As I walk into a sumptuous, wood-panelled Deco-style suite in Rio’s Copacabana Palace Hotel to meet Christina Hendricks, I’m expecting either a minx or a sphinx. This is the woman who has redefined (or re-inflated) the notion of a ‘sexy secretary’ with her arch portrayal of curvaceous office manager Joan Holloway in cult AMC series Mad Men; a character whose hip-swinging wiggle walk in 50s tailoring and killer one-liners took a female stereotype and made it voluptuous, self-confident and sassy all while smoking a cigarette. She’s a siren of the silver screen who’s appeared next to Ryan Gosling in Drive, topped the ‘world’s sexiest’ list as polled by Esquire and who, if you Google her, has the dubious honour of having the next-most-popular subject in the search for her name being ‘bra size’.
"Her breathy, Marilyn Monroe-style voice gets deeper when she becomes serious and more animated, and despite her fluffy image she is smart, sharp and thoughtful."
In short Hendricks is world class hotness and this is at least part of why she has been invited here, to receive the first Johnnie Walker Blue Label ‘Game Changer’ award at the annual World Class event hosted by Diageo, this year making its base in Brazil.
The award recognises her status as an influencer of the highest order, a hero of ‘retro cool’ and a champion of whiskey. She had completed her paparazzi-frenzied press call whilst receiving the award at a breezy rooftop bar the night before and is perched on a sofa next to an enormous magnum of the golden spirit as I sit down to face her. As a star on Hollywood’s A-list I was thinking that surely she would be either scary or standoffish or vampy or all of these. Wonderfully, she is none.
"I thought a man who orders a scotch on the rocks was sexy. It hints at the qualities that I like in a guy. Confidence, sense of humour, individuality,…”
This is not to say that Hendricks isn’t intimidatingly gorgeous or flirtatious in a whole panoply of ways (she sits coquettishly forward, smiles and gushes throughout our chat and laughs at even the weakest of my jokes), but she is most of all unpretentious, direct and funny. Her breathy, Marilyn Monroe-style voice gets deeper when she becomes serious and more animated, and despite her fluffy image she is smart, sharp and thoughtful. I start with what is an obvious question to one of the world’s most desirable women; what exactly does she think makes a man sexy?
“Well, this is how my relationship with Johnnie Walker Blue started,” she explains, “they spotted an interview with me in Esquire magazine where I said that I thought a man who orders a scotch on the rocks was sexy. It hints at the qualities that I like in a guy. Confidence, sense of humour, individuality,…” she trails off, pauses and her puckered brow melts into a smiley, bashful blush fit for a crush-consumed schoolgirl… “I just described my husband,” she giggles.
This is another thing that’s charming and genuine about Christina Hendricks. She is plainly besotted with her husband of three years, the actor Geoffrey Arend. And I mean, like, gawn. I had seen her being swept, by him, through the various parties and after-parties hosted by Johnnie Walker Blue across Rio the previous night, she clinging to his arm, he twirling her around the dance floor or ordering in drinks, the two of them propping up the bar together like pros laughing and gossiping and looking nothing less than truly madly deeply in love. ‘Sigh’, us onlookers went, ‘how sweet’.
"Hendricks...moved to New York at the age of 18 to model, and to act, which she did without huge success for no less than fourteen years before she was cast as Joan."
“I will be sharing this magnum with my husband, of course,” she says “and when our friends come over – it’s really made for sharing. But I won’t be drinking it in cocktails. I prefer Blue Label neat, at room temperature”. That’s pretty earthy, you might think. It takes a certain, emboldened palate to drink a rich, complex spirit like Johnnie Walker Blue neat. It takes, to some extent, balls.
And that’s what Christina Hendricks has. Balls. The courage to preserve her pneumatic, glorious natural femininity is, in today’s weirdly flesh-hating celebrity culture, nothing short of heroic. Hendricks doesn’t want to talk directly about body image (and, in the light of how sick she must be of this line of questioning, who can blame her), but I do ask her about the pressures of red carpet dressing and which designers she trusts most to flatter her.
“I am passionate about Vivienne Westwood,” she says, “the first designer whose I name I recognised and aspired to wear. I remember when I was 12 or 13 years old I used to tear pages out of Harpers Bazaar – I’d seen a back stage shoot of one of her shows – and I held it up thinking ‘one day I will wear this’.” Hendricks left her family in Twin Falls, Idaho, and moved to New York at the age of 18 to model, and to act, which she did without huge success for no less than fourteen years before she was cast as Joan. This flash of grit and determination hints at the patient hard work that underpins all her present success and may be what makes her, as a star and a person, so firmly grounded.
"When I’m in London I love the neighbourhood feel of pubs. We don’t have that in the States; that lovely homely, family feeling in bars."
So what is it that she loves so much about our own national heroine of fashion, Vivienne Westwood? “I’m drawn to classic things and her work has a fantastic sense of history,” she enthuses. “I appeared in a campaign for her jewellery last year and I now know her practice quite well. One of the things I respect most about Vivienne is that she teaches her students that you must start with technical basics, that you need to know the structure of dresses as far back as the 18th century to comprehend the power of tailoring. I really love the way that passion and knowledge translates in her clothes.”
And on a Brit theme I take her thoughts to London, which at the time was grizzling away in one of the coldest summers in recent memory while the sun shone beneficently onto Copacabana Beach outside. I ask where she would most like to be sipping a tumbler of whiskey when in London Town? “When I’m in London I love the neighbourhood feel of pubs. We don’t have that in the States; that lovely homely, family feeling in bars. I was in London filming the new Sally Potter film, Ginger and Rosa (making its tour of film festivals from September), there earlier this year and I loved hanging out in the pub after work. I especially like the way that in the summertime the windows are flung open and there are flowers in tubs and everyone sits out on the street. It’s wonderful.”
So no self-conscious, brittle cocktail bars for Ms Hendricks but rather the friendly warmth of a frothily flower-potted local boozer. This is exactly why Johnnie Walker Blue was so clever to identify Hendricks as their first Game Changer. Like a dram of world-class whiskey enjoyed unadulterated, Christina Hendricks is simply deliciousness itself.
Sophie Walker is Acting Editor of Quintessentially Magazine, the quarterly print title published for members of Quintessentially