There's more to Helga De Silva Blow Perera, former Dior model and owner of Helga's Folly (a large idiosyncratic chalet hotel in Sri Lanka) than meets the eye. Yes, she is the daughter of one of Sri Lanka's most prestigious political dynasties and yes, at first glance, this elegant sassy lady seems proudly independent, sophisticated and undoubtedly charming, but that is only one part of the story. She has, in fact, an extraordinary talent for immediately enthralling her audience with intriguing snippets of her exceptional life and not least of all is also still able to get away with endearing eccentricities that many of us cannot.
Yet, who is Helga De Silva Blow Perera?
I took high tea with Helga in a bizarre room at Helga's Folly surrounded by candelabras, antiques and numerous artefacts of her life. I found it extremely fascinating that this tall aristocratic woman hadn't wasted a moment of her life, using every single experience to fuel her creativity, whether it be through art, design or couture. Here, in an exclusive with HI!, Helga, chats about fashion, her personal views and attitudes on life in general.
Helga, I don't want to touch too much on 'Helga's Folly' as our readers can visit your site: https://www.helgasfolly.com/ and read the many interesting articles about it. However, apart from the stunning location overlooking the city of Kandy and the distinctive and unique décor of Helga's Folly, what else do you think makes it a memorable and unforgettable place for people who have visited?
Well, perhaps because it's different. I like to juxtapose and absolutely LOVE mixing the pedigrees; antiques with pieces from local markets and toy shops! I like to describe Helga’s Folly as a ‘grown-ups’ nursery, where people can come, explore and find ‘that inner child within'. It's so very important to keep ‘sane’! I really believe that people can have fun without taking themselves too seriously. Life MUST have WHIMSY to keep ‘that’ balance!
There must be hundreds of your most treasured possessions and heirlooms on display here, in every room, including artwork, photographs and ornaments. Do you often visit them all to reminisce about bygone days?
Not too often, but occasionally when I'm around the hotel. I don't find it healthy, as times have moved on, as have our lives, and many pages have turned! Don't get me wrong. I do think myself very blessed and very privileged for having been brought up the way I was with the parents, family and brother that I had. I also enjoy being able to live here again in the house where I was born. However, I tend to live in the future at peace with Desmond, my wonderful 3rd husband.
I know that you were born here in Sri Lanka, in fact, in one of the rooms downstairs and you must have so many childhood memories, but are there any rooms that are special to you?
I suppose one of my favourite rooms is the small green, drawing room on the first floor where I liked to sit and study for school. It feels very intimate and I'd often glance at the clutter of family photographs when I was troubled by something. I also think that the magnificent 'Jane Lillian Vance Grotto' next to reception is very magical as I go in there when I need a quiet moment.
It's not unlike a jewel-toned illuminated manuscript and it introduces our home well. It's overflowing with antiques, family photographs, mirror fragments and three of Jane’s paintings, including her great painting of me. There is also a 10 by 15ft mural of a fierce owl- faced Kali protector entreating us to ‘Help Save The Girl Next Door’. This recalls the tragic story of Vance’s student Morgan Harrington. The grotto a retreat for reverie and gratitude. A call to action to art, to advocacy and hope. I LOVE it.
Moving you onto my favourite subject pretty quickly, because life is too short to wear boring clothes. How would you define your personal style and do you think it has changed over the years?
My personal style changes according to my moods but it always was and still is big collars, glasses, and high heels. (Not so much the high heels now after I broke my leg). This according to my daughter is my style and my signature.
Do you take styling and fashion advice from your famous daughter, Selina Blow who has designed clothes and dressed celebrities such as Angelica Houston?
Well, I love my daughter's clothes, but we both have our own styles. I believe that whatever one wears, one should make it ones own! On saying that, my mother had great style too and influenced me with her own love of big collars. As I mentioned before, I LOVE to mix the pedigrees and make whatever I wear my own. My first modelling job was with the great couturier Mattli, who also designed my wedding dress first time around, he told me: “Helga, I know that you will do your own thing with it”!
I have never been a slave to fashion as such, I love it all, but I must MAKE IT MY OWN! I do admit to having a stunning, long, white, silk evening dress which was a gift from the great Madam Grey, a good friend of my aunt Marcia De Silva De Vigier, the authoress. It's one of my most prized possessions.
I know that you admire and respect the award-winning Irish haute couture milliner, Philip Treacy who was discovered by your late daughter-in-law, Isabella Blow who also brought Sophie Dahl and Alexander McQueen to the public's attention. What is it that you like about Treacy's collections of hats and handbags?
I love Philip because he pushes the boundaries. I love him for his innovation and because he's whimsical. I consider him to be an architect of hats. Life MUST have whimsy, to take us beyond the mundane. Philip does all of that. I sometimes wear one of Philips hats whilst sitting at the computer or when working from my bed. They immediately transport me to a good place!
Apart from hats, what are the two items that every woman should have in her wardrobe?
SHOES and BAGS!
From a very early age, you were modelling for Worth and Dior. What is your view on the 21st-century modelling industry, and what is being labelled as the 'Instagram generation'?
Sadly, I don't use Instagram, I'm very much out of all that. I think though that modelling back then wasn't so much of a big cut-throat business as it is today. My heart goes out to models now as they have much more stress to deal with. I remember being laid back when I worked in the fashion industry.
As we are both aware, nowadays, there is an increased interest in remaining stylish once we become older. What advice can you give to women who struggle to find the right balance between staying fashionable and dressing comfortably?
Wear whatever you feel comfortable and happy in. Sadly too many people think: “What will people say”. My dictum has always been; your life, like it and just go for it! If it makes you happy, it does not have to make sense to others.
ART & CELEBRITIES
When did you first start to live your life 'in art' and where have you drawn your inspirations over the years?
When I returned permanently to Sri Lanka in 1986, I was going through a divorce and my father suggested that I express my emotions on the walls here. The first room was black, then came the gold monkeys, ‘See, Hear AND Speak no Evil’. My inspirations have always come from life and its experiences.
UP CLOSE & IN THE FRAME
Helga, can you tell me about some of the particularities of Sri Lanka that you relish most?
The warmth of the people.
Of all your many achievements so far, what are you most proud of?
What things in life are still a mystery to you?
Finally, who according to you is or was the best-dressed man in Hollywood?
Sadly, I don't keep up with all that now. I live a very sedentary life, but I do remember thinking as a child that Gregory Peck was rather dapper!
On that note, thank you, Helga, for a wonderful afternoon and interview. It's been wonderful chatting with you.