The Replacement Girl: A Life in 24 Frames

By John-Michael O'Sullivan

A biography of Barbara Mullen, one of the twentieth century's great fashion models

Monday, 18 September 2023

An Ending

Barbara Mullen wasn’t a fan of death. 

It was one of the very first things we spoke about, in the summer of 2013, across a sturdy wooden table in her Zurich kitchen. Not because she spent much time thinking about mortality, or because my arrival — to interview her about her modelling career — had precipitated a moment of existential crisis. It just so happened that she’d been at a friend’s funeral, in Klosters, the day before — and the whole thing had suddenly weighed in on her. 

And Barbara wanted to talk — even if it was to a total stranger.

It was clear that dying itself didn’t bother her. And that there was no kind of existential crisis about the hereafter (although she was, she’d occasionally declare with a prim sniff, ‘a good Catholic girl.’) It was simply the empty finality of being dead — something unimaginable, for someone who’d always excelled at being alive.

Her early years — as part of a fractured immigrant family, struggling through the Depression, bounced around from Harlem to Texas to Illinois — had been difficult ones, and Barbara had grown up a withdrawn, overshadowed child. But then modelling had come along, catapulting her into an utterly different universe. And in the space of three short years, she went from a Long Island City beauty shop to the Bergdorf Goodman’s to the cover of Vogue. Over the next decade, she would became — in the words of Vogue’s editor, Jessica Daves — ‘one of the queens of the modelling kingdom.’ And, along the way, she became a vibrant, adventurous woman, plunging head-first at every opportunity that came her way.

But then her husband fell ill, shattering their fairytale Long Island existence. Within months, Barbara escaped to Europe, and started yet another life — this time in the heady world of Parisian haute couture, just as its Golden Age was drawing to a close.

Then came another life, sparked by a spur-of-the-moment trip to Klosters in the Swiss Alps, where she fell in love with skiing, and a young ski instructor — and gave up modelling to open a cutting-edge fashion boutique.

And then another life, in Zurich, as the past drifted further and further away.

And one more life, in Albuquerque of all places — where yet another spur-of-the-moment trip ultimately brought her to her final home.

Ten years ago, she agreed to helping out with a book on her life — not because she gave a damn about her modelling legacy, or because she felt any kind of entitlement to a place in posterity, but simply because it seemed like fun, and it brought someone new into her orbit. But she did, without a doubt want to be remembered. Most of the memorabilia she’d kept from her career had been scattered like confetti over the years, given to friends with pleading scribbles on the back; ‘Thanks for remembering me.’ ‘Please don’t forget me.’ 

To anyone who did know her, the notes were entirely unnecessary; Barbara Mullen, in life just as in her photographs, was unforgettable. 


Barbara Elise Morel-Mullen. 3rd June 1927 - 12th September 2023.

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Andrew Local
 Andrew Local says:


posted 19th September 2023

Julie Warren
 Julie Warren says:

So sorry to hear this news. RIP Ms Mullen.

posted 19th September 2023

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A special edition of the biography, featuring an extra 24 images which focus on the behind-the-scenes world of fashion modelling. Drawn from Barbara Mullen’s archive, these include contact sheets, outtakes and unpublished alternates by William Klein, Milton Greene and Richard Avedon, as well as a number of personal photographs.
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