JACLYN SMITH was the small-town girl who shot to fame as one of the original Charlie’s Angels. Now 76, she tells Helena de Bertodano about surviving 1970s Hollywood, her four marriages and her surprising secret for staying young – recycling her own fat. PHOTOGRAPHS: RANDEE ST NICHOLAS
Nearly half a century has passed since Jaclyn Smith – aka Kelly Garrett in Charlie’s Angels – emerged from a swimming pool in a white bikini to pick up a ringing phone. ‘Hello?’ she answered huskily. ‘It’s Charlie, angel,’ boomed the baritone voice on the other end of the line. ‘Time to go to work.’
Smith’s face broke into a smile and in that moment her life changed. Today, everything about the opening clip of that first episode looks retro – from the clunky phone to the latticed poolside chair to the white bathing cap, which Smith removes to shake out her hair. Everything, except possibly Smith herself.
She appears in the drawing room of her white hilltop mansion in Los Angeles looking like she’s just stepped off set. Of course she looks older – she is now 76 – but remains glamorous (if slightly muddy), despite a morning spent pruning the roses in her garden that slopes down the hill towards Sunset Boulevard.
‘Ageing is funny,’ muses Smith. ‘I haven’t gone through a midlife crisis, I think because I’ve always worked and work is rejuvenating.’
When Charlie’s Angels first aired in 1976, it marked a watershed. Until then, women on television were primarily decorative props. Yes, the women in Charlie’s Angels were beautiful and, of course, the bikinis were unnecessary, but this was still ground-breaking territory. Here were three female private detectives (originally played by Smith, Farrah Fawcett and Kate Jackson) who were highly intelligent, kept their cool in extreme danger and sensationally deployed guns and karate kicks. The show was an instant hit and ran for more than five years, covering 110 episodes. It became a pop-culture classic, engendering a media franchise with a film series that has brought later generations of Angels to the screen, including Drew Barrymore and Kristen Stewart.
Smith was the only Angel to appear in every episode of the original television series and she has had cameos in two of the movie spin-offs, most recently in 2019.
‘I would like to be taken out of it,’ says Smith bluntly of her appearance in the Stewart version. ‘I thought it missed the boat. It was not at all reminiscent: the girls don’t have a bond.’ She did, however, like the 2003 film Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle: ‘Drew kept it happy and fresh.’
Later, Smith became known as queen of the miniseries, playing – among other roles – Jackie Kennedy in the 1981 TV film Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, which earned her a Golden Globe nomination. In 1985 she launched a collection of women’s clothing for US department store Kmart, arguably starting the concept of celebrities fronting their own brands, of which the Kardashians currently reign supreme. Her fashion and beauty empire now includes home furnishings, wigs and skincare products.
But it is her original role as Kelly Garrett that most defines her. ‘It was meant to be. I wouldn’t change anything about it.’
Born in Houston, Texas, the daughter of a dentist, Smith says she had an idyllic childhood. ‘I rode my bike and played skipping rope until the sun went down.’ After school, she moved to New York to join the Balanchine School of American Ballet, but soon found herself cast in commercials, then acting roles. She was 30 when she became the third Angel.
Producer Aaron Spelling was looking for a redhead to complement blonde Fawcett and brunette Jackson, but Smith won him over.
‘In the blink of an eye our lives changed,’ says Smith, still sounding surprised. ‘Suddenly we were on the front of every magazine and you realise what’s printed is not always true. You get on that train and your life is totally different.’ On the plus side, ‘I never waited in line at the movies nor at Disneyland… And [in 1977] Prince Charles came to visit the set.’ Smith has kept pictures a colleague took of the two of them meeting. ‘He asked a lot of questions, things like “Now why do they put the lights there?” He seemed very knowledgeable. They painted the bathrooms [for him], everything was done. I think he was a fan of the show.’
But at times the celebrity intrusion was overwhelming. ‘We had guards around the clock. I launched a fragrance in Bloomingdale’s and people crashed the counters: they had to get me out.’
Some fans went even further. ‘I had a “nut” file: one guy wrote the same letter every day for years and we got a restraining order. Somebody broke into our house and we had helicopters flying over… Daddy would get all these calls because his number was listed; he would say, “This is a dental office not a fan club.”’
The Angels found themselves at the heart of 70s Hollywood, invited to all the wild parties. ‘Some of it went against my upbringing. I had never heard a four-letter word growing up. I had never seen a drug.’ Smith went to the parties but never lowered her guard. ‘I never walked with that crowd. I took a detour. I’ve still never touched drugs.’ Although the show traded on the Angels’ looks, Smith says she never felt exploited. ‘There was no sex, no love affairs. We were like a nursery rhyme compared to TV today.’ And nothing matched the friendship and fun of that first season. ‘It was like a college dorm. We’d hang out together and after [Farrah left], it was never the same.’
By the time the series came to a close in 1981, Smith had divorced her first two husbands, both actors. ‘I don’t even count those first two as marriages,’ she says today. The problem was she had been brought up to believe she shouldn’t live with someone before marriage: ‘I didn’t want to hurt my family. I had only known my first husband two weeks when he proposed. What can I say? It was another world…’
She got it right the third time, she feels, when she married British cinematographer Tony Richmond, the father of her two children, son Gaston and daughter Spencer. They only divorced because she couldn’t deal with his drinking, and remain on excellent terms. ‘He’s been sober over 20 years now… I never thought that would happen.’
Her fourth husband is a heart surgeon, Brad Allen, 67, who she met when he operated on her father 30 years ago. Her mother asked him to walk Smith down to her car late one night after a day in theatre. ‘We started talking about restaurants and he said, “I’d love to take you to dinner” and that was that. On our first date I realised he was so different because he was very un-Hollywood. We had been brought up the same, with the same love of family. I was moved by the way he loved his parents.’
They spent several years dating before they married in 1997. ‘We’re right brain, left brain, we think differently. He’s the most incredible stepfather to my kids, and, believe me, I don’t make it easy because I’m always on their side. He understands, although he does joke that he comes after the dog [in my affection].’
It is Allen who opens the front door when I arrive. Friendly and welcoming, he explains apologetically that he is on his way out.
He looks dressed for golf. Jaclyn rolls her eyes and mimics him once he has left: ‘I’m not playing golf, Jaclyn, I’m just hitting shots.’ They make a sweet pair, full of affectionate banter and jocular impatience. I ask her what the secret is, what makes this marriage work? ‘We disagree all the time,’ she says merrily. ‘But in a minute we’re over it. Even if I’m holding on [to the argument], he won’t, which is good.’
He was a huge support to her when she discovered she had breast cancer in 2002. Although she tried to keep the news secret, one of her friends sold the story to a tabloid newspaper. She felt betrayed. ‘I thought, “Why would they do that?”’ Did she challenge the person who she thought was the source? ‘I did. And they…’ she tails off. Denied it? ‘Yes.’ All these years later she won’t say who it was. Instead she made the best of it, owning the story and opening up with the aim of helping other women.
By a strange twist of fate, all three of the original Angels developed cancer. Kate Jackson, like Smith, recovered from breast cancer but Farrah Fawcett died of anal cancer in 2009. Smith spent a lot of time with her and although her mother was also very sick when Farrah died, Smith flew to her funeral – at her mother’s insistence.
When she landed she heard that her mother had been put on a respirator. ‘So I turned right round and flew back. Farrah would have understood.’
Following a lumpectomy and a course of radiation, she received the all-clear a few months later. ‘It’s part of my history and it changes you: [I realise] you need to seize the day. And we need to be more grateful. Maybe we all complain a little too much.’ The thing that worries her most is that she won’t be around to see her grandchildren grow up. ‘I want to be vital in their lives, so I need to be healthy.’
Smith relishes her role as grandmother, showing me multiple photos and videos of her granddaughters on her phone.
There’s five-year-old Bea in Smith’s wardrobe tottering around in a pair of her grandmother’s silver stilettos. And Olivia, three, showering her father with kisses. ‘I think I’m a much more relaxed grandmother than I was a mother. I was into the homework and the flashcards. I call it the west-side mentality. I wish I hadn’t joined it.’
In an attempt to stay well, Smith keeps active with pilates and weightlifting and watches what she eats. ‘I have a big breakfast: scrambled eggs and two pieces of toast. Lunch could be anything: if I’m out it could even be a hamburger or pizza. In the evening, we have chicken or fish. And fresh vegetables. I try to be healthy but, damn, it’s hard. I mean, I don’t drink or smoke so can’t I have some cookies?’ she says, helping herself to a chocolate-chip cookie from a decorative plate. ‘Goop,’ she adds, pointing at the plate. ‘I wish I had designed them.’ And yet Gwyneth Paltrow is clearly another celebrity who has followed in Smith’s brand-building slipstream.
Alongside the exercise and watching what she eats, Smith also spends time on her hair. ‘I take good care of it. I wash it just twice a week using Iles Formula Shampoo and Conditioner. I feel conditioning is very important – I have curly hair which usually needs more. I finish my hair with Oléo-Relax by Kérastase which makes it shine. Also once a month I use a clarifying shampoo.’
Smith admits to having had some minimal work done: ‘I don’t believe in fillers and I haven’t done any cutting. If I put anything in my face, I use my own fat, which is hard to do.’ She also uses IPL (intense pulsed light) but shies away from Botox. ‘I’m afraid of it. My husband says if you do Botox over and over, it totally collapses the muscle. You can overdo in this town like nobody’s business. And when you get done it’s not a good look.’
Besides, she points out, beauty is a double-edged sword. ‘It can turn on you, it’s just so superficial. If it’s not wedded to something deeper, you’re in trouble. You’ve got to be more than what’s on your face.’
And Smith appears to be much more. ‘I have a lot to be proud of: I’m a grandmother, a mother, a wife. I’m still working at my age. Even as a young girl, my mother would say, “Honey, why do you work so much?” I like it. I like new directions, unknown terrain. I think that’s the key to staying young.’
For more on Jaclyn’s skincare and clothing range, visit jaclynsmith.com