Intimate Audrey, a revealing exhibition about the actress and humanitarian’s life created by her son Sean Hepburn Ferrer, is coming to Manila this July
Sean Hepburn Ferrer had a game he played with his young kids whenever they arrived at a place, be it an airport or train station. Who can find Grandma Audrey within three minutes? The kids never lose because Audrey Hepburn—her image, her influence, and all that she inspires—is everywhere.
On a Zoom call from the Tuscan countryside in Italy with Vogue Philippines, the reference is immediate—it’s me, hi. I tell Sean that I was named after the screen legend, a fact that doesn’t surprise him at all. His mother remains beloved the world over.
Hepburn Ferrer, a film producer and philanthropist, is bringing his exhibition Intimate Audrey to the Philippines this July. It’s a show he lovingly put together in honor of his mother’s 90th birthday on May 4, 2019, and one that delves a little deeper into the life of the actress and humanitarian, one who guarded her privacy and treasured her family life so much that she lived outside of Hollywood in Switzerland and gave up acting to focus on raising her two sons.
With hundreds of unpublished family photos, letters, speeches, and film clips that Hepburn carefully collected and Sean kept over the years, Intimate Audrey is a more personal curation of artifacts than Timeless Audrey, Sean’s previous exhibition that had also toured around the world. “I realized that Timeless Audrey was very memorabilia-top heavy on dresses and evening gowns, and you’re not going to find Audrey Hepburn in a pair of ballet shoes. You may look and look and think it’s lovely. But in the end, I wanted to get people closer to the essence of who she was,” Sean says. “And I think this is the best exhibition so far.”
His daughter Emma, an artist living in Florence, shares how moved she was seeing the Intimate Audrey exhibit for the first time. “There were so many photos of family members of mine from generations and generations ago, living through war, hardship, joy, celebration. I felt connected to these generations, and to my grandmother,” she says. “Being able to witness her life in photographs, from its very beginning to the end, was uniquely special for me. I felt as though I were walking through the progression of her entire life, peeping in to different moments and witnessing them alongside her. I am so happy that the viewers of the exhibit around the world can do the same.”
Launched in Brussels, the city of Hepburn’s birth, Intimate Audrey followed the chronology of her life and traveled next to Amsterdam, where it was on display from November 2019 to January 2020, shortly after which the pandemic happened. By 2022, Sean began looking into installing the show in London, which would’ve been the next stop in Audrey’s biography. But just as England was proving to be unfeasible for Sean’s nonprofit organization, he met marketing professional and CEO of FashX Carmina Sanchez-Jacob, who saw the exhibition in Amsterdam and suggested taking it to the Philippines.
I didn’t realize how little I knew about my namesake until I watched the 2020 documentary Audrey, More Than An Icon, a film directed by Helena Coan that expands on the ideas and themes of the exhibition. Brilliantly narrated by Hepburn—who passed away in 1993 from a rare form of abdominal cancer—the film uses snippets from an hours-long taped interview she gave a journalist towards the latter part of her life. Sean and his daughter Emma Ferrer, an artist based in Florence, appear in the film, and it is through their candid participation that a fuller picture of Hepburn emerges, beyond her enduring image as an icon of style, grace, and beauty.
Hepburn was a child of WW2. Born to Dutch parents, Hepburn was living in the Netherlands when German troops invaded and occupied the country in 1940. She was a ballet student who performed in clandestine shows that raised funds for the Dutch resistance, all the while badly undernourished as there was so little to eat. After the Allied forces liberated the Netherlands, an organization that was the precursor of the UNICEF came in with relief in the form of food, medication, and clothes. Hepburn was one of its beneficiaries.
After the war, Hepburn and her mother moved to London so she could continue her dance training but was crushed to hear from her teacher that she could never be a prima ballerina—she had lost her formative dance years to the war. She decided to become an actress instead. In a few short years she moved from cabaret performances and bit parts in movies to starring as Gigi on Broadway and winning an Oscar for her first big role in Roman Holiday. She was 24 years old.
But it was not so much her dashed dreams of becoming a dancer that scarred Hepburn as it was the hurt of losing her father, who inexplicably deserted his family when she was a young girl. This, Sean believes, formed the foundation of a deep-seated sadness, and it is a motif he explores in Audrey Hepburn, An Elegant Spirit: A Son Remembers, a book he published in 1999. “[She] was never able to let go of her emotions or find peace within herself. She was truly scared on some level,” he wrote. “The abandonment of her father was a wound that never truly healed. She never really trusted that love would stay.”
Still, it didn’t prevent Hepburn from giving an outpouring of love to others, particularly children. She was very close to her sons Sean and Luca, and even after divorcing their respective fathers, strived to keep them in her sons lives. She found a new calling when she was appointed as a UNICEF ambassador in 1988. Speaking bravely and passionately for the rights of children, she traveled to conflict-torn places like Vietnam, Bangladesh, Sudan, and Somalia, carrying out field missions for vaccination, literacy, and nutrition programs. Through her efforts, UNICEF doubled in size and raised millions of dollars. Hepburn knows what it feels like for a child to suffer, because she had been one of them.
Though Hepburn herself would be the first to insist she was nothing special, the world will always think otherwise. This exhibition offers an insider’s view as to how remarkably she lived her life, yet how she was also remarkably relatable. When Sean was of school age and could no longer visit Hepburn on her film sets for weeks at a time, “she decided to give up her career to be a full time mom, which I think is a tremendous gift considering of where career was, really at the apex… she knew that you can’t do it all, which is something that is not so clear in society today,” Sean says. Hepburn was happy to do so, she never considered it a sacrifice.
“People ask me often, so what do you do to keep her image? And I’ve thought a bit about it, and I said actually we do nothing,” Sean says. “All those efforts are normally done to create a moment of virality, but she’s permanently viral.” Hepburn continues to charm and beguile, astonish and command respect today as she has done in the different phases of her life.
Emma believes that continues to inspire younger generations because of the timeless stories she contributed to the world. “She had a way of bringing stories to the world about surpassing all odds, which she also did in her own life. She was a trailblazer and did everything differently, new,” she says. “Beyond that, I also believe that her unique beauty defies the changing fashion fads, and that her kind, selfless, giving spirit shines through the camera and her words, and people react to that today.”
Intimate Audrey Exhibition opens from August 1 and runs until October 29, 2023. Hours will be from 10 AM to 8:30 PM on weekdays and 10 AM to 10 PM on weekends. All tickets will be available via SM Tickets.
Hair and makeup: Vittoria Ciccarè. Photographer’s assistants: Chona Bacaoco and Andreas Volkmar. Shot on location at Fattoria Lavacchio.