“Would you like a boiled egg?” It seemed a slightly odd way to welcome a photographer who’s just stepped through the door for a morning portrait shoot – a cup of coffee and a biscuit being a more conventional offering. Yet author Helena, for whom I’d travelled 400 km across the South of France to photograph, is a spa diet specialist, and somewhat beyond regular sweet snacks.
DIY swanky spa
It was just before Christmas, and the first 2023 edition of Inspire (the Daily Mail’s especially-for-women monthly supplement) was being planned. For this New Year wellness special, the cover story ‘Set up a super rich health spa at home‘, would be about how to treat oneself to an affordable, home DIY detox, based on the lofty principles of the Viva Mayr clinic (one of the world’s top wellness clinics, whose spa programme in Austria costs over 4,000€ a week). Who better to write the feature than Helena Frith Powell, author of ‘The Viva Mayr Diet‘? Of Swedish and Italian origin, the glamorous writer has raised her family in the South of France. Her former regular column added a French touch to the Sunday Times, and she has penned 11 books, whose titles include ‘More France Please, We’re British‘ and the aspirational ‘All You Need to be Impossibly French‘.
Last time the paper had commissioned Helena’s portrait, a male, Marseille-based photographer sent on assignment had made her feel uncomfortable, and had taken sub-optimal pictures. The photo editor had told me that this time she needed “someone I can definitely trust, a safe pair of hands“, so I was commissioned to travel from Nice, 400 km across Provence, to Helena’s Languedoc home.
The exact address on the call sheet was a vague one-liner, but when I asked her, Helena gave reassuringly detailed complementary directions: “You’ll come to a roundabout with a sort of fake mill on it” – I did. “First right, first left, keep going” – I did. “You can’t miss the house, it’s high on a hill and pale yellow. Drive up to the top. A crazy dog will bark“. I did -miss it-, instead, driving up to another yellow building, high on another hill, with another crazy dog. The owner of this one, however, was male and not visibly a glamorous paragon of wellness.
Businesswoman by day – underwear writer by night
Whatever brief delay my detour had caused, it was nothing next to that of the stylist, who arrived an hour late. While waiting, I met the crazy dog (an Alsatian incongruously named Margot) and Helena’s family. The atmosphere wasn’t exactly spa-like: as we sat in the kitchen, her grown-up children seemed more numerous than they were. The concurrent questions and bursts of joyous laughter, delivered at considerable volume and in disconcerting stereo, bounced around the room and made me slightly dizzy. I turned down the offered boiled egg and went to recce the house.
My photographer brief and the location didn’t really go together. The photo editor had specified ‘minimalist’: Helena in an empty, white room, full-length, in ‘Zen poses’. Having enough space to shoot, with no background clutter, in a low-beamed, small-roomed house, overflowing with exuberance, colour and treasured things, was going to be difficult (read another post about photoshoot in a tight spot). Helena had volunteered her daughter Bea as assistant: she and I moved the contents of half a room and a piano, only to find that the wall wasn’t painted behind it.
Helena herself had flown back from Miami the day before, where she’d been doing her ‘other job’ (“she’s an international woman of business by day, and a writer about women’s underwear by night“, her husband Rupert had intriguingly declared), and was concerned about the bags under her eyes. I doubt this was the reason that the stylist, once she finally joined us, took so long to finish hair and make-up – Helena looked remarkably fresh to me. In any case, by the time I could start, there was barely an hour left for me to work. A ‘smoothie’ (in reality, a particularly green-looking broccoli soup) was brought forth by one daughter; another whipped up an Austrian spa-worthy salad; and the son took it upon himself to sing to keep everyone amused, a tune which was promptly taken up by the family chorus. Rupert made the wise decision to go out.
Home spa: a beginner’s guide
According to Helena’s article, and contrary to what one might expect, a posh DIY home spa is not all about lounging around in a white robe drinking smoothies (or cold broccoli soup). The philosophy is that if your digestive system runs well, everything else will follow – and chewing is central to the Viva Mayr programme. Advice includes starting your day with a cup of hot water, chewing spelt bread 30-40 times before swallowing it for breakfast, doing the same for dinner (with some vegetable broth on the side), eating no later than 5 pm, going to bed at 8pm, and giving yourself a stomach massage before dozing off.
I personally took none of this advice that day. I finished the portrait well past my planned departure time, all the more critical since I had to drive to Nice, prepare and file the photographs, then travel to Italy. I reluctantly turned down the family’s offer of a delicious, healthy salad and dashed out the door with a small piece of omelette, kindly wrapped up to eat en route. It wasn’t until 20 minutes later that I realised I’d left my jacket behind. Happily, the singing son and photographer assistant daughter volunteered to scorch down the road in the family Merc and hand it over half way.
Helena wasn’t too thrilled with the editor’s final choice of portrait, and I confess that I was suprised myself by the odd smile that had been chosen. Yet when I sent her a wider set of pictures, Helena was reassured – it wouldn’t be chalked up as another bad photographer experience. “Fabulous, thanks so much! I will always ask for you from now on, you’re my official photographer. Not exactly a full-time role, but the assistants are amusing.” She wasn’t wrong.
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