Model citizen

Chico woman recalls her years as an internationally famous fashion model

Chris Darran and her husband, Walt, share an elegant home in California Park.

Chris Darran and her husband, Walt, share an elegant home in California Park.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Not many Chicoans can lay claim to having partied with Mick Jagger and his former wife Bianca on Mick’s birthday. And relatively few folks in these parts have socialized with Sean Connery.

But a stylish, middle-aged woman who quietly lives the good life in Chico’s California Park once rubbed elbows with both of these celebrities and many other rock and movie stars. Her name is Chris Darran, and she once jet-setted between New York and Paris, attending the same lavish parties as the rich and famous and commanding the attention of many fashion mavens as a much-in-demand model.

“It took me a while to realize how much she really had done during her career as a model,” said Darran’s husband, Walt, a kindly, round-faced man with blue eyes. Walt said when he first met his wife in the late 1990s and she dropped names, he thought she was kidding. He still gets “a lot of surprises,” he said, when his wife casually mentions some famous person she knew or some famous place she’s traveled to that he had no idea about.

“Things still pop up, and she’ll tell me, ‘I didn’t have time to tell you everything!’ ”

Darran’s comfortable, artfully decorated home in east Chico is replete with evidence of her interesting and colorful past. Much of it adorns what she playfully referred to as her “Hall of Fame”—a pleasing wall array of framed photos and magazine covers from her days as a sought-after cover model for top fashion magazines.

In some of the photos, she stares at the viewer seductively, her mouth arranged in that perfect pout only fashion models can effect; in others, she sports a more wholesome, girl-next-door visage. In an elegant black-and-white photo she later calls up on her computer, she flirts with the then relatively unknown Andy Garcia as they sit, side-by-side, before a piano.

All of the photos confirm why haute-couture publications vied to have Darran—then known as Chris O’Connor—on their glossy covers.

Darran, who will turn 60 in December, reflected on her adventures in the fashion world with a matter-of-fact recounting. Relaxed in comfortable attire—shorts and a summer top—in her living room, hair swept up from her well-defined cheekbones, she sipped on a glass of iced tea while relating, in broad strokes, the story of her life.

She was born in Japan to an Air Force pilot father and housewife mother. The youngest of five sisters, she had a good childhood living in several American cities, graduating from high school in Tucson, Ariz.

“We called her ‘Stormy’ when she was growing up,” sister Brendan recalled in a subsequent phone interview. “She had a little bit of a temper—but it was cute!” Brendan said she and Chris, only a year and a half apart, went everywhere together, and all five sisters were close.

After a year at the University of Arizona, Darran decided college was not for her. Her sister Toni, older by eight years, had been modeling in New York for Eileen Ford of the renowned Ford Agency, and Ford asked Toni if any of her sisters were as gorgeous as she was. Soon after, in 1970, Darran caught a plane to New York, arriving with $400 in her pocket.

Chris Darran once graced the covers of magazines such as Vanity Fair and Vogue.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

At first, she ate mostly pizza at 25 cents a slice and always rode the subway. “I stayed with Eileen for the first three months, and it was terrible!” she recalled with a theatrical, raised-eyebrow expression, her intense, blue eyes flashing. “She was a very neurotic and sometimes mean person.”

Then she met and dated a “very rich,” older man who introduced her to the fast-paced New York social life, had her driven around in limousines, and helped her get her own apartment.

That first year was not easy or successful, Darran emphasized. “I was 5’8” and 119 pounds, and I was always being told I wasn’t skinny enough,” she explained. “They wanted clothes to hang on you like you were a clothes hanger.” She found a niche in TV commercials. After about a year, she left Eileen Ford and signed with Stewart Agency, which took her to Europe in June 1971.

In Paris, the famed Frank Horvat photographed her first cover, for Vogue, and soon after he photographed her for Elle. “Once Horvat got me going, then all of the other top photographers wanted to work with me,” she said, including such luminaries as Patrick Demarchalier, Giles Ben Simon and Alex Chatelain. Her career took off, and she worked fairly nonstop through 1982—keeping company with such celebrated models as Janice Dickinson, Angelica Huston, Renee Russo and Kim Bassinger. “Kim and I did a lot of lingerie together!” she playfully added.

She soon grew accustomed to being driven to shoots in limos, flying first class, and eating fabulous meals at top restaurants. In 1973, she and her four sisters were featured together in Glamour magazine in an article titled “Five Sisters.”

Another famous photographer with whom Darran worked, Helmut Newton, was at that time considered one of the most sophisticated photographers in the world. She described Newton as “not nice” and said she spent long hours on many of her assignments with him. But the travel was interesting, and the money was good. “We had a motto,” she said: “Smile all the way to the bank!”

She noted, however, that she and her peers didn’t make nearly the money supermodels nowadays make. Modeling was a niche business back then, while now it exists at the center of pop culture.

Darran frequently flew between Paris and New York, staying in both cities for a few to several months at a time. In her usual matter-of-fact manner, she described how, one very hot summer in Paris, rats came off the roof of the hotel she was in and jumped in through her window. Not being a big fan of rats, she remained in bed until they had scurried away.

She often stayed at Paris’s Hotel Louisianne, in the Latin District, and she learned to speak French fluently when her editors corrected her speech. Her father had been a word-lover who had encouraged an interest in language, and Darran always had a knack for picking up languages—to this day, she and her sisters can beat just about anybody at Scrabble, and she loves good books and crossword puzzles.

During these bustling years of her career, Darran traveled to the North Pole (to model fur coats), Tunisia (bathing suits), Switzerland (where she modeled with Victoria Principal), The Seychelles, San Diego, Mexico and other exotic locales. She became very familiar with all of France, especially the south of France, and with much of the rest of Europe.

Unfortunately, her assignments and travels kept her apart from her sisters, who had busy lives of their own. “Sometimes I kept up with her through the photos of her in magazines,” Brendan remembered.


In the early ’70s, Darran met Roberto Rizo, a Brazilian model and actor who eventually became her husband. While touring Europe with him on a motorcycle from June to September that year, she discovered she was pregnant. Newton had booked her for four straight months in the autumn—bookings she had to decline.

Photo shoots took Chris Darran to Paris, Tunisia and New York.

Photo By chris darran

“Eileen Ford said, ‘You’re out of your mind—you’re at the top of your career!’ ” Darran reported, but she told Ford, “Sorry, I’m having a baby!”

Her daughter Antonia was born in 1973, and the new family stayed in Brazil with Roberto’s mother a little while; then Darran went back to New York to work, with a Brazilian maid looking after Antonia. Eventually, she returned to Paris, and Darran and Roberto were married when Antonia was 2.

In Paris, Darran was in high demand and did a lot of good shoots and superb covers for Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire. Models had to work in Paris to get good photos and become established, she explained, before returning to the epicenter of fashion, New York, to work.

In Paris, she met, mingled, and partied with the rich and famous and lived in various posh hotels. She met director John Huston and actor Sean Connery while Huston was filming The Man Who Would Be King, and she encountered many other celebrities along the way.

But because she had a child to care for, she stayed away from a lot of the wild living—including the omnipresent drugs—that characterized the fashion world of the ’70s. Eventually, she would see many people of that era die from AIDS.

“Starting in the early ’80s, there were so many sad stories,” she recalled, her face darkening for a moment as she remembered departed friends. “Always another funeral to go to.”

Whenever she was back in New York working for Eileen Ford, she received multiple invitations to go to the illustrious Studio 54 nightclub. She and her friends were always whisked to the front of the line, joining such phenoms as Liza Minnelli, David Bowie and Andy Warhol. She worked constantly during those years, and in July 1976 made more money than any other Ford Agency model.

In the late 1970s, Darran signed with Johnny Casablancas of the Elite Agency in Paris, which had five of the most widely known European models. Elite had contracts with such famous cosmetic companies as L’Oreal, Revlon, Clairol and Helena Rubenstein. For a considerable time after that, Darran could hardly keep up with the work offers. “I was working day and night—from first thing in the morning to well after dark,” she said.

Eventually, though, she started to experience what all models must confront as they grow older. The good jobs started slowing down, so she began doing “bread and butter” assignments, such as catalog work.

Darran and her family eventually relocated to Brazil, where she still owns a home in Búzios, a pretty beach town north of Rio de Janeiro, and where her daughter, son-in-law, and 4-year-old grandson live. She and Roberto started Tropocalia, a production company and modeling agency, which they ran for about 10 years, sending many good models to New York and facilitating numerous contracts with Brazilian models for Calvin Klein. “I had a lot more fun being on the other side of the camera,” Darran said.

During one of their years in Brazil, Darran and her husband assisted famous photographer Bruce Weber in producing a book about Brazil, O Rio de Janeiro. Darran scouted local talent, translated, and helped with many other details of the three-week shoot and two-month production period.

That’s when Weber discovered Antonia, whose photo ended up on the cover of the book. Antonia’s work with Weber led to a contract with Calvin Klein in New York and a successful modeling career of her own.


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Life took a harsh turn for Darran in 1998—Roberto, who had smoked for many years, was diagnosed with lung cancer and then a brain tumor. His illness was brief, and he died only four months after his diagnosis. “It made me want to leave Brazil, because it was too sad to stay there,” Darran reflected, her mood becoming slightly pensive for a moment.

Wanting to start a new life and be closer to Antonia, who at that time was living in New York, Darran rented out her home in Búzios and moved back to New York, and an old friend of hers helped her get hired as a flight attendant at American Airlines.

“Although I was 48 years old at the time, they wanted me because of my fluency in Portuguese and French,” she said. She found herself flying all over the world, usually sharing a “crash pad” with four or five other attendants in New York.

After about a year, she met American Airlines pilot Walter Darran, a good-natured man with an obvious penchant for talking, in a London bar. During our interview, Walt, dressed in summer shorts and T-shirt, eagerly shared the details of how he met the love of his life.

“I walked into that pub in London and saw an airline attendant sitting there who was being very quiet—which was unusual for a flight attendant!” he said. That first night they visited in the bar with friends until 3 or 4 in the morning, but he had to fly out the next day.

“It was love at first sight, for me!” Walt recollected, his blue eyes shining brightly as he remembered that giddy time, describing how his wife-to-be showed up for their first real date soon after that in New York dressed in tight leather pants and with blond tresses falling to her waist.

It wasn’t long before Darran was living with Walt on his houseboat on Long Island Sound in New York—where Chris once fell off the boat into the water on a freezing winter night. They moved to Chico in 2003 when a mid-air California Division of Forestry tanker plane crash led to Walt’s being hired as a CDF tanker pilot, a job he continues to work each fire season. With last year’s horrific fires, he worked well into the end of November.

During the off-season, Walt and Chris travel frequently, often sailing their catamaran, which is permanently moored in La Paz, Mexico. The most recent place they visited was Croatia, which they fell in love with, and earlier this year they traveled with Chico friends in France. They immensely enjoy their travels, which include trips to Brazil to visit Antonia and her family, as well as trips to visit Walt’s children and grandchildren.

They’ve grown attached, however, to the friendliness of Chico and to the many wonderful friends they’ve made here.

One of these friends, Katie Findlay, along with her late husband, met them at Christian Michael’s, where wine aficionados gather on Thursday evenings. The two couples discovered a mutual love of sailing, and soon they traveled together to Greece. “It was a wonderful trip,” Katie recalled. “Chris loves adventure and the outdoors.”

Katie added that Chris was a marvelous support to her when her husband passed away not too long after that. “She really understood what I was going through.”


Since Darran loves to entertain, she and Walt often host sumptuous gourmet dinners at their home, where guests marvel at her culinary prowess. Darran keeps busy with her long-time yoga practice, language classes at Chico State (she’s currently learning Italian, her fifth language), wine-tasting and gardening—she’s a “rose-aholic” who loves fresh-cut roses in her home. She also likes a good hike in Upper Park.

New York.

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Frequently seen in her classy BMW 24 convertible—usually with the top down—Darran often drives to other parts of California to visit some of her sisters, with whom she has regained closeness.

“She’s a wonderful aunt to my three children,” Brendan said. “I just love her—she has a bit of the actress in her and can be quite dramatic with language. She’s a sweetheart—since coming back to the States, she’s brought a lot to my life.” All five sisters recently enjoyed a reunion in Ventura.

“Chris is a really casual, friendly, outgoing person—she’s easy to be around,” says neighbor Liz Boyd, who has known Chris since she and Walt moved in and who enjoys sharing recipes with her. “She’s a wonderful cook and can do the most remarkable things with duck!”

Boyd pointed out a quality many people enjoy about Darran: “She’s funny!” She has a quick, dry wit that often captures the essence of a situation or moment, and she’s not beyond making a humorously piercing observation or two.

Chico resident Gayle Kimball met Darran in yoga class at the Chico Sports Club, and eventually she traveled with Darran to Búzios, where, she says, Darran was “very hospitable and generous.” Kimball describes her friend as “cosmopolitan” but down to earth, a doting grandmother who took a gift of superhero action figures to her young grandson, Roberto. She also mentioned Chris will talk with and advise local young women who are considering a career in modeling.

A few years ago, Darran faced a huge challenge when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “You always think you’re invincible, and then you see you’re not,” she remarked thoughtfully about that difficult time, which included moderate surgery and a couple rounds of radiation.

Her eyes reflected the courage and determination she marshaled to meet that challenge. “I kept up with my workouts and my yoga, for my peace of mind.”

Now a cancer survivor, she talks with other women who struggle with breast cancer. “Hopefully, the battle is won,” she said about her experience. “You have to keep your eye on it.”

Now that Walt is getting close to full retirement, the two are looking at another life transition—a time when they will both be free and can make even greater use of their ability to fly anywhere in the world for practically a song, thanks to their tenure at American Airlines.

Does she ever miss New York? “I was never that excited about New York,” she explained. “You have to be rich to live in New York—and besides, when I do miss it, I just fly there for a visit.” She hasn’t kept that much in touch with the people she knew during her “glam” years, but she still has a few friends she looks up when she’s in the Big Apple.

Walt got to talk with photographer Frank Horvat on the phone a few years back, and Horvat got a kick out of learning Walt was a CDF pilot. “If you work with fires, then you can work with Chris!” he joked.

As she looked back on her life, Darran described it as very satisfying and said, “I continue to have a wonderful life, and I plan on seeing and going to many places I’ve never been—Vietnam, for one, as I love the cuisine. There’s a trip you can take where you travel and cook!”

Watching Darran walk from the living room into the kitchen and move with grace and ease as she prepared snacks, it was clear: Here was a woman in whom style meets substance. It’s not hard to picture her in that glamorous life of her youth, those days of traveling between Paris and New York and all over the globe, wearing exquisite clothing and jewelry, socializing with the highly visible, and tasting and seeing the best of what the world had to offer.

But these days, in Chico, are all about the good life. “Walter spoils me,” she said—and it’s pretty clear it works both ways.