Thursday, June 1, 2017

Women We Love: Dolores Hawkins

By Karen Radkai
I imagined her as the fantasy head cheerleader, prom queen, student council president and honor student who was also friends with everyone. Although she was tall, slim and beautiful, with a killer smile and hair to die for, you couldn't help but love Dolores Hawkins. I grew up with her. She was in ads and editorials in every magazine I read, and I read a lot of them— Seventeen, Mademoiselle, Glamour, McCall's, Ladies Home Journal, and later Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. Dolores had something other models of the 1950s didn't— a personality. And she just seemed so incredibly nice.

It turns out the real Dolores Hawkins Phelps truly is nice. I've had the amazing good fortune to connect with her, and she agreed to tell me about her incredible life as one of the first Supermodels (before that was ever a word).

Dolores Hawkins, born in 1931, grew up north of New York City in rural Orange County. She says she was a real country girl— loved horses and the outdoors, rode her bike everywhere. After high school she worked in a local department store. The owner didn't like it when she grew her hair long and wore it in a pony tail. In 1951, fed up with his teasing, she quit and joined a friend living in Manhattan. She found a job at Lord & Taylor (and still remembers what she wore on the interview).

Dolores had no intention of becoming a model, but she was spotted in a restaurant by the head of an advertising agency. At his suggestion she went to the agency, but they were reluctant to hire a total newbie. The agency arranged an appointment with the editor-in-chief of Mademoiselle magazine, who called photographer Herman Landshoff, who took Dolores' first photos and, well, she was a natural. Her first appearance was in Mademoiselle. By the second she had made the cover. Much editorial and advertising work followed. It became apparent she would need an agent.

The first cover, 1952
In the beginning... by Nina Leen for Life

Ford Models was new but already a top agency and run with an iron fist (in a velvet glove) by Eileen Ford. Dolores went to see her. Eileen declared she was "too fat" and should come back when she lost weight. At 5'7" and 108 pounds, Dolores was hardly too fat. She didn't even know what a diet was and went back a week later. Eileen took her on.  No contract, no signing— that was the way it was done then.

Hundreds of editorials, ads and covers...

Dolores worked full-tilt from 1951 on. She was on hundreds of magazine covers (in the US and Europe), in countless print advertisements and magazine editorials. It would have been impossible to keep track of all of them, and sadly a large quantity perished in a barn fire in the '60s.

By Herman Landshoff

If you look back at models of that time, most were little more than paper dolls displaying clothes. Their poses and expressions were studied and interchangeable. Dolores had a 100% natural look, one that said she was game for anything. She was the perfect model for the new more relaxed and realistic approach to fashion photography. Although I knew I could never aspire to look like her, I never "hated her because she was beautiful". She just looked like she'd be fun to be with and nice.

By Bert Stern

Dolores worked with top photographers of the era— among them the legendary Richard Avedon, Lionel Kazan, Francesco Scavullo, Allan Arbus, Jerry Schatzberg, Bert Stern and a personal favorite, William Bell. Yes, models did their own hair and makeup in the early days.

Lucky kitty

Avedon was the one who eased her into a more high fashion image in the early '60s. He would let her know the look he had in mind. She says, "He made you feel good. He made you think you looked wonderful".

By William Bell
By Jerry Schatzberg

She also traveled the world, with favorite jobs taking her to Japan, Europe and many tropical islands. While models were not the celebrities many are today, Dolores was always treated well and often recognized on the street. Once she was in the company of a well-known Hollywood heart-throb who was not recognized when she was and was a little miffed about it. Another time, when she landed in London for an assignment, she was totally surprised to be greeted at the airport by photographers and reporters.

The chop
I did ask how she was persuaded to cut off that beautiful mane of brown hair earlier in her career. It seems Eileen Ford had gotten a lot of complaints that Dolores' hair was touching the collar and "ruining the merchandise". Chop, chop, but fortunately it grew back fast.

Dolores moved to California briefly when Eileen opened a branch of Ford Models but returned to New York. In 1963 she bought a 167-acre farm 75 miles north of the city where she raised hunters and jumpers.

On location with Gary Cooper

Besides modeling she had a "very brief" career as co-host of a tv interview program and was the subject of a half-hour ABC special, "A Day in the Life of a Model". 

Although engaged twice, she hadn't married. Then she met transplanted Texan Stuart Phelps through a mutual friend. They shared a love for the country— and horses. Stuart and Dolores were married in 1966 and had three sons in 1967, '69 and '70. She still worked occasionally but the family left New York for Houston in 1977. Of course raising three boys and a husband is a full-time job, and Dolores retired from modeling.  She then decided either to learn piano or get a real estate license. She opted for the latter.

By Scavullo in Town & Country 1970
Family portrait by Skrebneski in Town & Country 1991

The Phelps family owned country property outside Houston, where they also raised horses. Dolores and Stuart moved there full-time about 20 years ago. They sold real estate out of a refurbished one-room schoolhouse and only recently closed the business. Today they have two grandchildren, two dogs, two cats and a 34-year-old retired race horse named Maxi. Dolores still keeps in touch with friends in the fashion world and enjoys visits to New York and Santa Fe. Amazingly most of her neighbors have no idea what a familiar and lovely presence she once was everywhere you looked.

Personally this has all been a kick...    

Still beautiful


  1. What a beautiful - and interesting - person! Thank you for this intro and history on one of the original supermodels, Michelle!

    1. Thanks so much. Everyone who knows her loves her. Now if you pick up practically any magazine from that 50s-60s era you will recognize her.

  2. That was truly interesting. I was born in 1962 so I missed seeing her everywhere. Still, it was such fun to see her pictures now. What a lady. What a life!~~Dee

  3. What a terrific essay about a fascinating subject. Thank you for your work on this.


    1. Thank you for reading; I've enjoyed getting to know Dolores and delighted she let me write this.

  4. I'm so delighted to read a happy story about this career, there seem to be so many stories of bad behaviour and eating disorders around modelling these days. I think it's a more pressurised world. What a lovely woman in all senses.

    1. She is indeed lovely. Sorry I have just now seen your comment.

  5. Love you article! <3
    Just wonder if she was the same person with the singer Dolores Hawkins?

    1. NOT the same person. The singer Dolores Hawkins died in 1987.Good question!