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joan severance, 58, interior designer actress author, houston

ageist EDITORS | november 1, 2017

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When I walk up to the home Joan Severance is remodeling in Houston, I step into a construction site. Plastic is walling off the zone from the rest of the house and at a plywood table Joan is sitting in cut-off sweats, wearing dusty glasses and eating fajitas with a couple of workers. She’s been up since 6:30 am to take deliveries and direct the details of construction.

It should be noted that this isn’t Joan’s home, but that of a paying client. It should also be noted that the workers she’s sharing fajitas with have no idea that Severance has been on the cover of Vogue countless times, shared screen time with Kevin Spacey, Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, and continues to work as an actress in network crime procedurals and shows like Masters of Sex on Showtime. This is her side gig; it has been her secret passion since she was 18 and bought her first apartment overlooking Central Park with the money she was earning as a top model.

“I’ve done two editorials in Playboy — how much further can you go? You can go here,” she says, laughing as she motions to the building site. “This is beyond Playboy — this is the inside of me. This is where my passions lie: in destruction and transformation and creativity, and figuring and calculating, and designing and formulating.”

So this week’s newsletter brings you the story of someone dogged enough to pursue a passion even while living what many other people would consider a dream life. It’s ultimately a story of balance — and how the demands of one career can better prepare you for the next.

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Growing up in Houston with the kind of dad who did everything himself, Severance would be asked to help problem solve early on. When it was time to re-do the electricity in the house, her father would call on her or her two brothers to help because their hands were small enough to get into the electrical box. She loved reimagining spaces in her mind, and would walk into rooms and immediately see another configuration that could be possible “like there was an imprint of a place that used to be there, or could be there.”

A good student who took electives like calculus in high school, she was admitted to MIT but couldn’t afford it and decided to go to Paris to model to earn enough money so that she eventually could. She went from working model to supermodel in the 80s and got into film when she got tired of the fashion life.

The Hollywood life was demanding, but suited her. She had been working on remodeling projects all the while — beginning with her first apartment, an 800 square foot penthouse that she outfitted with a roof kitchen and sauna. She saw parallels between the long hours and uncertainty of filmmaking and the challenges of a building project. And the opportunity to do “real work” was satisfying as well.

“I’m proud of wrecked fingernails and paint under them [laughs] ... I think everyone should have a balance,” she says. “I can get all glammed up and sit in front of a camera and play movie star or actress and la la la, and I can do that. And I can do that just as well as I do this. And I don’t change from one scene to another. It’s the same.”

The key for Severance has always been variety. She reckons she has had a different job every day since her teens. What keeps people in jobs that doesn’t satisfy them, she can’t imagine. “You get stuck in a rut and you don’t think you can get out of it,” she says, “And you can.”

She still acts, has also written a book on finding a soulmate and has a hair care line. A recent makeup video she did for Vogue.com netted more than 4 million views and more than 7,000 comments. She’s working on another book project at the moment as well, on the skin disease vitiligo that has accompanied her all her life. In between the creative work, there’s the demands of other creative work — her job sites — especially following the hurricane that ravaged her hometown.

“A lot of people don’t like physical labor like that, however, the acting world prepared me for that — the 14 hour days with the early calls — I’m up ready to go until it’s time to quit. There’s no quitting here now, there’s too many people who need help. Every day I go out and talk to people about doing more work.’

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