble calling yourself an artist. When and why did you finally feel like you could claim it?
I never had any self-confidence, even with all of the famous people I had painted. I never thought I was any good, never gave myself credit for having done something very well. I could have had so much joy and so many marvelous feelings, but my past got in my way. When I was brought up, they never wanted children, especially girls, to be conceited. I grew up with this pushed down feeling, and it’s hard to outgrow that when you have been indoctrinated that way from early childhood.
Later, I was surprised when good things started happening, but I didn’t give myself credit, you see. But between the ages of 84 and 90, it came together pretty slowly and gradually, the realization that I had something to offer. Even now, so many people come up to me on the street and tell me they loved me in the documentary. At first I think, it’s not me they are talking to, but it makes me very happy, and that’s what keeps me going. In spite of all the little wrongs or pains with my body, I still am capable, I can spread happiness and I am functioning in a positive way. The only fear I have is when either my eyesight or something else goes, but then I realize that I have handled so many problems, when I get to that bridge, I’ll handle that too.
You started teaching and performing later in life, correct?
In retrospect, I have always been a performer. When I was teaching my students, and they were down, I would cheer them up with a story, sing them a song – I pushed up the atmosphere to get them excited. It was really performing all along. Not on a stage, but life was my stage.
I hear that you are inspired by Piaf and Dietrich. Tell me about your cabaret life…
That came in the last few years. I love being able to give something, joy and happiness. I love entertaining and giving the gift of laughter.
Did you ever imagine that you would become somewhat of a style icon? What influences your personal style? Have you always dressed with such flare?
Never! When I was younger, like so many, I thought, “wouldn’t it be nice to be like a movie star?” But what has happened has been amazing to me. I always dressed with colors and combinations and unique things – look at this!
[She pulls out a piece of striped fabric, actually the leftovers of a broken umbrella she found on the street, or as she refers to it “a rescue,” and fashions a colorful scarf around her neck. Of course it looks great on her.]
For me, it’s fun to be creative.
We must talk about the eyelashes…
[Laughs] I’ve been wearing them for 40 years or more. I used to have them made in France by a friend of mine, because he always matched my color, but then he died, and I thought, what am I going to do? So I started trimming off a bit of my hair and made my own eyelashes!
Does technology play a role in your life? Are you on Facebook or Instagram?
No, I’d rather pick up the phone and hear a real voice and let people know what I really think. It’s too impersonal for me, but if something has to be taken care of immediately, I have friends who can help out.
What do you do to stay in shape?
Three flights of stairs to my apartment! I also make sure I have a walk every day except in very cold weather. My strength is a bit gone and I can get wobbly and unbalanced in my head, and there really isn’t much to do about it. Let me tell you, it takes enormous control each day, I still walk without a cane, and not because I am vain, but because I feel it gives my body balance and control to go without one.
If you age well, and you are active, that’s wonderful, but most people don’t. I think, not conceitedly, but I am lucky that I still have all of my noodles!
I’ve just caught up with ‘Advanced Style’ on Netflix. How is Ilona? She reminds me of Claudette Colbert. As a mixed up ‘kid’, soon to be 66, I just loved the documentary. SO inspirational. Thank you to all involved, especially Ari Seth Cohen. ♡
Thanks. Great piece about a colorful neighbor.
I too live in the West Village and have seen Ilona on the street. Can’t miss those eye lashes! I always wondered what was her
story- and now I know.