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Radio Times, 8-14 April 1989

text: Nicki Household

Celia wearing hat and clasping her hands modelling in the 60s

Celia kneeling surrounded by her cats

From catwalk to cat calling: swinging 60s model Celia Hammond has a new mission in life based on her animal instincts

Feline groovy

‘You mustn’t mind how I look,’ said Celia Hammond on the phone before we met. ‘I’m only getting two hours sleep a night because it’s a race against time on the Embankment. Cats and kittens are in terrible danger there, but I can only get them out at night when the construction workers have gone and it’s quiet. New areas get blocked off very day and the cats become entombed.’

In the early 60s, Celia Hammond’s face was everywhere. A cool, gentle, ethereal blonde, her fame as a model was second only to Jean Shrimpton’s, and she went around with a clique of photographers and models that included herself and Shrimpton, David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Norman Parkinson. Later Hammond became the girlfriend of rock guitarist Jeff Beck with whom she lived for 18 years. But they drifted apart as the model became more and more caught up with the work that now fills all her waking hours – animal rescue.

When she opens the door of the dilapidated Victorian house near Peckham that is her London base, she’s instantly recognisable – still slim, at 48, with long, blonde hair and flawless bone structure. But she doesn’t care what she looks like when she’s out cat-trapping. Her clothes are scruffy and entirely suitable for crawling round building sites. She wears no make-up, looks tired and has a cough. ‘Sorry about the mess,’ she apologises. Presently Jeremy, her very much younger boyfriend, appears with some coffee and disappears. ‘We almost never see each other,’ she tells me, ‘because I’m down at Wadhurst (her animal sanctuary in East Sussex) four days a week, and when I’m here I’m out all day and most of the night.’

Modelling was never more than ‘a good way to earn money, but it was all good fun. We’d fly to Greece just to take a single picture.’

She gave it all up in 1970 because early-morning assignments interfered with rescuing animals. There are two sides to her work. One is rescuing and re-homing cats and dogs – the other is raising money for the Celia Hammond Animal Trust (CHAT) which aims to establish low-cost spaying clinics all over Britain. Many pet owners can’t afford the £30 it costs to spay a female cat or the £100 to spay a bitch, so there’s an overpopulation problem. Around 2,000 healthy dogs and 4,000 cats are destroyed a day, according to Celia Hammond, while half a million stray dogs and two million stray cats struggle to survive in our inner cities.

She has been on the RSPCA council for 15 years, but disagrees with them over spaying. ‘There’s an agreement with the British Veterinary Association which stops the RSPCA providing cheap neutering clinics,’ she explains.

‘People imagine happy little colonies of feral cats,’ she continues. ‘In fact they travel far afield to find food and get hit by cars or become prey to appalling cruelty. There’s very high kitten mortality, and they don’t die nicely.’ She also criticises animal lovers who let their pet have just one litter. ‘If people want to witness the miracle of birth, they should take in an already-pregnant animal.’

She never takes a day off, never goes out for a meal or a show and never dresses up ‘unless it’ll help the charity. To impress people, I’ll wash my hair, put on make-up and wear something clean.’

She knows perfectly well that her level of commitment is way over the top. ‘When you’re suffering from an obsession, as I am, there’s nothing you can do about it. It may be unhealthy, but I don’t want to be cured.’

40 Minutes: Catwalk/Thursday BBC2

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