Shirley MacLaine plays fashion icon in latest movie

Shirley MacLaine considers herself too cheap to buy Chanel, doesn't do a French accent and probably wouldn't have wanted to dine with legendary designer Coco Chanel.

But none of that deterred the Academy Award-winning actress from taking on the title role in Lifetime's three-hour homage, "Coco Chanel".

"I'm glad I could play her," MacLaine says, "I guess they needed somebody as outspoken as she was."

MacLaine, it seems, was destined for the role of Chanel, who revolutionised women's fashion with inventions such as trousers for women, the little black dress, the tweed suit, the two-tone shoe and the first shoulder bag. And of course, she introduced Chanel No. 5 perfume in 1921. Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel died in 1971 at the age of 87.

"Audrey Hepburn turned me on to her," says MacLaine, 74. "She said, 'You've got to look at her stuff,' and 'You've got to play her.' "

That was back in the 1950s. MacLaine checked out Chanel's offerings and, like many other women, opted for the alternative.

"I wore a lot of her knockoffs," MacLaine confesses. "I couldn't afford it back then. I'm too scotched to do it now."

She does not recall whether she ever met Chanel. But a photo of MacLaine at a Chanel collection in the '50s recently surfaced, leading the actress to believe that at some point, the two were introduced. After MacLaine was offered the role, she set about researching the designer and thinks she captured how Chanel stuffed her cigarettes and moved her hands and wrists.

"She was extremely abrasive and rude, but on the other hand, generous, understanding and talented," MacLaine said. "With all of the things I turned up in my research, you would not want to have dinner with her, but you would want her to look at whatever you were turning out yourself, and I don't mean just clothes. I would want her to look at my jewellery line and my performance."

Although the haute couture designer was French, MacLaine doesn't speak with a French accent in the movie.

"You don't ask Sean Connery to play with a French accent," says Coco Chanel director Christian Duguay. "You don't ask Shirley MacLaine to play with a French accent."

And MacLaine wouldn't have taken the role on those terms. "I'm not Meryl Streep," she quips.

MacLaine says she would like to delve deeper into Chanel's experiences on the big screen someday. (French actress Audrey Tautou will play the designer in a film due next year.) For now, the outspoken advocate for everything from civil rights to spiritual understanding keeps busy with other acting projects, writing and a new craft. Last month she launched her Chakra Sky Jewellery collection -- jewels embedded in sacred geometrical forms and offered in healing colours -- at Queen's Ransom boutique in Santa Fe and on her website (

"What I'm doing basically is putting together spiritual technology with jewellery," MacLaine says. "I'm having a great time doing this -- as much fun as I have acting. Sometimes more, because I can wear my own clothes and not some costumes" -- even vintage Chanel.

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